Samsung Chromebook (2012) — Review

The Chromebook is an enigma. A laptop that is confusing to some and a Godsend to others. Most people have used a laptop with a Windows or Mac Operating System on it. When I tell people that this notebook has a Google Operating System on it many of them look confused. It’s when I ask them what browser they use that the lights come on.

I’m finding that lots of people use the Chrome browser! Many still use Firefox, Safari or Internet Explorer but most people I talk to either already use, or have at least tried, Chrome. Those that haven’t tried it have usually heard of it, probably because Google has advertised their browser on outdoor billboards in Australia and run promotions in other countries.

This familiarity helps to strengthen the case for a Chromebook, because for the most part it’s simply a laptop that runs the Chrome browser.

Unlike the very first Chromebooks running the early versions of Chrome OS, there’s a little bit more going on in this latest version of Google’s software. The current version is 23 and has a build date of 14/11/12. With this comes a user interface a little similar to Windows in terms of the main screen. As you can see below there is a login screen for up to 5 users.

Screenshot-Login

There’s also a main logged in screen with settings and connection options in a somewhat Android-esque layout on the bottom right, and an app tray of sorts starting from the bottom left.

Screenshot-DownloadsSettings

To personalise things a little you can choose a user icon and also as shown below there are lots of options for a background wallpaper.

Screenshot-Apps

Chrome software is presented in a clean, easy to use interface. Anyone with the most basic knowledge of using a PC or Mac will have little or no trouble navigating around on the Chromebook. In a world where two major laptop software platforms (sorry Linux) dominate, the Chromebook needs to be intuitive to new adopters. It achieves this goal admirably.

Pros

  • At only 1.1kg & 17.5mm it’s easy to carry
  • Good clicky feel and travel for a Chiclet keyboard
  • Fit and finish is good for the low price tag
  • Much more responsive trackpad than a netbook
  • 100GB of free online storage for 2 years
  • Never worry about bloatware, malware or backups

Cons

  • 200 nit brightness display struggles outdoors
  • Online games struggle to maintain framerate
  • Underside scratches due to low feet height
  • Limited use when offline
  • Performance degrades beyond a dozen tabs
Trackpad

Left

What we like

Performance

Performance is completely adequate for browsing so long as you keep your open tabs limited to about a dozen or less. I never really get more than 8 to 10 tabs open at a time so I only experienced slow down once – when I was testing what would happen if I opened heaps of tabs: I opened 15 tabs.

With this many tabs open the machine sheds data from other tabs so that you would need to reload them. Not really a problem on a good wifi connection. The RAM can fill up too with this many tabs especially if you’ve got streaming video in the mix. This I suspect was the cause of the slowdown.

Surprisingly, large image and video files opened with little delay. A single core netbook that I found hanging around took forever to render the same images and couldn’t cope with HD video. A dual core netbook with nVidia discrete graphics and 2GB RAM that I previously owned provided about the same performance as the Chromebook. Not bad considering I paid $700 for that netbook a few years ago.

Google has done a great job doing most of the heavy lifting server side. Something as resource intensive as large image size editing is quite fast as the bulk of the time taken is in uploading the image. Again, a speedy data connection has you covered here. Can you see a trend developing? Good internet equals great Chromebook performance!

A special mention here for a Chrome store web app called Pixlr Editor. It’s It runs in Adobe Flash and is super speedy and useful for dealing with images, even allowing you to work with layers! Just don’t expect a full Photoshop experience.

Video editing is best done using YouTube. Why kill your processing power? Let YouTube do the transcoding server side. YouTube also has excellent stabilisation for your best intentioned jellycam videos! Again, don’t expect Sony Vegas Pro or “insert your favourite here” and you’ll be fine.

Performance Benchmarks

Sunspider is a javascript benchmark that the Chromebook performs well in. A score of 692 is faster than any tablet currently on the market.

Screenshot-Sunspider

Browsermark scores are affected by the Chromebook’s inability to handle Silverlight. The website compares it to the fastest Windows 7 machines which are well out of the price range and power profile of the Chromebook.

Screenshot-BrowserMark

Battery

I generally got about 6 or 7 hours from a full charge. The thing that mainly affects battery life is display brightness. Indoors with the brightness down you can eke out close to 8 hours. In a brightly lit Cafe (the sun streams through) that I frequent regularly I usually only get around 5 hours of life as I have to crank the brightness up to full to see the display reasonably.

