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Samsung Series 5 Google Chromebook Review (with a look at the state of computing preface)

Official Sample The Web Review Rating: Neat.

On Wednesday morning of this week, I got my hands on the Samsung Series 5 Google Chromebook pictured above. For all of Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of this week, I used the Chromebook exclusively for everything that I do day to day at work. This review will go thoroughly through all of my impressions in that time, but first a bit of history…

The cloud computing revolution that is making things like the Chromebook possible

I’ve been interested in something like the Chromebook since 2008, when I wrote a post over on O’Reilly, called Mac vs PC: Does it matter anymore? The post was largely in reaction to using a first generation Asus Eee PC notebook alongside my other computer for well over a year. It was also written just before I received an HP Tablet computer, which I purchased myself, which I still have to this day, but which was disappointingly heavy, both physically and in terms of software overhead (as it ran my least favorite operating system, Windows Vista). The point of that post and the move to a tablet HP device after so many years of being nearly exclusively a Mac guy was a simple one: 99% of my work is online related and can be done from any machine and the cost to entry for the device was much lower than a brand new Mac.

A year later, I followed that post with another post on this blog, called Cloud computing in the clouds, where I discussed using my Eee PC again on a flight with WiFi, running Jolicloud OS (this was when Chrome as an OS was in it’s pre-embryonic stage of Alpha Beta-ness), and how I was able to get the vast majority of my work done on that device. It also ended up being a great test of the portability of all my data, as Craig Wood, Crowd Fusion’s COO had his MacBook Pro die on him on the trip, and I was able to reset my MacBook, hand it over to him so he could work on it, and continue working more or less normally on the very small screen of my Asus Eee PC. Although I wasn’t running Chrome as an OS at the time, I was using it as my primary browser and the cloud syncing of all my bookmarks and data really paid off on that trip in a tangible way.

Several years later now, the combination of the emergence of the iPad and other tablets and mobile devices, honestly, have all but destroyed the need for any type of netbook device that does 99% of the things you need to do online. On my iPad, I can probably manage 95% of the things I need to do when I’m not at my desk with my fully functional computer. And if I left my desk computer on, I can actually do 100% (albeit in a non-ideal, and somewhat slowed down way) by using a VNC app to access my computer from wherever I have my iPad (like LogMeIn Ignition which is one of my top 10 recommended iPad apps). And oddly enough, using my Samsung Infuse 4G Android-powered phone, I can do even more than I can with my iPad, because it actually can run Flash and it actually supports multitasking (I ditched my iPhone for it after using a Motorola Xoom and a Samsung Galaxy Tab for a while and realizing that there is something really cool about Android). As someone who lives in Google Apps for a good percentage of my work, Android does email, calendars, and documents right. The alternatives on iOS come close, but they’re not quite there.

Also, Apple started offering the MacBook Air. My main computer these days is an 11-inch MacBook Air. It’s hands down my favorite laptop of all time. It can handle literally everything that I need to do on a computer, and it’s usually much faster than other more powerful computers just because of the SSD drive inside it. Also it’s light as can be and fits in my extremely small commuter bag. It doesn’t make any of the compromises that a true netbook seems to make. The MacBook Air + the iPad + Android Phones have definitively killed the netbook, as far as I’m concerned.

But what about the Chromebook?

After 3 days of using the Chromebook exclusively as my only computer, I can say without a doubt that the Chromebook is not a netbook (if you are defining a netbook as a laptop machine that is smaller than a normal laptop and is primarily used for browsing the web). Also, I’ve never used a netbook that handled running the web as nicely as the Chromebook does. Just like I love the Kindle as a single-use reading machine, I found that I loved the Chromebook as a focused, single-use web machine.

I don’t want to go overboard with this next statement, but I do want to make it: I believe, the Chromebook is a new category of computing technology that, much like the iPad, is going to end up filling a need that no one thought they had.

To be clear, here: the strength of this device is not it’s laptop-ness, it’s not the hardware, it’s not even the software. It’s the idea. The focus on just the web (at a time when the web is really coming into itself). The transience of the device. The low cost to entry disposability and replaceability of it. The share-ability of it.

After using the Chromebook for 3 days, I flipped the developer switch on then off, and reset the device to wipe all my data from it and left it in a box at the offices where I work most days in the city. On Monday, Sam Braff who works for Crowd Fusion out in LA is going to be in town, and I’m going to hand him the Chromebook and he’ll login with his Google account, suddenly have everything synced and it will be his machine. He can take it back to LA with him and the next time I visit him, I can login to my account on the machine and everything will be synced again with the notable exception of any local files I’d downloaded to the local file store.

Working solely in a device that is a browser and where you know you and others can log in, log out, throw out the window and still have all your data in the cloud, is something that takes some adjusting to your normal computer-using mindset. There’s something liberating about it. Something neat.

The Samsung Series 5

All the other reviews are calling the Samsung Series 5 a nicely polished version of the CR-48 that everyone has been playing with for a while. I never used one of those so I cannot speak to that. This 12.1″ screened laptop feels a bit heavier than my 11-inch MacBook Air, but it’s still small enough to fit in my extremely small messenger bag.

