Samsung Series 5 Chromebook Wi-Fi Review | Gadget Review
Samsung Chromebook Review

Samsung Series 5 Chromebook Wi-Fi Review

The future isn’t now. Companies regularly build radically new products because they have data that mahows it’ll market well, or to test the waters. Google’s Chrome operating system combined with netbooks is one such product. Netbooks, underpowered and small laptops made for simple computing and web browsing, don’t require the processing power of regular laptops, nor the functions of a Windows-based machine.


The Samsung Chromebook is the full realization of that, a netbook body with Chrome-OS. There is no hard drive, no applications, nothing except for the Chrome browser screen outside of a login screen.

Read: The Best Chromebooks

Inside the Chromebook is a 1.66GHz Atom processor, 2GB of DDR3 RAM, and a 16GB SSD. These power the 12” 1280×800 non-gloss 300-nit display. Atom processors in my experience are good only because they are low-power CPUs, and I have never found an Atom-based machine worth recommending. The RAM is marketed as high-speed DDR3, but it’s barely faster than DDR2 RAM. As far as netbooks go, the Chromebook is less powerful than machines from last year. The processor is slow, there isn’t much RAM, the SSD is small and the overall size is much larger than what’s found on netbooks.

The Chromebook, right, beside a 13″ MacBook Air

Specs alone, the Chromebook doesn’t compete well against competitors. As Apple might say, the software is just as important, if not more important, than the hardware.

Chrome OS is not different from the Chrome browser. Not to say it’s similar…it’s identical. If you’re one of the millions of Chrome users, there are only a few differences, all of which revolve around basic laptop functions, such as screen brightness, restarting the computer, file management, etc. Even these features are well hidden in the single navigation menu.

The browser, which is every screen except for the login screen, is just as fast as Chrome in Windows and OS X. There is no difference except for hardware, because of the slow processor and less than stellar amount of RAM. So let’s discuss the hardware.

Hardware

The Chromebook is a large netbook. The 12” screen has a 16:10 aspect ratio instead of the traditional 16:9 widescreen, so video content will not fit the screen entirely. It has a full size QWERTY keyboard, one that is heavily modified for use with Chrome OS. The caps lock, for instance, is replaced with a search key. Like on MacBooks and various laptops, all function keys have OS functions such as brightness adjustment, volume, and media playback. There are no secondary functions, no Windows or Command keys; just the bare keyboard.

Chiclet keys are large, square and very similar to a MacBook’s keyboard. Typing is excellent on the Chromebook’s keyboard, with a few reservations. No caps lock key is an incredible nuisance, one that has been laughed about since the Chromebook’s release. In practice it is a constant annoyance. Along with OS function keys are a back and forward button for the browser, a full-screen button, new tab button, and the media and brightness keys. Besides for this the keyboard is a standard QWERTY, with search instead of caps lock.

The Chromebook’s cover is simple, clean and well designed. Even the popping-out Chrome logo

The touchpad is mid-sized, but not as comfortable as it could be. Neither the keyboard nor touchpad are comfortable to use for long periods of time. The touchpad functions like a MacBook’s touchpad, where no physical buttons are visible but users can click on the touchpad or use multitouch to right click. Unlike the MacBook’s trackpad, which is depressed and has hard edges so users know where the ends of the trackpad are, the Chromebook’s sits higher up than the surrounding plastic frame, so it’s very easy to scroll off the trackpad. And because the frame and trackpad feel nearly identical, this happens quite often, and is a constant annoyance.

The display is average. Colors don’t pop, though it’s certainly bright enough, even in direct sunlight. This is thanks to the bright display and the matte cover, which doesn’t reflect light except from a direct source shining directly on the screen. Colors are fairly accurate, good enough by netbook standards but by no means exceptional. Viewing angles are, however, extremely good. Only at extreme angles does the brightness overtake what’s actually displayed on the screen. There is no distortion or color inversion, so viewing media on the Chromebook, while not vibrant or colorful, can be watched by a small crowd.

