|Introduction and Specifications|
|Google's Chrome OS came close to being labeled vaporeware after its highly publicized initial announcement, at least by some. But at Google, there was never any doubt about its future. Just as they have done with the Chrome Web browser, Google has poured tons of resources into Chrome OS. It's a radical system, no matter how you slice it. It's the world's first commercially available desktop operating system that relies almost entirely in the cloud. That alone takes a moment to digest.
This whole thing started last year with the introduction of the CR-48. That little black laptop shipped out to a select group of early adopters (around 65,000 machines) who put the very first Chrome OS builds through their paces. It was new. It was refreshing. It was different. But was it cut out for mainstream use? In Google's mind, the answer was always "yes." They then took the next half-year to respond to criticisms from the CR-48 launch, and at this year's Google I/O conference, out popped two more Chrome OS-based laptops, dubbed Chromebooks. Acer's AC700 and Samsung's Series 5 were first out of the gate, eager to take on the public and give them a taste of what it's like to live in the cloud.
Samsung beat Acer to the punch in terms of shipments; the first Series 5 machines started shipping in the U.S. in June of 2011, and that's the unit that we're reviewing here. It's a white model with built-in Verizon Wireless 3G (100MB provided "free" for two years). Let's take a look at the specifications, which are actually dictated by Google to ensure a solid, reliable experience to users across machines.
The Series 5 Chromebook is an interesting device. It's definitely somewhat alien, but then again, what else would we say about a notebook with an operating system that flies in the face of traditional convention? Chrome OS breaks into an entirely new world, so we're going to do our best in the pages to come to describe what it's like living in the cloud, and who the Chromebook is really cut out for.
|Design and Build Quality|
|While Chrome OS itself will be a major focal point of this review, there's not much point in digging into the software without a solid piece of hardware to run it. We're pleased to say that the hardware of the Series 5 is seriously top-shelf, and really impresses.
It's important to point out the Wi-Fi only model of this machine runs $429. That's not "cheap." It's not even on the lower end of the pricing scale when looking at netbooks and other Atom-based machines. It's actually a solid chunk of change when compared to many other $299 netbooks with similar screen sizes and a non-cloud OS, like Windows 7. In fact, Samsung gets away with not even having a hard drive in this thing; being that it's mostly cloud-based, there's little need for an HDD to store things locally, considering that no file system (as we've learned to think about a "file system") is present here. In other words, there's no "local file storage," which is why there's no advertised hard drive capacity. The only storage here is a 16GB mSATA SSD to hold the essential files needed for Chrome OS itself to run.
In other words, you're paying a price premium for the hardware. But at least it's obvious. The shiny white lid is just beautiful (a darker hue will be shipping shortly), and it contrasts nicely with the black bottom and black inner portions. It's also wildly thin and incredibly light; just like you'd expect a netbook-class device to be. It's highly portable, but the 12.1" display gives you more screen real estate (and in turn, larger keys below it) than cramped 10" machines.
The display is encircled by a glossy black bezel and a 1.0MP webcam at the top, while the keyboard area is totally matte. There's a non-backlit keyboard that uses the standard "square key" layout instead of the suddenly popular "chicklet" variation. Beneath the keys is a very wide trackpad that resembles the glass trackpads on newer MacBook Pro machines. There's no right/left click buttons; the entire pad depresses, and it supports multi-gesture movements as well.
Along the right edge, you'll find a SIM card slot (for inserting your own AT&T, T-Mobile or other carrier SIM for global 3G use), and a single USB 2.0 port. The rear is home to no ports at all, while the left edge has an AC power input, a heat exhaust vent, a video output (a VGA dongle is included in the box), another USB 2.0 port and a 3.5mm combo jack that works as a mic input or a headphone port. The front edge is home to an SD card slot.
Back to the keyboard and trackpad -- Samsung really nailed these. The typing experience is excellent. It feels like we have more space to type on the Series 5 than on the XPS 15z or MacBook Pro. The key travel is ideal, and we had no issues all, even after writing this entire review right on the device. The trackpad is also a gem. It's HUGE, which is hard to find on a device of this size. The fact that the entire pad clicks down is also a boon, and it worked great in practice. The multi-gesture support was hit-or-miss, but mostly hit. We rarely had any wonky moments (but we did have a few!). That said, the two-finger scrolling on documents and Web pages worked well the majority of the time, and that's more than most sub-$500 machines can say. We should also point out that there are no palm rest stickers to speak of. This is hugely refreshing, and it's a movement that we wish would sweep the netbook/notebook industry.
The 12.1" panel has a 1280x800 screen resolution, which is par for the course. However, it uses a matte panel rather than a glossy one, which is remarkably easy on the eyes. It also has fantastic viewing angles, and it played back high-definition YouTube clips wonderfully. We really wish more companies would consider matte displays; they really are superior for those who use their machines in daylight, which is just about everyone we know.
All in all, we can't say enough good things about the hardware. It's rigid, beautiful, and well-constructed. It features a few subtle things that few other machines in this class feature, and it's those things that make using it such solid piece of hardware. Now, onto software.
|Software and User Experience|
|Chrome OS is a difficult thing to explain, and a unique thing to use. Attempting to explain the concept to a layperson is nearly impossible; you can't "install a program" from a CD. There's no optical drive, and moreover, there's just no way to "install" a program as you think of it in Windows terms. It's also significantly hindered when there's no Internet connection nearby, such as on a plane that lacks Gogo. But for the technically savvy, those that already understand the concept of "the cloud," the learning curve isn't nearly as steep.
Chrome OS really is an operating system that relies on a Web connection to be functional. It probably makes more sense when you realize that the entire OS operating within a Chrome Web browser. That's right; when you boot the machine up, you boot (quickly!) into a Chrome browser. You can't minimize it. There's no "desktop" hiding behind it. It's just a browser, and that's the way it is. The good news is that it's highly functional, and it's becoming more so by the day. The Chrome Web Store is chock-full of useful applications -- from productivity extensions like Screen Capture, to games like Angry Birds. All the basics are here: weather apps, music apps, news apps, notepad apps, photo apps, etc. Pretty much any category you'd see in a mobile app store is also here, and from what we've seen, Chrome OS users can rely on having a very healthy and growing library to use in the future.
Let us explain a little about how Chrome OS works. The "home page" in the browser holds a grid of apps. Gmail, Docs, Scratchpad, Calendar, YouTube and a few others come pre-installed. From there, you'll need a live Web connection to tap into the Web Store and get more. Many apps are free, but a handful of the more advanced ones do require a nominal fee. You can click one of those icons to launch a new tab, where that "program" will be. Gmail looks just like Gmail, and Docs like Docs. But TweetDeck -- while looking like TweetDeck -- doesn't load as a standalone application. It loads as a new tab in Chrome. It's a pretty wild and revolutionary way of thinking about "programs." Rather than letting them live on their own, as a standalone instance, they live in the browser. As Google says, "the web is what you make of it."
The funny thing is, you really can do most everything in a browser, with a few exceptions. Twitter clients are there, document editing is there, e-mail is there, and there are even chat and IRC clients to keep you in touch with folks. The primary difference is that instead of hitting Alt+Tab to switch to a different program, you hit Ctrl+Tab to switch to a different Chrome tab. Of course, there are obvious limitations. Heavyweight programs like Photoshop aren't available, nor are programs like Steam that would enable a normal netbook to download Half-Life. Interestingly, Citrix has a program coming this summer called Citrix Receiver, which will allow connected Chromebooks to tunnel through to a Windows service in order to load programs like Photoshop in a browser, but of course, performance could be questionable. We're reserving judgment for now, but don't waste your time -- if you need a machine to run Photoshop, no Chromebook is the right machine for you.
Due to the interesting layout, the "Function" keys are different as well. Instead of F1 through F12, there's Forward / Back, Refresh, Brightness Controls, Volume Controls and a tile button that'll pull up multiple sessions in a card-like view. Thankfully, some of the other functions PC users are used to remain: right click, for instance, still brings up alternate options within tabs.
