Just like set top boxes, which are dedicated devices for streaming video content, the Chromebook is a dedicated web browsing appliance. It is an inexpensive piece of hardware, running on a free Operating System, with free software and updates (OS, firmware and drivers), troubleshooting free, anti-virus and anti-malware proof and you cannot “mess it up”, even if you wanted to.
Now, assuming, somehow, it was “broken”, it could be restored to the factory settings with just one click, well, may be two. In case the device is misplaced, stolen or just died, there is no data loss, unless it was stored locally, no software re-installations, no reconfiguration. Put your hands on another Chromebook, login your gmail account and voila, everything should be where you left it off. Sounds too good to be true doesn’t it? The truth is I am as eager as you are to find out! The following is my review:
Technical Highlights (as tested)
I went beyond the marketing sheet to provide a more detailed specification of the Chromebook.
- 11.6’’ (1366×768) display, Low-glare matte, 200 nit screen.
- 0.7 inches thin – 2.42 lbs / 1.1 kg
- Over 6.5 hours of battery
- Samsung Exynos 5 Dual Processor.
- 32 bits ARM Cortex-A15, 1.7GHz dual core, 1MB L2 Cache, also equipped the Google Nexus 10.
- RAM 2 GB DDR3L SDRR3, shared with video.
- 16GB Solid State Drive with 100 GB Google Drive Cloud Storage for two years.
- 16GB eMMC total capacity, available to user is about 9GB, yes, the Operating System has to be stored on the SSD as well.
- 100GB storage is for 2 years, after that it costs $4.99/m. Once the offer expires, all the data are still accessible but no additional files can be added.
- 3-in1 card reader (SD, SDHC, SDXC).
- Built-in dual band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n MIMO (2×2)
- I have to give a thumb up for the dual band WiFi.
- VGA Camera.
- Really cheap camera, 0.3MP.
- 1x USB 3.0, 1x USB 2.0. USB slot can handle Ethernet dongle
- HDMI Port
- Bluetooth 3.0™ Compatible
- Operating System: Chrome OS (Linux 3.4.0)
- Color: Only available in grey.
- 3W Stereo Speaker (1.5W x 2)
- Keyboard: 74 Keys
- Touch Pad (Scroll scope, Flat Type)
- Power Supply: 40Wh
- Battery: 4080 mAh
- 12 Hours of Gogo for in-flight connectivity participants Airlines
- MSRP: $249 WiFi (model XE303C12-A01US) / $329.99 WWAN from Verizon 3G (model XE303C12-H01US), 100MB/m for 2 years.
- Release date: 10/18/2012.
Let’s move on to the essential, what can the Chromebook bring to the table?
I admit, I probably underused my laptops: I do not play games on them, as they are not “specced” for that, WiFi increases lag time, small resolution and screen size compared to my monitors, lower FPS due to the non dedicated GPU and playing on a trackpad is not ideal for me. I used to play WoW and I cannot see myself in front of a laptop for a three hours gaming session during raid nights. I would rather not get on.
Since I cancelled my cable service two years ago, I mainly use my laptop for streaming and web browsing. I carry it around the house, keeping an eye on a College Football or Basketball game on ESPN3 while I cook or do the dishes. In that regard, what is important to me from laptops are: screen size and resolution, weight, to a certain extend battery capacity, acceptable web streaming performance and a good wireless connection.
[Don’t miss our photo gallery] At the first look, the Chromebook form factor is really close to the MacBook Air 11.3”, practically the same size and thickness. I was a bit turned off by the hinge but it actually provides a good grip when you move it around. The case is plastic made, but it actually feels sturdy enough. I take good care of my gizmos and I did not feel that I needed to be extra cautious with it.
The trackpad is spacious, unless you have been spoiled with a Macbook trackpad or any other high quality glass-smooth surface, you probably would find it really good. Right clicks are registered, either, with a slight soft one finger tap or by an actual click. Use a two fingers click to simulate a left click.
