Whenever we review Chromebooks, we always come to more or less the same conclusion: it's a neat idea, a computer where everything is done online, but it's not worth the money. That was back when Chrome OS devices were priced at $500, competing with netbooks that could run not just the Chrome browser, but all manner of Windows apps. Ditto for tablets, which can be tricked out with many thousands of apps on both iOS and Android.
But what if we told you the price had been slashed to $249? Then could you see yourself pulling the trigger? That's the gamble Google and Samsung are taking with the new Chromebook, which retails for $249 with an 11.6-inch display, 6.5-hour battery and a more compact design. All told, it's as good a piece of hardware as any netbook you'll find, only cheaper. And good luck finding a tablet-and-keyboard combo for less than $250.
There is one major change this time around, though, and that's the Chromebook's dual-core ARM processor, instead of something from Intel's Celeron family. The performance isn't likely to be as good, but will that matter if all you're running is the Chrome browser? Will the lowered price be enough to lure in parents, travelers and other folks looking for a cheap second laptop? Let's see.
Gallery: Panasonic ZR1 | 13 Photos
Gallery: Panasonic ZR1 | 13 Photos
- Sharply reduced priceSolid build quality for the moneyComfortable keyboard and trackpad
- No Netflix streaming at launchSlight performance hit with an ARM chipDimmer display than in previous models
Look and feel
You simply won't find a netbook this nice for that little money.
Until now, Samsung's Chromebooks have been priced in the $500 range with a build quality a step above what most netbooks have to offer. As you might expect, now that the price has been slashed to $249, it feels slightly cheaper than the last-generation Series 5 550 -- but only slightly. With the exception of the palm rest, which used to be made of inlaid metal, this has the same look and feel as the Chromebook we reviewed earlier this year.
Once again, you're looking at a lightweight machine built from matte gray plastic. The whole thing feels compact, at 2.5 pounds, and because it has a smaller display (11.6 inches versus 12.1) it's significantly lighter than the last Chromebook, which weighed 3.3 pounds. The island-style keyboard is just as comfortable, and the trackpad is similarly large. It was a nice package when it cost $500, but it's really nice now that the MSRP has been lowered to $249. You simply won't find a netbook this nice for that little money.
The new Chromebook is thinner, too, at 0.8 inch thick, but that thinness means Samsung's Chromebook has gone back to not having an Ethernet port. (It was missing from the OG model, but was added in the one that went on sale earlier this year.) The inability to use a wired internet connection could be a problem in computer labs, where Chrome OS devices have proven popular, though we suspect mainstream consumers won't care. Look closely at the edges and you'll also find an SD card reader, 3.5mm headphone jack, USB 3.0 and 2.0 ports, HDMI output and a 3G SIM slot. As ever, the bottom of the device is sealed, so that you can't easily mess with the battery, storage or RAM.
Given what the Chromebook is -- an inexpensive, ultra-mobile device for people who prefer physical keyboards -- Samsung really can't get away with offering a shoddy typing experience. After all, back when Chromebooks cost $500, they were priced in line with both netbooks and tablets. If the keyboard were uncomfortable, there'd be little reason not to get a cheap PC instead, or use a tablet with either a touchscreen or keyboard case. The typing experience mattered then, and it matters today, even now that the Chromebook is priced less than most netbooks and tablets.
Fortunately, the keyboard is as good here as it ever was, despite the fact that this smaller model has a little less room to fit all those buttons. The individual keys have a pleasantly soft finish, and all of the major buttons (Enter, Backspace, et cetera) are amply sized. As on other Samsung PCs, the keyboard is a bit shallow, but the learning curve shouldn't be too steep: we were typing at a brisk clip minutes after setting it up. Additionally, we appreciate the shortcut keys in the top row, which allow you to refresh pages, switch tabs and page forward or backward with the press of a button.
As we said, the trackpad is nice and spacious, which makes it easy to pull off two-finger scrolling. Single-finger navigation is also reliable, but with tap-to-clicking, we sometimes had to apply a little extra pressure to make those taps register. Overall, though, it's easy to use. Unfortunately, it doesn't support pinch-to-zoom, which would have been nice for magnifying websites with fine print and sprawling maps.
Display and sound
The best thing about the Chromebook's 11.6-inch, 1,366 x 768 display is the matte finish, which means screen glare won't get in your way the next time you're watching a "Modern Family" marathon on Hulu. Still, a matte finish doesn't necessarily equate to wide viewing angles. Push the display forward and the screen will wash out, making it very difficult to read text or follow along with a movie. The brightness is also lower than it was on earlier Chromebooks: 200 nits compared with 300. Neither of these things should be deal-breakers; you'll just want to futz with the angle before settling in to work with the Chromebook on your lap.
The Chromebook's dual 1.5-watt speakers are located on the bottom side of the machine, very close to the front edge. As you might imagine, the sound doesn't get very loud, but you still might want to avoid cranking it up unless you really can't hear: even movie dialog sounds a bit distorted at top volume. As we've often found with tinny speakers, instruments like electric guitar sound especially grating, but you could get away with listening to softer, more acoustic music -- especially if you keep the volume at a more moderate level.
Performance and battery life
If you're a Chromebook user, you sacrifice very little by buying this for $249 over the other model for $450.
With steep price cuts come trade-offs, and we're not just talking about the build materials. Whereas Samsung's first two Chromebooks ran dual-core Atom and Celeron processors, respectively, this third-gen model moves to a fanless design with an ARM chip -- specifically, a dual-core A15-based Samsung Exynos 5 Dual (5250) SoC. Paired with it are 2GB of RAM, 16GB of built-in flash storage, 802.11a/b/g/n and Bluetooth. In the absence of any quantitative benchmark scores, this is the best way we can describe the performance: it falls somewhere between the original Atom-based Chromebooks and the current Celeron-equipped Series 5 model.
