When the first Chromebooks showed up, they felt more like reference designs than fully baked notebooks.
Google’s initial attempt at a machine powered entirely by a web browser, the black CR-48, was a developer-only laptop with a slow processor and an unusable trackpad. Last year brought two consumer-ready Chromebooks, Samsung’s Series 5 and Acer’s AC700, both of which were capable, but felt saddled by merely passable keyboards, dim screens, and clunky trackpads.
With Samsung’s newly redesigned Series 5, however, it feels like the Chromebook has finally arrived. The laptop has gotten a big performance boost, its trackpad has been much improved, and the design is sleeker and more elegant. These hardware enhancements are paired with updates to the operating system — Google’s unique, entirely web-based Chrome OS — and together, the machine offers a much more refined and complete computing experience.
The Chromebook Series 5 550 notebooks go on sale Tuesday, at $450 for the Wi-fi-only version and $550 for the same laptop with 100MB per month of free 3G broadband from Verizon as part of the price (There’s also the Chromebox, a miniature desktop PC, which we’re reviewing separately).
I spent the better part of a week with the a new Samsung Chromebook Series 5 550, and I’ve been using the previous version regularly since its release last year. Outwardly, there doesn’t appear to be much new here. The new Chromebook has a 12.1-inch screen, dual USB 2.0 ports, an SD card reader and an HD camera. On-board storage is limited to 16GB, the idea being that the SD and USB slots can pick up the slack where cloud storage isn’t practical. The keyboard appears to be unchanged, and the weight is the same at 3.3 pounds.
Under the hood, the improvements are significant — you get a new dual-core Intel processor, up from an Atom N570, and the RAM has doubled from 2GB to 4GB — and some finer exterior details are evident. The screen’s hinge is improved and feels sturdier, and the palm rests below the keyboard are now brushed metal and more comfortable. Front and center is the new multitouch trackpad (finished off with a slim ring of shiny chrome, naturally) for which Google says it has completely re-written the software stack.
The result of the hardware and software enhancements is a night-and-day improvement in performance. Browsing — what the machine was built to do — is screaming fast. I watched hours of 1080p videos on YouTube, Vimeo and Netflix without a single hiccup. Script-heavy sites like Rdio and Facebook simply fly. I typed a few documents, including the majority of this review, into Google Docs with zero latency. Scrolling and multi-touch gestures are smooth, and the responsiveness of the UI is exactly as crisp as I’d demand from a premium laptop. The battery gave me six hours of general web use, and a second charge lasted through just over four hours of streaming video. It boots up in five seconds and awakes from sleep in less than two.
Of course, the big difference between the Chromebook and every other mobile computing device is that absolutely everything happens in the browser. It’s all you see, and all you get. Chrome OS has been updated recently to include an app launcher, a file manager, and something that resembles a traditional desktop. But otherwise, everything happens within the confines of Google’s Chrome browser. So the Chromebook really only makes sense for people whose lives have already been fully and completely webified. If you’re a Google user — Gmail, Docs, Calendar, Drive, right on down the line — then a Chromebook isn’t going to be a big leap for you. But if you’re used to the comforts of Outlook, Photoshop, iTunes or editing documents offline, this obviously isn’t your game.
About that last point: The ability to use Google’s productivity apps while disconnected from the internet is a biggie, and it’s one Chrome OS currently lacks. You can cache docs to view them offline (a recent addition to Chrome OS) but you can’t make changes. However, the company does have plans to debut offline editing in Google Docs in the very near future. Google says the feature should arrive in time for its IO conference at the end of June, and I was invited to test a beta build of the feature, so I can confirm it works.
This will make a huge difference in how these devices are perceived, as they will become eminently more usable. And the feature will just show up — Chrome OS updates are delivered over the air, so all you have to do is open the lid and log in.
The hardware isn’t perfect. The screen could be sharper and brighter — I found myself consistently boosting the font size a notch or two, and using the laptop in bright light isn’t as pleasant, even with the screen’s matte finish — and the speakers, oddly located under the keyboard and facing down, are laughable.
Then there’s the price. Starting at $450, it’s probably too steep. Yes, the hardware is nice, and the improvements over last year’s model (which debuted at $450 and now sell for $350) are obvious. But the Chromebook, with its limited functionality and paltry storage, is closer to a $500 tablet with a keyboard than a $500 Windows laptop. Most tablets can’t exactly match the Series 5’s performance, but they are more versatile since they can run apps. Tablets are far more portable, too, and can make use of Bluetooth keyboards when needed.
Right now, the nicest Chromebook and the nicest tablet cost about the same. Google says Intel is bullish on the Chromebook platform, and that the companies expect more devices (at lower price points) to roll out in the coming months. So this isn’t the last we’ll hear or see of the Chromebook, but it is likely the platform’s flagship for 2012, a premiere device at a premium price.
Given the quality of Samsung’s hardware, I can still recommend it, even at around $500. But beware — it’s only a smart buy for people who want the comfort and performance of a nice laptop and won’t be inconvenienced by an entirely cloud-based environment, or feel limited by the total lack of the legacy PC stuff. If you’re already a web-head, this is a very nice surfboard.