You watch all your TV through Netflix. Check your email through the Web. Pump out those pesky TPS reports in Google Docs. So why do you need anything but a browser, again?
Google says you don’t. The company’s custom-built Chrome OS sheds the pleasantries of Word, Photoshop and yes, even Solitaire in favor of just a browser. But with Internet service less than ubiquitous and many cloud-based services less than reliable, is a world ready for a machine that’s truly nothing but ‘net?
Features and design
Operating system aside, Samsung’s Series 5 is, when you poke around in the guts, a netbook. With an Atom N570 processor running at 1.66GHz, 2GB of DDR3 RAM, 16GB of solid-state storage, and a 12.1-inch LED-backlit screen, it shares much of its silicon in common with most of the netbooks already floating around on retailer shelves. Samsung sells both a $430 Wi-Fi version, and a $500 version with built-in 3G and two years of “free” 3G from Verizon, provided you don’t use more than 100MB per month.
Still, the form factor may be a step above. Samsung has opted to keep the Series 5 as simple as possible: clean white “Arctic White” lid, smooth matte black plastics everywhere else, and a Chiclet-style keyboard paired with a buttonless, oversized touchpad. Taper the edges a little more and you could call it a plastic version of the MacBook Air. The only real nod to its oddball OS comes in the form of “Chrome” and the accompanying logo emblazoned on the lid.
At 3.3 pounds and 10mm thick, you could call the Series 5 compact, but it doesn’t feel as radically thin or lightweight as you might expect from a machine that will only access the Web. Google has pruned the software, for sure, but with the same processor as a netbook and the same battery constraints, there weren’t really any miracles Samsung could pull to make the Series 5 much thinner than a comparable Windows machine.
Considering its netbook price tag, it shouldn’t be any huge surprise, either, to hear that the Series 5 just feels cheap. The screen flops around with the slightest provocation thanks to weak hinges and parts of the plastic base flex and “crackle” as you handle them. Our production model even suffered from a loose LCD cable out of the box that left the screen plastered in pink and green until we massaged the cheap chase enough to get it to stick back in place.
In terms of input and output, the Series 5 is a bit scant. Power connects on the left, where you’ll also find a shared headphone and audio output jack, plus a USB port and VGA output hiding under a plastic door. Keep in mind you’ll need an adapter for the VGA output. On the opposite side, Samsung includes only one extra USB slot and a SIM card slot, again under a plastic door. On the front, there’s a standard SD card reader, and that’s it. So little connectivity would ruffle our feathers a bit more on a PC, but with such a limited array of functions, it honestly doesn’t make much sense to outfit it with anything more.
After quickly entering your Google user name and password on first boot, and letting Chrome OS update itself, you’re greeted with… a browser. It works just like Chrome on any other platform, but it’s quite literally all there is. No desktop, no toolbars, no start menus. Just Chrome.
At first, it’s cozy. No need to switch between apps, only tabs. Nothing to download. Nothing to distract. It’s like moving to a studio apartment after growing up in a suburban McMansion. Suddenly, everything is within reach, there’s no more lawn to mow, and all the amenities you need are blocks from your door. Sweet.
Until you need a garage to work on your car. Or room for a friend to stay the night. Or just want a quiet place to work that isn’t the same 500 square feet you sleep, eat and watch TV in. Just like our friend the studio apartment, the same lack of options that make Chrome OS initially feel comfortable and ultra-efficient start to make it feel claustrophobic later on.
Want to unzip a file? Uh, sorry. Want to browse two pages side by side? Out of luck again. Want to make a call with Skype? Yea, no. If you thought the iPad was a neutered netbook, wait until you get your hands on a Chromebook, which makes the iPad look herculean in comparison.
What can you do with Chrome OS? Besides browsing the Web, you can install apps, which aren’t really apps so much as supercharged websites that act more like applications that live on the Web — Google Docs, for instance. Every time you open a new tab, Chrome OS presents you with a grid of your apps, which are as close as it actually gets to looking like any other OS. If you’ve spent any time with the Chrome browser, they’re already familiar to you.
You can never minimize the Chrome browser — there is no desktop to minimize to — but Chrome OS does let you open multiple browser windows and cycle through them with a dedicated key on the keyboard. IMs and other alerts will also pop over on the bottom right-hand side of the screen, similar to the way they do in Gmail. Tweaking the most basic computer settings, like touchpad sensitivity and and time zone, can be accomplished by looking under the same “settings” option used for the Chrome browser. There is quite literally zero wall between browser and operating system here — one is the other.
Chrome OS does include a rudimentary media player that can handle all the usual video and audio types, but the file system used for local content is clearly meant as a concession more than a feature. It’s not even easy to find — you need to use the shortcut Ctrl-O to open files, which you’ll learn only after poring through the affiliated help file.
Although you can skin Chrome OS and add extensions the same way you can in the Chrome browser, not everything that would work in Chrome works on a Chromebook. Critical case and point: Netflix. Although the Microsoft Silverlight extension used for Netflix playback installs just fine on Chrome for Windows, visiting Netflix.com on Chrome OS produces an error message explaining that compatibility is coming soon.