The up and down scrolls are inverted compared to a Macbook. Personally, I like the Chromebook setup better, the two fingers motion from the keyboard toward you to scroll the document down, makes more sense to me.
The keyboard, along with the trackpad, is probably the best part of the Chromebook. It has a really nice response and feel. The key spacing is just right for my hands and fingers to reach. Although, I don’t particularly enjoy typing more than I need to on a laptop, I do not mind on the Chromebook. I do like the fact that some of the keys are remapped to optimize the web browsing experience.
I am referring to the backward, forward and refresh page key. It did not take me long to adopt the refresh key, believe it or not, when I switched back to my Macbook Air, I found myself reaching for it! It is also really nice that the sound controls are in the same spot, if you are a Macbook user.
I thought having the HDMI port and the power connector on the back was a good idea. With the screen up, it keeps the cords discreet. I am not so sure about the USB ports location. Access to the USB port, while the device is on, is impractical. The laptop would need to be rotated at least 90 degree, probably more, and the screen needs to be lower down quite a bit to reach the ports. Otherwise, the 3.5 mm headset jack and SD card are fine where they are.
The speakers are subpar, and located under the machine, so if the device is on your lap or a lap desk, the output would sound muffled a bit. It’s not unbearable, just not great.
There is a SIM card slot. I wondered if the activation is software based or if the port is just a shell, like a placeholder, with no hardware behind it. I did try use my VZ SIM card but the piece of rubber inside the slot will not come out.
The 1366×768 resolution on the Chromebook is ok, since most of the web content is fit in a 1024 width frame. I auto hide the bottom task bar to gain a few more pixels in height, but that is just habit. The matte coating is welcomed, very little reflection, if none at all. The contrast is weak and the color looks washed out though. As long as you look straight at the display, it is acceptable. I watched a couple of times an hour long show and, since I sat through it, it must not be that bad.
Printing goes through “Google print”. Unless there is “Cloud ready printer” on your network, “Google Print Cloud” would need to be activated from a Windows or Mac that has access to the printer, networked or with a USB connection. Obviously, the setup can only be performed via the Chrome browser. The configuration is very self-explanatory and takes only a few clicks. Once finished, switch back to the ChromeBook, go through settings, add the printer, and it should be ready to send your documents or web pages to the printer. During my testing, Chromebook printed right away on the first try.
My battery test made an attempt to simulate the four following common powerless case scenarios:
1- WiFi on, online streaming, anywhere you can get WiFi but no power source.
2- WiFi off, local streaming, airplane, car, public transportations.
3- WiFi on, such as, light browsing, eReader
4- WiFi off, classroom, local e-reading, offline gaming.
For all four tests, the settings are; 50% brightness, 50% sound level, 60 minutes duration and WiFi is 802.11g 2.5GHz. Although the discharge rate is not truly linear, it can be averaged.
In a real world usage, it would be a mixture of both, streaming (5h) and light browsing (9h14m) with WiFi on. The guesstimate would be well within Samsung specifications rated at 6h30m, thanks to the low power consumption hardware such as the ARM processor, eMMC storage, and a small screen size. Also keep in mind, battery charge is not an exact science, heat can affect the charge expectancy, higher temperature, lower charge. During my time testing the device, it stays pretty much at room temperature. It is worth to point out that with the lid closed after 3 days, the battery remained full.
Inversely, it took 114 mins to charge the 30W/h battery from 5% to full. Users could probably get 4 hours out it for 1 hour of charging, if in a hurry.
Peacekepper from Futurmark, the higher score is better.
SunSpider is from the Apple ‘s Webkit development team, the lower result is better.
Keep in mind that a higher score does not necessarily translate into a better user experience. I would throw out a wild guess here, once the peacekeeper score is beyond 1600(ish), there is no noticeable difference from a user experience perspective. For instance, Chrome performance on a Macbook Air is about three times (with both benchmarks) compared to the Samsung 3, however, there is no way I can tell that my user experience is three times better on the MBA.
