sakanagai (sakanagai) wrote,
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sakanagai

Samsung Series 5 with Chrome OS: Driving the future of netbooks

I got to play around with my Samsung Series 5 Chromebook with 3G for the entire weekend. To test it out, it became my primary portal to the internet. The Chromebook is brilliant and you probably won't want one.

Chromebooks are netbooks, as a glance at a hardware spec sheet will reveal, but not like the cheap subnotebooks you are used to seeing at your local electronics store. Netbooks were born out of the idea of providing a low cost, highly portable window to the web and at the time they were fairly successful. Then Intel's Atom gave way to Windows-based netbooks which shifted them to little more than miniature, underpowered laptops. Hardware development stagnated, prices failed to decrease, and the perceived system speed dropped, especially relative to full-sized counterparts. Chromebooks focus on the cornerstone of the original netbook: quick, convenient internet access. To accomplish this, Google created Chrome OS.

The idea of cloud computing isn't exactly new, but Chrome OS presents the most viable option to date. The principle of the cloud is using the internet for storing your profile, data, and programs on the internet rather than local storage, leveraging evolving online resources. Google already has a significant presence in web-based services not to mention an excellent web browser which is also called Chrome and a mobile operating system (Android). If you already use the Chrome browser and utilize services like GMail and Google Calendar, you've been part of the game for a while. Keeping with the guiding principle of focusing solely on the web, the browser is all you get with the expectation of using web apps to handle more traditional workloads like document editing and media management.

Naturally, there will be some concern about this model. Can you really get by with just a web browser? Minding that Chromebooks aren't meant to replace a home computer, you'd be surprised what you are able to do with one. Think for a moment about how much of your time on the computer is spent looking at a browser window and what kinds of other tasks you perform. Things like syncing media devices, transcoding, and 3D gaming will still be in the realm of a regular computer, but how much time do you spend actually doing those specific tasks? Worried about drafting up a document or presentation? Google Docs has you covered, storing your work online, accessible from any web browser. Printing can be done via Google Cloud Print, though if you don't have one of the select HP printers with that capability built-in, it is considerably less convenient. Should you need music, you can always use internet radio sites like Pandora to get your fix. If you just wanted to leverage your own collection, Google Music (invite-only beta currently) and Amazon's Cloud Player let you upload music from one computer and stream it back online. There isn't a similar service for videos, but you still have the likes of Youtube and Hulu with Netflix working on support as we speak.

The advantage of including just a web browser, particularly one like Chrome, is that the user experience is top notch. It's unbelievably fast to start up, secure thanks to the sandboxing in the browser's foundations, and stable in that a crash in one tab (I've only had one to date) is isolated to that one tab, requiring little more than refreshing the page to correct. The resources needed to run it are also greatly reduced. Without a bloated OS with dozens of processes in the background or persistent anti-virus monitoring means that the 2GB of DDR3 memory of the Series 5 Chromebook appears to be plenty. The power-sipping dual-core Atom N570 is sufficient to drive it all even if, admittedly, the integrated graphics struggle with HD content. With just about everything stored somewhere online, the small 16GB SDD goes unnoticed, and there is another advantage. Should something happen to my Chromebook, no data is lost or compromised. I can log in to another Chromebook and my profile, emails, and even my apps are already waiting for me.

Of course, I certainly don't want to put that to the test, mainly because the Series 5 is a fine piece of hardware. The primary hardware specs have already been mentioned, but they don't tell the whole story. The glossy white plastic lid bears a metal Samsung logo and a raised Chrome badge. Despite attracting smudges, it looks sharp; not quite in the realm of, say, the Adamo 13, but for a $500 netbook, it looks fantastic. Most of the ports are hidden behind little doors. There is an exposed USB 2.0 port along with concealed SIM card and dev slots on the right, an SDXC slot up front with a plastic insert, and, on the left, you have a door covering the mini-VGA and second USB port as well as the power and 3.5mm audio jack (mic/headphone) and some venting for a single fan. The battery isn't removable and the memory is soldered to the motherboard (no upgrades allowed), so the rear and bottom are very clean.

Opening the lid of the Series 5 powers it on. The 12.1" 1280x800 matte (not glossy) display flashes the Chrome logo from a fully-off state in about 5 seconds with a login screen a few seconds after that. Closing the lid puts it to sleep which takes only about a second to resume. It is seriously that fast to start and likely one of the biggest draws to the system. The island-style keyboard is very comfortable with essentially no flex, good travel, and adequate spacing. Rounded keys in the corners match the shape of the indented area, further evidence that Samsung took some care in the design of this first generation Chromebook. The function row is just a series of hotkeys. In addition to volume and brightness controls, you have navigation buttons (back, forward, refresh), a button to toggle fullscreen, a button to cycle through windows (more on that shortly), and a power button. The power button also serves as a means of signing out. Hold it for a second and the Chrome session retreats and the login screen takes its place. Hold it a bit longer and the system powers down, an operation that takes about 5 seconds. The touchpad has no buttons as the entire pad is clickable. It supports multitouch gestures for scrolling (drag with two fingers), dragging-and-dropping (click with one finger, move a second), and right clicking (click with two fingers on the pad). Mac users may miss the lack of some of the three- and four-finger gestures supported by OS X, such as navigating back (three finger swipe left) or transitioning between windows (four finger swipe either direction), but the hotkeys on the keyboard are only somewhat less convenient. The touchpad is very sensitive which proves to be a double-edged sword. Gestures are very responsive, but I did occasionally have a second finger touching when I clicked resulting in a menu popping up rather than opening the link. It gets easier with use, but it would have been nice to be able to adjust the mouse settings somewhere.

