Review: Samsung Chromebook

31 Aug 2011

GORDON SMITH gives us an exclusive first look at the slim, instant-on laptop for working on the web powered by Google’s Chrome browser.

Reviewing the Chromebook, Google’s long-promised laptop built for the web, the thought occurs that this is less a product and more a lifestyle. The premise is that to need one, you have to be constantly connected, doing a major slice of your everyday work online.

With the Chromebook, Google is asking us not just to buy a device but to embrace a concept: the local hard drive is dead, long live the cloud. Remote storage over the internet replaces the folder on your desktop. In place of the hard disk you get 16Gb of flash memory, and connectivity is via Wi-Fi or a 3G SIM card.

Samsung has delivered a sleek, slim unit on this evidence (Acer also manufactures Chromebooks) and while the hardware is impressive, it’s essentially just a dumb device for going online. We got our hands on an exclusive pre-launch device, which should be available to buy this side of Christmas.

As the name suggests, there’s only the Google Chrome browser for accessing the apps you need. With no local applications to load up, the Chromebook starts almost instantly. After a lifetime of waiting ages for various computers I’ve owned to boot up, the promised eight seconds to full switch on really does impress.

If the machine has only been hibernating rather than shut down entirely, you’re back up in an instant. This is a huge help for anyone who is on the road a lot and might only have a narrow window of time between meetings to, for instance, send an email or get some work done.

Another boon for the mobile worker is the weight. Though advertised as 1.4kg, it feels even lighter than that. In the model I reviewed you get a generous 12.1in screen size, so there’s less of a tradeoff with viewing web pages than you get with many 8in and 9in netbooks.

Absent many of the elements that slow the typical laptop down, you get an impressive 8.5 hours’ battery life. It took some getting used to when I noticed the Chromebook’s battery icon slip into the red and a quick check told me that 10pc capacity would give me another hour’s worth of work. A full recharge takes roughly four hours.

The well-proportioned keys are pleasantly tactile, and remind me a little of the old Eighties computing staple the ZX Spectrum. They’re well up to the job of tapping frequently and fast, even if there are a couple of missteps – the return key is a touch too far to the right edge of the keypad for my liking and the cursor keys are very small and bunched together. The trackpad isn’t always as responsive as I would have liked.

Lots to like about the Chromebook, then, but after a while some drawbacks become apparent. Having become used to the idea of a PC that stores your documents, photos and videos, there’s no escaping that it’s a massive leap to surrendering this control and storing everything in the cloud.

Google has said it’s working on offline versions of its productivity apps so you won’t have to always be online but for now it’s a necessary part of the deal. Take a Chromebook somewhere with patchy internet access and its attraction wanes fast.

There are other snags: you might also run into difficulties downloading attachments. There are question marks over the printing feature for now.

Then there’s the fact that it’s a kind of closed system – you must be a Gmail user to log on with account details (if you don’t have an account, you can still log on as a guest but Chrome won’t remember your settings).

While a HD webcam is present and correct you must use Google Talk or nothing. No luck for the many millions of Skype users. It’s the same for any other application that can’t be accessed via a browser – even if that’s a shrinking number these days.

Ordinarily I’d have been tempted to say this is a major black mark against the Chromebook but on reflection I’m less sure of that. Closed systems don’t seem to have put off the many millions who have been busy making Apple one of the world’s most valuable companies. Plus, Google Docs, Spreadsheets and so on are free, so unlike with a laptop you’re spared the extra outlay of buying your software on top of the price of the hardware.

Speaking of price, while it’s possible to buy a Chromebook online for around €399, in Ireland it appears the more likely way to pay for it will be a monthly fee as part of a contract. Baker Security and Networks, Google’s premier partner in Ireland, gives suggested prices of €17 for a student and €23 for business.

The price also covers hardware and software support. Given that businesses typically pay many multiples of a computer’s price tag in maintenance fees over its lifetime, this is likely to make a strong argument for Chromebooks in some cost-conscious organisations.

Ultimately the buying decision comes down to some fundamental questions. Are you constantly connected? Are you comfortable doing most of your work via the web? Can you handle the notion of not having your documents on your desktop or hard disk?

Answer ‘yes’ to all three and you’ve a good reason to consider parting with your money. Personally, if I were faced with a choice between a netbook and a Chromebook, the latter would win. Against a fully featured laptop, I might stop and think. The Chromebook has plenty to make you go ‘wow’ but enough to make you go ‘hmm’ too.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic