The Samsung Chromebook Series 5 isn’t just any laptop — it’s one we’ve been waiting on since the fall of 2009. It was then, back in an economy where netbooks were still selling like hotcakes, that Google’s Sundar Pichai took to the stage in Mountain View to talk about a future operating system that would be completely based around the browser — Chrome OS. He promised a new type of netbook that would connect you to the internet in less than 20 seconds and would be entirely based in the cloud. No hardware was revealed that day, but Google promised Chrome OS laptops made by other manufacturers before the end of 2010 and a real change in computing.
It’s been almost two years since that event, and clearly Google Chrome OS has faced some obstacles and delays. However, after a pilot program with its own Cr-48 laptop, Google’s finally ready and has teamed up with Samsung to release the world’s first commercially available Chromebook. The 12.1-inch, dual-core Atom powered laptop hits retailers this coming week for a starting price of $430. It’s been a long time in the making, but does the Series 5 have the fit and finish you’d expect from a product that’s been in the works for so long? Does Google’s Chrome OS for netbooks still have the same appeal that it did two years ago? And is the first Chromebook worth more than the average $350 netbook? Our review answers those questions and so many more.
Hardware / design
Software may set the Series 5 apart, but its chassis is unique in its own right
Software may set the Series 5 apart from the other laptops out there, but its chassis is unique in its own right. Sadly, the design isn’t as minimalistic as Google’s all matte black Cr-48, but Samsung’s still kept things fairly clean. The rounded lid is available in a glossy white and black (obviously our review unit was of the former variety) and is adorned with a chrome Samsung logo as well as a small Google Chrome emblem. I haven’t seen the black version, but the white lid and black base combo give the chassis an extremely classic, tuxedo-like look. The glossy lid does pick up some fingerprints, but the rest of the chassis, including the palmrest and underside, is coated in a smooth matte plastic. Do I wish Samsung had used that same duralumin material that it used with its Series 9 laptop? Of course, but that would have raised the price and the Series 5 is still solidly built in comparison to other cheap laptops.
Size-wise, the system isn’t as compact as a 10.1- or 11.6-inch netbook or notbook, but the .39-inch / 3.3-pound machine is still very thin and light. Those aforementioned curved edges not only make the system easier to grab and port around, but also make it appear slightly thinner than it really is. Of course, the only issue with its thin stature is that it lacks a few full-sized ports. Under the left edge’s flimsy plastic port cover lives a USB 2.0 port and a socket for the included VGA adapter. Adjacent to that is a 3.5mm headphone jack and along the front lip is a four-in-one card reader. The right side houses one more USB port, a SIM card slot, and the Series 5’s jailbreak switch, which will change the boot sequence and mess with the kernel if you dare to tinker with it. Nope, there’s no HDMI here nor Ethernet, though we’re assuming the latter is less important to most with the number of wireless connections this thing has — although, there’s always the unfortunate reality that most hotel rooms still have Ethernet hookups.
Keyboard and touchpad
What you won’t find here is your typical PC keyboard layout
The chiclet keyboard on the Series 5 is pretty much identical to the one on Google’s Cr-48. The matte, black keys are nicely squared off and well spaced. What you won’t find here is your typical PC keyboard layout — Google’s made a bunch of changes to sync up with the browser-based OS. The function row has been nixed for a new set of shortcuts, including forward, back, refresh, and full-screen buttons. The Caps Lock key has been replaced with a search key and the Windows / Command button with ultra-wide Ctrl and Alt keys.
Lots of changes, yes, but they’re not as jarring as you’d expect. It could be the fact that I am somewhat familiar with the Cr-48 layout (although, honestly, I haven’t used that system in months), but I got used to the shortcuts in no time. (And yes, you can change the search key back to the Caps Lock key under the Settings menu if YOU REALLY NEED TO YELL ABOUT SOMETHING!) Also, I should note that the typical Chrome keyboard shortcuts work out of the box, including Ctrl + W to close a tab, Ctrl+N to launch a new window, etc. My biggest issue with the panel is that it isn’t backlit. This is another one of those places where I realize it would have hiked up the price, but the not-as-understanding part of me just wanted some glowing keys in a dimly lit coffee shop.
Given the persistent issues with the Cr-48’s touchpad, I’m sure you can understand why I was quite worried about the Series 5’s similar Synaptics ClickPad. Yes, Samsung is using a similar matte touchpad here with integrated mouse buttons, but the good news is that things have drastically improved. (Although, to its credit the Cr-48 has also gotten a few driver band-aids over the last couple of months.) Traditional navigation — keeping a thumb over the left mouse button region and using a finger to navigate the screen — works and doesn’t result in any jumping cursors. That said, when I handed it over to Sam and Laura they complained quite a bit about overshooting things. There isn’t actually a right button region here — it works more like a Mac in that regard — but double-tapping also works as a right click. Scrolling is also much improved; dragging two fingers down the pad takes you smoothly down the page, though it is fairly slow and there’s no way to speed up scroll speed in the limited settings menu. Regardless, the touchpad was much better than I anticipated, and while I wish there were some additional gestures, it provides a decent navigating experience. And hey, you can always plug in a wireless mouse. Although, there’s no Bluetooth here.