On a flight right across Australia you should have plenty of battery to spare. Melbourne to Perth is about 4 hours. Overseas you may struggle as the battery is sealed so you won’t be able to carry a spare. Most tablets today achieve 8-10 hours of battery life and ultrabooks about half of that. Netbooks can achieve similar numbers to tablets but the cheaper ones tend to be about in line with a Chromebook.

Webcam

It’s a fairly basic VGA unit but it’s fine for taking profile pictures or doing a Google Hangout. I’ve used it on the Ausdroid Podcast *plug* and it performed quite well. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to set up a banner using the lower third but the software for that is coming soon.

Display

The great thing about the display is that it’s matte! I really wish more manufacturers would do this. I never had to worry about reflections. A 1366×768 resolution on a 11.6in display may not sound all that awesome but for the cheap price it’s pretty good and easy to read text from. There are some negatives so check out our “what can be improved” section below too.

Portability and Design

Lets just get this out of the way – when it’s open it looks quite a bit like a Macbook Air. Which is a good thing because it’s a great design, unless you’re one of these people that has hang ups about that. Due to the hinge design and the rounded edges and corners it looks like a more original design with the lid closed.

At only 1.1kg this is so easy to tote along to school or the cafe or wherever you may use it. It’s actually a little lighter than most ultrabooks and definitely less chunky than a netbook. It’s comfortable enough to carry in your hand for short distances too which I very much appreciated.

Keyboard & Touchpad

Prepare to be surprised. I was expecting the typical jerky, stuttery, laggy stuff that tends to be the norm on Windows notebooks. Instead I found smooth scrolling, good touch response and the click zone at the bottom of the fairly large touch panel is quite good too. Pinch to zoom is nowhere to be found but I rarely found use for it on the big display. It’s more necessary on a small phone screen in my opinion.

I’m not sure what the touchpad is made from but it’s cool to the touch and for the most part fingers glide along it effortlessly. Also, the keyboard has a nice clicky feel to it, being of the sunken, island type that is popular among lovers of the chiclet style of keys. It takes a little getting used to with there being no delete key and the search key being where shift or caps lock normally is. I got used to it after a couple of weeks though.

What can be improved

Display

Samsung had to save money somewhere to bring the price down and lovers of high quality displays may struggle here. With only 200 nits of brightness on tap you can all but forget using this outdoors in direct sunlight. You’ll need to find a tree. Just ask a dog! Sorry, only one bad joke per review. If you view the display outside of the sweet spot you’ll experience depreciation of brightness, colour, contrast, etc. Gathering a bunch of people around the screen to show something off probably isn’t a great idea as many of them will struggle to see properly. Colour saturation is also on the low side.

Gaming

Although hardcore gaming definitely isn’t in the Chromebook’s Statement of Purpose there are quite a few decent casual games in the Chrome Store. Some play well but some experience long load times and slow frame rates. I guess it’s tricky to deliver that online and in a browser so don’t buy this thing thinking it will be great for games, despite the powerful mobile graphics chip in here.

Compatibility

Plugging in other devices can also be an area where the Chromebook may or may not cater to your needs. You won’t be able to update your phone or camera firmware like you could do with a Netbook but exchanging files is easy enough with an SD card or microSD card adapter if your smartphone has that option. The Chromebook can support external storage drive attachments via USB 2.0 and 3.0 with the following formats: Ext2, Ext3, Ext4, FAT, UDF, HFS Plus & NTFS.

You can play locally stored audio and video but your file type support will certainly be a bit more limited. MP4, MP3 and some of the less popular media format types like M4V, M4A, OGV, OGM, OGG, OGA, WEBM and WAV are playable. MKV, AVI, DivX and some other popular AV formats are not supported. In a Netbook you will certainly have more options for the more vague types of files. As more people tend to get their entertainment online these factors are less important.

However, if you need wide file type support then the Chromebook may not meet your needs.