Due to the lightweight nature of Chrome OS, power drain is minimal, as are your abilities to crash things by doing too much multi-tasking at once. It simplifies things immensely. The downsides are obvious: heavyweight programs have no place here, and you won't have access to a file system outside of loading up images or browsing the occasional media file on your USB hard drive. Those functions are very limited, but they do exist for basic tasks like uploading a recent gallery of images to Picasa or attaching a file or two in Gmail.
In a nutshell, the "software" can be summed up as such: it's Chrome. If you downloaded Chrome for your Mac or PC, and attempted to live exclusively within it, you'll have a very, very good feel for how life is within Chrome OS. It's not a bad life, it's just very different than life within Linux, OS X or Windows.
We can't depart this section without also touching on how Chrome OS functions with limited or no connectivity. With the former, things load, they just take time. That's a strange thing to get used to. On your average netbook, opening up Microsoft Word may take a few seconds. But on a terrible connection, opening up Google Docs could take 2-3 minutes. You soon realize that the main bottleneck on the Series 5 isn't the hardware that powers it, but the speed at which you're connected to the web. In many ways, the software here (and in turn, the entire machine) is only as useful as the connection you're on.
And that brings us to offline mode. Google has recently updated Gmail, Google Docs and a handful of other first-party programs to support offline usage, but it's not automatic. Even after updating our Series 5 to the most up-to-date version of Chrome OS, our Google Docs app refused to work offline when we killed our Wi-Fi. Sadly, our Gmail was the same way. We really wished that we could've just plowed through our inbox, penned replies and then had them remain in an Outbox until our connection was restored, but it doesn't seem that it's supported out of the box. We have a feeling that Google will be updating their apps to more seamlessly flow between online and offline mode, but for now, using the Series 5 without a connection to the Internet is really frustrating.
You obviously cannot use connected apps -- things like Facebook, TweetDeck or ESPN -- but even apps that you should be able to access offline don't really work as they should. Scratchpad, while functional offline, lacks a "full-screen" toggle, and it remains fixed to the lower portion of the screen. That's a shame; at the very least, we would've appreciated a simple offline editor that we could write documents on while offline. There are extensions that help with that (Chromepad is a solid one), but even that is more of a hacked-together solution instead of a proper offline document editor.
There's obviously room for improvement with offline support, and we have no doubt that Google will address it in time. But on the other hand, Chrome OS is an OS that's really designed to be used while connected, and expecting it to do too much offline may be asking for too much; here, you start to get into use-case scenarios, where avid offline computer users must think twice about whether this kind of setup is right for them.
|Because it's impossible to install our standard benchmarking tools -- things like SiSoftware Sandra, 3DMark, PCMark, etc. -- we were forced to use only web-based benchmarks. This is also the very first Chrome OS notebook (or machine of any kind, actually) that we have tested, so there's no real baseline to reference. The Series 5 is blazing its own course, and will serve to set the baseline for future Chrome OS machines.
Because the browser is the only playing field, we were forced to simply benchmark the Chrome browser. We ran it through a few of our favorite browser benchmarks (Sunspider, Acid3, PeaceKeeper, etc.) and have the results displayed below. It's important to remember that no Chromebook will be a powerhouse. Your video playback will be limited to YouTube clips. Your gaming playback will be limited to the likes of Angry Birds, and other titles that are lightweight enough to actually run within a Web browser. That said, a few numbers are better than none, so here goes.
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As more anecdotal testing on the Series 5's hardware, we opened up four YouTube HD (720p) tabs and played them at the same time. The machine pretty much slowed to a crawl. In other words, don't do that. When we closed all but one, that one played back perfectly smooth. You may think that's no big deal, but it wasn't that long ago that some netbooks couldn't handle 720p content without stuttering somewhat. Sadly, a 1080p YouTube clip proved too intense for the machine, and we couldn't watch it without a significant amount of stuttering.