From top to bottom: 13″ MBA, Samsung Chromebook, Toshiba Portege R835. The Chromebook is nearly twice the thickness of the MBA, but still much smaller than a traditional laptop

I am impressed with the Wi-Fi range, which is one area where netbooks have often suffered in the sake of battery conservation. The Chromebook can send and receive to any Wi-Fi network just as well as any of today’s full-fledged laptops.

Battery life on the Chromebook is nothing to snuff at, though considering how few stressful tasks the machine can actually accomplish, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise. With just web surfing and general computing (all online, of course), the Chromebook manages a whopping 8 hours 37 minutes. With video playback that number drops significantly, especially if you’re streaming that video, it’s HD, and if the screen brightness is all the way up. It’s good enough for a two-three movies on a flight.

Software

As mentioned earlier, users familiar with the Chrome browser will instantly know Chrome OS. It’s mostly identical. The few differences include a number of OS-related settings in the tools drop-down menu, and the option to sign-out for alternate users. Because the Chromebook is tied almost directly to your Gmail account, users log in using the same account. This means once you log into the computer, you don’t have to log in again to Gmail or other Google services specific to that account.

One function of Chrome OS worth mentioning is the ease in updating. Like the browser, all Chrome OS needs to do to update is to press the update button and reset the browser, or in this case the OS. That does mean rebooting the machine, but unlike Windows or Mac OS, doing so generally takes 15-20 seconds, and the Chromebook will immediately open up all previous tabs after a quick login.

My concern with the Chromebook, and Chrome OS in general when it comes to software, is the web-only interface. Because there are few applications that actually run on the computer, all productivity software is in the cloud. My attempts to use Google Docs to type up this review and several others were regularly spurred by slow processing, slow online navigation, and a generally less than adequate experience. Typing, the base function of any computer, should be the easiest application, yet it isn’t in Google’s own included productivity software. Other web apps, like WordPress and Blogger, don’t always have the same problems, but the slow processor and menial RAM help stall the computer regularly, even when typing.

Thanks to Chrome’s ability to view most standard filetypes in the browser, there’s rarely any need to download documents to view or print, which is a serious boon for Chrome OS because that feature is standard. On Windows and Mac OS, most users still download files and open them in native applications, and then print, a two-step process that clogs users hard drives and takes more time. Not all filetypes are supported, though frankly any that aren’t can’t be viewed on the Chromebook in either case. RAW image files, for instance, and obscure filetypes just don’t work.

Media playback is assumed by a built-in media player, as opposed to plugins like Quicktime. Swap in an SD card in the 4-in-1 media card reader and a new tab opens with a typical file organizer. Videos and music start playing in that tab, with a small pop-up window for videos that can expand to full screen or any size. However, like everyone I receive videos and audio to listen to via email, and the Chromebook isn’t always able to play the media.

Because all available applications for the Chromebook are available only in the Chrome Web Store (which can be viewed from any Chrome browser), there is only a limited selection of applications available for download. However, the number of apps is growing daily thanks to the popularity of the Chrome browser, so in effect as more people use the Chrome browser, the more apps will be made for it and the more apps will be available for the Chromebook. The store is well organized, much better than what’s available on tablets with Android. It competes with the Apple App store, but as just a browser the store is surprisingly well made. Why can’t Android be this good?

Chrome OS is very good. It’s clean, easy to use, and simple enough for even non-computer users. For that reason alone I can imagine the Chromebook as a great first computer, more appropriate than a Mac or all-in-one desktop. The combination of online-only, a convenient app store and open access to the internet, it’s an impressive first step for anyone taking that leap.

Conclusion

For everyone else, all current computer users who aren’t stuck with cheap netbooks or very old desktops or laptops, the Samsung Chromebook is going to feel like a step back. Just like an iPhone user buying a Blackberry feels like a downgrade, the Chromebook isn’t designed to replace a full-fledged laptop. It’s meant to replace a netbook, or perhaps fill the gap tablets can fill. For that purpose, and that purpose alone, the Chromebook is a decent machine.

