For almost two years now, Google's been talking up the idea of always-on, always-connected laptops based on a version of its Chrome browser. Local storage, of course, was not an ingredient in the equation. And while a lucky few developers got to put the concept to the test with the help of the CR-48, it never surfaced as an honest to goodness consumer product. At last, though, the Chromebooks are here, starting with Samsung's Series 5, a cute little number that promises instant-on access, 3G connectivity, and long enough battery life to web surf with the best of 'em. But is this new class of computers -- and this solidly built one, in particular -- poised to make an impact? Let's find out.
Solid build quality and comfortable keyboardSuper long battery life Bright, outdoor-viewable display
Flaky touchpadVideo-out requires an adapterHampered by Chrome OS' limited functionality
Look and feel
As journalists, the ideal thing when covering a story would be to come at it free of expectations, pre-formed opinions. In the case of the Series 5 (or any Chromebook, really), that's a challenge. As much as we tried to ignore all the chatter about how Chromebooks are what netbooks should have been and what-have-you, we nonetheless expected something that looked -- and felt -- like a mini. Something underpowered with middling build quality. Something more... disposable.
Make no mistake, though: the Series 5 is more laptop than netbook. And it's a damn memorable one, too -- one that belies its $429 starting price. Even after hearing Darren extol the Series 5's build quality in his hands-on last month, we were pleasantly surprised by its thoughtful design. The first thing you'll notice is the glossy, white lid with metal Samsung and Chrome logos -- including a colorful globe to signify Google's OS. While we've seen our share of branding overload, the logos in this case add character without being tacky.
The entire system, meanwhile, is decked out in a soft, rubberized plastic that you could easily mistake for carbon fiber, and the result is one solid, formidable piece of machinery. After just a few hours of testing, the palm rest was covered in fingerprints, but we do like that the finish looks richer than flat plastic and at the same time isn't reflective. We also appreciate that Samsung tucked two of its ports -- one of the USB 2.0 sockets and the video-out port -- underneath a discreet door, as it did on the much fancier Series 9. Anything laptop makers can do to make those surfaces look relatively clean is always appreciated. Too bad you need to use the included adapter to connect to a monitor -- a VGA one, at that.
But there are other, smaller details that make this feel like a higher-quality machine than your garden-variety netbook. The machine's rounded shape gives it a fresh, playful feel, and we dig that Samsung rounded off the keys tucked in the corner of the keyboard so that their shape echoes the outline of the chassis.
Of course, the flip side to all of this -- getting a laptop when you expected something netbook-sized -- is that you'll end up toting something that weighs about as much as, well, a laptop. We won't kvetch too much about its 3.26-pound weight, as the laptop's easy to slip inside a bag or even hold with one hand. Still, it feels a tad heavy for something with such a diminutive 12.1-inch screen.
Continuing our tour around the system, you'll find a small DC opening and a headphone / mic combo port -- both on the same side as that video-out socket we were telling you about. Meanwhile, on the other side there's a covered full-sized SIM card slot and a dev port, and another USB 2.0 port. Given that it has a non-removable battery, the bottom of the device is pretty clean, save for a double-dose of screws and stickers, along with four sets of openings.
Keyboard and trackpad
So, the keyboard's pretty fantastic. The keys are not only well spaced, but they're backed by a rigid panel. Even while hammering out urgent emails the deck felt sturdy. Also, Samsung replaced the function keys with backward, forward, and refresh buttons, along with ones for toggling between windows and entering / exiting full-screen mode. You'll also volume, mute, and multimedia keys, as you would on most any other laptop. Admittedly, we're so used to clicking the refresh icon near the URL bar, that we often forgot we could just press a button.
And that's a shame, because the trackpad ain't all that great. Starting with the good news, there's plenty of space for digits to move, and two-fingered scrolling works like a charm. The trouble starts when you get to clicking. Like many buttonless touchpads we've tested, this one sometimes mistakes left clicks for right ones -- a sign, we believe, of a too-narrow clicking zone. Lots of these laptops went on to have great touch experiences with the help of driver updates. The CR-48, the grandaddy of Chromebooks, is no exception. Right now, though, it's our single least favorite thing about the Series 5.
