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A review of Samsung's $249 Chromebook

The Switzerland of computing platforms

There's a war being fought. On one side, tablets are slowly eroding the traditional PC market. Folks are neglecting their laptops and smearing freshly purchased iPads, Nexus 7s, and Kindle Fires with greasy fingerprints. In their latest strike against traditional PCs, tablets have even started donning keyboard docks—some of them, anyway.

On the other side of the conflict, laptops are quickly tarting themselves up with touch screens and ultra-slim chassis in order to woo jaded customers. Intel calls this new wave of machines ultrabooks. Er, sorry, Ultrabooks™. With the help of Windows 8's touch-friendly Modern UI interface, ultrabooks are attempting to replicate the portability and ease of use of tablets while still offering the performance and capabilities of a full-featured PC. Sometimes, they even pull it off.

And then, in the middle of it all, there are Chromebooks.

Chromebooks are sort of like the Switzerland of the mobile market. They don't seem to be actively engaged in the conflict. Also, while they're superficially similar to the belligerents, there's something very different about them deep down. With the Swiss, it's Sig 550s under every other bed. With Chromebooks, it's an operating system unlike anything else on the market today. Google's Chrome OS has a strict emphasis on web apps that makes it a fundamentally different experience from Windows, OS X, Android, or iOS.

About a month and a half ago, Google and Samsung jointly introduced the straightforwardly dubbed Samsung Chromebook. This is a slim 11.6" system with an ARM processor and a startlingly low price tag: just $249. Another, even cheaper Chromebook has come out since then, but that one has Intel guts and apparently pretty poor battery life. The Samsung Chromebook, on the other hand, claims a battery run time of around 6.5 hours, which sounds pretty respectable, considering the price and display size.

The Samsung Chromebook is doubly interesting because of the ARM silicon under the hood. We're talking about the same kind of hardware that powers tablets, only stuck inside a pseudo-laptop with a unique operating system. This odd pairing raises a number of questions. How does the Chromebook perform compared to today's tablets? Does it offer snappier web browsing and smoother online video? Might it even have serviceable Adobe Flash support?

Hoping to find the answers, we got a genuine Samsung Chromebook in our labs and conducted our usual poking and prodding. There was some measuring, too, and other things, as you'll see if you keep reading.

Before we get to all of that that, though, we should take a moment to introduce the Samsung Chromebook more fully. Here's a mostly exhaustive list of the machine's specifications:

Processor Samsung Exynos 5 Dual 1.7GHz
(28 nm, ARM Cortex-A15)
Memory 2GB DDR3L
Graphics ARM Mali-T604 (integrated)
Display 11.6" TN panel with 1366x768 resolution
Storage 16GB eMMC solid-state drive
Ports 1 USB 3.0
1 USB 2.0
1 analog headphone/analog microphone
Expansion slots 1 three-in-one SD card reader
Communications 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi
Bluetooth 3.0
Camera 0.3-megapixel webcam
Dimensions 11.4" x 8.09" x 0.69" (290 x 205 x 17.5 mm)
Weight 2.42 lbs (1.01 kg)
2.98 lbs (1.35 kg) with AC adapter
Battery 30 Wh lithium-polymer battery

The Exynos 5 processor is, from what I can tell, the first commercially available chip based on ARM's Cortex-A15 CPU core. Compared to the Cortex-A9, which is used in many of today's tablet-bound mobile processors, the Cortex-A15 offers improvements like higher performance per clock, hardware virtualization support, enlarged physical address space, and new power-management features. Other Exynos 5-powered devices include Google's Nexus 10 tablet—which, not unlike the Chromebook, is marketed by Google and manufactured by Samsung.

The Exynos 5 also sports ARM's Mali-T604 graphics processor, which is compatible with OpenGL ES 3.0 and DirectX 11. Considering Chrome OS largely restricts users to browsing the web and running web apps, however, the Samsung Chromebook's gaming potential is a little limited.

Equally limited is the system's built-in storage. There's just 16 gigs of flash in there, which is about what you'd expect to find in a run-of-the-mill tablet. Chrome OS almost dissuades users from relying on local storage, however. This machine is all about the cloud, and accordingly, Google offers Chromebook users 100GB of free Google Drive cloud storage for two years from the purchase date. That's fairly generous, especially since the device itself only has a one-year warranty. A 100GB Google Drive subscription would normally run you $4.99 a month.

If the cloud ain't your thing, well... you probably shouldn't be getting a Chromebook to begin with. If you'd rather just extend the local storage, though, you can do that using the machine's SD card reader and the USB 3.0 port at the back. (Yes, Samsung had the good sense to include USB 3.0 connectivity.)

I think that about covers the internals. Let's take this baby for a spin, shall we?