Chromebook: Day One

A stock photo of the Samsung Series 3 Chromebook.

A stock photo of the Samsung Series 3 Chromebook.

Today I started messing around with a Chromebook. Specifically, a Samsung Series 3 Chromebook. Chromebooks are designed around Google’s Chrome web browser. Aside from a few built-in apps, everything runs through Chrome. This also means that everything on the laptop is linked to a Google account. Chromebooks will synchronize much of the data locally, so you don’t need a constant internet connection, but the Chromebook experience largely depends on having one.

I am going to reserve final judgement on the hardware until I’ve had more time to mess with it, but I’ll break down the specs for you. It has an 11.6 inch display, with a resolution of 1366 x 768. Outside of the display, keyboard, and trackpad, most of the Chromebook’s hardware is based on mobile technology. It has a dual-core ARM processor, which isn’t as powerful as a higher-end laptop, but it sips batteries instead of chugging them. It has 2 GB of RAM, which would have been standard on a laptop in 2007. It has 16 gigabytes of onboard storage -- the same as an iPod Nano. There is also the obligatory webcam.  In fact, with the exception of the keyboard and display, you’re basically getting a Galaxy S III, though the processor in the Chromebook is a little faster than those found in its pocket-sized brethren.

None of this sounds very impressive, but there’s one more very important fact one needs to know about the Chromebook: it costs $249. That isn’t a typo. This little laptop isn’t even the lowest-end model(it is one rung above it; I wouldn’t recommend going any lower). The specs aren’t particularly exciting, but the bang for the buck is undeniable. My few hours with the device so far have proven the hardware to be equal to its expected tasks.

How much work can you get done in a web browser? Well, a lot, as it turns out. Google has been pushing their suite of office applications for some time; they’re just as functional here. Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides cover the commonly used Word, Excel, and Powerpoint, respectively. While Office power-users will likely find something to lament in a transition to Google’s alternatives, like the lack of a simple Mail Merge, but for general use these apps are perfectly useable. Advanced features are available, but you need to learn Google’s App Scripting language to take advantage of them.

ChromeOS can be extended by downloading apps from the Chrome Web Store, which features a surprising variety of applications. Most of them are just links to web-based services, but installing the apps gives them rights to sync their data to your Chromebook, letting you use them offline. There are a multitude of games, many of them popular iOS, Android, and Facebook ports.

Chrome has built-in support for Flash and Java, so websites that normally falter on mobile devices still function well. Netflix and Hulu videos play without skipping a beat, straight from the web. I have watched several 720p videos on it. I’ve read that 1080p video should work as well, but I have not tried that yet.

So, after just a few hours with the Chromebook, I have to say I am impressed. Sure, it is mostly just a web browser with a laptop shell around it, but it has been responsive and quick. I’m going to take a few weeks to really dig into this thing and see how it handles the full Impoverished Geek experience. I’ll talk in more detail next week, and in a month I will follow up with long-term impressions.

Posted on March 12, 2013 .