Google's Chrome OS and Samsung's Chromebook
Google's Chrome OS revolves around the idea of a cloud-centric existence. Every application you need runs on the Web, whether it's a productivity tool like Google Docs or a game like Angry Birds. Your documents, files and email are all stored online in services like Google Docs, Dropbox and Gmail. The PC itself becomes a mere vessel to your virtual life; you could smash it and replace it with a new one and you wouldn't notice a difference.
Google gave us a glimpse at the Chrome OS concept with its Cr-48 notebook, a test system sent out to a limited group of beta users last year. The hardware on the new commercial Chromebooks has been significantly improved since that system, and Chrome OS itself has evolved considerably, too.
Now, Google's first two Chromebooks -- one made by Samsung, one by Acer -- are both available today. But is a Chromebook right for you? Here's a detailed look at Samsung's new Chromebook computer and the kind of experience the Chrome OS provides.
Samsung Chromebook: Hardware and design
Google's Chromebooks are available in two basic models: the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook and the Acer Chromebook. Both come in two versions: Wi-Fi only, or Wi-Fi with 3G. I was able to test the 3G model of the Samsung Chromebook.
The Samsung Chromebook features a 12.1-in. 1280 x 800 display. The screen is bright and easy to read; its matte finish is a pleasant change from the glossy screens on most notebooks these days, particularly in outside or otherwise glary conditions.
At 3.26 lb., the Samsung Chromebook is slightly lighter than the Cr-48 test system that came before it -- that notebook weighed in at 3.8 lb. In terms of design, however, we're looking at a night-and-day difference. Whereas the Cr-48 had a minimalistic and angular matte black exterior, the Samsung Chromebook has a smooth and glossy top with rounded edges and a colorful Chrome logo. The system is available in either an "Arctic White" or a "Titan Silver" finish. Both options are classy and sleek.
The left side of the Samsung Chromebook has a 3.5mm headphone jack along with a USB port and a mini-VGA port (a standard VGA adapter is included). One low point: The plastic cover protecting the USB and VGA ports feels a bit flimsy, like it might snap off after a few months of regular use.
A four-in-one memory card reader sits along the front of the unit, and on the right you'll find a second USB port next to a covered SIM card slot. There's also a "user-mode" switch that lets you switch from the default setup to hack-ready, giving you access to tinker with the system, if you're the adventurous type. There is no Ethernet port; this is a wireless-only machine.
Above the Samsung Chromebook's display is a 1-megapixel HD webcam and a microphone; a preinstalled Google Talk app makes both video and voice calls easy to manage, though Skype is not available as a Web app at this point and thus cannot run on Chrome OS. The notebook has two small speakers along its lower edges. Sound quality is decent enough -- more than fine for phone calls, but a bit on the tinny side when listening to music. If you want a full, bass-filled sound, you'll want to bring along headphones when using this system.
The Samsung Chromebook has a customized keyboard similar to what I saw in the Cr-48, though with darker printing and a glossier material surrounding the keys. In place of the standard PC function keys, the top row of the keyboard sports keys dedicated to Web-centric functions like navigating backward and forward, refreshing a page and switching among windows. Generally speaking, I found the keyboard to be outstanding; its chiclet-style keys are nicely spaced and conducive to speedy typing.
Samsung's Chromebook touchpad also performed quite well in my tests. The trackpad was reliably responsive -- a nice contrast from the Cr-48's temperamental touchpad. Even right-clicks, achieved by tapping two fingers down at the same time, were easy to accomplish; on the Cr-48, it often took me several tries to get those to work.
Under its hood, the Samsung Chromebook packs a 1.66GHz dual-core Intel Atom N570 chip along with 2GB of RAM and a 16GB internal solid-state drive, used primarily for storing downloads and local caches. I found the Chromebook's performance to be impressive in casual (and likely normal) use: New tabs opened instantly, and navigating among tabs and windows was smooth and fast, even with several tabs or windows open. It wasn't until I started really pushing the multitasking boundaries that things started to get a little laggy.
With four windows and a total of 20 tabs open -- including one running TweetDeck, another actively playing songs from my Google Music collection, and an active Google Talk chat in progress -- the system struggled to keep up. New tabs took a few seconds to open and active windows became sporadically less responsive.
The lag came and went, though, and switching among windows remained fluid and fast. Even with the heaviest of workloads, I never experienced any kind of crash, and closing a few processes always seemed to restore the system to a more manageable state.