The system didn't have any issues playing back 1080p content in YouTube and Hulu. Still, use it long enough and you'll notice some slight delays in response time, even when you're doing things like opening new tabs. Another problem: Netflix streaming isn't yet supported for this device. A Google spokesperson issued the following statement: "We're working closely with Netflix and support will be coming soon. Once ready, your new Chromebook will be auto-updated with Netflix support." While we don't have any reason to doubt Google is working on it, this will nevertheless be a disappointment to many folks unboxing an early unit.
All told, if you're a Chromebook user, you sacrifice very little by buying this for $249 over the other model for $450 -- in fact, you gain in terms of less weight, thinness and improved portability. You lose the Ethernet and the 3G radio (it's optional now) but you do get built-in Bluetooth. But what if you're not already a Chromebook user? Should you get this or a tablet (or even a netbook)? It depends how much you live in the cloud. When it comes to text input, the Chromebook is superior to any tablet (even the Transformers) because of its great keyboard and because it's more practical than carrying around a separate keyboard / dock. The browsing experience and performance also beats any tablet -- it steamrolls them with a score of 677.3ms in the web browser benchmark SunSpider, for instance. Then again, of course, there are no native apps.
Netbooks, meanwhile, have come a long way in terms of keyboard comfort and overall performance, but you won't find anything of this quality for $249. Additionally, of course, they have the advantage of being able to run lots of legacy Windows apps. If you think you need desktop programs, though, you shouldn't even be considering a Chromebook. Ditto if you need more local storage beyond what your SD card is capable of. And that's always been the argument for netbooks over Chromebooks, frankly, except now Samsung's Chromebook is half the price. Given that there aren't any similarly nice netbooks in this price range, it's easier to forgive the Chromebook's shortcomings and recommend it as a cheap, secondary computer.
As for battery life, it's rated for six and a half hours of runtime. Indeed we logged six hours and 33 minutes in our usual rundown test, which involves looping a video off local storage with WiFi on. That's better than most Ultrabooks we've tested recently, though that isn't saying much. For years now, Atom-powered netbooks have been capable of 10-hour battery life. The latest crop of Atom-powered Windows 8 tablets also claim about 10 hours of juice. Not to mention, many ARM-powered tablets last nine or 10 hours -- we're talking products like the latest iPad, the ASUS Transformer Pad TF700 and the Surface for Windows RT. So, while six and a half hours is nice, it doesn't compare that well to what you'll get from other low-cost mobile devices.
$249 seems like an appropriate price for this sort of device.
The layman's explanation for Chrome OS: it's the Chrome browser you're used to using, except that's all you see when you boot up the computer. That's the caveat we'd make to our low-tech friends who noticed Best Buy is selling a Samsung laptop for $249, and are wondering if it's a good deal. For the rest of you, we'd say this: Chrome OS has evolved quite a bit over the last year and a half, and looks more like a traditional OS than it did when we reviewed the first Chromebook. If you read our review of version 19 from a few months back, you should be up to speed. As we described then, Chrome OS now has a "desktop," of sorts. We use quotes because the desktop isn't a space where you can pin shortcuts to websites or documents you might be working on. You can, however, change the wallpaper and pin favorite apps to the bottom of the screen. Ultimately, though, it's not a desktop in the conventional sense of the word; it's more of a visual flourish that should help newcomers feel more at home with their Chromebooks.
Speaking of the sort, the first time you sign on you'll see a welcome box containing the following: a primer on apps, the touchpad, saving / accessing files, working offline, documents and working with photos. Everything happens in the browser, if that wasn't already clear. And while there haven't been any major UI changes, Google has, at least, added more functionality to its web apps. With build 19, for instance, Chrome OS got a photo editor with light editing tools. The media player supports more formats than it used to. Google+ is now integrated, Hangouts included. You can do more and more offline in the event you lose your internet connection -- this includes working on documents and, as of build 19, reading Google Books. Chrome Remote desktop lets you access other devices, and also share your screen with others. What's more, Chrome OS syncs open tabs from your mobile devices, as well as any PCs you use that are running Chrome.
There are some new features in build 23, however. With this version, the OS gets a new log-in screen; more wallpapers; a new apps list; a mosaic photo filter; and deeper integration with Google's cloud storage service, Google Drive -- including 100GB of free storage for two years. The list of native apps has also expanded to include Calculator, Camera, Docs, Sheets, Slides and Google Play Movies.
No matter how cheap Chromebooks get, they will always be a polarizing class of product: there are some people who couldn't be paid to use a laptop where everything is done in the browser. That said, $249 seems like an appropriate price for this sort of device -- more so than $450, certainly, which is what the last-gen model sold for. At $249, this device's faults (a dimmer display, less processing power) are the sorts of shortcomings you can easily deal with. Our biggest complaint is that it doesn't currently support Netflix streaming, but we believe Google when it says it's working on a fix. After all, it's already brought streaming to other Chromebooks, so we have no reason to believe this model will get left out in the cold. Again, we might mind these things more if the device cost twice as much, but as is, it's priced in impulse buy territory.
So who's this for? For starters, we've always felt that Chromebooks could be useful in computer labs and one-to-one laptop programs in schools, but now they're priced aggressively enough that mainstream consumers might want them, too. We're thinking travelers who need a lightweight machine for the road, or parents who cringe at the idea of spending $600 on a laptop for their kids. And these were always the target customers, really, except now they're unlikely to find a tablet or equally nice netbook for the same amount of money. In that regard, a price cut goes a long way.
Myriam Joire contributed to this review.