Chromebook: Extended Review

The Samsung Series 3 Chromebook(or, to make typing/reading easier, the SS3c) is in many ways a flagship device for Google’s ChromeOS. Despite its low price tag, this Chromebook fulfills the promises of ChromeOS: it is fast, light, and secure. Because of its low price tag, I just went out and bought one without hesitation. Here’s a more in-depth follow up to my initial thoughts.

Fair warning: lots of words.

Build Quality

It is hard to know what to expect with a $249 laptop. My first inclination is to compare it to higher-end ultrabooks, due to the SS3c’s size and design. My second thought is to keep my expectations well-tempered, as there is a rather significant cost difference.

Overall, the build quality of the SS3c is not bad. Its plastic construction is not as solid or rigid as a unibody metal enclosure like the one on a MacBook Air, but it does not feel like it will come apart from regular use. Nothing shakes or rattles when you move it, and the parts look like they are locked into place quite tightly. If you grip and lift it by one of the wrist rests, it may flex enough to click the trackpad. This happened to me several times, but it is an easy habit to break.

The hinge and display bezel are probably the cheapest-feeling parts. The display Chromebook I saw at a local Best Buy had been damaged by being bent too far back. I am hesitant to risk the screen on my own Chromebook, so I have been very cautious with it. The bezel flexes quite a bit near the bottom, though to be fair this is a spot on the laptop most people won’t be touching. Having been spoiled by the smooth-gliding hinges on Unibody MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs, I found opening the Chromebook to require more effort than I’d like. It’s not that the hinge isn’t perfectly functional, it’s just that you won’t be opening it up one-handed any time soon.

The hinge is also an ugly lump on an otherwise smooth lid, making it hard to stow the Chromebook in a bag without concern for damaging either it.

Display

The first thing most people notice about laptops is their screen. A notebook’s display is one of its primary interfaces with the user. If the screen is hard to read, it makes the experience unbearable. The SS3c’s screen is an 11.6 inch, 1366x768 matte LCD with an LED backlight. That’s 137 pixels per inch, which is sharp but not retina-display sharp. Its brightness is measured at 200 nits, which is reasonably bright. However, that’s its maximum brightness, which means that lowering brightness to increase battery life can make things hard to read.

All things considered, the display is okay for the price. Mid-range PC laptops still fall into the same range of brightness and pixel density, and even the 11-inch MacBook Air is the same resolution, though it is nearly twice as bright. Viewing angles are not great, either, so don’t expect to show off videos or presentations to onlookers via the built-in display.

The SS3c has a light sensor which automatically adjusts screen brightness to help improve battery life. This can be very annoying, and can only be disabled by putting the Chromebook in Developer Mode, which is not particularly user-friendly, and not likely to happen in corporate and educational environments. How annoying is it? If you move your head, the shadow it casts can hit the light sensor and in turn make the display go quite dim. I have a habit of leaning in when I read; every time I do this the SS3c goes dim.

Because the display is matte, you trade color vibrancy for glare reduction. It tends to make colors slightly dull. Nothing pops off the screen like it does on glossy laptops, but you can also type in almost any light. If you are just typing up a document this isn’t a big deal, but if you are watching a video on Netflix you won’t be wowed by the clarity. The matte display on my MacBook Pro doesn’t seem to be quite as dull, but, again, it cost a lot more money.

The SS3c has an HDMI output. It works well enough, though it takes a little more force than I’d like to plug an HDMI cable in. A key combination will swap the launcher bar from one display to another, but I could not get display mirroring to work; it displayed an error every time I hit the key combination to enable it.

I tested dual display mode for a few hours, and found that while there was a bit of choppiness, it was nothing unbearable. Videos occasionally skipped a frame, and scrolling web pages wasn’t as smooth as when running solely on the built-in display. I did not spend a lot of time trying to get video mirroring to work, but I imagine that if it did(or if you could disable the built-in display) things might operate a bit more smoothly. I will look into the issue further for my final review.

Keyboard

Since first gaining popularity on Sony VAIOs and MacBooks, the chiclet keyboard has become nearly ubiquitous. Although they lack the strong tactile feedback of older keyboards, they are quiet and low-profile. They tend to look neater, though they don’t do much to actually keep dirt and other particles from sneaking in.

The first thing I noticed about the keyboard on the SS3c is the lack of a backlight. I have been using MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs for my personal and work computers for some time now, and I cannot stress how fantastic a backlit keyboard is. I tend to prefer ambient lighting to direct lighting, which often means the labels on keys are hard to see. During frantic typing sessions this hardly matters, but when your fingers aren’t on the home row you’ll find yourself squinting.

The bigger issue I’ve had with the SS3c’s keyboard is that the keys occasionally get stuck. They quickly click back into place on their own, but when you are hammering away at the keys, it is disconcerting to have one stick. The faster I type, the more often this seems to happen. There have also been a few instances where it has missed keypresses, or even entire small words, although I think this is likely due to software, not hardware. If you plan on doing a lot of super-fast typing, this may not be the keyboard for you. You can plug in a USB keyboard and go nuts, but that would significantly limit the portability of laptop at that point.

Chromebook keyboards vary slightly from the norm; instead of a Caps Lock key, there is a search key. Instead of a platform-specific function key, like the Windows key or Apple’s Command key, the ctrl and alt keys are wider on the left side. Other standard keys are the same as those on any other chiclet keyboard. The Chromebook also doesn’t have F-keys in the traditional sense; function keys exist, but are all in place to adjust hardware settings or act as quick-keys for browser functions like go back, go forward, or reload.

