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)
|Graphics||ARM Mali-T604 (integrated)|
|Display||11.6″ TN panel with 1366×768 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|
|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?
The display, keyboard, and touchpad
I’ve played with plenty of cheap netbooks in this price range. Most of them aren’t very good. Common traits include an overly thick chassis, a crummy keyboard with tiny keys, and a touchpad that’s so frustratingly small, you might as well just carry a mouse.
The Samsung Chromebook isn’t like that. In fact, this little laptop’s build quality is pretty much impeccable considering the price. And the system is quite the looker.
This thing is sexy and razor-thin, at just 0.69″. From far away, one might almost mistake it for Apple’s 11-inch MacBook Air. Of course, the enclosure is made of plastic instead of aluminum, and the physical design is a little different. I’m sure it’ll get added to the Apple v. Samsung lawsuit anyway, though. I believe Apple holds a patent on those rounded rectangles…
Samsung gets points here for making the most of the available space. The keyboard stretches as wide as the machine’s body allows, and the touchpad is about as tall as it can be. I’m not hugely enamored with the touchpad, since it feels a little too tacky for my taste. My fingers tend to skip across it rather than glide along smoothly. The keyboard, however, feels great. It’s clicky and rigid, and the keys are large enough that I didn’t catch myself making too many typos.
Note the unusual layout, by the way. There’s no Windows or Apple key to keep Ctrl and Alt company. A search key sits in place of Caps Lock, and the F keys aren’t even F keys—they control either the Chrome browser or the machine’s speakers and display luminosity. (The browser-specific buttons let you go back, go forward, reload, go full-screen, and switch between windows.) A power key sits at the far right, too, just like on Mac laptops.
Fun fact: if you push the power key while the Chromebook is running, the image on the display shrinks slightly, and you have a short time to let go and get back to whatever you were doing. If you keep pushing, the image stops shrinking for an instant and then rapidly disappears into a black void, which tosses you back to the log-in screen. Repeat the procedure, and the system shuts down. It feels a little less safe than a dialog box, but it does look neat.
The display is less praise-worthy. Its 1366×768 resolution allows for reasonable screen real estate, and the viewing angles are passable. However, colors look a little washed out, and the backlighting isn’t terribly bright. Luminosity peaks out at 236 cd/m² according to our colorimeter. By comparison, the iPad 3’s 9.7″ screen puts out 435 cd/m², and that’s despite a considerably higher pixel density. It’s probably good Samsung went with a matte coating instead of a glossy one.
We ran our calibration utility to get a more empirical sense of the Samsung Chromebook’s color output. Click the buttons above, and you’ll see that even the $199 Nexus 7 shows a bigger chunk of the sRGB color gamut than the Chromebook. There isn’t much of a contest versus the iPad 3, either.
Nevertheless, I’d say the Samsung Chromebook’s screen is serviceable overall. It’s certainly good enough to browse the web, look at family photos, do a little word processing in Google Docs, and watch YouTube videos of funny cats and bad Russian drivers. That’s probably all most Chrome OS users are likely to do.
Connectivity and expansion
This, right here, is my only gripe with the Samsung Chromebook’s physical design. The headphone jack and SD card reader are on the side—as they should be—but the USB, HDMI, and AC ports all sit at the back.
This arrangement means that plugging in a thumb drive, or even just hooking up the power adapter, involves annoying contortions. You’re pretty much forced to fold the display forward and lean over the machine. Even then, you can’t actually see the ports themselves—just their microscopic labels, which are etched in dark grey on slightly lighter gray.
Not that the Samsung Chromebook has much connectivity to begin with. In addition to the card reader, audio jack, USB and HDMI outputs, and AC connector, the machine features an unlabeled slot that I presume is intended for SIM cards. (A 3G version of the laptop is available; it’ll set you back an extra 80 bucks over the regular model on Amazon.) Add the built-in Bluetooth 3.0 and 802.11n Wi-Fi, and that’s about it.
In its dearth of physical connectors, the Chromebook resembles current ultrabooks—and Apple’s MacBook Air laptops. The 11.6″ MacBook Air, for example, only has two USB 3.0 ports, a Thunderbolt port, and a headphone jack. It doesn’t even feature a card reader.
Samsung didn’t get fancy with the power adapter. We’ve seen some vendors strive for a little originality there. Some others, like Asus, have attempted to copy Apple’s power brick design. This Chromebook just has a plain-looking 40W adapter that weighs in at about nine ounces (256 g). Moving along…
The software: Chrome OS
On the surface, the idea of a web-centric operating system doesn’t sound so bad. Browsing the web is a huge part of what regular people do on mobile devices. Services like Google Docs deliver basic productivity features, while movies and music are available for live streaming on the web, and there are plenty of good Flash games out there. If you’re willing to do a little digging, you can also find surprisingly powerful web apps—even image editors like Pixlr or Sketchpad.
