First of all, note that this hands-on test isn't a full review. Some information therefore hasn't yet been included or isn't fully complete, such as the battery life or an in-depth overview of what Chrome OS is like to use. This will hopefully be added at a later date. In fact, we managed to play with the Series 5 Chromebook for just two hours, but we'll be sure to look at one in more detail when they become more widely available.
Alongside an Acer model, the Samsung Chromebook Series 5 is one of the two very first netbook computers to run on Google's Chrome OS. Wi-Fi-only versions should be available on the high street from mid-June, with Wi-Fi + 3G models likely to follow not long after.
In case you hadn't already heard, the Chromebook marks the arrival of Google in the computer OS market. This operating system, however, is completely different from anything that's been seen before, as Chrome does all of the tasks we're used to doing locally with our PC but with a browser-based online OS. To achieve this, Google is building a whole suite of online applications that can take care of, or make up for, these tasks (see sidebar).
Google also has a rather interesting commercial strategy for its Chromebooks, as they'll come with a limited 3G data plan, after which you'll have to take on a paid-for subscription or buy PAYG data packs. These can be used directly with the 3G + Wi-Fi Chromebook or with a 3G adapter key for the Wi-Fi only model.
According to Google's Chrome OS site, UK Chromebook users will get a free SIM card from the Three UK network with 3 GB of 3G coverage for the first three months, after which a range of PAYG options are available, ranging from from £3 for a 500 MB day pass to £25 for a 7 GB one-month pass.
Users in the US will get 100 MB of free data for the first two years of ownership, which can be topped up or extended as required.
Design and HandlingWith its 12.1-inch (1280 x 800 pixels) screen, we found this Chromebook really quite stylish. Its glossy white hood makes a nice contrast against the matte black plastic of the body, although it's also available with a black hood if you prefer. Plus, it has rounded curves and sleek lines rather than sharp sides and corners, which adds a touch of class to the overall design.
The Series 5 has a decent-sized keyboard that's nice to use, even if we think the arrow keys could be a little bigger. Keying feels supple and is relatively quiet, and it doesn't feel all that different from the MacBook Pro or a Sony Vaio Series Z/X.
Just below the keyboard, there's a large multitouch pad, which is smooth, comfortable and precise. Like the touchpad on a MacBook Pro, the Series 5's pad can be clicked, hence the lack of mouse-style buttons. With the factory settings you have to press quite hard for it to register your click, but it can be adjusted to respond to a light tap. We found it accurate and it's just the right size.
The SD card slot is located on the front edge of the Chromebook and there's a USB 2.0 on the right-hand edge and a mini-VGA output and a second USB 2.0 port behind a little cover on the left-hand edge.
UPDATE 06/07/2011: Webcam
ScreenLike the professional testers that we are, we were armed with our sensor and test cards, determined to see what this Chromebook's display was made of. It already scores points in our book for its matte screen, which really doesn't pick up many reflections even when in direct light (sun, lamps, etc). Unfortunately, that's its only good feature.
The screen has a low contrast ratio (189:1) and colours have a heavy blue overtone (14,000 Kelvins) which pushes the deltaE (difference between perfect colours and those displayed by the screen) up to over 12. Samsung therefore doesn't seem to have made any effort at all with the screen on its first Chromebook, and that's a bit of a shame considering that the keyboard and trackpad are so good.
UPDATE 06/07/2011 Noise and Heat: Hot Stuff!
UPDATE 06/07/2011 Audio: Room for Improvement!
The Chromebook speakers aren't great. The sound output is weak and hollow—so much so that it can actually be difficult to recognise your own music! The fact that the speaker grilles are on the underside of the machine doesn't help much either. The headphones socket isn't amazing, but there's only a very low level of unwanted noise to put up with. Note that there's only one 3.5 mm jack for both the headphones and microphone so you may want to use a headset or hands-free type headphones.
UPDATE 06/07/2011 Battery Life: Six Hours on YouTubeWe had a bit of trouble measuring the battery life. We first of all thought we'd measure the battery life on a web page that refreshes automatically. Unfortunately, as there's no way to deactivate the standby mode, this proved impossible. We therefore had to test how long the Chromebook could last playing videos on YouTube (with headphones connected and the screen set to 100 cd/m²). In this set-up, the Series 5 Chromebook kept going for six hours, which is excellent.
Chrome OSIn our brief hands-on we also got to have a go with Chrome OS. To be perfectly honest, we found our first steps with Chrome to be quite unnerving because it just feels so different. We found it difficult to let go of the concept of a desktop and to manage everything in the Chrome browser. Whether viewing a web page, looking at pictures stored on an SD card, or even changing the computer's settings, everything is displayed as tabs in the browser.
Google announces a start-up time of eight seconds but we found it took nearer 13 seconds to boot the machine and to start Chrome OS. This is really quite fast, and it's no doubt thanks to the netbook's flash memory and the fact that the OS is entirely online.
