Review: Samsung Chromebook

In every single way, the Samsung Chromebook — seriously, that’s what they named this thing — is the lesser of the company’s two Chrome OS portables. It’s made with lower-quality materials. It has a smaller display. It has the guts of a tablet rather than the guts of a traditional laptop. And it costs less; only $250.

But in actual use, the Samsung Chromebook offers more bang for your buck than its predecessor. The Chrome OS proposition of life in (and only in) the cloud makes more sense at $250 than it does at $450. It’s not the only low-cost option — Acer makes a $200 Chromebook, but the hardware isn’t as nice as Samsung’s. There’s also a Verizon 3G-equipped version of this Samsung Chromebook that sells for $330 and offers up to 100MB of free service each month for two years. At these lower price points, the Chromebook becomes a fantastic option as a secondary computing device.

No, the New Chromebook is not going to fully replace your Mac or Windows PC. It’s not going to be your next gaming machine (unless all you do is play Angry Birds, Cut The Rope and other casual games). It won’t run Photoshop, Outlook, iTunes and all the rest. And no, it’s not as much fun as a tablet like the iPad or the Nexus 10 (which about as expensive as Samsung’s next-level Series 5 550 Chromebook).

The reality is that this Chromebook — or any Chromebook thus far — wasn’t built for any of that. This is simply a relatively cheap, durable, laptop that you can leave around the house and that anyone can log onto as needed. It’s also thin and light enough to toss in your backpack, making it a great option for students who need a simple computer for doing their homework. And it’s even a great laptop for the workplace, as long as you’re working entirely within Google’s ecosystem of web-based apps. If you’re looking to move over to the Googleverse, this is a great, cheap machine to get you started.

Like other Chromebooks before it, this laptop runs nothing but Google’s Chrome web browser. The web apps you access in the browser form the entirety of the computing experience. There’s a “desktop” you can customize to display any photo you want, but you can’t even drag a web app icon onto it — those shortcuts are restricted to an icon tray on the left, bottom side of the screen. Built-in storage is kept to a minimum — just 16GB. Remember, this is a computer built for the cloud, and as small as 16GB seems, in this case, it’s enough. Google throws in 100GB of free Google Drive storage for two years with every new Chromebook purchased, which should be plenty of space to keep documents, photos and some videos. And, of course, anything that can be accessed through the web can be accessed on a Chromebook. Netflix, Hulu, Rdio, Twitter and Facebook, Amazon’s Kindle eBooks and Prime video, web-based email (hello Exchange users) and of course Google Play content — it’s all here. In the browser.

If you want the fastest Chromebook out there, this isn’t it. But, Samsung’s little machine is still very capable, and it meets the same needs as its more powerful and higher-priced predecessor, albeit with less horsepower and speed.

Over several months of use, I consistently got about six and a half hours of battery life out of it before needing a charge, which is a bit more than previous Chromebooks from Samsung and Acer. Watching video nonstop will drain the battery more quickly, in about four hours or so.

Performance is mostly fine, but can get sluggish on heavy web pages. One noticeable spot for lagginess is the boot-up. The Series 5 550 booted up in five seconds and awoke from sleep in less than two. The new Chromebook takes about 15 seconds to boot to the login screen and about three seconds to wake up from sleep mode.

The display is an 11.6-inch, 1366 x 768 unit, down from 12.1 inches on the Series 5 550. Like the previous model, the laptop features a matte screen that’s great for such a low-priced computer, and more than competent for streaming video, playing browser-based games, and both reading and writing. But it won’t win any awards for contrast or sharpness.

Styling remains, well, how shall I put this… it looks a lot like MacBook Air. It’s thin, sleek and silver, and it has a black island-style keyboard. In fact, some of my coworkers mistook it for a MacBook Air before noticing the Samsung logo sitting below the display. Of course, anyone who actually picks up the plastic Chromebook will realize it’s certainly not an aluminum MacBook, but the similarities are indeed obvious. It’s a shame, too — Samsung’s Chromebook models are the first two Chrome OS devices I’ve used that feel like real laptops, and as such, they deserve more than copycat styling. They deserve their own identity, their own look.

Like all Chromebooks before it, the laptop has a minimum of ports — one USB 3.0, one USB 2.0, and one HDMI port are all located on the back. On the left side is a microSD card slot for expanded storage and quick file transfers. There’s also a headphone/microphone jack. That’s it. And, of course, there is no optical drive — again, this is a notebook built for the cloud.

The full-size keyboard is fantastic to type on. The trackpad is great too, on par with the Series 5 550. But there are still more trade offs. The Series 5 550 had a much more upscale palm rest, made of brushed metal. The cheaper Chromebook is straight plastic — everywhere. If you push down on the palm rest, with a decent amount of force on either side, you can see and feel the plastic flex ever so slightly. The new Chromebook feels cheap and looks cheap, and that’s OK for a secondary computer or a student’s machine. Yes, it’s much less powerful than higher-priced Macs, Windows PCs and even other Chromebooks. But it’s so capable, so cheap and so easy to use for those living in the cloud, it’s hard not to like it.

UPDATE, February 4, 2013: This review was updated to clarify the Chromebook’s Bluetooth capabilities. The device supports wireless keyboards and mice, but not all Bluetooth accessories.

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