This past May during the Google I/O developers’ conference, Google announced the forthcoming availability of Chromebooks, the consumer-facing evolution of their Chrome OS-based CR-48 laptop pilot program. Where CR-48 was a limited edition, free to the chosen few, beta program, Chromebooks were to be a straight-up commercial product, initially available in a handful of flavors from two manufacturers. I/O attendees left the conference with the promise of a shiny new Samsung Series 5 Chromebook just as soon as they were publicly available in mid-June.

Mid-June turned to late July before my Arctic White Chromebook arrived from Samsung by way of Amazon fulfillment, but arrive it finally did, and after several days of kicking the 12.1-inch laptop’s tires, I’m writing this here review on the matte black plastic keyboard. A keyboard, I might add, that’s really a joy to type on despite its inclusion a few strange keys in uncommon places. My Series 5, outfitted with Wi-Fi and Verizon 3G connectivity, sells for $499 including 100MB per month of free cellular data for the first two years. A Wi-Fi-only version is also available for $429, while Acer’s take on Chromebook – with its smaller, 11.6-inch display – sells for $349, or $429 if you add 3G to the mix.

More important than its cheaper than a laptop, spendier than a netbook price points, is Chrome’s true raison d’etre: Chrome OS. In Chrome OS, the browser is the operating system, and Web apps are apps. Now that they’ve refined the CR-48 pilot machines into a small fleet of consumer-ready products, Chrome OS is light, fast, and easy on the battery, at least running on a Series 5 machine. But is it actually of any value?  Why Chrome OS? Why Chromebooks? And why should we care?

Samsung Chromebook Series 5 Pros

  • Fantastic battery life
  • Excellent keyboard
  • Lightning quick boot and resume times
  • Chrome OS is an interesting concept with potential for consumer computing

Samsung Chromebook Series 5 Cons

  • $429/499 is expensive for a consumer machine with such limited software options
  • As simple as Chrome OS is, there’s a learning curve that runs counter to your Windows/Mac habits
  • Why Chrome and Android? Will Chrome OS last?

Best For: Early adopters & Google fanboys, Web surfer/Emailer types, Someone wanting a relatively cheap  and light second machine

Company Website: http://www.samsung.com/us/computer/chromebook?cid=ppc_gtb_goo_A-Chrome_Generic_chromebook

Suggested Retail Price: $499 (Wi-Fi/3G Version), $429 (Wi-Fi Only)

Chrome OS

I wrote most of this review before I decided to take the part at the end at move it to the beginning. What matters most here aren’t the specs, keyboard feel or battery life. The story is Chrome OS – otherwise known as actually using this machine.

Chrome OS feels like a Google beta product. The idea of browser-as-operating system, web apps as apps, and precious little to confuse, bottleneck, or otherwise slowdown the ease and speed at which you can do the things most people do on a computer is a great one. Many, many people spend most of their computer time on Email and/or the Web. Why should they suffer the viruses, system slowdowns and endless software updates so commonly associated with modern operating systems? Strip out the bloatware and focus on the essentials, all of which can be found in the browser! Such is my take on the Chrome OS mantra.

This is an interesting idea, and as Adriana said to me earlier, it would be really interesting to float past a focus group of non-techies who aren’t all that facile with whatever operating system(s) they’re used to using. Me, I stumbled most when I tried to do things the old (OS X) way – it’s not that Chrome wasn’t working, it’s that I was doing it wrong out of habit. When I used Chrome the right way, paying attention to its unique keyboard shortcuts and custom keyboard buttons, it generally did what was asked of it. Or tried, anyway.

The problem is that … well, the problem with Chrome OS is twofold: First, it can’t do nearly everything that the “average” computer user might want it to, let alone what a crusty tech pundit like me either demands of his daily driver or would expect from a $500 machine of any sort. Second, it crashes way too often. For a machine who’s aim is to deliver “a faster, simpler and more secure experience without all the headaches of ordinary computers,” my Series 5 sure was fond of hitting me with the “Aw, snap” and “He’s dead, Jim” error screens.