That was my thinking when I unwrapped the Samsung Chromebook, at least.
The thing is, you can’t understand just how limiting Chrome OS is until you sit down and use it. I tried to fire up Netflix, but that wouldn’t work. Netflix requires Microsoft Silverlight on the PC, and there’s apparently no equivalent plug-in for Chrome OS. Netflix just redirects you to a page saying it’s working with Google on Chrome OS support. I headed to YouTube and fired up a 720p video, figuring at least that would work. However, despite running in (presumably hardware-accelerated) HTML5 mode, the player dropped frames during normal playback and turned into a slide show whenever I tried use the controls. Dropping to 480p helped normal playback, but the controls still interfered with fluidity.
Chrome OS has a special video player for playing local files, and it fares slightly better. Frames were dropped on our 1080p MP4 trailer, but the 720p version played mostly smoothly. However, the player software is extremely pared down. The mouse cursor doesn’t disappear when the video is playing, and there’s no way to loop a clip or set a playlist.
I then thought about using Skype, but that’s obviously not available—you’re stuck with Google+ for your video conferencing needs. Good luck convincing your friends to switch. Attempting to plug in my iPhone or digital camera also did nothing at all. Chrome OS didn’t even acknowledge either device. I guess all the cool kids post photos to Facebook directly from their cameras.
The emphasis on the web is downright oppressive. Chrome OS’s sad excuse for a file manager has two directories: Downloads and Google Drive. You can create subdirectories inside each one, but Google apparently didn’t think users needed a local “home” folder to store important files. At least you can plug in an external USB drive.
Incidentally, Chrome OS’s file manager has a really strange way of handling archives. Downloaded ZIP files mount as if they were separate drives—you even get an “eject device” item in the context menu—but there’s no simple way to extract the contents. You’ve got to mount the archive and copy the files manually. Ugh.
Chrome OS attempts to blur the line between local apps and websites as much as possible, which can get confusing. The launcher and the main app list (which opens if you click that little grid icon) both include shortcuts to Google services like Gmail, YouTube, and Google Docs, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to stick your own bookmarks in there. You can only add “apps” from the Chrome Web Store. The problem is that those “apps” are pretty much just websites. The Hotmail app, for example, just goes to hotmail.com. The Angry Birds “app” goes to chrome.angrybirds.com, which loads up and works just fine in Firefox on a Windows PC. There’s nothing app-like about either of those things.
Naturally, you’re free to add regular bookmarks to the bookmark bar in the Chrome web browser. So I suppose there’s a sort of weird caste system going on. First-class websites are featured on the Chrome Web Store and get to show up in the almighty launcher, while second-class websites are relegated to the bookmarks bar. First-class sites can show up in the bookmarks toolbar to mingle with the untouchables, but deep down, they know they’re better. They know.
Speaking of settings, I was surprised by how few of them there are. Clicking the “settings” link in the box pictured above loads up the main Chrome OS settings page in the web browser. There, you can change the wallpaper, adjust the touchpad sensitivity, switch time zones, tweak a few web-related options, and juggle Bluetooth devices and Wi-Fi networks, but that’s mostly it. There’s no way to change, for example, how long the system waits before going to sleep.
The lack of power settings turned out to be a big problem when I got around to testing battery life. I eventually found a workaround, which involved installing an experimental extension called Caffeine. Installation required the following steps:
0) Download the extension from https://github.com/triune/caffeine/blob/master/caffeineV1.zip?raw=true
1) Go to about:flags on your ChromeBook, enable “Experimental Extension APIs”, restart.
2) Go to extensions, toggle on Developer Mode, and click load unpacked extension.
3) Choose the folder containing the contents of this file (unzipped).
4) Toggle / DeToggle the menu icon to keep Chrome awake!
The best part? The extension unloads itself every time you reboot. Yikes.
Chrome OS isn’t all bad, though. It runs shockingly fast on the Samsung Chromebook, and it looks both pretty and familiar—sort of like a pared-down version of Windows 7. Google has replicated a lot of the window management functionality from Windows, too. You can drag a window to snap it to the side of the screen, for example, and you can double-click one of a window’s vertical or horizontal borders to maximize that window vertically or horizontally. (Oddly, though, minimizing windows requires hovering over the maximize button first.)
The OS also has WebGL support, which has exciting implications for future web-based games. Pictured above is HexGL, an in-browser 3D racing game inspired by Wipeout. The gameplay is pretty basic, and it’s not very much fun, but the graphics and controls show just how much potential the technology has. It runs pretty smoothly on the Samsung Chromebook, too, no doubt thanks to the Exynos 5’s state-of-the-art integrated graphics.
