Samsung Chromebook Series 5 laptop review

The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook is a sleek laptop, but Chrome OS underwhelms. Updated, 10 June 2011

Google Chrome OS is here. The Series 5 from Samsung is the first of the so-called Chromebooks, and I'm not sure it's exactly what we all had in mind when Google announced Chrome OS two years ago. Back then, our imaginations pictured computers that were thinner and lighter than those with enough horsepower to run Windows. We thought we would see computers running on ARM processors, not just x86. We were promised it would look like the Chrome browser with "a new windowing system".

Frankly, I'm not sure we really knew what to expect. But if someone had told us, back then, that the first Chromebook would be a large and simple netbook that does little more than run only the Chrome browser, I don't think we would have made such a big deal about Google producing its own operating system.

Samsung Series 5 Chromebook: The hardware

The Samsung Series 5 is a 12.1in netbook with a pretty sleek, very rounded design. In fact, one could say it's the first true netbook, as it is perhaps the first mass-market laptop designed solely to get you on the ‘net. It's powered by an Intel Atom N570 dual-core CPU, has 2GB of RAM, and a 16GB solid state drive. The left side houses a small power plug, air vent, and headset/mic jack, with a USB port and a proprietary port for a VGA dongle hidden behind a plastic door. Another USB port and a SIM card slot, behind another plastic door, lie along the right edge. An SD card reader graces the front. It's all fairly basic, as laptop hardware goes. There's no Ethernet port, no Bluetooth, no digital video output, and the keyboard isn't backlit.

What's there is pretty useable, at least from a hardware perspective. The keyboard's keys are large, spaced out well, and easy to type on. The clickpad is quite big and tracks nicely. The HD webcam works as well as most, but of course you're limited to using it in web apps (which means no Skype).

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The display has a glossy border, but the screen itself has a matte finish that reduces reflections. It gets pretty bright, but the colour gamut and contrast doesn't seem that impressive, and something about the white balance looks a little... odd. Everything seems to have a slightly bluish tinge to it, most noticeable when you're looking at light grey areas. There's something soft about the way Chrome OS renders fonts, too.

Used to a particular Function key shortcut? There are no function keys. There's no delete key either, for that matter, though you can hold down ALT while pressing backspace to delete characters in front of the cursor. Google has excised the Caps Lock key in favour of a Search key, too. Used to touchpad gestures? The only one supported is two-finger scrolling. There's no pinch-to-zoom, no swiping to go back or forward.

Chromebook Series 5 laptop

Google has touted some of the benefits of a laptop that essentially does nothing but run a maximised Chrome browser. They say it boots fast, and it does. You go from cold off to usable in about 12 seconds, and resuming from sleep only takes a second or two. There's little chance of a virus infection when you can't really run executables and the entire file system is encrypted. The battery seemed to last at least 8 hours in my testing, though its hard to make a comparable benchmark when all the system does is run a web browser.

The Series 5 Chromebook certainly suffers from the general sluggishness we've come to expect from Atom-based netbooks even though there's no heavy-duty Windows operating system in the way. Sure, lighter web apps like Evernote run fine, but even Angry Birds from the Chrome web store is a choppy mess in HD mode (which isn't actually high-definition). That's right: your smartphone can run Angry Birds more smoothly than this laptop.

I think Samsung might have been better off opting for a processor with a little more oomph, like AMD's Fusion E-350; it would have knocked an hour or so off the battery life, but video playback, CPU performance, and graphics-accelerated web features would be much improved.

The hardware has a few rough edges in addition to the performance problems. The covers over the ports on the left and right side feel really flimsy, as though they'll tear off within a few months. The sound quality from stereo speakers is truly awful, even for a very small and inexpensive laptop, and they emit a little "pop!" almost every time I play a new piece of media or adjust the volume. The whole unit feels a bit heavy for its size. 1.5kg doesn't sound like a lot, but a laptop this size, this thin, looks like it should weigh less.

Next page: The Chromebook's software, and living on the web >>

Samsung Series 5 Chromebook: The software

I don't really need to describe what it's like to use Chrome OS to you. Just launch the Chrome browser, maximise the window, and try to live your entire computing life right there. True, Google has tossed in a rudimentary file browser and a pop-over media player, slightly separating Chrome OS from "just the Chrome browser." Both are so poorly designed and feature-poor that they're practically unusable.

Documentation is a major problem. There's a help menu stuffed under the wrench icon that covers a few basics, but doesn't tell you about important shortcuts like CTRL-M to open the file browser. You can press CTRL-ALT-? to view a neat keyboard overlay that will show you keyboard shortcuts, but oddly enough, CTRL-M is absent from it. It makes me wonder what else I'm missing.

Most of these shortcuts exist to give you access to the kinds of things you would click on an icon, taskbar, or other intuitive visual feature to access in Windows, OS X, or Linux. For instance, CTRL-N opens a new window: a separate full-screen Chrome window to fill with new tabs and switch back and forth from with a touch of the Switch Windows button. In another operating system, there would be an icon for this, or you would simply launch the Chrome browser again. I'm sure the computer nerds at Google (and elsewhere) are comfortable using keyboard shortcuts for basic tasks, but have they ever watched an average user operate their computer?

Want to print something? Google Cloud Print is your only option, which means you need either an HP ePrint capable printer, or a printer hooked up to a Windows or Mac based PC running the Chrome browser (and of course, said PC has to be powered on and connected to the Internet to enable printing). At least you can watch a little Netflix, right? Well, no. Netflix's streaming site informs us: "We're working with Google to ensure that Chromebook users can instantly watch TV shows and movies from Netflix. More details will be announced in the coming months."

At least the browser has Flash 10.2 built in, so Hulu works... sort of. Video clips from many sites often stutter and chop, especially high definition and full-screen video.

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Chromebook Series 5 shortcuts

Samsung Series 5 Chromebook: Living on the web

Yes, a computer built to run a browser and nothing else has its advantages. Everything stays in sync with your Chrome browser on other computers. It boots fast and wakes up fast. It can be seamlessly updated to new software without even prompting you (a double-edged sword if ever there was one). But for every benefit of "it's just the web", I find at least two major annoyances that make me pine for a less lightweight operating system.

Over the several days spent writing this review, I can't tell you how many times I was frustrated by my inability to simply drag something from one window to another. I tried using web apps to edit pictures and make charts in spreadsheets, but I kept wishing for my faster, more full-featured native desktop applications. Heaven forbid there's no Wi-Fi on my flight and I want to listen to some music, because I can't store much media on the small internal flash.

Media playback in general is a chore - the little popup media box feels like an afterthought, and format support is limited. I can forget about editing RAW photos taken from my DSLR, for instance. Using Chrome OS made me feel like I was stuck on a never-ending hunt for workarounds. Sure, you can usually find one, but is that any way to live with your computer: one workaround after the other?

Next page: Our original preview of the Samsung Chromebook Series 5, by PC World's Melissa J Perenson, from May 2011 >>

We got our hands on the new Google Chrome OS laptop from Samsung: the Samsung Chromebook Series 5. Here's our first look review. What follows is our original preview of the Samsung Chromebook Series 5, by PC World's Melissa J Perenson, from May 2011

Hang on, folks, because mobile computing has just got a bit more interesting. Google's Chrome OS is finally ready for the wild, two years after its launch, and the Samsung Chromebook Series 5, due out on June 15 in the UK and five other countries, will be one of two laptops to showcase Google's web-based operating system.

When Chrome OS was first announced two years ago, I wondered if we really needed another mobile OS. Many of my questions still stand, especially given the runaway success of Android. But after taking the Samsung Chromebook Series 5 for a spin tonight, I was pleasantly surprised to see how far some aspects of the laptop and its OS have come.

Samsung Chromebook Series 5: Design

From the outside, Samsung's Chromebook looks like any other ultralight laptop, save for the Google Chrome logo on the outside cover. It measures 295 by 218 by 20mm - compact, but not especially svelte.

The Samsung's weight doesn't impress, either. At 1.5kg, it's no featherweight like the Apple MacBook Air; however, at least the Chromebook felt deceptively lighter than it is, a phenomenon I'd credit to how well-balanced the laptop felt in hand. I was surprised by how easily I could grip the Chromebook in one hand, actually.

Samsung Chromebook Series 5: Fast starter

One of the big selling points of Chromebook is its near-instant-on capability. It starts up in under 10 seconds from a cold boot, and it's ready to use as soon as you open the lid to wake it from sleep. The latter mirrors the sense of immediacy one gets with a Google Android 3.0 tablet, but that cold boot time remains an important differentiator. Android continues to have overhead bottlenecks that cause startup and shutdown times to take some time.

None of the Android 3.0 tablets I've tested have wowed me with their boot times; and for a couple, I was literally able to grab some iced tea and down half of it before the tablet came to life again.

While some of the Chromebook's startup zippiness has to be credited to the design of Google's Chrome OS, some of it, perhaps, could be due to the components inside. The Series 5 actually runs components that echo today's netbooks: It has a 1.66GHz dual-core Intel Atom N570 processor, 2GB of RAM and a 16GB mSATA SSD (used for caching data locally). Those specs are meatier than what you'll find in an Android tablet today.