This browser-based system takes some getting used to and requires users to change their habits dramatically, no matter whether they're coming from a Microsoft, Apple or Linux background. In our test, we weren't able to use the offline mode, which in theory allows you to continue using a few applications like Google Docs even when not connected to the web. It's apparently possible to keep working on documents while you're disconnected and to synchronise your changes into the cloud the next time you get online. That said, it's still true that you're pretty much screwed if you need no use your Chromebook for anything else when no Internet connection is available.
Google's concept therefore isn't particularly user-friendly. It requires effort from start to finish, from setting up the system to finding the small and well-hidden buttons and options in the top right corner of Chrome. Above all, it just feels like an empty product, since as soon as you go offline the Chromebook becomes pretty much useless.
We noticed a few problems when trying to display the contents of a USB flash drive. Displaying JPEG photos stored on an SDHC card takes around ten seconds and a couple of the files on our SD card, which had hundreds of photos on it, made the card-reading operation bug and crash. Thanks to this though, we did find out that only the affected tab crashes rather than the whole OS, which thankfully carries on working normally.
We also found that we couldn't start a slideshow or simply flick through photo previews like you can in Windows image viewer. It's with things like this that Chrome OS users need to be pro-active and committed to finding ways around the product's limitations. There's obviously a solution out there somewhere, like here, for example, you can simply import your pictures via the Picasa application (which isn't pre-installed). These extra tools are no doubt the key to making the Chrome OS work for you and they're available to download in the new Chrome Web Store.
As expected, the Chromebook's qualities can just as easily be seen as its faults, depending on how you look at it. Above all, its arrival on the market opens the door to the product's possibilities, its advanced uses, and a new concept of computing, which could pave the way to the system's wider uptake and long-term success. If one thing's for sure though, Google has both the resourcefulness and the resources to support its project. Watch this space.
UPDATE 06/07/2011 Reader Questions and Answers
Can a different OS be installed on the Chromebook?
Note that there's no emulator function for using Android, GNU or Windows applications directly with Chrome OS.
Is the update procedure entirely transparent?Generally, yes. As web applications are loaded on the fly, users always get the latest versions without having to launch the updates themselves. Chrome OS updates can, however, sometimes require the Chromebook to restart, and any previously-open tabs are automatically reopened.
What peripherals can be used with the Chromebook (mouse, keyboard, memory card, external hard drive etc.)?
Note that you can't copy files from an external storage peripheral to the built-in SSD. Only one peripheral can be opened at once, and files can't be dragged and dropped or copied and pasted.
Connecting a printer isn't straight-forward either, as you can't connect a printer directly to the Chromebook. You actually have to use one of two solutions proposed by Google: a Cloud Ready printer (HP is the only manufacturer to make on at the moment), or a printer connected to a Windows PC. For the latter option, you have to install Google Chrome on the PC the printer's hooked up to (this also works with networked printers). Then, got to Options in Chrome and connect the computer to Google Cloud Print. The relatively simple procedure to follow is outlined here. You'll then be able to use all the printers connected to your Windows PC from your Chromebook.
The Chromebook can additionally be connected to an external display (monitor, TV, projector) with a VGA port. Chrome OS automatically detects the resolution of the output required (although we did run into a bit of a bug with a 22" 1680x1050-dot screen, which was treated as a 1600x1200-dot resolution display with vertical compression and all). However, there's no way you can use the Chromebook in a two-screen set-up, as the built-in screen switches off as soon as you connect an external display.
What kind of files is the Chromebook compatible with?
Only limited number of video files can be played off a USB flash drive, as there's no support for Xvid or Divx files. Mpeg-4 videos are compatible (including one we tried that came directly from a Canon EOS 550D, in Full HD resolution and in a Mov container). For audio, MP3 and OGG files are supported but not WMA fiels. Let's hope some updates or extensions are in store to help boost these rather limited possibilities.
Is Internet content (Flash, HTML5 etc.) well supported?Flash websites and videos work perfectly. Plus HTML5 is supported but WebGL extensions (as used in the www.ro.me website) aren't.
Can Office or LibreOffice be installed on the Chromebook?
What can the Series 5 Chromebook do offline?Without a Wi-Fi connection (which is required for the initial start-up), you can't do much with the Chromebook. You can read/play compatible files (see above) stored on an external peripheral or the built-in SSD (accessible via the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + M) or launch one of the few applications that work in offline mode (mainly games).
Google has announced that an offline mode will be coming to its Docs applications in July. Until then, it's clear that this function is sorely missing. As things currently stand, you need an Internet connection to launch Docs and open your documents. For example, it's not possible to create a new document to add to your account later when you're back online.
- Chrome OS is genuinely different
- Matte screen!
- Nice keyboard and touchpad
- Google applications can be accessed quickly and easily
- Fast to start up and connect
- Chrome OS might be too different for some users
- System slowed down and crashed viewing photos on an SD card
- No desktop - takes some getting used to!
- Google's commercial product strategy / Limited data plan
- Screen isn't well calibrated
The Samsung Series 5 is an intriguing concept. It's an attractive notebook with a decent keyboard and it's certainly an appealing product, especially if you're a regular user of Google's systems and tools AND you can guarantee that you're always connected to the web. However, the strengths of this product are also its main weaknesses, not to mention the limited 3G data plan.