However, the low-grade internal hardware puts a serious damper on even light applications, such as Google Docs. It almost defeats the purpose of the Chromebook, which may have exceptional battery life but doesn’t process data fast enough to even type well regularly. As more updates the OS will be refined, better equipped to handle the current hardware. However, at just $429 for the Wi-Fi only model, that’s comparable to today’s equally weak but Windows-based netbooks that can run applications natively.

Is it worth it to buy a Chromebook over a netbook? If you need a device for web browsing and plan on using only web apps, the Chromebook may be the better option. For native apps however, it’s not that the Chromebook doesn’t compete with netbooks, it actually doesn’t compete. It can only run whatever native applications are available on the Chrome Web Store. Should more and better apps come to that store, and should the marketplace grow a true, large-scale economy, then laptops like the Samsung Chromebook will absolutely be worth buying. But it’s still too early to tell, and Chrome OS is still too new to give a definitive answer. Google’s idea of a future of computers running entirely off of web services may someday come to fruition. It’s just a matter of when.

Editor’s Rating:

[Rating: 3]

Good

Bottom Line: The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook has a future, and will improve over time with further refinement in Chrome OS from Google and additional extensions and apps from 3rd party developers, but weak hardware is the severe limitation. It can make for a great first computer, but if something goes wrong, the best bet for a fix is waiting for the next OS update.

Pros:

  • Chrome OS is quick, one of the best low-end and free operating systems available
  • Overall package makes for a great first computer
  • The keyboard is great…
Cons:
  • …but the few modifications (caps lock) are too major for most users
  • Trackpad is poorly designed with the surrounding plastic
  • Few native applications combined with slow hardware is a recipe for slow productivity
  • For users who could get the Chromebook as their first machine, if something doesn’t work, they are out of luck

The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook is available from Amazon for $429


10 Comments to Samsung Series 5 Chromebook Wi-Fi Review

  1. Anonymous

    goo.gl/ugKUC

  2. Adam

    Chromebooks are targeted to specific types of users that want an easy, portable Internet browsing device.  They are not meant to replace the traditional PC or laptop.

    In addition, there are third party apps out there that can bridge the gap for Chromebook users that require occasional access to those tools found only in a Windows environment.  For example, if a Chromebook user needs quick, easy, temporary access to a Windows desktop or Windows app, they can use Ericom AccessNow, a pure HTML5 RDP client that enables Chromebook users to connect to any RDP host, including Terminal Server (RDS Session Host), physical desktops or VDI virtual desktops – and run their applications and desktops in a browser.

    Ericom‘s AccessNow does not require Java, Flash, Silverlight, ActiveX, or any other underlying technology to be installed on end-user devices – an HTML5 browser is all that is required.

    For more info, and to download a demo, visit:
    http://www.ericom.com/html5_RDP_Chromebook.asp?URL_ID=708

  3. Mashew Cashew

    If you tap both Shift keys down at the same time, it enables Caps lock. Easier to do that then remap a key.

    I’m on the DEV channel so it may not be on older stable releases……

  4. Anonymous

    This is one of the most superficial Chromebook reviews I have read in some time. 2gb of RAM (which is the maximum supported by an Atom processor) is “not much” only if you are running a pig of an OS like Windows (and is twice as much as comes with a traditional netbook). I have an Acer netbook with 2gb of RAM, and running Linux, it has never, ever come even close to using its swap space. As Gary Lai observes, the function of the CAPS LOCK key is mappable. An Atom processor is not the fastest, but it does provide excellent battery life, and is adequate for its intended purpose. Google Docs performance is more constrained by network latency than it is by the Atom processor. Compared to traditional 10.1″ netbooks (which are burdened with the overhead of Windows XP or Win7), the Samsung Chromebook has a more usable screen, keyboard, and trackpad, runs longer and faster, but is still light and small enough to be easily portable — in short, it addresses almost all of the faults of a netbook. It’s not a Macbook Air, but at less than half the cost, it’s not a bad deal.

