Google’s silvery Samsung Chromebook could be gold
You won’t mistake the new Samsung Chromebook for Apple’s rockstar MacBooks or any other full-powered laptop. But, it’s far more useful than your average netbook, and, at its $249 price, it might be the best value out there. So while it may not be the only computer you own, depending on your needs, it certainly could be the only one you carry.
Even though there are two current Samsung models, plus one from Acer, all Chromebooks are really a physical platform for Google’s cloud ecosystem. They are designed to enable Gmail, Drive, Play, YouTube, Calendar, Maps, Google+, etc, to all work together seamlessly and interactively.
The look of my test Samsung Chromebook — the midrange model — very intentionally mimics the Apple design ethic. It has a plasticky brushed silver case. The bottom of the case tapers slightly, though not nearly as dramatically as the MacBook Air. It is 5 mm thicker than a MacBook Air’s thinnest point, about two inches narrower and an inch shorter than the 13-inch equivalent, and, at 2.43 pounds, is ½ pound lighter.
It has a webcam, stereo speakers and a combined mic/headphone port so your 3.5 mm phone earbuds can be plugged right in without an adapter. One HDMI and two USB ports (USB 3.0 + USB 2.0) are on the back, where they should be on any laptop, wrangling your cables out of site. Battery life is touted as 6.5 hours.
The only real similarity between this Chromebook and its netbook antecedents is the laughable amount of internal storage: a 16GB flash drive. A multi-card slot extends onboard storage to as big as cards come, if that matters to you.
But local storage — and local computing — is not what Chromebook is about, of course. That’s why Google offers 100 gigabytes of Google Drive storage free for two years. The effect is to make the machine disappear, part of a great shift that began only a couple of years ago towards the primacy of software over the machine.
Delegating what the computer “does” to the cloud is the big trade off. You can’t install anything, except extensions to the Chrome browser which is the interface for everything this laptop does. You might surprised at the extent to which you depend on client software. But you might also be surprised at the extent to which you can get by without it.
The bottom line: If you have any aspirations to use this as a primary device, do some soul-searching about programs you currently depend on.
Think hard. Forget Skype, though you can video chat using Google+ Hangouts. Amazon Instant Video is out. So is Netflix, though they say they are “working with Google” to enable instant viewing. Because I can’t install Silverlight, my cable system doesn’t support laptop viewing on this laptop. Same goes for Slingbox. Illuminated keyboard? Dream on.
If your company uses third-party software to let you VPN remotely, you won’t be working from home on this. And if your office WiFi authenticates using WPA2 Enterprise Security,
you won’t be using this there either; it does not yet support this common office standard. (CORRECTION: The Chromebook supports WPA2. Reuters regrets the error.)
Even printing is an adventure. Unless you have a “cloud ready” printer you will need to have a computer running Windows, Apple OS or Linux that is connected to a printer with a cable, and keep that machine’s Chrome browser running all the time. Heck — even a signature feature like Chrome Remote Desktop, the ability to remotely control another computer using the Chrome browser, isn’t enabled in the Chrome OS which powers this Chromebook.
E -mail attachments? Sure, from Google Drive and local “downloads.” But not from DropBox, one of the featured “apps.”
But this is where it gets interesting. Because I’m never without a tablet or smartphone which has most of these missing ingredients, having them on my laptop is now in the “nice to have” category. Because the Go Bag holy trinity allows for so much overlap in functionality, shortcomings in one or the other product are less important. The redundancy in our basic kit means that a laptop could — could — be less your go-to device than something you only pull out when you need a bigger screen and fullsize hardware keyboard.
And both of those features are more than adequate on this device. The screen is bright and crisp enough to make out even smaller fonts. There is nothing second rate about the keyboard, though you may need to adjust somewhat from the oversized “ctrl” and “alt” keys at the bottom left; there is usually an OS key there as well (Windows or Apple) which Chrome OS doesn’t need. Google’s first foray into netbooks, 2010’s Cr-48, was hampered by a terrible touchpad. No issues in that department anymore.
Overall this Chromebook passed my smell test with flying colors. I was drawn to use it for work-related reasons — this review was written and researched on it over several days — and never once did I feel as though I was making a point and wished I could grab for my MacBook Air instead.
But, for the time being, products from the Chromebook family are probably something you can get by with only if you also have access to something more mainstream — not more powerful, mind you.
When I wrote a few weeks ago in my tech predictions for 2013 that netbooks were poised to rise from the dead, it was this Google Chromebook I had in mind. I hadn’t yet seen one outside a showroom, but the idea seemed compelling, and a good value proposition. Having used it now for a couple of weeks, my prognostication remains the same: this could be the year that netbooks finally get their good name back. You can spend more for a Samsung Chromebook — up to $550 for a model with a 3G data plan. But that sort of defeats the purpose.
The entry-level Samsung Chromebook is an all-in cloud computer that isn’t for everyone, but it’s hardly a walk on the wild side. At $250 it’s a relatively painless experiment for an early adopters to take a practical look at what they really need — and what features they have on their laptops today that they might surprisingly do without.