Display and sound
The 12.1-inch (1280 x 800) display has a thin bezel housing a 1 megapixel camera. That 300-nit (matte!) display is even brighter than the one belonging to a $900 system we just reviewed. We have to agree with Darren's first take here -- the viewing angles are impressive, particularly for a machine of this price. We had no problem seeing the screen from the side, though predictably, you'll find the picture gets progressively washed-out as you dip the screen forward. And, because of that brightness and matte finish, we were even able to view it in direct sunlight, as you can see in some of the shots in the gallery above. Hell, even standing above a the laptop at an odd angle, we were able to make out the screen outdoors.
As you might expect, the sound on this machine isn't anything to write home about. While watching a Saturday Night Live clip indoors with mild background noise, we had the volume cranked almost to the maximum. We ultimately lowered it to about the 75 percent mark, but that was more because we felt sheepish about watching "Best Cry Ever" in the office.
Anyone who's used Google's Chrome browser should get the hang of Chrome OS instantly, though it's still incorrect to say they're one and the same. Naturally, using the computer requires signing into your Google account, which means, for better and worse, that all of your email, calendar appointments, and web searches have followed you there. You can also create a white list of people who are allowed to sign into their accounts on that machine. Much has been made of Google's scarily detailed treasure trove of telling data, but there's also something to be said for turning on a computer for the first time and instantly feeling like it's yours and no one else's. Using a Chromebook feels deeply personal, and we'll be curious to see if the experience is the same in the case of models whose designs we don't love this much.
Speaking of instant, we can get used to having a laptop that turns on as soon as we lift the lid (okay, you might notice a one-second delay in the video above). As far as we're concerned, people underestimate this as a bona fide feature that's somehow not on par with local storage. Maybe you can't live without a desktop (we're not sure we can either, but more on that later). Point is, instant-on isn't a mere perk: it's one of the primary reasons you might be tempted by a machine like this.
When you launch a tab in Chrome OS, it will, by default, show you a series of large, glossy icons -- a stand-in for the row of apps you'd see on a smartphone. These include the obvious ones (Gmail, Google Calendar, Docs, and YouTube), as well a couple you might not have heard of -- namely, the note-taking app Scratchpad and the game Entanglement. It's a small detail, but we love that if you're having a conversation in Gchat, the box will stay put in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, regardless of what tab you're looking at. You can always click the boxes to minimize them, and they'll flash orange when you get an incoming message. Now why can't the Chrome browser do that?
There's also a shortcut to the Web Store, where you can buy apps specially formulated for Chrome. The Web Store's selection is fairly limited in this early stage, but we're optimistic it'll grow beyond Angry Birds and a hodge podge of tools. And ultimately, it had almost everything we needed. An image resizer? Check. An audio recorder? You got it. It also packs favorites like TweetDeck, much to our relief. (Frankly, we don't get the point of apps from bigwigs like NPR and The New York Times; their full-fledged websites look just fine.) To boot, Google added a crude media player and file manager for sifting through your downloads.
But, we were super bummed when we found that it doesn't support Netflix -- yet. Skype Control also wouldn't work on our system, since it can only run on a Windows machine with Skype installed. After all, isn't the beauty of Chrome OS supposed to be that it's built on a browser lots 'o folks know how to use? Like we said, there are workarounds aplenty in the Web App Store. But if we, a bunch of tech journalists, felt put-upon by having to learn new tricks, how will the mainstream consumers who bought this at Best Buy feel once they get this thing home?
Speaking of workarounds, Google launched Chromebooks with Cloud Print Beta ready to go. The problem is, you need either an HP ePrint printer or you'll have to print the indirect way -- through a Windows machine on the same network that's on and has the Chrome browser installed. Additionally, this doesn't apply to Macs or Linux machines, but Google promises support for those platforms is coming soon.
All told, there were a bunch of times when we needed to reach for our 15-inch powerhouse, but to be honest, this only happened during work hours, which, in our case, involves a lot of photo and video editing. Obviously, though, that's not what this Atom-powered Chromebook was intended for anyway. For wasting time on the couch, it's perfect.
It's also worth pointing out that Citrix Receiver is still on schedule for a summer release, and as we reported back at Google I/O, that app is poised to enable pretty much any desktop app sitting on a Windows blade server to run within Chrome OS. In theory, anything from your company's accounting software to Adobe's Photoshop will be functional within the browser. It's a bit sluggish, sure, but we've all ideas that Google will be toiling around the clock to make tunneling options like these all the more viable.
