I used a Samsung Chromebook for two weeks -- here's what I learned

Credit: Courtesy of Google

For the past couple of weeks I've been spending a fair amount of time using the Samsung Chromebook. It's the basic model Google has on its website for the miniscule price of just $249. In some ways, it's a great little machine. It's lightweight and extremely portable. I've found myself carrying it around, leaving it on the coffee table or counter and picking it up on a whim.  

It's worth noting that when you use a Chromebook and Chrome OS, the operating system that runs it, you are committing to work almost exclusively (with limited exceptions) in the browser. It's a strange way of working and it takes some getting used to, but many of us spend a good deal of our day in the browser already, so that's not as big a leap as you might think. 

The machine is ideally suited to someone who uses a lot of Google services, which I do, so from that perspective it's a good choice for me. But you can use any cloud-based or browser-based app that works in Chrome. I have to say there are aspects of this diminutive laptop that I've really enjoyed, but the drawbacks were so many, and the hardware so cheap, and I can't see buying one of these as constructed.

The Hardware

When you sell a device for $249, you have to cut corners and I felt it immediately in the construction of this unit. While it's attractive in design and weighs just 2.4 pounds, I quickly noticed the cheap plastic case that feels like you could snap it in half if you were so inclined -- don't worry, I didn't test it.

The keyboard is also plastic, but it had a decent feel and I could rest both hands comfortably on it and touch type in spite of the overall small size of the Chromebook. One of my pet peeves, however, was the cheap track pad, which required work to make it move the way I wanted. It lacks precision and it is difficult to make it do fine movements. I got scrolling fatigue when I used it for an extended period of time. This is something I noticed when I briefly tested the Chromebook prototype, the CR-48, and it's clear that hasn't improved much with this unit. 

The screen resolution is adequate, although it's not terribly sharp and I got tired looking at it for a long time.

Battery life was around 5 hours, not great, but probably enough to get through a conference or a day of meetings without plugging in. Oddly, even when the Chromebook was closed and at rest, it seemed to suck battery, so if I left it for a day unattended, I would find the battery had burned down even though I wasn't using it.

On the plus side, it includes a generous number of ports, especially for this price:  two USB ports and an HDMI port along with a SD card slot. For storage, you get a 16 GB solid state drive and 100 GB of Google Drive cloud storage.

Overall, though, the hardware was deficient, and it lacked zip even though it was running on my house broadband WiFi. I would sometimes select a tab with a running app and I would see a white screen for a period of time before it finally displayed. I also noticed that it would often refresh open apps like GMail for no apparent reason. 

The Software and Operating System

If you're a Google Apps user there is a lot to like about this device. You turn it on, log in to your Google account and you are good to go across all your Google apps. If you're a Chrome user with your browser set to sync, when you open the browser you'll notice that all of your bookmarks and apps are all there. It even remembers all of the logon information you've saved to the browser. It's quite convenient.

Credit: IDG News Service
Chromebook Control Panel

What's more, there's a little control panel similar to a start menu that displays all the apps you have installed. You can get additional apps from the Chrome OS app store, but in most cases, these are essentially shortcuts to the browser apps you would have accessed regardless of the OS. This approach gives the Chromebook the look and feel of a smartphone with multiple pages of apps you can move through to find the one you want. Of course, you can also just open the app as you would normally inside the browser by searching for it or clicking a bookmark.

One of the big question marks about working with a cloud machine is what happens when you're not connected to the Internet. Although WiFi is becoming more and more common, even on airplanes, it's still uneven and you are still likely to find yourself without a connection at times.

Google has recognized this and lets you access Google Docs and email you've already downloaded from the server in GMail while offline. With Google Docs, you can access and make changes to your documents and the changes are saved the next time you connect. I found I could create a new document, but not other document types such as a spreadsheet or presentation -- I'm not sure why these aren't available, but as with all things Google, I imagine this will evolve over time. I tested the documents offline including creating a new one, and it worked as advertised.

I also tested Gmail offline by writing a reply to an existing email. When I clicked Send, it didn't save it while offline, but it did send it immediately when I connected. I created a new email as well, which I was able to send manually once I reconnected.

A number of third-party apps have also been designed to work offline, although none of the ones I downloaded offered that feature.

Credit: IDG News Service
Chromebook File Manager

There is a local file management tool and a photo viewing tool, as well where you can save screen captures, photos or videos you took with the unit's front-facing camera, or copy content to the Chromebook using the USB ports or the SD card slot. As far as I could tell in my testing, there was no way to load third-party programs locally, which would have solved the issue of offline access for certain apps. That said, Google is trying to create a new type of machine with the Chromebook that doesn't require local apps. That's the point.

Conclusions: A good start, but I wish it were better

I have to admit despite the limitations, I enjoyed using this machine and in many ways, I wish it were a bit better quality than it is, but given that it's just $249, it's really an amazing deal and would make an ideal machine for a student or as a second device for leaving around the house or for traveling when you wanted a device with a built-in keyboard, rather than using a tablet. 

In the end, though, it seems that if the tablet killed the netbook and has had a significant impact on laptop sales, ultimately consumers might prefer to use a tablet for the same type of functions -- and get better hardware for a similar price point.

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