Screen and speakers
The 300nit, 1280 x 800-resolution display isn’t only bright and crisp, it’s also matte
Samsung has been putting some noticeable effort into its laptop displays lately, and the Series 5 continues down that lovely road. The 300nit, 1280 x 800-resolution display isn’t only bright and crisp, it’s also matte. And if you aren’t aware of my love for matte screens, well, you won’t forget it now. It’s a very welcome change from the typical glossy netbook display, and I was actually able to write the first half of this review in the park on a very sunny day. That’s not something I can easily do on my 13-inch MacBook Pro. But I digress. My only complaints about the panel is that vertical viewing could be better and the glossy screen bezel can be distracting. Above the screen is an HD webcam, which seemed to serve up clear shots of my mug in a video call with Chris. I was able to give him a nice tour of our new office, but he complained about the audio being out of sync with my video. I had the same issue when I chatted with my sister. That’s likely a software or network issue.
The Series 5’s speakers live on the right and left edges and they produce expectedly tinny sound. They were loud enough for listening to some tunes on Rdio in my small apartment, but the sound and bass were incredibly bad. If you plan to do some serious listening with this system, make sure you’ve invested in a good set of laptop speakers or headphones.
If you’re familiar with the Chrome browser for Mac or PC, you’re familiar with this operating system
Ah, the moment of the review we’ve all been waiting for. Chrome OS. The software. The meat between this laptop’s bread. While other operating systems may have lots of pieces and layers, Chrome OS couldn’t be any simpler. If you’re familiar with the Chrome browser for Mac or PC, you’re familiar with this operating system. There’s no minimize button at the top, no start menu, no control panel. It’s all browser all the time.
You have your basic tabs across the top and your only other windows are any other open browser windows. If you hit Ctrl + N you get a new window and you can toggle between multiple screens using the switch window button on the keyboard or the one in the upper right hand side of the display. It works a bit like spaces and it’s a nice way to organize or group tabs together.
You can download "apps" from the Chrome App Store, which can be accessed from any new tab, and then those "installed" apps appear on your new tab screen. And yes, apps are really just websites, though some of them, like TweetDeck have been optimized for the browser. Extensions can also be installed from the store and those launch just as they would in any Chrome browser.
At long last, the OS does have the basics like a media player and file browser, but they really aren’t much. The media player, which can be launched by clicking on a movie or song in the file browser, is really stripped down. There’s an option to add songs or videos to a playlist and also launch it at full screen. It’s, well, a basic media player.
The file browser can be launched from the settings menu and opens in the browser window. It will also automatically pop-up when you insert a USB drive or an SD card slot. However, functionality here isn’t fully baked yet. I couldn’t drag the screenshots I had taken on the laptop to the SD card or an external drive. It gave me the option to upload it from Picasa, but there’s no way to sideload content right now. You can, however, save a file to an external drive or card, so I guess that’s a slight work around for those that need it. For the most part, I had no issues getting peripherals to work with the laptop, however, printing really isn’t an option. To use Cloud Print you have to have an HP ePrint printer or configure the wireless service using Chrome on a Mac or PC.
What I think is severely missing from the OS right now is some sort of control panel. There are places to tweak small settings in the Tools menu, but some things are just not at the disposal of a user. For instance, I haven’t found a way to turn off the automatic screen timeout on the laptop. There’s apparently a way to do it by entering the command line, but let’s be honest, that scares me and the average user. There’s also a Task Manager, which gives you a glimpse at the apps and extensions that are running.
Living in the Cloud
And there you have it — that’s really all there is to the OS. The rest is up to you to make in the browser. So naturally, my biggest question headed into this review was can I live in just a browser? Can I accomplish my usual digital chores using a laptop with a bare bones file system and all of its apps in the Cloud? The answer for me isn’t all that cut and dry, and I imagine that will be the situation for most out there.
When it came to my daily routine — checking email, listening to some tunes in Rdio, reading the news, checking Twitter, and writing posts — I was able to accomplish most of it, but I won’t say it was with total ease. For instance, when it came to writing this post on the Photon 4G, I was able to write all the text in Google Docs and then copy it over to WordPress, but I couldn’t tweak a group of photos. Yes, I attempted to upload the photos to Picasa from the SD card slot and edit them using the Picnik web tools, but I wasn’t able to apply our watermark or even specifically fix the coloring. That may seem like a niche task, but I imagine more than a few people out there want to edit a photo before uploading it to Facebook or Twitter. I also had the same issue with video. It also took me twice as long to accomplish those tasks in just a browser — there’s something stifling about not being able to see multiple windows on the same screen.
