Well it’s been a bit over a week after finally receiving my Samsung Series 5 Chromebook, and it’s about time to post my initial impressions.
The non-geeks of you are probably asking: what the hell is a Chromebook? Simply put, a Chromebook is a laptop built solely for web browsing. Chromebooks run Chrome OS, which is Google’s custom flavour of Linux. Chrome OS is literally all browser. Nothing else.
Opening the screen makes the machine come to life automatically, and in about 8 seconds you are presented with a Google account login screen. I’ve actually timed it and it indeed hits your login in that time, and it’s pretty amazing stuff (in fact, it has the fastest boot up of any current consumer laptop in the world). Enter your Google account password and bam, the browser window slides in from the right and you are now in Chrome OS. This also means you are already logged into Google, so no more pesky password entering to get into Gmail and the like (unless your password needs to be repeated for security reasons like when making a purchase on the Android Market).
For some people, not having a desktop may take some getting used to. But let me ask you this: when you turn your computer on, what do you spend the majority of your time doing? I don’t know about you, but on pretty much any computer I turn on, I’m straight to the browser, and that’s where I stay until the computer is turned off.
And that’s the beauty of Chrome OS. Why have a bios and a bloated operating system that can take up to a minute or more to actually boot before you can even launch your browser to start netting? Chrome cuts out the middle man and gives you the net pretty much instantly. The best bit is this is no cut down browser – this is Chrome as you know it on your PC/Mac, complete with bookmark syncing. For Chrome users, that’s a big deal, because you can flick open your Chromebook and access all your bookmarks that you have on your fully fledged PC. All your Chrome extensions and web apps sync automatically as well. If it’s getting a little crowded, you can hide or disable the apps you don’t need.
To further simplify the experience, you are provided with additional perks. One of these is a customised keyboard built just for the OS. Capslock becomes instant search – tapping the key instantly opens a new tab where search terms can be entered straight into the title bar. You’ve got dedicated keys for back, forward, fullscreen, refresh, volume and brightness. No holding function and then pressing another key to change such simple settings. There’s also a generously large touchpad, providing you with all those gestures you’ve grown to love, like two-finger scroll and two-finger right click. Clicking the bottom third of the touchpad acts as your traditional click for those who prefer real clicking over taps.
Under the hood, we have some interesting (if a tad underwhelming) hardware. The latest Chromebooks are powered by the dual-core Intel Atom N570 CPU running at 1.66ghz per core. This may seem a bit lacking, but it’s plenty for an OS which is just a browser, and it brings with it epic power savings. This baby lasts 8 hours on battery. Yep, no joke.
For storage, the Series 5 packs a user replaceable 16GB Sandisk SSD, which is plenty for an OS that’s around 300mb and doesn’t store anything locally. Think of your storage as a giant hunk of cache. Memory wise, there’s 2GB of DDR-3 ram within, which is soldered to the motherboard (no upgrades for you). The Chromebook also packs an SD card slot to view and upload photos to Flickr, Picasa or whatever else. 2 USB ports are provided for attaching mice, keyboards and USB drives. No drivers are required – it’s plug and play.
Screen wise, we have a 12″ 720p matte display which is a good size for browsing, allowing all pages to fit comfortably without distortion. And it’s brightness is rated at 300nit, which translates to cornea melting brightness. The screen has extremely decent viewing angles for a notebook of this price range, even beating many $1500-2000 computers (this 3G version comes in at around $600 including shipping/freight forwarding from the USA). A 1mp camera is embedded in the top of the screen for Google talking with video.
So what good is a Chromebook without interwebnets? It’s essentially a glossy paperweight. That’s why Samsung have added as many wireless network options as possible in order to get you on the net. We have Wireless N on board, and the best bit: a world 3G modem within. No matter the country, you can put a sim in and connect to a network. GSM and CDMA, all bands, no problems.
As far as the OS goes, there are some pretty neat features. Updates for example are painless – your Chromebook checks in to see if it’s running the latest build, automatically downloading a new version if available, which is applied invisibly on reboot. Versions follow the Chrome browser development cycle, and updates are dictated by what “channel” you are subscribed to. The default is the stable channel, which gives you a rock solid iteration of Chrome. You can opt into the beta channel, which gives you the latest updates once the major bugs are ironed out in dev. And the dev channel is the bleeding edge: crashy, but filled with interesting up-and-coming features.
You don’t have to worry about viruses here, because this is a customised version of Linux. Even if somehow it was able to be infected by something nasty, or corrupted, you’re protected. When the lappy boots, it does a checksum verification. Checksum fails? Chromebook is wiped and OS is re-installed automatically. Genius. What if your Chromebook gets stolen? Apart from the inconvenience of having to order another, nothing is stored locally – so your identity, emails, accounts are all safe.
For times when you need additional windows because your tabs are getting cramped, simply press the familiar key combination Ctrl+N, and a new window slides in from the right. A dedicated window switching key sweeps the screen on each press from left to right, giving you easy access to multiple windows at once. For Google talk chatting, a hovering pop-up attached to the bottom of the screen appears, and remains consistently in foreground view across all tabs and windows. This is actually better than your standard browser on a PC/Mac, because you don’t have to locate your Gmail tab to chat anymore – it’s always in front of you. Clicking the header of the pop-up makes it recede into the depths of your screen. Simply move your cursor to the bottom of the screen and your pop-up will jump up to say hi, and clicking it again brings it back into view. It’s a simple yet effective way to manage your chats.
If you’re into some hacking, you’re in luck. On the right hand side of the Chromebook, next to the sim card slot is a hack switch. Flicking this opens your Chromebook to a world of mods and hacking. After a quick Google, you can see many things have been done already. Users have successfully installed Windows 7 on the unit with minimal fuss.
After using this thing for several days, I coined the phrase chroming – the act of using a Chromebook to feed one’s web addiction. I hope it catches on. This kind of computing is very addictive. It’s certainly not for everyone, but when you realise that pretty much everything you do on your computer is done in a browser, it makes absolute sense to cut the crap and just give you what you need – a fully fledged iteration of (arguably) the best browser in the business. It can be scary to let go of the desktop at first, but it’s actually a very easy transition to make. You simply don’t need one.
Don’t get me wrong, this is no desktop replacement, nor is it not meant to be. This is a portable laptop that gives you fully fledged browsing with a battery that lasts all day. I would recommend this for net heads who need a serious fix on a regular basis, or for those that have a larger laptop or desktop computer and are looking for something more portable that they can take on trips where space is limited. Yes a tablet can do a hell of a lot more, but what a tablet can’t do, is provide a real browsing experience.
For me, this is a great complementary laptop to my M14x. It’s so small and light, that I can put it in the same laptop bag without noticing a change in space or weight. Pull out your Chromebook when you need the net, and use your “real” lappy for gaming.
This is what netbooks should have been from day one. A fast, complete way of getting on the net, using an interface you’re already familiar with – your browser.