A year ago, we saw the first Samsung Chromebook and we were left feeling pretty underwhelmed with it. Not only was the hardware clunky and slow, but Google’s much-anticipated Chrome OS was far more basic and limited in what it could do that we were expecting.
The whole aim of Chrome OS was to embrace cloud computing: the low-spec laptop in your hands didn’t need to be powerful or have much storage as everything was done through the Chrome web browser.
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Of course, the obvious drawback was that as soon as the ‘net connection was removed, the Series 5 turned into a useless paperweight. Needless to say, it wasn’t a hit with customers.
Rather than accept defeat, Google has rallied with a new version of Chrome OS and, along with Samsung, some new hardware in the form of the Series 5 550 Chromebook. See also: Group test: what's the best budget laptop?
The 550 isn’t that different from the 500 it replaces - most people would be hard-pushed to tell the difference at a glance. The keyboard and touchpad, for example, are the same with the slightly controversial key layout which ditches function keys - and even the Caps Lock and Delete keys - for Chrome OS-specific buttons.
Keyboard and touchpad
Where the Caps Lock key should be, a magnifying glass resides and opens a new browser tab. Above the Backspace key, where Delete is traditionally found, is the Series 5 550’s power button and, to the left of it is a series of ‘function’ keys for brightness, volume, back, forward and taking a screenshot.
Given that the 550 is as thin as an Ultrabook, it’s no surprise that the keys have short travel. That isn’t the problem though: their springs are slightly too stiff which means it’s too easy to miss a few letters when typing quickly. Keys are full size - as big as a desktop keyboard’s - but the short spacebar (necessary to cram in the cursor keys) is a frustration if you use it as a point of reference for other keys.
Google says it has re-written the touchpad driver to make it more responsive, and we can tell the difference. It’s disappointing that isn’t better support for gestures, though. Two-fingered scrolling is possible, but there’s still no pinch-to-zoom or swiping.
To click, you simply press anywhere on the touchpad, but you can also tap to single-click as well. Right-clicking takes a bit of getting used to as you have to click the pad with two fingers on it.
Screen and ports
The 12.1in screen is nothing to write home about. It has a standard 1280 x 800 resolution, a non-reflective matte finish, reasonable brightness and average contrast. Viewing angles aren’t great, so colours shift as soon as you tilt it forwards or backwards.
A single USB port can be found on either side, with an SDHC/SDXC card reader on the right-hand edge. Along the left side is a combined mic/headphone mini-jack port, a gigabit Ethernet port (which has to be opened before connecting a cable) and a full-size DisplayPort ++ output.
The latter two connectors were missing from the original Series 5 Chromebook, but DisplayPort (especially full-size) is a rare and odd choice. No converter or cable is included in the box, so you’ll have to buy one if you want to hook up the 550 to a screen which has HDMI, DVI or VGA inputs.
Battery and performance
The non-removable battery lasted around six hours in our test, which involved using the laptop during a normal working day for checking email, various websites, creating documents and watching a few videos over lunch.
Inside, components have been beefed up. Gone is the puny Intel Atom processor, replaced by a slightly less puny dual-core Celeron. RAM is doubled from 2GB to 4GB, but there’s the same 16GB SSD for limited local storage. The Chromebook felt fairly sprightly, even when running more than 10 browser tabs. It was also super-fast to boot up and resumed from standby in a couple of seconds.
WIth the recent launch of Google Drive, the limited local storage is less of an issue than it was. You can store all your documents and files in the cloud (Drive gives you 5GB of free storage, and Google Docs formats don’t count towards this). You can upgrade to 25GB for $2.49 per month (approx. £1.60). Of course, you can also use the SD card reader and USB ports to add local storage.
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