In terms of battery life, Samsung's Chromebook promises 8.5 hours of continuous use, and in my tests, it did not disappoint. There's no reason you shouldn't be able to get a solid day of use out of this thing -- and if you aren't using it nonstop, you'll likely be able to go a few days between charges.
What about Acer's Chromebook?
Acer did not have a review unit of its Chromebook available prior to the product's launch, so I wasn't able to get any hands-on impressions of that device. According to the company's spec sheets, the notebook is smaller, lighter and a little less powerful than its Samsung-made cousin.
The Acer Chromebook has an 11.6-inch screen, weighs 3.19 lb., and is listed at 6 hours of continuous-usage battery life. It runs on the same Intel Atom processor as the Samsung model and shares the same HD webcam, four-in-one card reader and dual USB port setup. Unlike the Samsung Chromebook, Acer's model also includes an HDMI port.
Meet the new Chrome OS
Starting up a Chromebook actually just entails opening it -- once you've swung up the lid, you're about eight seconds away from signing in and getting online.
On your first boot, you have to put in your Wi-Fi network credentials and wait around 30 seconds while the software updates itself to the latest version. Then you simply type in your Google username and password, select an avatar and you're good to go.
Like the Cr-48, Google's new Chromebooks automatically sync your bookmarks, preferences and extensions from your PC-based Chrome browser. The sync is automatic and continuous, so any changes you make on a Chromebook show up on your desktop browser and vice versa.
As you may have read in previous Chrome OS coverage, what's unique on a Chromebook is that the browser is your desktop. You can open new tabs and windows, using either on-screen icons or the same keyboard-based commands available in the standard Chrome browser, but that's pretty much it. Almost everything you do is tied to the Web and runs right there.
There are a few exceptions. Chrome OS now has built-in functionality for file management and multimedia playback -- features that were painfully absent in early test builds of the software. The new file manager appears automatically anytime you insert a USB device or SD card, giving you a way to browse your storage and interact with the contents.
Double-clicking on an audio or video file within the file manager causes a media player to pop up in the lower-right corner of the screen (the player can also be expanded if you want a full-screen view). With images, the file manager offers full integration with Google's Picasa photo service, letting you upload individual pictures or groups of photos to the cloud with a couple of quick clicks. The idea is that the Web effectively functions as your own personal hard drive.
That idea is great in theory, but when I tried it out, everything wasn't quite as seamless as I expected it to be. The file manager does not yet recognize some standard word processing (.doc) and spreadsheet (.xls) file formats, for example; double-clicking on any such file results in an "unknown file type" error. You can upload the files directly to Google Docs by opening its Web app, but that's the kind of nonintuitive process that frustrated me in my early review of the Cr-48.
The Chrome OS file manager also doesn't yet offer seamless options for uploading files to online storage services, aside from Picasa. A Google spokesperson told me that this kind of integration, as well as system-wide integration of Google Docs for Office files, is still being developed and is set to roll out soon. It's good to know a fix is on the way, but it's unfortunate that these features weren't ready in time for the Chromebooks' launch; their omission is an undeniable chink in the platform's armor at a time when many customers are evaluating the product.
Similarly, Chrome OS currently lacks support for compressed files; clicking on a zipped attachment in my email gave me that gloomy "unknown file type" error once again. I found a website called Wobzip that was able to uncompress the file for me, but that solution wasn't immediately obvious and certainly wasn't intuitive. Google says a system-level fix for this is also being prepared.
On the plus side, Chrome OS does support wireless printing through Google's Cloud Print service.
Contrary to some reports, Cloud Print does not require a cloud-ready printer; any printer can be connected via the Chrome browser on a PC or a Mac. I was able to set up an HP OfficeJet printer with relative ease; once configured, anything printed from the Chromebook went through to the OfficeJet within about 30 seconds.
The Chromebook apps
Aside from the base OS, a Chromebook is dependent upon Web apps you access through the system. Google has set up a pleasant Chrome Web Store interface to make it easy for you to find and install all sorts of browser-based applications.
When you install an app in Chrome OS, it appears as a thumbnail in the browser's new tab screen. Some of the apps are basically glorified bookmarks: Running the YouTube app, for example, is no different than manually typing "youtube.com" into the browser. Some apps, however, give you more advanced functionality. A Scratchpad app provides you with a pop-up window for taking quick notes that automatically sync to your Google Docs account; other apps offer options for offline access once they're installed on the Chromebook device.
