Google Chromebook lacks luster -- and purpose

Samsung Chromebook Series 5 3G brings ho-hum hardware to the half-baked Chrome OS

Google thinks you should do all of your computing on the Web. To prove its point, the company has been working to replace traditional desktop software with Web-based alternatives, such as Gmail and Google Docs. When Internet Explorer and Firefox struggled to handle those complex applications, Google launched its own browser called Chrome, igniting a features war that has improved JavaScript performance and Web standards support in every major browser.

The very pinnacle of Google's vision of a Web-based world, however, must surely be Chrome OS, a new operating system built entirely around the Chrome browser. Laptops running Chrome OS, called Chromebooks, are designed from the ground up to be Web-connected in every way. Following a pilot program last year, the first Chromebooks are now shipping to consumers, so I decided to take one of the two new models -- the Samsung Chromebook Series 5 3G -- and see how well Google's device stacks up to traditional notebooks and traditional computing units.

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The verdict? The Chromebook is lightweight and inexpensive, and it offers a full-featured Web browsing experience. But its low-end hardware, lack of versatility, and primitive support for commonplace computing tasks such as printing, file management, networking, and media playback make it a poor choice for everyday use, particularly in a business setting. Read on for the details.

Chromebook: Like a netbook, but different

The Series 5's overall fit and finish is comparable to that of a typical netbook. Its plastic body doesn't suggest durability, the screen hinge feels weak, and the doors covering the ports on the sides seem ready to pop off at a moment's notice. All of its surfaces pick up fingerprints easily.

The 12.1-inch, 1,280-by-800 LED backlit display is plenty bright, and its matte surface shrugs off glare admirably, but it's prone to color shifts and washed-out blacks, depending on the viewing angle. It's not a bad screen, really, but it's nothing to write home about.

The Chromebook's keyboard is pleasantly full-sized, with generously spaced keys, although it's a little mushy. Likewise, the touchpad is large enough for even the fattest fingers, and its surface doubles as a clickable mouse button, although you can enable tapping if you prefer. Pressing with two fingers simulates a right-click.

Test Center Scorecard

Web and Internet support

Business connectivity

Application support

Security and management

Usability

Hardware

Overall score

20%

20%

15%

20%

15%

10%

Samsung Chromebook Series 5 3G

8

6

5

8

7

6

6.8

Fair

The Series 5 sports an Intel Atom processor, 2GB of RAM, a 16GB SSD, and few options for expansion. It has two USB ports for attaching mice and other peripherals, an SD card slot, a mic/headphone jack, and a dongle for a VGA adapter; that's all.

Samsung claims the Series 5 can get as much as 8.5 hours of continuous use, and this seems to be fairly accurate. Under normal browsing conditions, the battery meter dropped about 10% per hour. Sites with lots of Flash content seemed to run it down faster, and it began draining fairly rapidly once the level dropped below 30%. Charging a dead battery to full capacity took about two hours.

Chromebook: Booting up to the Web

The usage model is where the Series 5 really stands out. Chromebooks boot into Chrome OS, which is Google's Chrome browser -- nothing less and nothing more. Chrome OS can't load any traditional applications, utilities, or even hardware drivers. As a fully Web-based OS, everything you do happens inside a browser window. Closing the last browser tab simply opens a new, empty tab.

That means the Chromebook boots fast. After the initial setup, going from powered down to a log-in window takes less than 10 seconds.

Initial setup largely means logging into a Google account. If you already have one, the Chromebook is configured to use your Gmail, Calendar, Contacts, and other Google applications almost instantly. If you run the Chrome browser on your PC, its settings can be synchronized with the Chromebook, so your bookmarks, your saved passwords, and even your extensions can all follow you automatically.

If you don't have a Google account, however, or don't want to use your main account, you must sign up for a new one. Chrome OS won't function unless you're logged into Google's servers. How you feel about the privacy implications of this may play a large role in how you feel about the Chromebook experience.

