Online or out of business
Google claims that many apps will eventually run on or offline, but at present, the Chromebook always clings tenuously to the nearest Wi-Fi signal for even the most basic functionality. Without signal, you can quite literally sign in and play a handful of shoddy games that support offline functionality — it’s just a browser, remember? Google Docs would seem to be the number one priority for offline use, but even that won’t arrive until later this summer — and that’s if Google pulls through on it at all.
A crippling reliance on the Web for everything wouldn’t be quite so crippling if the Chromebook would actually stay connected, which it won’t. Our Series 5 machine dropped connectivity every 10 to 15 minutes without fail, even after moving just feet away from the Wi-Fi access point. Often, we had to log back out then back in before it would reconnect. Sometimes, that didn’t work either. Whether this is Google’s fault or Samsung’s, we’re not sure, but in practice in made the Series next to useless for everyday computing, even around the office.
The 3G model of the Chromebook retails for $500 and comes with free” Verizon service for two years, with a 100MB monthly data cap. Not a bad deal. But you’ll still need to punch in a credit card number to “confirm your identity” prior to activating you free service. Verizon’s activation service once entirely failed to load, then repeatedly rejected our credit card without telling us what field was to wrong to reenter it (CVV code, we got it after reentering several times).
Limited capabilities aside, Chrome OS delivers on one pivotal promise of riding on a lightweight Gentoo Linux build: It boots lightning fast. Even with the same hardware as a netbook, our Series 5 Chromebook went from cold to ready-to-surf in a little over 10 seconds, and booting up from sleep was instant: As soon as the lid is up, it’s ready to roll.
Despite the limited capabilities of an Atom processor, Web surfing isn’t able to present much of a problem. Your day-to-day page visits won’t seem any slower on a Chromebook than they will on a $2,000 notebook. That said, we did manage to bump into the limits of its capabilities in video playback: Even 480p video files sometimes refused to load or stuttered during playback, and anything hi-def (even 720p) played back too slowly to be acceptable. The same was true for HD footage captured from a Kodak Zi8 and transferred via USB, then played locally.
Despite Google’s promise of reliability thanks to an operating system that can’t really get bloated from too many programs, Chrome OS seemed plenty unstable out of the box. As we mentioned early, Wi-Fi rarely stayed connected, but Chrome also had to kill pages at times, and at others pages simply stopped responding to input. YouTube often told us “an error has occurred” when we tried to play videos, even in low resolution, at full screen.
Touchpad and keyboard
We had nothing but applause for Apple’s supersized multitouch trackpads on its unibody MacBooks, so we were pleasantly surprised to see something similar show up on the Chromebook… sort of. Samsung successfully duped the size and buttonless design of Apple’s class-leading MacBook trackpads, but the surface is plastic instead of glass, and just doesn’t perform nearly as well. To perform a hard click on the surface, you need to be toward the very bottom of the pad for it to depress, and multi-touch gestures like using two-fingered swipes to the left and right for forward and back don’t exist in Chrome OS. The pad also performs poorly with two fingers worth of input: holding down a click with one finger while moving the other to drag and drop rarely works properly.
The Series 5 keyboard is more or less the standard Chiclet style, but Chromified. You’ll find dedicated keys for search, forward, back, reload, full-screen and a dedicated key for cycling through different Chrome windows. For a 12-inch notebook, we found the Chromebook surprisingly comfortable to type on, if a little underwhelming in terms of key feedback.
The Series 5 uses a 1280 x 800 LED-backlit LCD that delivers about 300 nits of brightness. Combined with a matte coating that shrugs off glare quite effectively, that makes the Chromebook pretty easy to use in a variety of circumstances, even if images and video tend to look a bit blown out at times as a consequence. That said, it’s a smart choice of screen for a notebook specially adapted to Web usage, and it never let us down.
As with boot speeds, the Series 5 delivers on Google’s promise of better battery life by hitting a legitimate 8.5 hours of computing. Even with Wi-Fi on and brightness up, our Chromebook had no issues running for the entire workday on a single charge, which is an impressive feat for a notebook in this size range.
The Series 5 only has one tiny speaker embedded in each side, each with just three tiny slits for sound, but it manages sound far above what we would expect for a notebook this size. Sitting with it the wrong way can tend to muffle sound, but it holds its own on hard surfaces, delivering plenty of volume for TV shows and dialogue-driven movies, even if (like all laptop speakers) it’s too tinny for most music.
Is the world ready for a computer that relies entirely on the Internet for every function? We approached the first Chromebook full of optimism, but the answer is a definitive “no.” Samsung’s Series 5 comes with the price tag, weight and occasional unreliability of a true PC, but none of the power or flexibility. Even cloud pioneers who would gladly spend all day in Chrome on a Windows or Mac notebook will find Chrome OS’ lack of offline support dumbfounding and the notebook’s flaky Wi-Fi infuriating. Unless Google can vastly improve Chrome OS’ utility by adding more offline functionality and vendors can cheapen up their Chromebooks, Google’s cloud experiment remains a pipe dream.
- Quick boot speeds
- Long battery life
- Attractive design
- Comfortable keyboard, large trackpad
- Respectably loud speakers
- Extraordinarily limited functionality
- Nearly useless offline
- Dismal Wi-Fi reliability
- No smaller than a netbook
- Minimal inputs and outputs
- Can’t handle HD video playback
- Poor multitouch performance