Google introduced its Chrome browser and OS several years ago. And while Chrome has had somewhat modest success, it hasn't taken the browser world by storm. The browser-based Chrome OS has had even more limited success, as it's more-or-less just the Chrome browser running over a hidden OS. All interaction with the underlying operating system (essentially Linux) is performed through the Browser.
About a year ago, Samsung introduced the first Chromebook -- a laptop built around the Chrome operating system. Samsung also introduced the Chromebox. Built around a low power processor, these two devices were reasonably priced and meant as an entry level laptop and desktop targeted toward the business user. The philosophy behind these was to provide a basic system with moderate RAM and almost no onboard storage.
Since the Chrome OS is accessed through the Chrome browser, most applications and data storage is performed online in the cloud, rather than on the device itself. From a technical viewpoint, this approach is pretty much a thin client/server setup, with the Chrome device acting as a thin client and the server portion existing in the cloud.
The original Samsung Series 5 Chromebook was priced in the $500 range, and offered with just Wi-Fi or with Wi-Fi and 3G. At that price, the Chromebook was seen as a netbook replacement, and achieved only modest sales.
The new Chromebooks (Acer also offers a Chromebook) are more modestly priced. Samsung's Chromebook C303, the one we looked at, is priced at $249, while Acer's $199 model is even less expensive.
At first glance, the new Samsung Series 3 Chromebook is indistinguishable from a small Ultrabook. The exterior measurements are similar, as is the screen size, at 11.6 inches. The case, which looks like brushed aluminum, is actually plastic, and it definitely doesn't have the rigidity of a more expensive laptop. But that's one of the compromises that you have to make when you spend $250 on a laptop.
Unfortunately, it's not the only one. While the Chromebook is good for a lot of common tasks, it's not great for others. The CPU in the Samsung Chromebook is a 1.7 GHz Samsung Exynos 5200. This is a dual core low-end ARM-based processor with about the same computing power as one of Intel's dual core Atom CPUs. Considering that many of today's tablets sport an Nvidia Tegra 3 quad core CPU, the Exynos 5200 isn't particularly impressive. On the plus side, the ARM processor generates very little heat, so the unit doesn't require a fan, and is completely silent in use.
Other constraints are the fixed amount of memory -- 2 GB DDR3 flash RAM and 16 GB of solid state storage.
This isn't a lot or memory by any means, but for basic tasks it will be sufficient considering that most of the entry-level tablets, including the iPad, have this amount of memory, or even less.
The Chromebook, for the most part, doesn't store files locally on the unit (though you can if you need to work on a file off-line), but instead stores your data and files out in the cloud. The Chromebook comes with 100GB of Google Drive cloud storage, which is free for the first two years. After two years, you are charged a minimal amount for this storage, and storage in excess of the first 100GB will also need to be paid for the first two years as well. This is not unlike the structure of most cloud-based storage such as Microsoft's SkyDrive, Apple's iCloud or Dropbox. For the most part, these services are free for the first 2 or 5 GBs of storage, and are then you pay for additional storage.
Given that Internet connectivity is a must for you to get any real use out of the Chromebook, you're going to have to give some thought to how and where you will connect when you are not at home. Hot spots are plentiful these days, but if you aren't near a free one, or one that's included as part of your cable or other service, your use of the Chromebook is going to be seriously constrained.
This isn't necessarily the brick wall it might seem to be at first. 3G broadband from Verizon is available as an option for the Chromebook, but at $200 is almost doubles the price of the Chromebook itself. A more practical approach is tethering your Chromebook to your cell phone or Mi-Fi when necessary. Many smartphones today can also serve as a Wi-Fi hot spot.
One nice plus about all of the memory on the Chromebook being solid state is that the laptop boots incredibly fast -- within just a few seconds. For those consumers who are still used to waiting 30 seconds or more for a laptop to get to operational status after power on, this is a pleasant surprise.