    I have a desktop iMac, an Acer netbook that has been modded with a 32gb SSD and2gb of RAM, and a Cr-48 (the original Chromebook test mule, which has a less powerful processor than the Samsung). The Cr-48 gets about 95% of my computer time because, overall, it is the most useful of the three. The iMac isn’t portable, and the Acer is too small, but as a portable computer, the Cr-48 is “just right,” and the 3G connectivity saves my bacon when I’m in a remote area without Wi-Fi access. 

    • 2GB is not the most supported by Atom. HP released the Mini 311 two years ago with Atom and 4GB of DDR3 RAM. Indeed, I didn’t know that Caps Lock could be assigned, which is great, but it still doesn’t make the removal of the actual key right. 

      Most of what you’ve pointed out in terms of hardware and software is just wrong S_Deemer. I’ve tested a number of Atom-based and Intel-based laptops, ultraportables, and netbooks, and in every case Atom may have saved battery life but always gave up a lot of processing power for it. There simply isn’t enough bandwidth available, and in my professional opinion Atom will likely die out thanks to the high-speed of growth in the smartphone market with processors working from the ground-up to deliver more power with reasonable device lifespan.

      However, it was pretty clear the second you mentioned that you have an iMac and netbook, and that you use the CR-48 for most of your computing, that you don’t like Windows. Fair enough. However, Win7 Starter is more than adequate on a netbook and runs just fine. On the HP Mini 311, mentioned earlier, I ran Home Premium with no problem…but when compared to an Intel-based Gateway ultraportable, running an older but seasoned and throttled Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, the Gateway managed 6.5 hours of battery life and could stream 1080p video, while the HP could muster 7 hours and barely managed to play 720p streaming. And that’s not even dedicated video, that’s an optimized YouTube stream.

      Until recently I’ve used that ultraportable for 2 years. The Chromebook works, as I wrote, for specific users, but not power users, and certainly not business people. More importantly, the online-only features are great, but we as a technological society aren’t ready for it. The so-called overhead of a traditional Windows OS isn’t constraining today’s netbooks; bandwidth is. Google Docs does work, sure, but even on a 10-year old laptop running Windows 98 you’d get better performance out of any word processor. 

      • Anonymous

        According to Intel, the maximum addressable RAM for the Atom N450 (Cr-48) and N570 (Samsung Chromebook) is 2gb. Source: http://ark.intel.com/products/55637

        Google didn’t remove the CAPS LOCK key; they merely re-labeled it. However, they did remove the Del key, which is a minor annoyance, as is the absence of dedicated PgUp and PgDn keys.I have run both Windows XP and Win7 on Atom-powered netbooks, and with the standard 1gb of RAM, I would not classify either as “more than adequate” on a netbook — intolerably slow would be a more accurate description. I spent an entire day setting up a brand new HP laptop with a dual core processor and 4 gb of RAM for a friend last summer, and after she took possession, she said she still preferred her netbook running Linux Mint because it was so much faster (her words) than Windows 7. I don’t know if Chromebooks will be successful or not — Google still has a lot of development work to do, and a lot of holes to fill.  But, for the moment, nobody else has an ultraportable with a 12″ screen, solid state drive, and 8-hour battery life and 3G connectivity in the price range. 

        • Sure, the max RAM for that model is 2GB, but Google didn’t have to build a system based around it.

          As for RAM on a Windows machine, yes, running Win7 or WinXP with just 1GB is not only adequate, it works. Things are just slow. I know because I have an old Lenovo T43 doing just that, and for basic web browsing it works just fine. And that’s a 4-year old machine. I’ve seen other laptops do just as well. If a netbook requires more RAM – a brand new netbook no less – then there are bigger concerns to worry about.

          Finally, sure, Linux may be faster. It probably is faster. But like everything, you pay in the long run for what you have. Using Linux means you can’t rely on all Windows-based applications. If something goes wrong with the laptop chances are she won’t be able to fix it herself. There are going to be problems down the road, and if you’re not there to fix them, she’s going to be in a mess.