Then there was the case of the missing desktop apps. I use Skype to communicate day in and day out with my colleagues and while Google Talk is integrated, there’s no Skype web client yet. It’s a similar situation with an IRC client. There are some apps in the Chrome app store, but the Mibbit IRC chat client doesn’t support notifications in Chrome OS. And that’s really the case with most of the apps I’ve tried — they are simply websites that aren’t really optimized for the OS. The exception to that is TweetDeck — the app has a slick UI and supports notifications (it can be sluggish at times, though, but more on that soon). While we are talking about apps, the offline app capability that Google has promised for Docs, Gmail, and others has still yet to hit. Luckily, I was in the presence of a consistent wireless connection during the past few days, but once disconnected the laptop is, well, useless.
Beyond that, I was able to get comfortable with just the browser and I got the hang of using the page buttons to toggle between my Windows. I wrote this review in one window, kept my Gmail, Twitter, and IRC tabs open in another, and WordPress in another. Switching between them was easy, but sadly, it was when I finally had this sort of set up that things started slowing down.
Luckily, I was in the presence of a consistent wireless connection during the past few days, but once disconnected the laptop is, well, useless.
Performance and battery life
I noticed real slow downs when I had a number of tabs open or I was running a Flash-heavy site
There have been a number of times that the Series 5’s dual-core 1.66GHz Intel Atom N570 processor and 2GB of RAM couldn’t provide enough steam to keep the browser running briskly. For the most part, I noticed real slow downs when I had a number of tabs open in two windows or I was running a Flash-heavy site in the background. (Ironically, the system seems to hate Samsung’s own Chromebook site.) Not only was scrolling slow, but it would take a few seconds for it to recognize my keystrokes. I couldn’t run any typical performance benchmarks on the system for a comparison sake, but I’d say it felt slower at times than my Toshiba NB305, which is powered by a single-core Atom N280 processor and runs Windows 7. On the graphics front, things have definitely been sped up, but they aren’t perfect by any means. The system still couldn’t handle local or streaming 1080p clips, but 720p was just fine and Flash video worked better than expected. That said, I had a hard time getting Ustream to work correctly and I encountered a few page crashes. The text on those crash pages is humorous, but I wasn’t laughing when I kept trying to listen to the podcast and had to reboot the entire system.
Google’s pushing games hard, but most just felt sluggish to play. Everyone’s favorite Angry Birds stuttered quite a bit and surely wasn’t as smooth as the Android app. In this regard, Google and Samsung should have probably considered going with an Nvidia Ion GPU or even one of AMD’s Fusion chips.
Where the laptop and its 16GB SanDisk SSD really shine is with boot up and resume times. Samsung and Google promise 10-second boot times and that’s more or less accurate. It took only nine seconds to get to the login screen and then another two seconds to get into the browser. As you will see in the video, resume from sleep is even faster at around three seconds.
So no, it’s not always a good situation in terms of stability and speed, but at least there’s the battery life to make up for the fact that you may have to spend some time waiting on things. The system’s six-cell 8280mAh battery lasted six hours and 40 minutes on our video rundown, which loops the same standard definition video with brightness set at around 65 percent. (There isn’t a way to tell the exact screen brightness percentage on the OS so I had to guesstimate.) In actual use, I got closer to seven hours, which is pretty impressive for a system with a flush battery, although that’s not exactly all day computing like Google’s been claiming. There’s no way to easily replace the battery (or the RAM for that matter), but Samsung claims the cell has a lifespan of 1,000 cycles, which is apparently three times longer than standard batteries.
There are two versions of the Series 5 — the $429 WiFi version and the $499 3G model. I have been testing the latter, which comes with a complimentary 100MB of monthly data from Verizon. It’s easy to jump on the network — there’s a Verizon Wireless connection right in the wireless pull down — however, I burnt through that package within a few hours. I’m guessing it was Rdio and picture uploads, but it alerted me and I was presented with a link to top off at Verizon’s site. Easy enough.
Almost two years after being introduced, Google’s Chrome OS is finally available to the public, and yet it still doesn’t seem ready. The Series 5′s hardware has been polished, but the software experience still needs work. The design, screen quality, keyboard, and even the touchpad have surely been given the once over and together they are the right pieces to create a nice mobile computer; it’s Chrome OS, however, that doesn’t match those parts in terms of refinement. The operating system still doesn’t have the robustness it needs to not only replace a laptop but even just function as a secondary system. Flat out, the speed and stability are just not there, and that makes it hard to recommend to even tech-savvy friends.Now maybe, just maybe I could forgive some of those issues for a cheap price point — say, $199. Maybe even $250. But when the average $300 netbook out there can run Google’s Chrome browser like a champ, there’s just no question that the Series 5 pales in comparison. What Google set out to do two years ago represents a gigantic and brave leap in computing and the Series 5 is a big step in envisioning the future of the personal computer, but at the end of the day, this Chromebook and its OS isn’t ready. But hey, maybe we aren’t either.