Some notes:

  • The screen is matte rather than the annoying glossy that all the screens are these days and has a nice variety of viewing angles with no real bad spots that I could tell.
  • The keyboard feels like a not-quite-as-nice version of the standard MacBook keyboards except with some very odd key placement choices that I will go into in depth in a bit.
  • The trackpad doesn’t suck, but it definitely took some getting used to and tweaking of the settings before I got it to a place where I like it. I am annoyed that some of the gesture settings of the trackpad are not adjustable in the settings (like triple-fingered click closes a tab and I found myself accidentally doing this quite a bit).
  • The speakers suck and are extremely tinny, but if you have a nice set of headphones the audio sounds excellent so that’s not a deal breaker. I carry a Jawbone Jambox around in my bag, so I just plugged that in (no bluetooth on the Chromebook), and was streaming some good beats from Google Music in no time.
  • There is one USB port on the right side that is open at all times and available for use. There is another on the left side that is hidden under a little rubbery thing you have to flip out. Odd.
  • SD Card slot.
  • The power cord and supply is really cheap and the brick that comes with it gets extremely hot.
  • Battery life is good. I managed close to 5 hours unplugged while I was actively checking email, browsing webpages, writing and editing documents, chatting in Campfire and AIM (via IM+), viewing an occasional video, and while streaming music for a large part of the time from Google Music Beta.

The Keyboard

There are several very odd choices (called out above) with the keyboard). For example:

  • WTF with the huge and wide CTRL and ALT keys?! I know there is no Apple / Windows keys needed on this device, but the position of these two wide keys is entirely unnatural and ungainly for anyone who has ever typed on a QWERTY before (ie everyone).
  • Each Window in Chrome is the equivalent of another desktop space on other computers. The button in the middle top is used to toggle between windows / spaces. The problem with it is that there is no way to directionally go to the next or previous window or space you were on. You have to actually go through the full list before it resets and begins again from the beginning. The back and next keys are for actually navigating back and next as you would in any browser (and the refresh / reload key functions as you would expect it as well). However, in usage, I really would rather these keys be usable for going to the previous or next space. Alternately, some combination of CTRL and the arrow keys would suffice.
  • ALT + TAB = Go to the next space.
  • ALT + CTRL = Go to the next tab.
  • The fullscreen control is cool, except if you have multiple windows open, once you leave a fullscreen experience for another window where there are multiple tabs not in fullscreen, all windows then toggle out of fullscreen, so it’s impossible to keep any window set as fullscreen. Even if you have all your tabs open in one window and make that window fullscreen and use ALT + CTRL for navigation, inevitably a notification will pop up eventually that will knock you out of fullscreen.
  • Holding down the Power key doesn’t actually power off the device. It just locks the screen. It also doesn’t by default lock the laptop when you close the lid unless you set that up in the settings, which seems to be a bit of a security snafu for a device that is supposed to be disposable. You have to hold down the power button for longer when you are on the lock screen view to actually shut down the machine. This non-instant off seems odd when compared to the instant on of the device.

Odd bits that make the Chromebook not quite ready for prime time

I really think that eventually the Chromebook model is going to be one that we all go “Yeah that makes sense.” One computer / device in every home that is just the local terminal that any member of the family or visitor can log into and have his/her normal computing experience (as far as all things web related go) is a powerful model that I think will eventually catch on. That being said, I do think that the current Chromebook lacks the polish of the iPad to really click with people right now. It’s much more like the original iPhone pre the addition of Apps.

There were multiple odd things that occurred during my usage that highlighted this for me:

  • The 100MB free wireless from Verizon per month is a complete joke. I went through half of it in one two hour session on the first day.
  • When you eventually blow through your 100MBs of free monthly wireless (I did on the second day), you are prompted to purchase a plan. When I clicked on that link, it effectively froze my entire Chromebook experience. It was trying to load the plans from Verizon, but in the meantime, I was not allowed to switch over to WiFi while that was happening and was forced rudely offline. I had to cancel the process after several minutes of nothing happening before I could even select a WiFi network. I’m not sure how to get back to that process either.
  • I tried to hook up my Samsung Infuse 4G to the Chromebook to grab some pictures off of it. You would think this would work seamlessly, since both the Chromebook and my phone are manufactured by Samsung, and both Android and Chrome are coded by Google. Unfortunately, that was not the case. A brief pop-up appeared on the screen when I first connected the USB cable that was connected to the phone, but when I had to select USB storage on the phone itself before it would really be available to the Chromebook, and by the time I had done that, the notification had disappeared and there appeared to be no functional way to actually mount the phone.
  • There’s a GSM slot on the Chromebook, but it doesn’t appear to work at all without going into developer mode and doing some hacking.
  • The developer mode switch and functionality isn’t documented at all in any of the documentation that comes with the Chromebook. On the first day, I managed to accidentally wipe all the settings I’d been tweaking all day by fidgeting with it. Fortunately, I was back up and running within 5 minutes thanks to the way the Chromebook syncs everything to the cloud, but…
  • The Chromebook doesn’t actually sync everything to the cloud. All the locally stored files that I’d downloaded locally before a reset disappeared completely after flipping that developer switch fiasco.
  • Google Music Beta kept crashing in Chrome.
  • Gmail kept crashing in Chrome.
  • Google Docs kept crashing in Chrome.
  • There was lots of crashing due to memory errors, but with an operating system that reboots in 5 seconds, no big deal.
  • It never feels slow. It just starts crashing windows when it runs out of memory due to too many things running at once.

Should you get a Chromebook?

If you’re an early adopter and the idea of a backup machine that you can share amongst your friends / coworkers / family members appeals to you, then yes.

If you’re a business owner who runs any sort of team where all they do is online stuff and where you’re already using Google Apps for all your email etc, then definitely save yourself some money and go Chromebook now.

If you’re just a regular user, then I’d wait a bit and see if the Chromebooks obtain some chrome-like polish over time or if some competitor in the same space arises to destroy them and dominate. Although I’m not bullish on Apple’s ability to deliver anything web-based that is successful, (iTools become .Mac become MobileMe was a 10 year failure and I won’t believe iCloud will really be a change in a positive direction until it actually is) they are the most likely company to currently compete with Google in this space. If Facebook were to get into hardware they might give Google a run for their money too.