We also made it to 20 open tabs before we felt the machine begin to crawl. We highly doubt you'll find yourself in scenarios where having 20 open tabs full of useful data is necessary, but at least it's possible.
|Samsung claims that the sealed battery (i.e. non-user removable / serviceable) will last through 8.5 hours of average use. That's a really long time in the current netbook landscape. It's really long when you consider that no "extended" battery is required here. No external bulge or anything like that. But this is where a stripped-down OS thrives; since there's only a browser to keep on, it's not like the battery is ever going to be under an immense load.
Due to dealing with an operating system that doesn't allow us to load our standard BatteryEater Pro, we weren't able to do an apples-to-apples comparison between the Series 5 and other machines in its price range. As we stated before, the Series 5 is blazing a new trail, even in battery life testing.
The good news is that Samsung is accurate with their claims. With Wi-Fi active (which is going to be the case if you plan on making good use of a cloud-based operating system), we managed to get 8 hours and 12 minutes of use before the battery could no longer take any more abuse. That was with the screen brightness at roughly half, and off/on typing use through an average workday. With Wi-Fi off (using this solely as a document editor), the machine lasted 9 hours and 39 minutes with the screen at half-brightness.
|Summary and Conclusion|
|Performance Summary: In terms of performance, the Series 5 actually feels fast. But admittedly, it's easier for the Series 5 to do zip along than your average Atom-based netbook running a full-scale copy of Windows 7. The dual-core N570 has little more to do than keep a reasonable amount of tabs in a Chrome Web browser open. There's no multi-tasking to worry about (outside of having a chat session in one tab, a YouTube video in another tab, and your Gmail open in another). However, it did manage to play back 720p YouTube clips without any stuttering, and we had 20 tabs open with just a slight hint of system lag. Sure, Chrome OS has its limitations, but the Series 5 hardware is plenty capable of handling what this operating system is, in fact, able to do.
It's tough to review the Series 5 as a standard laptop. Hardware wise, the design and build quality is excellent. The keyboard and trackpad put those found in similarly priced machines to shame. The 12.1" matte display is far easier on the eyes than most of those low-quality glossy panels that have become almost ubiquitous on the market. There's a video output, two USB 2.0 ports and even an SD slot, which are useful extras for an OS that doesn't even have a proper desktop. Unlike many netbooks, the Series 5 never gets too warm for comfort, and we never caught the fan noise being a distraction. It's as well-behaved as you could ever hope a machine to be.
But on the other hand, you're dealing with an operating system that doesn't allow program installations outside of the Chrome Web Store, and you're dealing with a system that is nearly useless while offline. Those are major, major caveats that potential buyers should think long and hard about before making a Chromebook of any kind their next laptop. While connected, the Series 5 is a great companion, and handles email, social networking, photo viewing and YouTube watching better than any cramped and keyboard-less tablet could ever hope to. But disconnected, we're left to rely on Google to hopefully update applications to fully and seamlessly support offline working conditions. Just how often you'll be connected plays a big part in how enjoyable Chrome OS is to use.
It's worth mentioning that in the U.S., Samsung offers a $499 version of the Series 5 with built-in WWAN. Users can pop in their own SIM card, or rely on an integrated Verizon Wireless module that provides 100MB of free 3G service per month for the first two years of ownership. This undoubtedly makes it "easier" to stay connected, but it still does users no good on flights without Gogo or in places where there's no good cellular data service.
In sum, the Series 5 Chromebook cannot be relied upon as a machine to get serious work done at this time, but we have to add strong emphasis to the word "serious." If your "work" consists of managing e-mails, managing documents within Google Docs and inputting text on the Web, there's enough here to keep you satisfied. Otherwise, you'll probably wonder why you didn't spend your $429-$499 on a Windows-based netbook with a full-scale desktop OS that's capable of real multi-tasking, real program installations and offline usability. If Google can enable more offline functionality and get more programs that people are accustomed to into their Web Store, the second generation of this machine could be much harder to resist.
The Series 5 won't be for everyone; we'd argue that it only serves a small niche, in fact. But for those looking for a quick, nimble, rigid computing companion that boots up quickly, lasts all day on a charge, is beautiful to look at and won't ever pester you with a McAfee anti-virus pop-up, this guy's worth considering. Just make sure you've got a reliable Internet connection, because you'll be needing it.