Review: Samsung Series 5 Chromebook

Maybe it's just ahead of its time, or maybe the world will never want a laptop that does little more than run a browser.

Chrome OS is here. The Series 5 from Samsung is the first of the so-called Chromebooks, and I'm not sure it's exactly what we all had in mind when Google announced Chrome OS two years ago. Back then, our imaginations pictured computers that were thinner and lighter than those with enough horsepower to run Windows. We thought we would see computers running on ARM processors, not just x86. We were promised it would look like the Chrome browser with "a new windowing system." Frankly, I'm not sure we really knew what to expect. But if someone had told us, back then, that the first Chromebook would be a large and simple netbook that does little more than run only the Chrome browser, I don't think we would have made such a big deal about Google producing its own operating system.

The Hardware

The Samsung Series 5 is a 12.1-inch netbook with a pretty sleek, very rounded design. In fact, one could say it's the first true netbook, as it is perhaps the first mass-market laptop designed solely to get you on the 'net. It's powered by an Intel Atom N570 dual-core CPU, has 2GB of RAM, and a 16GB solid state drive. The left side houses a small power plug, air vent, and headset/mic jack, with a USB port and a proprietary port for a VGA dongle hidden behind a plastic door. Another USB port and a SIM card slot, behind another plastic door, lie along the right edge. An SD card reader graces the front. It's all fairly basic, as laptop hardware goes. There's no Ethernet port, no Bluetooth, no digital video output, and the keyboard isn't backlit.

What's there is pretty useable, at least from a hardware perspective. The keyboard's keys are large, spaced out well, and easy to type on. The clickpad is quite big and tracks nicely. The HD webcam works as well as most, but of course you're limited to using it in web apps (which means no Skype). The display has a glossy border, but the screen itself has a matte finish that reduces reflections. It gets pretty bright, but the color gamut and contrast doesn't seem that impressive, and something about the white balance looks a little...odd. Everything seems to have a slightly bluish tinge to it, most noticeable when you're looking at light grey areas. There's something soft about the way Chrome OS renders fonts, too.

Used to a particular Function key shortcut? There are no function keys. There's no delete key either, for that matter, though you can hold down ALT while pressing backspace to delete characters in front of the cursor. Google has excised the Caps Lock key in favor of a Search key, too. Used to touchpad gestures? The only one supported is two-finger scrolling. There's no pinch-to-zoom, no swiping to go back or forward.

Google has touted some of the benefits of a laptop that essentially does nothing but run a maximized Chrome browser. They say it boots fast, and it does. You go from cold off to usable in about 12 seconds, and resuming from sleep only takes a second or two. There's little chance of a virus infection when you can't really run executables and the entire file system is encrypted. The battery seemed to last at least 8 hours in my testing, though its hard to make a comparable benchmark when all the system does is run a web browser.

The Series 5 Chromebook certainly suffers from the general sluggishness we've come to expect from Atom-based netbooks even though there's no heavy-duty Windows operating system in the way. Sure, lighter web apps like Evernote run fine, but even Angry Birds from the Chrome web store is a choppy mess in HD mode (which isn't actually high-definition). That's right: your smartphone can run Angry Birds more smoothly than this laptop. I think Samsung might have been better off opting for a processor with a little more oomph, like AMD's Fusion E-350; it would have knocked an hour or so off the battery life, but video playback, CPU performance, and graphics-accelerated web features would be much improved.

The hardware has a few rough edges in addition to the performance problems. The covers over the ports on the left and right side feel really flimsy, as though they'll tear off within a few months. The sound quality from stereo speakers is truly awful, even for a very small and inexpensive laptop, and they emit a little "pop!" almost every time I play a new piece of media or adjust the volume. The whole unit feels a bit heavy for its size. 3.3 pounds doesn't sound like a lot, but a laptop this size, this thin, looks like it should weigh less.

The Software

I don't really need to describe what it's like to use Chrome OS to you. Just launch the Chrome browser, maximize the window, and try to live your entire computing life right there. True, Google has tossed in a rudimentary file browser and a pop-over media player, slightly separating Chrome OS from "just the Chrome browser." Both are so poorly designed and feature-poor that they're practically unusable.

Documentation is a major problem. There's a help menu stuffed under the wrench icon that covers a few basics, but doesn't tell you about important shortcuts like CTRL-M to open the file browser. You can press CTRL-ALT-? to view a neat keyboard overlay that will show you keyboard shortcuts, but oddly enough, CTRL-M is absent from it. It makes me wonder what else I'm missing. Most of these shortcuts exist to give you access to the kinds of things you would click on an icon, taskbar, or other intuitive visual feature to access in Windows, OS X, or Linux. For instance, CTRL-N opens a new window: a separate full-screen Chrome window to fill with new tabs and switch back and forth from with a touch of the Switch Windows button. In another operating system, there would be an icon for this, or you would simply launch the Chrome browser again. I'm sure the computer nerds at Google (and elsewhere) are comfortable using keyboard shortcuts for basic tasks, but have they ever watched an average user operate their computer?

Want to print something? Google Cloud Print is your only option, which means you need either an HP ePrint capable printer, or a printer hooked up to a Windows or Mac based PC running the Chrome browser (and of course, said PC has to be powered on and connected to the Internet to enable printing). At least you can watch a little Netflix, right? Well, no. Netflix's streaming site informs us: "We're working with Google to ensure that Chromebook users can instantly watch TV shows and movies from Netflix. More details will be announced in the coming months." At least the browser has Flash 10.2 built in, so Hulu works...sort of. Video clips from many sites often stutter and chop, especially high definition and full-screen video.

Living on the Web

Yes, a computer built to run a browser and nothing else has its advantages. Everything stays in sync with your Chrome browser on other computers. It boots fast and wakes up fast. It can be seamlessly updated to new software without even prompting you (a double-edged sword if ever there was one). But for every benefit of "it's just the web," I find at least two major annoyances that make me pine for a less-lightweight operating system.

Over the several days spent writing this review, I can't tell you how many times I was frustrated by my inability to simply drag something from one window to another. I tried using web apps to edit pictures and make charts in spreadsheets, but I kept wishing for my faster, more full-featured native desktop applications. Heaven forbid there's no Wi-Fi on my flight and I want to listen to some music, because I can't store much media on the small internal flash. Media playback in general is a chore - the little popup media box feels like an afterthought, and format support is limited. I can forget about editing RAW photos taken from my DSLR, for instance. Using Chrome OS made me feel like I was stuck on a never-ending hunt for workarounds. Sure, you can usually find one, but is that any way to live with your computer: one workaround after the other?

Ultimately, this whole experiment feels like it's just a couple years ahead of its time. There may come a day, sometime in the not-too-distant future, when web applications have the power and sophistication necessary to really replace most of what you do on a computer. Together with even more powerful, affordable, and energy-efficient processors, cheaper flash memory, and a handful of major revisions to the Chrome OS, a computer built to run a web browser and little else might make sense. Until then, there are plenty of Windows-based laptops in the $430-500 range that may not have the sleek look of a Series 5 Chromebook, and may not boot up as quickly, but offer such vastly superior functionality that I can't imagine recommending a Chromebook instead. For now, laptops based on Chrome OS feel like a novelty for tech enthusiasts. Even Android 3.0 tablets feel more powerful, flexible, and useful.

This story, "Review: Samsung Series 5 Chromebook" was originally published by PCWorld.

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