Chromebook boots up fast, resumes faster, and runs all day long on a single charge of its non-replaceable battery. The keyboard’s nice, the screen is nice, and it’s got Wi-Fi and 3G radios built in. Chrome OS is built around a modern browser with lots of innovative, time-saving features, and the whole Web Apps thing has more going for it than the uninitiated might realize at first take. But even a semi-power user is likely going to be wanting for more complex apps and more of them before long, and while browsing, Web-based GMail, and Chrome apps may well be enough for many people’s daily computing needs, if those people’s Chromebooks crash as frequently as mine has during routine tasks, they may well wonder why they didn’t spend their five hundred bucks on a low-end Windows laptop or netbook instead.

The best answer to that question is that Google might be onto something here. If developers can be lured to explore the outer limits of what Chrome Web apps can do, and months’ of daily consumer use proves Google right that Chrome OS requires little if any tech support or virus protection, the Chromebook model could just catch on. I mean, who wouldn’t want a machine that actually doesn’t require security updates or virus patches, and doesn’t command Apple’s premium prices? Especially if said machine is for a tech-un-savvy relative, or destined for a corporate or school environment where every penny is precious and every second counts?

That said, here are a few of the things I’ve done with my Chromebook over the last week, and how those experiences went for me:

Web Browsing: Generally pretty speedy, but plagued by crashed pages at times. I honestly never had more than five or six tabs open at once (unlike some of the other reviewers out there), and the crashes came on simple sites as well as more complex ones. Trying to place an order from Banana Republic/Gap/Old Navy’s website was an ultimately futile exercise in frustration. Then again, some seemingly more taxing pages heavy on Flash media opened just fine.

Google Apps: Once I figured out how to enable multiple logins, I was able to keep my personal GMail open in one tab and my GMail-based work account open in another. Same with personal/work GTalk. More or less just like using the apps in the Chrome browser on another machine.

Online Video: YouTube playback was good, though I couldn’t record from the machine’s built-in Webcam – I kept getting a “No camera was found” error. Hulu did well when I kept the playback window at its default (embedded) size. Expanding the video to fullscreen mode resulted in a lot of stuttering. Netflix doesn’t yet work with Chromebooks, but the company’s site says they’re working on a solution.

Web Apps: Kind of hit or miss here, depending on the app of course. TweetDeck works pretty well, with some minor UX differences as compared to the OS X version, and nice use of Chrome OS’ notifications tray. IM+ gave me fits. Canvas Rider is a fun little Flash game. Audiotool is a pretty neat music composition program in the vein of Reason, but it crashed repeatedly. And so it goes, your mileage will vary. It’s well worth a look through the Web Store to see if there’s a solution (let alone more than one) available for your particular computing needs.

Under the Hood: File management (a 16GB onboard SSD drive stores local files) and system settings are bare-bones for now. You certainly can find your way around and tweak trackpad settings, but it’d be nice to see slightly more robust control panels as Chrome matures.

Size and Specs

The Samsung Chromebook Series 5 weighs 3.3 pounds, is less than an inch thick, and sports a 12.1-inch LED backlit display with 1280 x 800 (WXGA) resolution and 300nits of brightness. Size and shape-wise, this Chromebook would be classified as an ultraportable laptop like the thinner, lighter, more powerful Samsung Series 9, which packs a 13-inch display, runs Windows 7 Home Premium, and lists for $1,649. Under the hood, however, this Sammy packs a 1.66 GHz Intel ATOM N570 dual-core processor, which is the stuff netbooks are made of. Samsung’s own NC210 netbook features said Atom N570 along with a 10.1-inch, 1026 x 600 display and Windows 7 Starter Edition at a retail price of $399.

More netbook than premium ultralight, Series 5 aims to offer some luxury at an economy price by stripping the operating system’s overhead way, way down to make the most of that low-cost, low-power Atom chipset. We’ll get to that in a minute. The 11.6″ x 8.6″ x .8″ laptop is compact and attractive, and the matte black body / glossy white lid plastic finish of my machine is attractive if decidedly “consumer” and not “pro line” in appearance. No matter, though – like a Toyota Prius, this machine’s status statement is made through its uber-utilitarian design and not the use of flashy space-age body construction. There’s also a silver option if you don’t like your laptop lids to come in white.

Series 5 features 2GB of onboard DDR3 RAM and a 16GB SSD storage disk along with an Intel NM10 integrated graphics chipset, 2 USB ports, a 4-in-1 card reader slot, 1/8″ audio in/out combo jack, and a video port that requires use of the included VGA dongle. You’ll also get integrated 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi and, if you opt for it, a Verizon 3G radio that includes that 100MB of free data each month for the first two years. You also get stereo speakers and an HD Webcam with one megapixel’s worth of image capturing prowess. The 8280 mAh, six cell battery is non-removable, and a 40 watt AC adapter is included in the retail box, natch.