This should go without saying, but there’s also something really nice about opening up a brand new laptop and not having to set anything up. You just log in with your Google account, and boom. Your customized browser greets you, as do all your installed web “apps” and Google Drive files. If anything goes awry, you can head to the settings page and run a factory reset. In that respect, Chrome OS may be a good solution for some of the less computer literate among us—especially since a family member can log in with Chrome Remote Desktop to provide support if needed.
The Samsung Chromebook might even be a good option for cash-strapped students. Google Docs replicates much of the basic functionality of Microsoft Office, and it does so with a fast interface and a fairly powerful collaborative editing system. Typing up dissertations, arranging data in spreadsheets, or slapping together simple presentations is fairly easy, and because everything is done in the cloud and backed up with a revision history, there’s no need to worry about losing work when a drunk roommate spills beer on your laptop.
Performance and battery life
I mentioned that Chrome OS was fast on the Samsung Chromebook. How fast? Well, we can’t run our regular laptop suite on this thing to find out, but we can use the browser benchmarks from our tablet suite. That makes for a fitting comparison, since the Samsung Chromebook’s ARM-based processor is similar to what’s found in the tablets we’ve tested already.
Well, well, no wonder the Samsung Chromebook feels snappy. This $249 laptop completely trounces Apple’s $499 iPad and Asus’ $599 VivoTab RT. Part of that must be the Chrome web browser, but the new Exynos 5 chip no doubt deserves its fair share of the credit. I should also note that the Chromebook completes six of Peacekeeper’s seven HTML5 tests, while none of the tablets finish more than three (and the iPad and Nexus 7 each complete only one).
We can also measure how long the system takes to start up after a complete shutdown:
The Samsung Chromebook boots up in 10 seconds and wakes from sleep in about three. That’s roughly in the same league as a high-end Windows 8 ultrabook with a fast solid-state drive, and it’s much quicker than tablets. Those aren’t fair comparisons, of course. Chrome OS is a much more lightweight operating system than Windows 8, and tablets have low enough standby power consumption that shutting them down usually isn’t necessary.
Speaking of which, how does the Samsung Chromebook fare in our battery tests?
We measured web browsing battery life using TR Browserbench 1.0, which serves a static version of TR’s old home page rigged to refresh every 45 seconds. Browserbench cycles through various permutations of text content, images, and Flash ads, with some cache-busting code to keep things realistic. Flash was set to “on demand” on the Android tablets and left enabled, per the default, on the Chromebook. (The iPad lacks Flash support altogether.)
We also tested video playback battery life by looping a 720p Game of Thrones episode. Since Chrome OS’s built-in video player lacks looping functionality, we had to stand by and rewind the video whenever it neared the end. All systems were tested with their display brightness set as close as possible to 100 cd/m².
Samsung quotes a run time of 6.3 hours for this Chromebook, and Google claims 6.5 hours, so the fact that we reached 7.1 hours in our web browsing test is a nice surprise. This is the kind of battery life you’d expect from an ultrabook. Tablets do better still, but the cheapest one of those to feature a keyboard costs over twice as much as the Chromebook.
The Samsung system’s battery life during video playback is a little less impressive. Nevertheless, it should suffice for watching a couple of movies back-to-back (provided you skip the credits).
I compared Chrome OS to Switzerland earlier. Now, after testing, the Samsung Chromebook makes me think more of a platypus, or maybe some sort of weird-looking pokemon. I also get the sense that it jumped into this world through a portal from an alternate universe—a universe where Steve Jobs never launched the iPad and thin clients somehow really took off.
Okay, so at $249, the Samsung Chromebook can afford to be weird. It can afford to be an unusual, somewhat experimental system that doesn’t quite do everything you may want. The one thing it’s designed to do—web browsing—is very fast and snappy. Because the system runs the same Chrome web browser that’s available for Windows and OS X, you can sync bookmarks, settings, and extensions. You can even give a Chromebook to your grandma for Christmas and use Chrome Remote Desktop to help her get Angry Birds up and running.
I’m definitely impressed by how solid the machine feels and how good it looks, too, especially considering the price. Like I said earlier, this could be mistaken for a MacBook Air if you don’t look too close; it’s just that thin and slick. I do wish Samsung had put ports on the sides instead of the back, but that shouldn’t impede day-to-day usability very much. For browsing the web on the couch or on the go, the Samsung Chromebook is very appropriately designed.
I think enthusiasts will probably want to pass on this thing, though. Unless you’re buying it to try and install some customized version of Linux, you’re going to be stuck with Chrome OS—and Chrome OS is the antithesis of everything enthusiasts hold dear. Many things we take for granted on PCs or tablets are simply nowhere to be found, and the small handful of substitutes are woefully pared down and frustrating to use.
The Samsung Chromebook is a great web browsing machine and not much else. Whether that’s worth $249 of your money is up to you.