One would expect the Chrome browser on the Chromebook to behave exactly like it would on a Windows or Mac OS, but during nm testing I found out that it was not always the case. I will go through some of those web applications.
Wait, what, no Netflix?
That would have been a deal breaker to me, since Netflix is about 30% of my web usage on a laptop. It did, at first, not work. Starting the movie would result in a, “not supported, we are working with Google, coming soon” type of message. Fortunately, it was patched by the time I actually started writing the review.
Everything else, as long as it is web based, would perform as if they are running on your Windows or Mac OS machine. I watched my sport events on ESPN3.com, Korean Dramas on Dramafever.com, “Bleach” and other animes from Crunchyroll.com, kept track of my spending with Mint.com and was able to access all of my financials web sites.
Chrome Remote Desktop and other remote applications
Remote access to the Chromebook has been disabled. Per Google, it was intentional. Remoting into a host will work as long as you do not need to install a client application, such as, Teamviewer, Join.me, Citrix, I made it with Logmein since the remote to the host is web based.
Not being able to remote into the Chromebook is disappointing. For instance, let’s say I get a Chromebook for my dad and at some point he needs “support”. He is really not a techie, smart guy, Ph.D. and stuff. I could walk him through starting a remote session over the phone and configure his device over the internet. I use the term “configure” on purpose, there is really no troubleshooting with the Chromebook, either it works or it does not. Unfortunately, I do not have that option.
SSL support is very limited. Only L2TP over IPsec with PSK or with certificate based authentication and OpenVPN are supported.
Chats and video conference
No Skype here, or at least not yet, Microsoft is working on a web based HTML5 version based on Microsoft job posting and the position had been filled. The only available option is through Google Chat. I tested it and it was decent, however most of my contacts are Skype users.
For an IM aggregator, the best option would be to go to Trillian web site and sign in to “Trillian for Web”. There was another alternative web based IM, meebo.com but they were bought out by, guess who, Google!
If for some reason your internet is out or it is simply not available, the device is not totally unusable. Google documents can still be edited, with Gmail offline, it is possible to reply and manage emails. Once the connectivity is restored, emails and offline modified documents will sync up to the cloud. For your entertainment, there are a couple of options.
First, offline games available from the web store, including “Angry Birds”. Minecraft is not supported, whatever plug-ins is needed is not supported by Chrome/Chrome OS. Second, assuming you have some kind of USB storage, load them up with either movies or music and play them back on the Chrome. During my battery test, a one hour movie, with WiFi off, would use up 15% of the charge capacity.
Personally, I welcome an internet outage once in a (long) while. Although I have the option to tether with my smartphone, it’s a good opportunity for me to take a break from the digital world.
I understand that there are other options for browsing the internet, on a more powerful hardware for a few dollars more, and can do much more that the Chromebook, but do not underestimate the “it just works” factor. Less is more with the Chromebook. Less (no) troubleshooting, less (no) maintenance, less configuration, one centralized seamless update process, less (no) worries about backups, settings, applications not working for one or another reason. On the other side of the spectrum, more computing, more streaming, and browsing. For those reasons, there is a demographic out there that would find this device attractive, performance and price wise.
I believe the future is promising for the Chrome OS, for few reasons. Google has a track record with the Android OS. It has the resources to make is successful. Ideas are great but what brings a concept to the top is the execution. And finally, it has just added two new partners, other than Acer and Samsung, to manufacture more Chromebook devices, the Lenevo Thinkpad X131e from Lenovo and HP with its Pavilion 14. That shows the Chrome OS experiment is attracting big names from the personal computing industry.
Circling back to the initial question, I found it to be “good enough”, especially for $250. That is coming from someone who owns a MacBook Air and mostly run, you guessed it, the Chrome browser on it. Are you considering a Chromebook? What is holding you back? Share your thoughts with us and our readers!