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Samsung's latest Chromebooks come wrapped in faux-leather, on sale next month for $320 and up

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It's been over a year since Samsung released a new Chromebook, and since then the competition has been heating up: Dell, HP, Lenovo and Toshiba all sell Chrome OS devices now, as does Acer, which has been at it from day one. Accordingly, Samsung is refreshing its lineup: the company just announced the Chromebook 2, which comes in 11- and 13-inch screen sizes, and will ship next month starting at $320 for the smaller version (the bigger one costs $400).

Gallery: Samsung Chromebook 2 hands-on | 30 Photos

Perhaps even more interesting than any of the spec bumps, though, is the new design. Confirming some leaked photos that began circulating two days ago, the Chromebook 2 sports a faux-leather lid with a soft, rubbery finish and fake stitching at the edges -- yep, just like the Galaxy Note 3, Note Pro 12.2 and other recent Samsung devices. In-hand, it actually feels quite nice, and might even be easier for children to grip, assuming this ends up in classrooms. It also has a thin silhouette, which we're told was modeled after the ATIV Book 9 Plus (formerly called the Series 9 Ultrabook). It's generally a pleasing design, although the plain plastic underside makes for a mullet sort of look: premium on top, bargain-basement on the bottom.

If you wanna save money, the last-gen (safer-looking) model will still be around for $249, but you might choose to splurge anyway: the 13-inch Chromebook 2 steps up to a 1,920 x 1,080, 250-nit screen, with both sizes promising improved performance. In particular, they make use of an eight-core Exynos 5 processor similar to the one found in a variant of Samsung's new Galaxy S5 smartphone. As with the GS5, "octo-core" will sometimes mean running all eight cores simultaneously and other times just running a quad-core setup, with either the four powerful cores or the four weaker, energy-saving cores being used at one time, depending on the task. Largely thanks to that, Samsung is rating battery life at eight hours on the smaller 11-inch model, and 8.5 hours on the 13-inch version. Whichever model you choose, you'll get 4GB of RAM (twice the allotment of the last-gen model) plus 16GB of local storage.

On the software side, these are also the first Chromebooks certified for Google Hangout, though really, any Chrome OS device can use Hangouts, not just these. Samsung also threw in a year of AirDroid service, which lets you wirelessly transfer files between your Android phone and Chromebook. Oh, and this isn't a software tweak, but the Chromebook 2 now has Bluetooth 4.0, not 3.0. Also nice to have. In any event, it will ship sometime next month, priced at $320 for the 11-inch version (available in black and white), and $400 for the 13-inch model ("Titan Gray" only). We'll be back with a review but for now, enjoy the hands-on photos.

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