Physical connectivity on the Series 5 Chromebook is minimal. All ports along the sides are tucked away beneath covers, except for a lone USB 2.0 port at the far right rear of the laptop. You get an SDHC card slot at front, another USB 2.0 port beneath a cover at the left, a video-out port, and a full-size SIM card slot (on the 3G-capable white and titanium models). The 3.5mm headphone jack doubles as a microphone input as well; and the Chromebook has a 1Mp webcam for video chat.

Samsung Chromebook Series 5

Samsung Chromebook Series 5 keyboard

The island-style keyboard on the Chromebook felt very roomy and comfortable for my touch-typist fingers. I liked the smooth and roomy trackpad as well; it wasn't stiff, as I've found with other touchpads that double as the mouse buttons. The keyboard swaps the function keys of yore for a row of browser-friendly keys, though the idea of having navigation buttons like page back, page forward, refresh, and new window situated so far up on the keyboard seems like it may be counterproductive (I'd prefer such keys to be more handily situated, but I'll need more time with the laptop to tell how well they work in practice).

I was encouraged at the Google I/O keynote introducing the Chromebook to hear about the file manager that's been added to Chromebook. I've been tracking the challenges of native file handling in mobile operating systems, and was eager to give this feature a try on Chromebook.

My torture test was simple: I pulled out a random USB drive and attached it to the USB port. Chrome OS quickly recognised external storage was attached, and up popped the file manager as another tab in the Chrome browser onscreen. I was able to view my folders and files, select a file, preview the image in a pane on the right, or double-click to open the image.

The high-resolution images didn't always automatically resize to fit the screen (as they do when you double-click on a photo in Microsoft Windows Explorer and open it Window Photo Viewer), but they looked good on the 12.1in (1280x800-pixel) display. Really good. Colours were vibrant and accurately rendered - no small trick, as we've seen from Android 3.0's problems. The file manager remains limited for now - the version I used lacked the ability to do basic file copy functions - but a Google rep promised that functionality will be in place soon.

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Samsung Chromebook Series 5: Interface

While nosing around the Chrome OS interface, I looked at how apps appear in the Chrome browser (see the image below) I also tried replicating my usual web browsing experience in the Chromebook's Chrome browser. (Hrm. I think I just tested how many times one can put Chrome into a sentence.) The usage I was trying to gauge here was the scenario that sees 30-some-odd tabs open simultaneously - and that's just in one window.

Samsung Chromebook S5 interface

While I learned about a couple of interface shortcuts, like jumping to a different tab by pressing the tab number and a key combo, while talking with Google reps about this scenario, I learned that right now, it's not easy to move among scores of open tabs. Those tabs were reduced down to tiny tabs with just "..." as a tab identifier - and that's no way to figure out what's actually on that tab.

Considering these tabs will, in the Chrome OS universe, represent your open documents, media files, applications, and web pages, this is an interface challenge that Google will need to crack, and soon. Google reps said that several approaches are being considered, but nothing has been nailed down as yet. Of course, this is where Chromebook and Chrome OS's regular updates, currently scheduled for once every six weeks, will come in handy.

Samsung Chromebook Series 5: Specs

  • 1.66GHz dual-core Intel Atom N570 processor
  • 2GB RAM
  • 16GB mSATA SSD
  • Google Chrome OS
  • 12.1in (1280x800) display
  • USB 2.0
  • video-out
  • 1Mp webcam
  • 3.5mm headphone jack/mic
  • 295x218x20mm
  • 1.5kg
  • 1.66GHz dual-core Intel Atom N570 processor
  • 2GB RAM
  • 16GB mSATA SSD
  • Google Chrome OS
  • 12.1in (1280x800) display
  • USB 2.0
  • video-out
  • 1Mp webcam
  • 3.5mm headphone jack/mic
  • 295x218x20mm
  • 1.5kg

OUR VERDICT

Ultimately, the whole Chromebook experiment feels like it's just a couple years ahead of its time. There may come a day, sometime in the not-too-distant future, when web applications have the power and sophistication necessary to really replace most of what you do on a computer. Together with even more powerful, affordable, and energy-efficient processors, cheaper flash memory, and a handful of major revisions to the Chrome OS, a computer built to run a web browser and little else might make sense. Until then, there are plenty of Windows-based laptops in the £350-£400 range that may not have the sleek look of a Series 5 Chromebook, and may not boot up as quickly, but offer such vastly superior functionality that I can't imagine recommending a Chromebook instead. For now, laptops based on Chrome OS feel like a novelty for tech enthusiasts. Even Android 3.0 tablets feel more powerful, flexible, and useful.

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