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).
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.
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 >>