The Chromebook is nice, but is it $500 nice? Is it really better than spending a few bucks to upgrade an old netbook into a comparable browser-based portable PC?
We took a year-old Samsung NF310 netbook with a dual-core Atom CPU, upped the RAM to 2GB, and replaced its hard drive with a 20GB Intel Larson Creek SSD, then installed Joli OS 1.2. We pitted our creation against a Samsung Series 5 Chromebook to see whether a homebrew 'Jolibook' can hang.
Round 1: Hardware
The build quality of the Samsung Chromebook is excellent, with a bright, 12.1-inch screen, powerful (if tiny) speakers, a comfortable keyboard, and a classy look. Netbook hardware varies, but the NF310, with its dual-core Atom processor, is one of the nicer 10.1-inch netbooks we've tested. Besides upgrading the RAM to 2GB, we dropped in a 20GB SSD to create a level playing field with the Chromebook's 16GB internal flash storage. The Chromebook is heavier at three pounds, four ounces (compared to the NF310's two pounds, 13 ounces), but the Chromebook's battery life is better.
Every key on the Chromebook's keyboard maps to a specific Chrome OS function (or a normal keyboard key); not so with the NF310, whose function keys we couldn't get working in Joli OS without downloading obscure Debian packages.
Round 2: Software
Chrome OS works flawlessly on a Chromebook, while Joli OS works to varying degrees on a huge number of devices, albeit with some quirks. For example we couldn't adjust the screen brightness on our Samsung NF310 no matter what we tried.
Chrome OS is the Chrome browser with a rudimentary local file tree and some media playback support. All apps are either browser extensions or web apps. Chromebooks currently lack support for many third-party plugins, like Microsoft Silverlight, Sun Java, or the Unity Web Player.
Joli OS includes a build of Chromium, so it has everything Chrome OS has. But it's built on Linux, so it also supports true local apps like OpenOffice—or any Ubuntu app, as long as you can dig into the OS's substructure to find the package manager.
Round 3: Performance
Performance is a tricky metric, and on systems like these—where we can't exactly run our Far Cry 2 benchmark or even Quake III—feel is more important than raw numbers. Here the Chromebook excels perhaps because it tries to do so much less. The Chromebook boots in around 10 seconds and resumes in three. Our Jolibook took 20 seconds to get to the login screen, and another 20 past that to load the Jolicloud desktop.
Using the Chrome browser, pages loaded more snappily and we could work with more tabs without slowdowns in the Chromebook than in our Jolibook—though, of course, we couldn't do anything else. The Jolibook's local app performance didn't feel particularly zippy, but it's a netbook, after all. What it can do, the Chromebook can do fast. What it can't do, it can't do at all.
Round 4: Flexibility
A Chromebook is a Chromebook. If you spring for the 3G version (or have a smartphone with a tethering plan), it can be a Chromebook anywhere, but it'll never be more than that. A Jolibook could conceivably have a 3G radio in it (if your original hardware supports it), and you can always dual-boot Joli OS with Windows 7, swap out the hard drive for a different one, change your operating system, use Bluetooth accessories, etc. You can also keep your Jolicloud desktop synched to the web and use it from any computer as a sort of personal start page. That's a nice touch (though you can do much the same thing with Chrome Sync).
Round 5: Price
You can get a 12.1-inch Samsung Series 5 Chromebook for $430 (without 3G) or $500 (with 100MB of 3G data per month). Acer's 11.6-inch AC700 Wi-Fi Chromebook is just $350. Each of these models ships with 16GB of local storage, 2GB DDR3 RAM, and a dual-core Atom processor. If you already have a netbook, you paid your $350-$500 last year or the year before, in which case, your cash outlay is limited to $20 for a 2GB RAM SODIMM, $100 for a 20GB or 40GB SSD, and a few bucks for a flash drive to put the Joli OS installer on. Not bad for giving a netbook a new lease on life.
Winner: Jolibook if you have an old notebook and are pressed for cash; Chromebook otherwise
And the Winner Is…
After using both the Chromebook and our homebrew Jolibook for several weeks each, we have to give the edge to the Chromebook. Its instant-on boots and resumes, excellent battery life, and sheer minimalism make it our note-taker of choice. And the 3G radio on the $500 model is handy in a pinch. Joli OS is a fine way to spruce up an old netbook, especially if you're short on cash, but the Chromebook spoiled us and we don't want a cobbled-together alternative.