Fit and Finish

Okay, sure, them’s the specs. But how’s the hardware look and feel during use? In a word, really good. The display is crisp, bright, and wonderfully matte finished. Remember, Macbook fanboys, when you, too could get a non-glossy display on your laptop? Yeah, I hear you sighing. Series 5′s keyboard is also a thing of beauty even if it’s not backlit. The island-style keys have just enough separation and just enough travel to yield solid, positive action without being overly loud or needlessly tall (like the monster-sized keys on my Microsoft desktop keyboard that make a horrible racket when I’m trying to stealth-IM during conference calls). Users coming from other keyboards will have to adjust to the “function row” on Series 5, which isn’t a row of Function keys at all, but rather a row of navigation and multimedia controls that are handy but entirely foreign to my years-old computing habits (the navigation buttons in particular). Also, where CAPS LOCK usually lives you’ll find a Search button. But you can remap it to CAPS LOCK if you like.

There’s also a monster-sized trackpad that’s kinda so-so. On the bright side, it’s huge and tracks fairly well once you tweak the software settings to your liking. On the not-so-bright side, anything involving clicking on this thing has generally been a drag (pun intended … ha ha ha). Samsung employed a trackpad-as-button setup here, and while it’s cool to look at I’ve had some trouble with taps not registering as clicks, intended right clicks registering as left clicks and vice-versa, and a few incidents involving two-fingered scrolling gone awry. Gestures are limited to two-fingered strolling and two-fingered clicking, and so I often find myself swiping left in vain and wondering why the browser isn’t navigating back a page. The trackpad is far from a lost cause, don’t get me wrong, and hope springs eternal: The original CR-48s suffered from all sorts of trackpad woes that driver updates resolved; hopefully some software band-aids can similarly whip Series 5′s pad into a word class point-and-gesture device.

Oh yeah, there’s a jailbreak switch, too. For reals. It’s like Google wants you to mess around with the kernel controlling this thing’s brain!

Ports and Power

The stereo speakers kinda suck but no worse than on any other $499 computer, audio in/out works fine, USB and card reader ports do their thing, and the Webcam is pretty decent (though it wouldn’t work with YouTube, ironically enough). Bluetooth is not to be found here, though, which is disappointing. And that VGA video out slot needs a dongle to be of any use, which is sort of annoying but also, I suppose, the status quo these days. At least said dongle was included.

Then there’s the battery. On the one hand, it’s not user removable, which is a saddening Apple-like turn of events. On the other hand, it’s stellar. Battery life on this thing rocks, and the system boots up incredibly quickly and wakes from sleep even faster, just like Google said it would. I was able to get just over seven hours of sustained uptime out of the machine doing a little of this and a little of that and, for whatever it’s worth, I’ve recharged my Chromebook all of once since then, using it here and there, at home and at the coffee shop, and with lots of sleep in between sessions.

Conclusion

Reiterating what I wrote at the onset, Chromebook is an interesting idea with a fair amount of upside. Samsung’s done a nice, if not really nice, job in executing on that idea in their Series 5 Chromebook. Hardware-wise, this machine makes the most out of a low-power Atom processor thanks to the low-overhead nature of Chrome OS itself. The screen is crisp and vivid, the keyboard is lovely, and the battery life is impressive. Not quite a high-end product when it comes to design, fit and finish, Series 5 is still a classy consumer device with a compact, lightweight form factor fashioned from nice materials and seemingly solid build quality. This isn’t an ultraportable Lenovo or MacBook Air, but it ain’t no discount brand netbook either.

Chromebook really does just about everything Google said it would. Problem is, that won’t be enough for some users, and it just plain crashes to much for others – at least my computer has. If you must have a Chrome OS machine right now, $429 for the Wi-Fi only version of Series 5 isn’t too steep an early adopter tax to pay. Otherwise, if you’re intrigued by Google’s take on lightweight computing, I’d suggest keeping an eye on the platform over the next six months or so to see if developers take to the OS, and how Google supports users in the way of performance and stability tweaks. If education and enterprise customers buy into Chromebook’s promise of low cost, low maintenance computing, consumers could wind up reaping the benefits of a robust alternative to Macs and Windows a little ways down the line.