Photo: Ellis Hamburger
I really wanted the first Google Chromebooks to be special.Despite the hefty $499.99 price tag on the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook, I was eager to defend it as a better option than $499.99 Windows laptop computers.
But I can’t. It’s just not good at anything.
What Is A Chromebook, Anyway?
A Chromebook is a laptop computer running Google’s lightweight Chrome operating system.
Chrome OS is essentially an operating system composed entirely of Google’s Chrome desktop browser, with very few differences.
When you use a Chromebook, it feels like you’re using Chrome on a desktop computer, but you can’t minimize anything and there’s no Start button or Finder.
There’s no desktop to put icons on, no local apps to launch like Photoshop or Microsoft Word, and no real good place to manage your files. A Chromebook wants to be your portal to cloud apps like Gmail and Google Docs, where you’ll store all your files and do all your work.
This means you’ll need internet access to do just about anything on a Chromebook.
So far, there are only two Chromebook makers: Acer and Samsung. I took the $499.99 Samsung Series 5 Chromebook for a spin, which comes with two years of internet access on Verizon’s data network at 200MB/month for free. There’s a $429.99 Wi-Fi only variety, and there are two Acer Chromebooks as well starting at $349.99.
The Samsung Series 5 hardware is netbook-quality
The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook is made almost completely out of plastic. When you squeeze it, it flexes. When you close it half way to peer over it at a co-worker, the thing goes to sleep. Good thing it wakes up in less than a second.
The trackpad on the Chromebook is mind-bogglingly miserable. It’s not nearly as bad as the one on the developer demo Google CR48 Chromebook from last year, but it’s not much better.
I dare you to highlight text on a page using a Chromebook. Clicking and dragging to highlight works fine vertically, but clicking and dragging horizontally is almost impossible.
Moving the cursor to a precise area and clicking on it is irksome at best. When I first booted up the Chromebook, I spent five minutes trying to succeed at the “how to use the trackpad” tutorial because I couldn’t click and drag.
One thing I actually like about the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook is the keyboard. It emits a pleasant and soft “click” noise you hear when you press a key while you’re typing. Nothing like the plasticky “click” of desktop keyboards.
To balance out the excellent keyboard is the very odd absence of the “Caps Lock” button. In its place, you find a key with a magnifying glass on it.
When you press it, it creates a new tab that provides easy access to using your Chrome apps, but I wonder if I’d ever get used to it after years of angry caps-lock-filled instant messaging.
The screen of the Series 5 is 12 inches wide diagonally, and is 1280 x 800 resolution. It’s a “matte” screen, which means it’s not ultra glossy like the screen on a MacBook. It also means you can take the Chromebook outside and actually see what’s onscreen, which is refreshing.
I just didn’t find the screen to be all that bright, though. Even if you ratchet up the brightness, the display looked dim and grainy to me.
As far as connectivity, the Chromebook has no Ethernet port, so you’ll need a Wi-Fi network or Verizon’s 3G network (on the more expensive Chromebooks) to get connected.
There are two USB ports, but you can’t plug in a printer and print using them because the Chromebook doesn’t include (or use) printer drivers. The only way to print is by using Google’s Cloud Print Beta, which most users won’t dabble with at this point.
There’s also a SD card slot, which is greatly appreciated, but pulling pictures from an SD card and editing them using a web app interface is a huge chore (at least compared to what I’m used to: iPhoto or Image Capture on a Mac).
There Are No Desktop-calibre Apps For Your Chromebook
Since Chrome OS is basically just Google’s Chrome web browser, there are no local apps you can purchase or download. Local apps are the kinds of apps you’re used to using like games, photo editors, word processors, alternative web browsers, etc.
But, in order to use almost all of these apps, you’ll need an internet connection. Most apps don’t store very much information locally on your Chromebook, so there aren’t any professional apps or apps that are very complex like a suite of Office products or Final Cut Pro.
Apps I need to use everyday include photo editors like Photoshop. There’s nothing even close to the calibre of Photoshop available online through a web app, so I’m out of luck.
Aviary is the best of the bunch, but it gets sluggish if you have more than a few tabs open in Chrome. Also, the epic horrible-ness that is the Chromebook touchpad makes photo editing impossible.
Since there’s no real local storage or jukebox software in which to store and play music on the Chromebook, you have to use a cloud music player like Google Music Beta, a cloud music subscription service like Rdio, or a music aggregating site with streaming songs on it like Hype Machine.