          There are definitely other companies with ultraportables that are far better than the Chromebook. They may not all be at the same price, or have 8-hours of battery life, or even 3G connectivity, but they all do come with a standard OS that 99% of people can use the applications they want to with it. That’s why I said the Chrome Store is the most important thing that Google needs to work on, and that’s just a matter of time. Just like with Android and iOS, Chrome will become more popular, and Chrome OS more capable, with more extensions and applications built into it. And like everything else, it’ll probably take 2-3 years for that to actually make adopting a Chromebook worthwhile.

          • Anonymous

            But like everything, you pay in the long run for what you have. Using Linux means you can’t rely on all Windows-based applications. If something goes wrong with the laptop chances are she won’t be able to fix it herself. There are going to be problems down the road, and if you’re not there to fix them, she’s going to be in a mess.

            Actually, that has been the surprise; I installed Linux Mint on her netbook a year and a half ago (after Windows XP blew up), and I have never had a request for help (this is a very non-technical user). I checked out her netbook while I was setting up the HP, and to my surprise, it was perfectly current, with no need for me to do anything. Every OS has applications that are unique to it, and although I used Windows from the beginning (and MS-DOS before that), there has never been any Windows program that I felt I could not live without. 

            You are quite right that in the long run you pay for what you have, and with Windows or OS X, you pay, pay, pay. With Linux or Chrome OS, you pay once, and that is it. I’ve been surprised by the number of people I know, including one developer, who accept that Windows inevitably slows down over time, and the only answer is to re-install the OS from scratch or buy a new computer. The biggest advantage of Windows is that it is so ubiquitous that the non-technical user who has a problem can almost always find someone who knows more. All operating systems have problems — including Chrome OS.

  5. Gary Lai

    You can change the search key to a Caps Lock key. It’s a simple matter of going to the system settings menu and changing an option.

    You didn’t list the fast boot up time as a pro. It’s not 15-20 seconds to boot, it’s more like 8 seconds. That’s a huge plus over anything else except a $1000 Ultrabook or MacBook Air. Resume from sleep is instantaneous.

    Google’s approach with the Chromebook is that native apps really aren’t needed. There is a web application for nearly everything that most people do. You can tell from my writing that I have a Chromebook, a Samsung Series 5, like in the review. I haven’t experienced the issues with its speed you’ve discussed. I am using it right now to type this. Ever since I got it, my more expensive Windows laptop has been gathering dust.

    • Thanks Gary, I was unaware of the search key switch. I’ll update the review accordingly.

      I can’t agree with you on all your points, only because application use depends on the user. On a given day I may need only basic web browsing, or I may need to do heavy-handed photography and video editing. Google Docs doesn’t support all of the word processing features I need, and even on a blazing fast connection it feels slow to me. As much as I love the cloud, and use it for everything from writing on this site and storing all of my important data to playing games through OnLive, native applications always beat streaming/cloud apps. OnLive is the best alternative, but frankly Google Docs is slower than the gaming company’s server-side software. 

      I’d also venture to guess that your Windows laptop, like millions of people, is older and has seen it’s fair share of use. I could agree that instant boot is a good feature, but nearly every Windows and Mac-based laptop has that with Standby. Win7 machines aren’t really optimized for it yet, but most of the machines I’ve tested in the past 1-2 years only lose 1-2% battery after several hours of standby by just shutting the lid. Sure, the quick boot is great (and it is mentioned in the review), but because it’s so rare to need to reboot, what’s the point? I only just now rebooted my desktop for the 1st time in probably a month, for a major Windows update and some new hardware I needed to turn the computer off to install.

      I’m glad you are enjoying your Chromebook, because it is a good machine. My opinion is that many people who are used to more traditional laptops, or even kids these days who are used to doing everything on their phones, won’t like the Chromebook’s basic restrictions of web-only. Frankly, I have trouble with my Macbook Air still because it isn’t a Windows machine, and there are so many applications I can’t use on it because of that. The Chromebook is exponentially worse because it only uses webapps, which one day will be the way to go, but today is still a niche.

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