Since their introduction a couple of years ago Chromebooks have remained a difficult sell for Google and its partners. The machines produced so far have either lacked quality (see the original Series 5) or value (see the Series 5 550), which has left them looking pale in comparison to low-end laptops or the ever strengthening tablet market. It was something of a surprise then when Google recently announced a new model which featured an attractive, slim design, impressively low cost, and - perhaps most significant of all - an ARM chip inside. Could this finally be the Chromebook we've been waiting for? See Group test: what's the best budget laptop?
Samsung may have been slugging it out with Apple in various courtrooms around the world over design patents recently, but that hasn't stopped it drawing inspiration from the Cupertino giants when it comes to the Chromebook. Although nowhere near as polished, this little machine bears more than a passing external resemblance to the 11” MacBook Air. Whereas the silver casing may appear at first glance to be aluminium, it is in fact plastic, but it feels sturdy and the choice of materials is completely acceptable within this price range. The form is smart, reasonably cool, and is only spoiled by the large bulbous hinge where the screen pivots. Still, it does act as something to grip when carrying the Chromebook around - a welcome change from the perma-slippy technology that we are normally offered these days. See also Google Nexus 10 preview.
Internally the big news is that ARM processor - a Samsung Exynos 5 Dual-Core 1.7Ghz CPU - which we've no doubt will soon be appearing in upcoming Samsung tablets and Smartphones. The advantage of using this chip in the Chromebook is a reduced manufacturing cost, low-power consumption and efficient heat dissipation - which in real world terms means that the unit remains usably cool without the need for a fan (making it practically silent) and offers a decent battery life of around 6 hours. A 16GB SSD drive holds the OS and offers meagre but workable storage for offline documents and apps, of which there are now significantly more than before. The SSD also aids with the tablet style instant-on nature of the machine and quick boot times. Take a look at Google Nexus 7 review.
Samsung Chromebook 2012 review: Ports
The slim, tapered edges afford little space for ports, with only an SD card slot and headphone jack managing to squeeze onto the left hand side. Turning the unit around reveals two USB slots (one of which is USB 3.0), a sim slot - which presumably means that an as yet unannounced 3G feature may appear in the future - and a full size HDMI port. It's good to have these features but we have to admit to finding the placement of them something of a problem. Due to the universal law of USB quantum mechanics which states that ‘any USB device being plugged into a slot will invariably be the wrong way up', we found ourselves having to reach around the back while plugging in flash drives, which is a bit fiddly. It's not a deal-breaker, especially as the unit is so light that picking it up is no effort at all, but it isn't ideal. The HDMI output had a few quirks too. We plugged the unit into a HDTV and played a Youtube video, but rather than resplendent visions of Pandas sneezing we were only presented with a blank screen and the audio playing through the TV. See all laptop reviews.
Changing any settings wasn't an option as the the Chromebook screen was also blank, and no amount of key pressing or closing the case would enable us to revive it. Eventually we powered off the machine and that seemed to solve the problem.
Samsung Chromebook 2012 review: Screen
In this age of retina tablets and smartphones the humble screen can often seem crude in comparison. For a machine that costs £229 you're most certainly not getting the best display around, in fact its not that great at all. The 11.6” screen boasts a resolution of 1366x768, but the matte finish lends it a slightly frosted look while the colour saturation can be somewhat bland. The display is bright though and when using something like Google Docs or watching a Youtube video it's perfectly acceptable if not exceptional.
Samsung Chromebook 2012 review: Keyboard
The ultrabook phenomena has seen a deluge of expensive machines that have often failed in the important area of keyboards and touchpads. It leaves us scratching our heads then how this cheap, tiny, laptop can offer such a compelling typing experience. The chiclet style board is responsive, comfortable, and surprisingly roomy - a very long way from the cramped netbooks that normally occupy this price range. The touchpad is also very good, with efficient palm cancellation preventing any sudden location jumps in the middle of documents and the once again spacious size resulting in a trouble-free experience. The pad also recognizes two finger gestures such as scrolling and right clicking, and can be tapped anywhere in the upper area silently or by a loud clicking integrated button on the lower portion.
Samsung Chromebook 2012 review: Battery and Performance
For general tasks - writing documents, Youtube, social media, and basic games - the Chromebook performs fine. We did experience a few occasions when switching resolutions on Youtube (from SD to 720p) caused the video to freeze while the audio continued. Simply pausing the stream or reloading seemed to clear it though, and to be fair on the most part things were efficient and speedy, with only a few stutters here and there when lots of tabs were open. Google claims a battery hour of around six hours and in everyday tasks we found this to be accurate.
Samsung Chromebook 2012 review: Chrome OS
When Chrome OS was first released one of the main issues people had with it was the basic nature of the layout - essentially a browser window - and the fact that you couldn't do anything without an internet connection. Google has worked hard to continually update the fledgling system and today it's a far more capable environment to work within. The main difference now is that Chromebooks allows you to run quite a few apps offline (there's even a section on the Chrome Web store marked ‘Offline' so you can be sure which ones work). Features still remain limited, but at least you can now be productive on a plane, train, or in wifi free areas. Google Docs has the facilities for you to create new documents or edit existing ones while offline (as long as you first enable the feature in Google Drive settings), which then sync up with your Drive when you go online again. Speadsheet users have no such option though, so bare that in mind if you are more prolific with numbers than words. Of course you can't load any software that isn't in the Chrome store or accessible from a browser, which might be an issue for some users, but there is a large selection of software now available in the store including essentials like Dropbox, Skydrive, Evernote, Angry birds, TweetDeck, and many others most of which are free.
Samsung Chromebook 2012 review: File Manager
The rudimentary file manager allows you to see what you have stored locally, search any USB drives you plug in, and move files between them. It's not pretty but it does the job. Apps like Picasa and Google Docs also have options to upload content from your hard drive or USB stick, so adding pictures and portfolios directly to the web is another route.
Samsung Chromebook 2012 review: Printing
One thing you can't do is plug a printer directly into a Chromebook. Instead you can either print to an internet enabled cloud printer, or to a standard printer that is attached to a Windows or Mac machine running the Chrome browser, and with Google Cloud Print enabled in the settings.
Samsung Chromebook 2012 review Backup
One of the huge advantages of a Chromebook is that due to the online nature of the machine everything is constantly being updated and backed up to the cloud. Documents never need to be saved once they're created, as they do it automatically while you type. It requires a certain amount of confidence in Google, but the convenience is a huge selling point. Plus if you buy a new machine you simply log into your Google ID and all the files are instantly available. Each new machine also comes with 100GB of Google Drive storage for two years, which gives you the opportunity to really explore the Chrome platform.