The best way I found was to use Google Music Beta. I had previously uploaded all my music to the free service (probably not free for long), so I have streaming access to all of my music.
This method works fine, but you can’t sync an iPod or iPhone with it, and the Chromebook’s speakers are tinny enough to make your ears bleed. Headphones only.
Chrome OS Is A Claustrophobia-Inducing Mess
What it comes down to is that the Chromebook does nothing well. There are solutions to listening to music, editing images, and word processing, but none of these solutions are as good as those you’d find on a full-featured laptop.
For my daily computer uses, the Chromebook made me want to pull my hair out. Despite Chrome OS’ minimalism, the Chromebook’s 2GB of RAM and Intel Atom Processor somehow aren’t cutting it.
Multitasking with more than five tabs open is sluggish and drop-down menus take forever to load. Which also means that the multiple-desktops button above the 6 key is almost useless.
Why would I want multiple desktops if I can only have a couple tabs open on each? If I have more, the Chromebook slows to a crawl. It feels downright claustrophobic to do multiple things at once on the Chromebook, or to play a Flash game using the maddening trackpad.
Even things you take for granted, like a webcam working, will surprise you. Video chatting using the Chromebook’s built-in web can be accessed using Google Talk within Gmail, and even while using the Hangout feature of Google+. Trying to use the webcam on any other site (like Facebook for video or snapshots) generally doesn’t work.
Chromebooks Are Impersonal Computers
Hardware manufacturers are obsessed with making sure you know how personal you can make your MyTouch 4G or your new HP laptop that’s all about you.
There is no way to make the Chromebook feel like it’s your computer. You can download themes from the Chrome Web Store, but these are the same themes you can install on a Chrome browser on your desktop computer.
Photo: Andy Wilson
There are no custom desktop wallpapers, icons you can mess around with, skins for different apps, etc. You could argue that this kind of minimalism is futuristic, but while I was using the Chromebook, I felt zero personal attachment to it. And I’m certainly not returning to the days when I put skateboarding company stickers on my computer to make it my own.On the other hand–you could consider the Chromebook’s minimalism a boon if you’re buying the Chromebook for your whole family to use. Switching between users is seamless, making the Chromebook feel like a public space you all can share.
What DOES Work On The Chromebook Works Well
When you boot up the Chromebook for the first time, you enter in your Google credentials, and the computer instantly restores all your settings from your Chrome browser on your desktop computer. It’s magical, but not any more magical than installing Chrome on another desktop computer and watching your bookmarks and auto-saved information pop up.
One of the most unique and redeeming features of the Chromebook is its instant-on reliability. Open the lid of the Chromebook, and you’re off within a second. Shut it down, and it will start up completely in less than 10 seconds.
Another aspect of Chrome OS that does work is the auto-update feature. The Chromebook downloads system updates frequently (which is a good thing) in the background, and installs them while you’re doing whatever you’re doing.
Like guardian angels, you know that Googlers are working on Chrome OS as you’re using it, making patches, fixing errors, and speeding up your computer. It’s a huge let down that Google hasn’t fixed the trackpad errors yet, but maybe it’s not a software issue.
These features alone are bright signs of computers of the future, but we’re evidently not quite there yet.
Lastly, battery life on the Chromebook is stellar at more than seven hours in my tests. But, considering how much extra time you’ll spend performing average tasks (like downloading a picture, opening it in Aviary, cropping it, and saving the picture) on the Chromebook, you’ll need the extra battery. Also, you can’t watch movies on the Chromebook via Netflix, and the built-in media player sucks.
Should You Buy It?
The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook wants to be as ultra thin and portable as the MacBook Air. It wants to be $299.99 instead of $499.99 (or $429.99 for the Wi-Fi version).
It wants to be the bare-bones internet browsing computer you pick up instead of an iPad on your coffee table, but it ends up being the crippled cousin of some netbook. You can’t even plug in a printer and print something with it.
In the end, the Chromebooks are perfect for no one. They aren’t functional or powerful enough to be your primary computer, and if you want a companion device, you should buy a tablet that does more than the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook.
Or you could always buy a Samsung netbook for cheaper that runs all your favourite apps and websites, while still maintaining good battery life.
But the fact is, for five hundred dollars, the Chromebook is not worth it. Would you pay five hundred dollars to use a computer on which all you can do is use Google’s Chrome web browser? Because that’s what you’ll be getting.