In terms of form factor, the Samsung Chromebook looks very much like a modern ultrathin laptop or Ultrabook. Many Ultrabooks have the same size 11.6-inch screen, though the screen on the Chromebook has a resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels, so it doesn't provide the same HD resolution that most of today's high-resolution laptops and tablets offer. In my testing, however, the screen was nice and bright, and the videos I played displayed were more than acceptable. The laptop itself measures 11.4 x 8.09 x 0.69 inches and weighs 2.4 pounds.
As far as ports and connectors go, most of them are on the rear or the unit, which I found somewhat inconvenient when I had to access one of the USB ports. The right side of the Chromebook is free of any ports or connectors, while the left side has an earphone jack and an SD card slot.
The rear of the Chromebook contains, in order from left to right, a power jack, a standard size HDMI port, a USB 2.0 port, a USB 3.0 port, and a slot for a SIM card that's used if you opt for the Verizon broadband option. As with most laptops today, the Chromebook has a small video cam built in at the top of the screen so you can video chat. The Chromebook does not have an Ethernet port built in, and an iLuv USB to Ethernet adapter failed to work.
Plays Well With Others ... Most of the Time
The fact that the Samsung Chromebook has only 16GB of internal storage isn't necessarily the hindrance it might first seem. For one, much of the storage you'll use is actually in the cloud, as previously mentioned. It's also very easy to add external storage through the USB ports and the SD card slot. I connected a USB hard disk drive and it was recognized with the stored files shown on the Files screen (which is now accessed through an icon on the browser screen). The same was true of a Kingston 32GB SD card, and a USB DVD drive. A click on the file name, and the application (video player, audio player, or Google Doc word processor) launched and ran.
I was able to write and access a variety of files on these alternative storage devices. These file types included audio MP3 files as well as video AVI and MP4 files. YouTube videos played flawlessly on the Chromebook as well.
Unfortunately, the video player integrated into the Chrome OS does not recognize or play movie DVDs, though looking at the files on the disc itself shows the .VOB files. If you want to watch a DVD movie, you will need to convert it into MP4 or other format that the Chromebook can play. Technically, performing this conversion my violate the law, even if you own the DVD. On the other hand, many DVD movies now come with digital copies as well as Ultraviolet streaming video formats.
One thing that you need to consider when buying any laptop or tablet is what can you do with it? In this case, what apps are included or available for the device?
The Chromebook doesn't run iOS or even Android apps. It needs applications that have been developed to run within the Chrome browser. And even then, not every Chrome app will run well, if at all, on the Chromebook. Some apps perform calls to the underlying operating system, and some might need a component installed on a hard drive, something that's not available on the Chromebook except through a USB port.
Apps and extensions to the Chrome browser can be found on the Chrome Web Store. Many of these apps are free, others carry a monthly fee. If you are purchasing a Chromebook primarily to perform internet browsing, watching online videos and listening to music, you should be fine. Office productivity such as word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations all can be performed both on and off line with Google Drive, which provides the familiar Google Docs and other applications, storing the documents online (or transferring them between the Chromebook and online storage if you want or need to work on a document or spreadsheet offline).
Of course, if you want to print any of those documents or presentations for school or work you'll need to use the Google Cloud Print service since the Chromebook cannot be connected directly to a printer in your home or office.
If you are considering the Chromebook as a second laptop, or as a gift for someone, it might be a good idea to install the Chrome browser on your current PC, laptop, or tablet, go to the Chrome Web store, and try out a few apps that you think you or whoever will be using the Chromebook, might use. There's no guarantee that this app will run the same way, if at all, on the Chromebook, but at least you'll get a good idea of what many of the Chrome apps feel like.
It's easy to be captivated by the Samsung Chromebook. It has many of the same attributes of an Ultrabook including light weight, thinness, an 11.6-inch screen, and comfortable keyboard. Great battery life is another plus. All if this priced less than most tablets.
Granted, the Chromebook Series 3 isn't going to do it for some users, especially those who need a fair amount of on-device storage, need to run applications that require significant CPU or graphics power, or who, for some reason, have significant Internet access restrictions.
But as a second or travel laptop, a laptop for casual users, or an alternative to a tablet, the Samsung Chromebook should fit the bill just fine.
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