'Nothing but the web' is attractive, but hard to justify
Update:Since this review was written for the September 2011 magazine, Google has rolled out a ChromeOS update that enables Netflix playback and VPN (though not Cisco AnyConnect) support.
If you’ve used the Chrome web browser, you’ve used Chrome OS. Google’s latest netbook operating system is little more than a very, very thin client underneath the Chrome browser, and a Chromebook is a netbook-like object that runs Chrome OS instead of a full Windows or Linux-based operating system. Chromebooks have finally hit retail (in the form of sleek netbooks from Samsung and Acer), and it’s time to find out whether “nothing but the web” is enough computer for anyone.
The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook is well constructed. The 12.1-inch, 1200x800 LCD is readable at low levels and powerful at full brightness, the speakers have much more oomph than we were expecting, and the multitouch, buttonless clickpad is decent. The chiclet-style keyboard is the best we’ve ever used on a netbook and battery life is great—we clocked more than eight hours doing normal computing tasks.
The hardware is great, but a browser-based OS is useless offline.
The Chromebook comes with 24 months of free 3G data from Verizon Wireless, though the 100MB/month allocation is so stingy as to be laughable, and the à la carte pricing is prehistoric. Thankfully, the SIM card slot and Gobi multiband radio mean you have other data options.
Thanks to its 1.66GHz dual-core Atom processor, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB SSD, and the fact that it only has to run a web browser, the Chromebook is relatively speedy. It boots in less than 10 seconds, and resumes in two to three seconds. Browsing is snappy, and 720p Flash-based video on YouTube plays fine. We did have occasional hitches playing HD video on Vimeo.com, though.
Whether you consider Chrome OS sufficient for your daily computing needs will depend on how heavily invested you are in Google’s Internet ecosystem. Gmail, Music, Docs, and more work seamlessly, but Office docs need to be uploaded and converted through Docs to be usable. Chrome browser extensions and web apps work just as well as they do on a Windows desktop. In fact, it’s easy to forget there’s almost nothing behind the browser but a rudimentary file browser until you need to do something Chrome OS can’t.
Chrome OS has Flash support baked in, but that’s about it. You can’t install Silverlight, Java, or Unity—serious blows to Netflix fans, business users, and gamers, respectively. There’s no VPN ability, which will also hurt business users. And therein lies the dilemma. Update:Since this review was written for the September 2011 magazine, Google has rolled out a ChromeOS update that enables Netflix playback and VPN (though not Cisco AnyConnect) support.
The Chromebook is an attractive piece of hardware, and works well for what it is, but it’s hard to justify purchasing one. At $500, it’s pricier than many devices of the same basic footprint—notebooks with more powerful hardware and more capable operating systems. The Chromebook is obviously designed more for productivity than for entertainment, so it’s not really competing with tablet devices other than (perhaps) the Asus Eee Pad Transformer. We like the Chromebook, but we’re as close to a target demographic as is likely to exist: We own powerful desktop PCs and smartphones, but could use a portable device with great battery life, constant Internet access, and a terrific physical keyboard.
At its price, though, the Chromebook loses its luster; there are just too many things that it doesn’t do, and too few things you can’t get from running the Chrome browser on a regular machine. It’s a good secondary device for a vanishingly small segment of the market (which might include us) but would rank as a tertiary device for most.