With the battery being internal, it is important for a single charge to be as long as possible to ensure potential users aren't stranded away from an outlet. Since there isn't a need for a connection assembly or convex design to allow easy removal, Samsung was able to cram a large 8.1Ah (@7.4V) lithium polymer battery into the chassis that is good for more charging cycles that traditional lithium ion packs. According to the spec sheets and promotional information, the Series 5 is good for 8.5 hours of use on a single charge. I unplugged mine on Thursday morning, using it as my primary source of internet access (including video content from Hulu and South Park Studios). By Friday night, it was just under 30% with another 2.5 hours of usage left according to the battery indicator. Granted, this was extended by relying on the fast start/shutdown and sleep/resume times to power it down when not in use for a while, but it got well over 8 hours of actual use during that two day stretch. That was using default power settings (brightness to around 40% when unplugged) WiFi enabled and in use, no 3G, and the built-in speakers (which aren't that great I should point out). I wouldn't be surprised to see it get 10 hours or more. This surpasses even my 2010 13" MacBook Pro whose advertised runtime is 9 hours on a charge. This may not carry over to other Chromebooks as the battery is one of Samsung's own works, so it will be interesting to see how others, such as Acer's Cromia, compare in this regard.

While Chrome OS is in many ways just a persistent full-screen browser, there are a couple of tweaks. You can open tabs in new "windows". Since the browser UI is full screen, windows are more akin to workspaces. The active workspace is the only one you can see, while switching between them can be done by either pressing the dedicated hotkey on the function row or by clicking the windowed icon in the upper right corner that appears when multiple windows are open. Just like the Chrome web browser, you can choose to open an Incognito window which deletes history, cache, cookies, passwords, etc once the window is closed. A side effect of this is the disabling of apps and extensions. You can edit settings to allow extensions to run on a case by case basis, though. By default, guest mode (no password/account needed) operates in an Incognito window, protecting both the guest's activity and the users/owners of the Chromebook as none of their information will be accessible.

Another modification is utilized by apps such as Google Talk and Scratchpad which both come preinstalled. Rather than require their own tab, they open in a small popup that remains visible over the current tab allowing you to surf the web with reckless abandon and not miss an IM. You can move the window around, too, and close/minimize it should it get in the way or be no longer needed. I'd like to see other apps take advantage of this concept, but that may take some time. One of the last significant additions is the file manager. It is very basic, as one might expect from an operating system that doesn't really do internal storage, but it does the job when it comes time to poke around a memory card or USB drive.

There is the obvious question of how useful it is when you don't have a network connection. Right now, the answer is a resounding "not very" as only a few apps take advantage of HTML5's offline caching support; most apps are simply links to dedicated sites. Even Google Docs isn't yet available offline, though the update is supposed to be out this summer. Fortuntately, the build-in WiFi works well and integrated 3G is no longer a rarity. The Cr-48 pilot Chromebooks included it and both the Series 5 and Cromia, the first two available at retail, will have a 3G version as well as a WiFi-only SKU. The mobile broadband is an extra $70 in both cases, but it also includes 100MB per month for two years courtesy of Verizon. That isn't a whole lot of data, but it's free and could be a valuable safety net if you can't find a hotspot. Additional data can be purchased at standard rates which are rather steep. I have not yet tested to see if I can insert a data SIM in the port on the Series 5 and use an existing data plan.

The Samsung Series 5 is a nice piece of hardware to debut the intruiging Chrome OS and is worthy of a good deal of praise. The OS itself is also noteworthy. However, I mentioned at the beginning that you probably won't want one. A lot of this has to do with the state of the web. The online world still maturing and after browsing the Chrome Web Store for a while and looking up webapps to handle traditional PC functions, it's hard to build a case that the internet is ready for something like Chrome OS. There are too many gaps to warrant an investment from the uncertain. It is nonetheless comforting to see that so many of these missing features and services (offline support for Google Docs and Netflix) are not listed as "incompatible", but "coming soon", meaning that wheels are turning in the right direction. Perhaps by the end of the year, we'll have a much clearer idea of what exactly Chrome can and cannot do. Until then, we are left to speculate and hope for the best.

Liked:
-Amazing battery life
-Build and display quality
-Speed of Chrome OS
-Security

Disliked:
-Limited functionality of Chrome OS, moreso when not connected to the internet
-Price seems a bit high considering netbook internals
-Too much listed as Coming Soon
-Poor HD video playback

Final Thoughts:
If you are in the market for a netbook, skip it and not just because more powerful full-sized laptops are available at the same price range. If you are already looking at a portable, less featured machine, the Chromebook is most certainly worth your consideration. The Series 5 in particular combines surprisingly good build quality, a much better screen than any netbook and even most laptops, fantastic battery life, nearly instant start up, optional 3G with the limited free data, and a not-too-unreasonable $429 starting price ($499 for 3G), not to mention the new OS and the peace of mind it brings with cloud storage should your machine ever need replacement.

The Samsung Series 5 with 3G launches in the US on 6/15 for $499. The WiFi only version will launch later for $429. Acer's Cromia 3G and WiFi Chromebooks have not been given firm release dates by the time of posting this review. Their retail prices are $449 and $379, respectively.
Tags: chrome os, chromebooks, features, reviews
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