Device-Right

Device-Rear

Samsung Chromebook

2012 ARM Model

  • 1.7Ghz Samsung Exynos 5 Dual Processor
  • Mali-T604 GPU
  • 11.6in 1366 x 768 HD LCD Display
  • 16GB SSD + 100GB Google Drive Cloud Storage
  • SD card slot for extra storage
  • 2GB RAM
  • Dual band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n
  • 1x USB 3.0, 1x USB 2.0
  • HDMI Port
  • Bluetooth 3.0
  • VGA Camera
  • 30Wh Battery

Conclusion

The Chromebook can easily replace a Netbook if the intended use is primarily online. In fact, the overall experience is generally more seamless with less waiting time for boot ups and applications to start and finish. Battery efficiency is fairly comparable. Netbooks can certainly compete strongly in the local storage area having capacious hard drives with hundreds of Gigabytes – but they can also certainly get hot and noisy, and hard disks are fragile.

There’s lots of available storage in Google’s online cloud and 16GB local storage plus as much portable stuff as you can cram into an SD card. That’s at least as good as any tablet on the market. While tablet platforms can have many more individual applications and features, most of it can be done in a browser. Where a tablet is better for portability, the Chromebook wins in having a miles better typing experience than what you will get with a bolt-on tablet keyboard – which adds to the cost!

Some tablets will give you a couple or few more hours of battery life with their lower power profile. That’s generally a trade-off for a smaller but more vibrant display. Currently however, there is no tablet browser that compares to the Chromebook’s fast, flash compatible offering.

For people already living in Google’s cloud, using the growing suite of apps covers the needs of a savvy student or a light content creator without any worry. This entire document was created in Google Drive, including pictures. For content consumers of web media in general, this is a capable machine.

The Chromebook runs silent – there’s no fan – and while it can get warm, there aren’t any lap-burning heat issues. Much of the heavy lifting is done in the cloud. If you fit the use case I’ve described I think you will be perfectly happy shelling out $399 for the tailored experience.

The review unit was supplied by MobiCity, who are selling the device for $399. Google is not currently selling Chromebooks in Australia.

Google+
,
  • liqn7

    Can import directly from amazon uk (no mail forwarding) for $320 with the goodness of amazon returns. Or if you want to wait, bhp video will have it back in stock mid Jan.

  • Matt

    A lot of people do not understand ChromeOS but I think it’s great. The only thing stopping me from buying one of these is 2 GB of RAM. As you mentioned it slow down with 10 odd tabs and I’m one of those 100 tab freaks. I’ve actually RIGHT NOW just installed a tab limiter for Chrome to see if I can cut back because I know I waste so much time with open tabs and suffer the performance penalties of it.

    • http://twitter.com/gfieldew geoff fieldew

      I’m also a fan of Chrome OS and I have got my kids using many of the Google services for their school work. Even on my quad core PC I rarely get above 20 tabs. I have the mentality that if I’m done with something I’ll close it off. Not everyone is like me though, my wife keeps a gajillion things open. I guess it’s a personality thing? The other thing is, once you get above a certain number of tabs it gets too difficult to identify at a glance what each tab has loaded in it!

      • Matt

        Well it’s been two days with the tab limiter and I’m using my brain more while browsing. Normally I open so many tabs because there’s just so much news and information to absorb. Now I stop. I think. Maybe a close a tab I don’t really need open. Maybe I read the page I’m on, then click through to the link I was going to ‘new tab’. 12 tabs is what I have it set to which seemed uber limiting at first but it’s not so bad. So far I have resisted the urge to ‘new windows’ :D

      • http://twitter.com/gfieldew geoff fieldew

        Good work. Keep this up and the Chromebook will be even more tempting. Incidentally, I’m buying a Chromebook for my daughter as her first laptop.

  • Nick Bryant

    I scored one of the original CR-48 pilot Chromebooks in a prize draw at the Google Apps roadshow in Melbourne in June last year. It has been great around the house for general web use as it boots up very quickly, and as software updates have been rolled out has become faster and more stable.
    I must say though, since I received my Nexus 7, I don’t use the Chromebook nearly as much as I used to.

    • http://ausdroid.net/ Daniel Tyson

      How nice is the CR-48 body though, no logos anywhere, that soft touch plastic all round. Love my CR-48

      • Nick Bryant

        I agree, the industrial design of the CR-48 was something many people on the Chromebook groups site reported receiving many positive comments about. Quite a few had problems with the hinges, but mine has held up fine.

  • simon

    $399 is too much, when it is advertised for $249 in the US.