This might be Samsung's lowest-end Chromebook, but you wouldn't know it from looking at it. The unit we have here has the same design as the higher-end 11- and 13-inch models, complete with a silver, faux-leather lid and fake "stitches" along the perimeter to make it look more like the real thing. The truth is, you'd never actually mistake this for real leather, but it's nonetheless an effective design choice: Although the lid is really just plastic, it looks far more premium than your typical plain-Jane Chromebook.
Make no mistake, though: I don't recommend Samsung's Chromebooks purely for aesthetic reasons. I also really appreciate the company's approach to keyboards. Considering this is a relatively thin, 0.66-inch-thick machine, its keys are actually relatively cushy. Ditto for the 13-inch version; that model has springy buttons too. In any case, this is great news for anyone who expects to spend a lot of time in Gmail and Google Drive, and it's definitely something you'll want to keep in mind as you're comparison shopping: Most other Chromebooks I've tested have flatter, shallower keys. As a bonus, the touchpad also works smoothly -- no issues at all with single-finger tracking.
The display is also nice enough, though hardly noteworthy. Whereas the 13-inch model has a full HD, 1080p screen, the 11-incher I'm reviewing here tops out at 1,366 x 768. That's standard resolution for a laptop this size and price; I wouldn't have expected any better. The quality is also average -- a 200-nit, matte-finish panel that does a good job reflecting glare, but doesn't provide especially wide viewing angles. All in all, then, a pretty mediocre display, but it is worth noting that this is the same screen used on Samsung's other 11-inch Chromebook, which currently sells for $50 more. So, if you're looking at the two variants on the company's website and aren't sure which to pick, that's something to keep in mind: For $300, you're getting the same exact viewing experience that you would for $250.
Taking a tour of the rest of the machine, you'll find that the port selection matches what you'll get on competing Chromebooks -- mostly, anyway. On board, we have two USB ports (one 3.0, one 2.0), an HDMI socket and a combination headphone/mic jack. The one difference is that Samsung still uses a microSD slot to augment the 16GB of built-in storage -- not a full-sized one. If you just intend to load up your card with music and videos and then keep it in the machine, it doesn't matter so much what the format is. But, if you happen to shoot photos with a standalone camera, you might be disappointed by the fact that you can't just remove your full-sized SD card and stick it inside the laptop. Finally, if you flip the notebook over, you'll find a pair of two-watt speakers on the bottom side, which produce reasonably loud sound. I mean, let's be clear, if you want really good audio, you should look at the Toshiba Chromebook 2 instead. But the sound quality here is still good enough for streaming Spotify while you work.
Performance and battery life
For the most part, the words "Intel" and "Chromebook" are synonymous: Almost every model we've tested uses an Intel processor. In many cases, it's the same exact Intel processor, which makes evaluating Chromebook performance a tricky and sometimes boring process. Samsung's different, though. With the exception of its very first model, which came out three years ago, the company has mostly been using its own ARM-based chips -- and still does, on its higher-end machines. With its latest model, however, even Sammy is jumping aboard the Intel bandwagon: The new Chromebook 2 features a Celeron N2840 chip, the same one used in the Toshiba Chromebook 2. Like many of its competitors, it makes do with 2GB of RAM, though it's worth noting that Samsung's higher-end 11-inch Chromebook 2 has 4GB of memory.
All of which is to say, the new Samsung Chromebook 2 is zippy enough for basic use: things like email, web surfing and Netflix streaming. As with competing models, boot-up takes less than 10 seconds, and a new 802.11ac radio (as opposed to the older 802.11n standard) ensures a fast, reliable WiFi connection. And even after hours of Netflix streaming, it still stayed cool enough that I could comfortably rest it on my lap. That said, the fact that this has the same or a similar processor as some other machines means it also runs into some of the same performance pitfalls. When using Spotify's web player, for instance, I more than once noticed the audio cut out briefly when I opened a new tab, or even switched tabs. The last time I experienced that? When I was testing the Toshiba Chromebook 2, another machine that uses Intel's N2840 chip.
According to Samsung, the Chromebook 2's two-cell, 30Wh battery can last up to nine hours on a charge. That's a slight improvement over the higher-end, $300 model, which also has a 30Wh, 4,080mAh battery. In any case, my mileage varied quite a bit depending on my exact usage, as I expect it will for you too. In our usual video-looping test, I got seven hours of full HD playback, putting it on par with other machines that use the same processor, like the Toshiba Chromebook 2. When I ran the test again, though, this time with a lower-res standard-def video, the battery life climbed to nine hours and 48 minutes. Again, your mileage will vary, but I think it's safe to say that battery life here is as good if not slightly better than most other 11-inch Chromebooks. Well, with one major exception, anyway.