We've already established that the Series 5 isn't a netbook. But it does pack some netbook-like specs: a 1.66GHz Intel Atom N570 CPU, integrated Intel graphics, and 2GB of RAM. Like Chrome browser, Chrome OS can isolate pages that have crashed and resolve the problem without taking down all of your tabs. Throughout testing, one site (the fashion blog The Style Rookie, of all things) repeatedly made the OS go haywire. This is what you'll see when something goes wrong. Clearly, some Trekkie over at El Goog has a sense of humor.
We had no problem juggling a dozen open tabs, a list that included Gmail, Google Calendar, several news stories, Scoutmob, and the content management system we use to compose posts. Only when we pushed the system to take on a ludicrously unrealistic workload did it start to falter. And by ludicrous, we mean opening the same YouTube clip in two windows, with half a dozen tabs apiece. By the fourth tab of the first window, we noticed the pages were slower to load, and formed something of a queue. The sixth outright crashed. But somehow, we're guessing that's not what you'll be doing with your Chromebook.
It's incredible. Samsung promises up to eight and a half hours of continuous use, which sounds about right to us. One day, we started using our Series 5 at 8:20 am with 78 percent battery life (or an estimated six hours and forty-five minutes left). Throughout the day, we used the machine to write this very review, talk on Gchat, and look up stories on Engadget. Intermittently, we closed the lid and left our desk to attend meetings. By 6:20 pm, we still had 13 percent, or 55 minutes, left.
Even better, when you close the lid, the machine doesn't sip battery power. Whenever we came back to our desk and lifted the cover to waken the machine, the battery life rating remained unchanged from when we left. The charging is reasonably fast, but it's not ThinkPad X1 fast. At one point during a recharge, the battery indicator predicted it would take 36 minutes to charge the remaining 18 percent. Luckily, you won't have to recharge that often, and the power brick is nice and compact.
The Series 5 starts at $429 for the WiFi only version, though there's also a $499 model with a 3G radio that runs on Verizon's network. There's also a full-sized SIM card slot for adding your own. Big Red will throw in a complementary 100MB per month for the first two years you own it, though that's a token, really -- performing two five-second tests on speedtest.net alone knocked us down to 94MB. Paid plans start at $9.99 for an unlimited day pass, and progress to $20 for a monthly 1GB pass, $35 for 3GB, and $50 for 5GB. Note that even if you opt for just the free service, you'll have to provide your name, address, email, phone number, and credit card number for identification purposes.
We can't vouch for Verizon's 3G network in parts of the country we haven't visited, but wandering around New York City, we always had three or the full four bars of service. On average we saw 2.14 Mbps download speeds, and 0.76 Mbps upload rates, which was fast enough for checking our mail and surfing the web in cafes and a nearby park.
Assigning a rating and verdict to the Series 5 is no easy task -- after all, it's difficult to divorce our impressions of the first consumer Chromebook from our broader thoughts about the category. We'll start with the obvious: Chromebooks are not for everyone. If you're thinking of buying one, you're likely part of a self-selecting group of folks who are confident they don't need local storage -- at least not in a mobile machine like this, which could well be a secondary computer. If you're considering buying this, having a physical keyboard is probably important to you, too.
On the one hand, Chrome OS has real limitations in this early stage. On the other, it would be short-sighted to knock a Chromebook solely because the OS is a work in progress -- after all, does anyone doubt Netflix streaming or offline support is coming? Make no mistake: Google is going to plug away at this OS and you'll get those updates as they come.
Also, we think it's a bit simplistic to dismiss Chromebooks as offering too few features for the price -- we'd say long battery life and instant-on access are selling points in their own right, and for many people could be worthy trade-offs for a traditional desktop. For starters, you could pay a lot less for the Series 5 than you would an 11-inch MacBook Air, and get superior battery life and boot times. Heck, you'll get better build quality, startup time, and longevity than lots of higher-priced PCs. It all comes down to whether you need more than a browser.
All that said, the Chromebook experience isn't quite for us right now, but we won't presume that's true of our readers, especially early adopters. So -- and here we get to the point -- if you're certain you can live in the Chrome browser and the Chrome browser alone, and would readily trade local storage for a zero-second boot time, we think Chromebooks have a lot of potential. Whether you choose to buy right now is your call, but when you do, the Samsung Series 5 is an impressive option. It's solid, built with care, and long-lasting. A hell of a companion for people who are ready to move to the cloud and not look back.
*Verizon has acquired AOL, Engadget's parent company. However, Engadget maintains full editorial control, and Verizon will have to pry it from our cold, dead hands.