Review: Samsung Chromebook (2012)

Google and Samsung have forged a beautiful partnership, with consumer devices that often go up against rival Apple in the smartphone market. But while Samsung’s efforts in the world of Windows seem to be dissipating, their entry into Google’s tech environments is only beginning to escalate, especially with the introduction of the Chromebook (2012 Model), the latest Chromebook running Google’s cloud-based OS, from Samsung.

And it all starts with some striking design. Samsung’s has created a strikingly pretty piece of plastic here whose design is so unapologetically Apple-like, i.e. the Macbook Air, that if you squint you’d confuse the two. It’s remarkably small at just 0.8” thin and featherweight at 2.5 pounds (yet feels lighter), and ships without an optical drive, standard hard drive, or spinning fan, making this one of the lightest, quietest, and most innocuous computers you’ll ever pick up.

Samsung’s ARM-based Dual-core 1.7Ghz Exynos 5 CPU is the brains of the operation, paired with 2GB of DDR3 RAM and 16GB of SSD storage. Google has promised just about 6.3 hours of battery life, which is quite accurate. Most of its external media plugs are located on the back, including single USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports, a full-size HDMI port, and the itty-bitty AC power plug. There’s also a SD Card on the side and dummy 3G Sim slot (a carryover from the 3G-enabled version, no doubt), though with the Chrome OS’s reliance on the cloud for storage (and Google’s generous 100GB Google Drive infusion) it’s puzzling why this or any Chromebook would need much external storage, let alone a speedy 3.0 USB slot.

Networking is 100% WiFi, and this machine supports 802.11 a, b, g. and n connections with dual antennas and even Bluetooth 3.0, with nary an ethernet port to be found. A built-in 1 megapixel webcam and microphone are where you’d normally find them for easy video chats (Google+ only, sorry Skype users) and voice searches within the browser. A 3G version available if you want to make this Chromebook truly portable, which for those of you constantly on the move may be your only real option to keep it functional away from WiFi hotspots.

You’d better get used to the screen, as you’ll be staring at it a lot. Those wondering what makes this Chromebook so inexpensive, here’s your answer. Samsung – a giant in HD displays, has given this budget-laptop a decent 11.6-inch 1,366 x 768 display – unspectacular by any definition but good enough for most web-browsing, streaming video, and document editing. The screen’s coating can make the picture look dull and muted, especially with the brightness scaled back, and viewing angles are pretty much non-existent. Let’s just say that it gets the job done and not much else.

There are two grated 3W speakers on the undercarriage, which are quite capable of pumping out decently loud, if washed out, audio that pretty much matches the screen resolution experience: not great, but highly usable.

The keyboard is fantastic, which again falls in line with Apple’s Macbook Air, but Samsung’s chiclet-style keys are really fun for those of us who simply love to type. It’s mostly a standard Windows/Mac QWERTY layout, but there are no Windows/Command keys, nor is there a Caps Lock or any of the standard Function keys. Instead, there are pre-mapped keys for searching and a bevy of system-related keys for volume, refresh, and more.
The trackpad was surprisingly responsive, easily one of the best I’ve ever used on a laptop. Cursor speed – which is adjustable – was perfect and single-clicks were spot-on (right-clicking was trickier but still far better than most PC-based trackpad solutions). Two-finger scrolling – paramount when browsing – was more than acceptable. Still, none of this didn’t stop me from plugging in an external USB mouse and using that as my main pointer, however.
Samsung’s budget-priced option performs well, especially in basic web browsing and most of Google’s cloud-based programs, with Google Drive being especially fluid. But YouTube sutters, as did Hulu and even most Flash-style games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope. And thanks to interfaces that are beyond confusing trying to download offline versions only makes things worse, meaning most will have to endure long download times every time they want a ‘quick’ game. I love Kingdom Rush, but having to download over 30 megs for every session killed my interest quickly.

I absolutely loved the look of the Chromebook and its exceptionally smooth and fantastic keyboard, but in the end it’s hard for me to recommend based on one aspect alone: it’s a laptop-esque computer that’s running off smartphone-quality guts that feels a bit staggered by its OS. So it’s difficult to recommend to anyone looking to replace the laptop they’re using now. As a consumer laptop, even a secondary one, there’s absolutely nothing even a budget Windows laptop or sub-$300 Android tablet (with a keyboard + mouse combo) can’t do much, much better – apart from booting up quickly. As it stands, Chrome OS feels like an OS that would be great in high-security research labs or in areas like public libraries or information kiosks, and not so much in the hands of personal users who want a more robust series of options.

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