Chromebook: Browsing at full power

The Chrome OS browser isn't a stripped-down browser or a mobile version. It's full-blown Chrome, meaning anything you can do with Chrome on your PC should work on the Chromebook. Chrome isn't yet as widely supported as Firefox, IE, or Safari, but its excellent Web standards support means most well-written Web applications will run without hiccups.

I had no trouble using Google applications such as Gmail and Google Docs, naturally. But I was also able to access Microsoft's Office 2010 Web Apps without a hitch, proving you're not tied to an all-Google world with a Chromebook. (Microsoft added formal support for Chrome to the Office Web Apps in May.)

Chrome OS also ships with the Flash plug-in pre-installed, and unlike the lackluster implementation for Android, it works the way you expect. I had no trouble accessing the Flash sites I tried, including complex Flex applications. Unfortunately, however, the version shipped is Flash 10.2, which lags behind the current plug-in version. (The current desktop Chrome browser also bundles an outdated version of Flash.)

As befits a browser-only device, the Chromebook keyboard includes hotkeys for common browser functions, including Forward, Back, Refresh, and switching windows. The Caps Lock key has also been replaced by a button to open a new browser tab. Disappointingly, the touchpad doesn't support gestures; pinch-to-zoom would have been particularly nice.

Chromebook: Web or bust

As attractive as Google's vision of a Web-centric world may seem, most of us don't really spend all day in our browsers. It's once you stray outside the realm of mature, full-blown Web applications that the Chromebook usage model starts to break down.

Google has given a nod to the idea that not everything needs a full-screen browser window by allowing developers to write mini apps as Chrome extensions (coded in HTML and JavaScript). But if the examples Google bundles with the Chromebook are anything to go by, this is a poor compromise.

The Chromebook's media player is perhaps the most glaring example. Its UI is ugly, it has no media management capabilities, and you can't even rearrange a playlist without reopening the app and starting over. It can play MP3, MP4, and OGG files, but not AVIs. In short, it's a cute hack but nothing more -- and the in-browser versions of Google Talk and the Scratchpad note-taking app are similarly unimpressive.

The file browser is particularly telling as to how poorly Chrome OS handles traditional computing modes. It's completely perfunctory, acting as little more than a means to play media files and display saved images. Double-clicking a .doc, .xls, or .ppt file does not launch Google Docs, for example; it just says "unknown file type." It can't handle Zip files, either. In fact, most file types display as blank gray icons.

The message, clearly, is that your files belong on the network; never mind whatever else you were thinking. And for "network," read "Internet/cloud," because while Chrome OS supports FTP, it can't browse Mac or Windows file shares.

Similarly, printing is handled via Google Cloud Print -- which, for all its lofty branding, simply means you must have a PC on your network running the Chrome browser to act as a spooler for local printers. You can't plug a printer into the Chromebook, and Cloud Print offers only minimal controls (nothing driver-specific, for example).

None of this may be a turnoff to folks who are already sold on the browser-based computing model. Bear in mind, however, that doing anything on a Chromebook requires network access. At present, there is no way to use any applications while offline. Double-clicking the Google Docs icon from the home screen with networking disabled, for example, simply displays the message, "The app is currently unreachable." Forget about using a Chromebook on most airplanes.

Fortunately, using the Series 5 on the ground is not difficult. In addition to the expected 802.11b/g/n, the model I tested came with bundled 3G data connectivity from Verizon Wireless. Better still, the first 100MB of 3G data each month is included free of charge for the first two years. That's not enough for full-time use, but as a means to access your apps on the rare occasions that you're out of Wi-Fi range, it's generous. You can purchase additional 3G data if you run out.

Chromebook: The business case

So is a Chromebook for you? For a home user weighing a laptop purchase, Chrome OS's capabilities will prove extremely limited. But for business users, Google makes the case that those limitations can also be strengths, in terms of how much time and money Chrome OS can save IT departments.