On the one hand, I don't feel like I need to explain to you how Chrome OS works -- it's basically just the Chrome browser with an app launcher and a stripped-down "desktop," for lack of a better word. On the other hand, my conversations with readers and even my own family suggest that a lot of people still have misconceptions about how Chromebooks work. Namely, the idea that you have to be online all the time to use them. Now it's true, when the first Chrome OS devices came out three years ago, you did indeed need an internet connection for them to be remotely useful. But over time, Google has made more and more of its services usable offline, including Gmail, Drive and, as of a few months ago, Play Movies & TV. There's also an area of the Chrome Web Store just for offline-capable apps, so there shouldn't be any confusion as to what requires an internet connection and what doesn't. Besides that, the only other thing you need to know is that every Chromebook (not just this one), comes with 100GB of Google Drive storage, free for two years. Pretty standard stuff.
Before I start comparing the new Chromebook 2 to everything else on the market, it's worth breaking down how it compares to the other two Chromebooks in Samsung's lineup. I suspect you're not cross-shopping this with the 13-inch model, which is obviously larger, and is also considerably more expensive ($350, versus $250 for the version I'm reviewing today). That said, you might be considering Samsung's other 11-inch Chromebook 2, which starts at $300 and has the same 1,366 x 768 screen, faux-leather lid and 2.65-pound chassis. The only real difference is that the $300 model has a Samsung-made, eight-core chip inside and 4GB of RAM, as opposed to a dual-core Intel N2840 processor and 2GB of memory in the $250 version.
The message Samsung seems to be sending is that the performance on the higher-end model is strong enough that it's worth 50 dollars over the entry-level one. I'm dubious of that. The more I use Chromebooks, the more I'm convinced that performance across the board is generally good enough -- I've yet to find one that's unusable. What's more, even when you do squeeze in a more powerful processor -- like this Core i3 chip, for example -- the performance gains are modest at best, and sometimes come at the expense of battery life. If you're gonna go Samsung, I'd either buy this, or spring for the 13-inch model with the 1080p screen.
Not that you have to stick with Samsung. Almost every major PC maker has at least one 11-inch Chromebook for sale, many of them in the same price range. ASUS' C200 also costs $250, and comes with 16GB of local storage. As I alluded to earlier, it's a battery life champ: It can play back more than 11 hours of standard-def video, whereas other machines struggle to crack nine. It's also slightly lighter than the Samsung Chromebook 2, at 2.5 pounds. Still, that long battery life is offset by sluggish performance, including longer-than-usual boot-up and sign-out times, as well as everyday hiccups, including delays when deleting messages in Gmail or loading new tweets on Twitter.com. Again, though, I've yet to come across a Chromebook that's downright unusable. This one's usable; it's just slower than some of the others.
In a similar vein, HP's Chromebook 11 has received a price cut, and is now around $250 at Amazon. Meanwhile, Acer has something even cheaper: the 11-inch C720 Chromebook, which starts at $200. For the money, the design is plainer than the Samsung Chromebook 2 and the battery life is shorter. I'm also less of a fan of its keyboard, which is flatter in comparison. All told, it's a good deal for the money, but I can see why you'd spend an extra $50 for longer battery life and a comfier keyboard.
There are other choices too, but they're more expensive. Dell's Chromebook 11, for instance, still starts at $300. Lenovo's N20p starts at $330, mostly because it has a touchscreen that bends partially back into different viewing modes. Finally wrapping up, some of you will want to take a look across the aisle at what Windows machines have to offer. The HP Stream 11, for instance, is a $200 laptop running full Windows 8.1 with a comfortable keyboard, eight-hour battery and surprisingly good audio. The performance trails Chromebooks a bit, especially on boot-up times, but it could be a fair trade-off for people who want the option of running traditional desktop apps. On that note, you might also like the $199 ASUS EeeBook X205 and the $200 Acer Aspire ES1, though we admittedly haven't had a chance to test those, so we can't vouch for things like performance, battery life and keyboard quality.
I wouldn't say the new Samsung Chromebook 2 is the best Chrome OS device you can buy, but that's mostly because it's just one of several good options at this price. In particular, it has a more premium design than its rivals, along with a comfortable keyboard and trackpad, relatively long battery life and fast 802.11ac WiFi -- something you won't find on some older models that are still being sold. On the other hand, it's one of the only Chromebooks I know of that doesn't have a full-sized SD card slot, and it has some of the same performance hiccups as other Celeron-based laptops I've tested. All in all then, it's mostly on par with other 11-inch Chromebooks, which is to say it's imperfect, but still a good deal.
Photos by Will Lipman