By Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla
The newest Chromebook costs US $249 ($270 in Canada) and is the first to feature a Samsung-made 1.7GHz Exynos ARM processor powering a browser-based cloud operating system. A lot has changed since I first dabbled with using a Chromebook as my main computer. Here’s what I found out.
I’m currently on day six of using the Chromebook as my main computer. I am also traveling for the holidays and far from my usual retinue of machines and backups so I am forced to work around this device’s limitations in order to get through my day-to-day computing needs.
My first attempt at using a Chromebook as an everyday computer was over a year ago with Samsung’s first Chromebook. While most aspects of the hardware were good, it was the Chrome OS’s inability to work offline that made it an impractical choice for me.
I use my computers to write, do some light photo editing, blog on various platforms and from time-to-time create and upload videos. I am also locked into various social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter, Google + and I frequent video websites like YouTube and Vimeo quite often.
I already do most of my work on the Chrome browser on my other notebooks (a ThinkPad X200 and a 13-inch MacBook Pro). While those two machines are better suited to video editing and have better tools for photo editing (i.e. actual applications), I wanted to see how possible it was to live with the Chromebook as a full time computer.
As a Chrome user, getting started with the Chromebook was dead easy. After the initial boot, signing in with my Google credentials gave me instant access to all my bookmarks and extensions on Chrome so I was right at home in less than 10 minutes.
The obvious inspiration of the Samsung Chromebook this year is the 11-inch MacBook Air, which is surprising given Samsung and Apple’s legal struggles. While very close to the Ultrabook spec (without an Intel processor or Aluminum unibody case) the Samsung Chromebook is thin, light at 2.5 pounds, is completely solid-state with no moving parts, hard drives or fans.
A strange crossover between a sleekbook, netbook but with the instant on-ness of a smartphone or a tablet, the Chromebook just feels fast because it is such a dedicated machine. In terms of performance, the Exynos ARM chip seems to handle most web apps well but does seem to struggle when too many active tabs are open.
I also noticed that some more intensive tabs, like my blog’s Squarespace window, will tend to freeze or shut down so it is really imperative to save your work often. The 2GB of RAM is ample for running Chrome OS and comes in handy when streaming HD video from YouTube at 1080p resolution. I just wish there was an easy way to add more RAM and even the solid state memory given that RAM is cheap these days (and some smartphones are already shipping with 2GB).
The beauty of the Samsung ARM Chromebook is that it is all solid state and fanless. This really is the advent of a new computer age with storage in the cloud, no moving parts and notebooks that are quiet and don’t get hot from use.
The VGA camera is just okay, better to have it than not. Expansion options are more than ample with a full-sized SDCard slot (cards stick out), one USB 2.0 and one 3.0 slots and HDMI-out slot.
The chiclet style keyboard is responsive and so similar to the 11-inch MacBook Air that I felt instantly at home and could touch type at my usual pace within minutes. The large glass trackpad is also very Apple-like (one big button, multi-touch) and responsive.
The display has a 1366x768 screen which is reasonably clear and in line with a notebook of this price point. I like that it is matte and not glossy and while the brightness could be better, it should be fine for most users.
My Chromebook’s display has an issue where when I tilt the display beyond 90 degrees it goes completely black. It is likely an issue with the display ribbon getting caught, more an annoyance than anything, I am still trying to contact Samsung to see if I can get a repair or an exchange. (Note: Since I bought it off Amazon.com I could not get a replacement so sadly I had to return my Chromebook for a refund. Months later (March 2013) I was sent a unit from Google for a brief one week review and it did not exhibit said issue).
This display is the biggest downside of Samsung’s ARM Chromebook, it feels really cheap and poorly put together.
Chromebooks are all about the software. The Chrome OS has evolved into a viable option for users whose involvement of computers rests mainly on their browser. The ability to play back multimedia as well as use applications offline give it an added versatility. You still need WIFi access if you want to run apps, which in the case of Chrome, are all web apps.
The selection and scope of web apps available for Chrome is quite staggering. There appears to be more stuff for Chrome than there is for Windows RT, which I think is the closest competitor to Chrome OS and the Chromebook (ultralight computing, ARM processors, cloud component).
Seeing the great range of apps available for Chrome shows just how vibrant Google’s developer community is and while many of the apps are derived from Android OS versions, they seem to work well on the Chromebook.
Multitasking on the Chromebook continues to improve. Live synching with the web has also improved and it the device syncs to Google Drive every few seconds so all your work is saved. This is much better than my experience with Microsoft on SkyDrive which often disconnected without automatically saving which resulted in the loss of hours worth of work.
Using the Chromebook for a week, I can say I didn’t miss Apple Mail, Microsoft Word, GraphicConverter and various other apps. I did miss iMovie and Adobe Photoshop’s and Pixelmator’s ability to work with layers.
I still managed to complete my writing assignments as well as post stories on my blogs which are really the most critical aspects of my work. I was also able to transfer photos from an SDCard (sloooww!), edit in Picasa (slooooww!) and upload to Google Drive.
I got a lot of functionality out of this $249 ($270 in Canada) Chromebook and because there was less to do on the device, I managed to get more done without distractions. I have to use the device away from WIFi to test how good it is as a standalone device offline and I am waiting to hear back from Samsung on the display issue before rating the Samsung Chromebook.
So far, I am impressed with what Chrome OS and Samsung’s hardware have managed to achieve with this third attempt at a Chromebook. It really can be the Chromebook for everyone and truly makes cloud computing a viable and powerful tool. Cheap build quality by Samsung might detract from the benefits but the good news is that interested users can choose from other Chromebooks made by Acer and HP which are more traditional notebook manufacturers even though they don't use the ARM processor.
Rating: 3 out of 5