With Chromebooks, there are never any applications to install and no drive images to manage. Even Chrome OS updates are all taken care of, delivered automatically over the Internet.

Security is also a factor. The Chrome browser was designed from the ground up to have an airtight security model. While that hasn't kept it totally free of vulnerabilities, Chrome OS adds another layer of protection. Because Chrome OS doesn't run any traditional software, it's nearly impervious to rootkits, adware, or keyloggers. Thus, even when a Chrome vulnerability exists, it can seldom be exploited on a Chromebook.

The Samsung Chromebook Series 5 currently retails for $500 with 3G connectivity or $430 without. But Google also offers a business package on a subscription basis for $33 or $30 per month, per Chromebook. This rate includes the hardware and full support from Google. In addition, IT administrators gain access to a Web-based console that allows them to centrally manage browser options, including installed extensions, proxy settings, authentication policies, site and application blacklists, and more.

On the other hand, you can set up the desktop Chrome installer to preconfigure the browser in similar ways. A Linux-based netbook running Chrome would be less expensive than a Chromebook and just as impervious to malware. And installing Chrome by itself on a traditional OS isn't really much more of a hassle than walking the laptop over to the user's desk, with the advantage that a traditional OS offers much greater versatility than Chrome OS.

All in all, the Samsung Series 5 is an average-quality netbook with a large screen and a higher-than-average price tag, while Chrome OS itself feels more like a proof-of-concept project whose time has not yet come. As a browser terminal it functions well, but for everything else it falls short -- and despite all Google's cheerleading, for most users that simply won't be enough.

Google Chromebook at a glance

Bottom line

Web and Internet support

Chrome is a good browser, and it works with most websites, but not all. Some sites still block it because it's not Firefox or IE. Chrome also can do Flash (though you're beholden to Google to keep you up to date, which it doesn't do), but it can't do ActiveX, Silverlight, Java, or any other plug-ins. Chrome extensions aren't as versatile as Firefox add-ons, either.

Business connectivity

Fine if what you have are Web-based apps. Lousy if you need anything else -- including connecting to Windows or Mac OS X shares, exchanging files with people (you need to upload them somewhere before they can be used), printing, and connecting via any means that doesn't involve a Web browser (such as Skype). Although some L2TP/IPSec VPN support is built in, it's not obvious how to get at it and it's still considered experimental. Google Docs works OK, as do the Microsoft Office Web Apps, but neither is within shouting distance of the real Microsoft Office suite.

Application support

See Web and Internet support, then draw a line through anything else. The Chrome extensions Google calls "apps" aren't much more than demos. Carrying over from business connectivity, file format support is nonexistent, including Zip files. (My Android tablet lets me browse the contents of Zip files seamlessly, but the Chromebook doesn't even know what they are.) If you can do it on the Web, Chrome OS can probably do it -- but the world where you can do everything on the Web just isn't here yet.

Security and management

Pretty good. It really is impossible to get a virus or other malware on Chrome OS. Management lets you set up the browser how you like via a central console. The controls are not as fine-grained as some might like (there are whitelists and blacklists, but you can't choose settings on a per-site basis), but the Web browser security landscape is hardly as complicated as that of a full-blown OS.

Usability

Good, for what it can do. It's just a Web browser, after all. But as I was playing around with it, I found myself repeatedly doing Google searches on how you could do this or that with a Chromebook, and I repeatedly came up with keyboard shortcuts or settings that weren't documented anywhere. There's no manual. In general, not being able to do things you're used to doing and having to find a work-around will be frustrating to most users. And I wish the touchpad supported gestures; it's like a big, dumb, one-button mouse.

Hardware

It's a netbook: not a lot of ports, no expansion capability, average build quality. The keyboard and screen could be better, but the screen is at least bigger than those in most notebooks. Battery life is really pretty good.

Neil McAllister is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. He also writes InfoWorld's Fatal Exception blog.

This story, "Google Chromebook lacks luster -- and purpose" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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