That brings us to an important question about Chrome OS as a platform: How well does it work when you aren't online? After all, an operating system built around the cloud needs an active connection in order to function -- right?
The answer is both yes and no. You are undoubtedly more limited in what you can do on a Chromebook when there is no active Internet connection, but that limitation is becoming less problematic as more and more developers update their Chrome OS apps with offline capabilities. Numerous Chrome OS apps are already able to function offline, including news apps from The New York Times and NPR, a wide selection of games and quite a few productivity tools, including notepads, dictionaries, calculators, painting and animation programs. There's even an app for offline Wikipedia browsing.
A few basic Google services, however, are still waiting to receive their offline rights -- namely Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Docs. Google says these services are slated to become offline-ready before the end of the summer, but again, it's somewhat surprising not to see the functionality available at launch.
Another annoying initial omission: support for on-demand streaming from Netflix. If you try to play a Netflix movie from a Chromebook, you get a message informing you that Netflix streaming is not yet supported on the device -- but that Netflix is "working with Google" to correct that and will announce more details "in the coming months."
As of today, both Chromebook models are scheduled to be available via Amazon.com and Best Buy. The Samsung Chromebook costs $429.99 for a Wi-Fi-only edition or $499.99 for a 3G-connected model. Acer says its Chromebook will be priced at $349.99 for the Wi-Fi version and $429.99 for the 3G model. Google is also offering Chromebooks at special monthly rates for businesses and schools; those plans include technical support and ongoing hardware replacements.
With any Chromebook, a 3G model includes 100MB of mobile data per month for two years from Verizon Wireless. Aside from that, you can opt to buy unlimited "day passes" for $9.99 a pop or month-by-month data boosts ranging from 1GB ($20) to 5GB ($50). No contracts are required.
The bottom line
All considered, Google's Chrome OS is a very interesting concept. The notion of a lightweight, nearly instant-on notebook is certainly appealing -- and it comes with plenty of perks, too. The cloud-based experience of a Chromebook means synchronization is simple and built in, and you inherently get the same experience (and access to the same data) on any device you use. You don't have to worry about viruses or antivirus protection, either, since Chrome OS runs every page and app in a restricted environment that can't affect the rest of the system.
As Google has repeatedly stressed, Chromebooks get faster and better over time. Updates to the OS and to individual apps roll in regularly and are applied automatically in the background. Thanks to the lack of a locally focused operating system, the computer doesn't get increasingly bloated and bogged down -- something Windows users in particular may appreciate.
But Chrome OS comes with a big caveat: It's dependent on the idea that you can do everything in the cloud. While it's true that most common functions now have Web-based equivalents, in my experience, the Web apps aren't always as fully featured -- or, to be honest, as good -- as their desktop brethren. And there are still some things you can't do in the Chrome OS environment, like using Skype or Netflix, or running specific desktop-based utilities like Photoshop (though Web-based alternatives do exist).
Remember, too, that Chromebook use assumes you'll have all your data accessible in the cloud -- something you may or may not be comfortable with at this point. And that speaks to the broader issue of Chrome OS: It's a serious adjustment. Whether we're talking about the idea of cloud-exclusive data storage or the notion of dumping the desktop-based environment you've always known, Chrome OS is different. Depending on your needs and perspective, that may be good or bad.
Based on the six months I've spent with Chrome OS via the Cr-48 test unit, I can tell you that I've found the operating system to be a useful addition to my computing arsenal. I couldn't see myself transitioning to a Chromebook as my primary PC right now -- it's just too challenging to get through my day-to-day work in that strictly browser-based environment, and the Web apps don't do everything I need the way I want it done. I could definitely see myself enjoying a Chromebook as a supplementary PC, particularly for quick tasks and on-the-road use.
Once Google finishes filling in the gaps -- building out the file manager and adding offline support for its core apps, for instance -- I think the Chromebooks will offer an intriguing option for people who like the concept of living in the cloud and the perks that accompany that lifestyle. Chromebooks won't be right for everyone, but for some users, they'll be a welcome change from the tethered-down and often bloated world of traditional PCs.
If you consider yourself a potential cloud dweller, the question ultimately becomes whether the experience is worth $350 to $500 when that same cash can get you a decent Windows 7 laptop with all the bells and whistles. In the end, it all comes down to what you want your notebook to do -- and that's a question only you can answer.
JR Raphael is a syndicated writer and the author of Computerworld's Android Power blog.