Trackpad

Talk to someone who has used a unibody Mac laptop and they’ll probably swear by the trackpad and its gestures. Talk to someone using a pre-Windows 8 laptop and they’ll likely swear about their trackpad. A well-designed trackpad is a thing of beauty; a bad one feels like a punishment.

The trackpad on the SS3c is a bit thinner than I’d like. It is positioned in such a way that it rarely gets in the way while typing(although it sometimes does). It does not track as smoothly as a MacBook’s glass trackpad, but its relatively large size makes it very easy to use. If the extent of your trackpad experience is with old PC laptops, you will probably be pleasantly surprised. If you have used a current-generation notebook or mobile device, you will probably be underwhelmed. It feels just shy of perfectly responsive: not enough to affect productivity, but just enough to be noticeable. Two-finger clicking and scrolling in particular seem like they could be refined a bit more. In the end, it is functional but not outstanding.

Storage, Online and Off

The SS3c has 16 gigabytes of storage on a solid state drive(SSD). SSDs offer significantly faster performance compared to the spinning platters of traditional hard drives, as well as a lack of moving parts to break. Their downside is their cost, and this is readily apparent with the paltry amount of storage provided. For comparison, the $199 Chromebook by Acer includes a 160 GB traditional hard drive.

That said, it doesn’t matter too much. The Chromebook is all about cloud storage, and as long as you don’t plan on storing hours of video or high-res photography(which the Chromebook isn’t designed for anyway), you will not feel the squeeze. Everything on this laptop is tied into Google’s web-based services, so local storage isn’t even an issue for the most part.

Google is so keen on proving their point on this subject that they’ve included 100 GB of online storage via their Google Drive service to anyone purchasing this particular model of Chromebook, as well as some other devices.

Let’s put the provided 16 gigabytes of storage in perspective: back in the 1990’s, entire runs of encyclopedias were stored on 650 megabyte CDs. The Chromebook has over 24 times that amount of space. You’ll have plenty of room for text documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, as well as room for some pictures and videos. Just don’t expect to store your music collection or video collection on-board.

To put you at ease about media access, remember this: Google provides web-based storage for music -- Google Music will hold up to 25,000 of your songs. Amazon Instant, Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube all work on the Chromebook, as well.

Processor and Other Hardware

If you’re the type to examine the specs of a device before buying, the Chromebook won’t excite you much. Powered by a dual-core Exynos 5 with a quad-core GPU, the SS3c’s processor is on the mid-to-high end of mobile processors. The Exynos can’t hold a candle to the processors found in higher-end laptops, and even most mid-range ones. It has enough oomph for general web use, though, and unless you open up a ton of tabs with complicated pages, you shouldn’t worry too much. I typically have four to eight tabs open, and only a few pages have ever given the Chromebook pause.

I haven’t had a chance to put the Chromebook through its paces, though. I’ll try some games out before the final review in three weeks time.

Media Playback

When I was in junior high and high school, multimedia was the buzzword of the day. The idea of using a computer to play back videos and music had just started to take hold. This led to the era of the MP3, which begat portable media players and iTunes. In turn, this led to world streaming media services like Hulu, Netflix, and Spotify. Now, everything with a screen and a processor seems to play back video, and the Chromebook is no exception. It has been able to process every video I threw at it, though not always perfectly.

Unfortunately, media playback is a mixed bag on the Chromebook. Most major sites, like Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube, worked fantastically, and presented acceptable picture quality. I was less impressed with the results from my personal Plex media server. Higher resolution video from every source had occasional hiccups, but Plex presented sub-par image quality. 1080p and 720p videos that look great on my Retina iPad appeared to play back at a lower-than-HD resolution on the Chromebook.

The lower-quality screen on the Chromebook also means grainer, muddier colors, and poorer viewing angles than the average tablet. Even a vibrant, super-saturated show like Pushing Daisies looks a little washed out. However, I would say video quality falls into the range of acceptable, but never impressive.

One thing I can say without equivocation is that the speakers on this thing suck. Audio sounds distorted and blown out even at low(less than 30% up from muted) volumes. The downward-firing speakers also mean that sound will be muffled if the laptop is placed on anything but a hard surface. They ARE stereo, which beats the iPad in terms of sound separation, but there is absolutely nothing else to praise regarding them. They get the job done, but not much else. They’re minimum wage speakers. I suppose Samsung had to cut costs somewhere.

Security and Privacy

Everything on the Chromebook runs through Google’s Chrome browser, even apps, and that means security on the Chromebook is tighter than almost any other device. While no computer or operating system is ever perfectly secure, ChromeOS is about as locked down as it gets. At the time I am writing this article, Chrome is just as secure as any of the other major web browsers, and it’s automatic updating of both itself and Adobe Flash means you’ll get fixes for known issues as soon as they are available.

Privacy is a different matter: everything you do on the Chromebook is going back to Google in some way. If you trust Google -- and many people, including tech experts, do -- you have nothing to worry about. If you’re paranoid or just big on privacy, the Chromebook may be your worst nightmare.

It’s worth noting that Google isn’t spying so much as collecting useful, semi-anonymous data to help them advertise and improve services. But this will be little comfort to someone who isn’t keen on sharing personal data. Remember: low-cost hardware and free web services pay for themselves in different ways. If you aren’t paying, you’re the product.

Just a Browser?

You’d be surprised at how much web technology has improved in the last two decades. A Chromebook is literally a web browser with a task bar, but for general, day-to-day work this is more than enough. I have written both this article and the previous Chromebook article entirely on this Samsung Series 3. I have watched full movies and tv shows, read numerous RSS feeds, updated my Facebook status, and more. The only thing I haven’t done with it is play games or convert media. I’ll be giving the former a try in the near future; the latter simply isn’t possible on this device.

Power users will want more options than a Chromebook currently offers, but you can do real work in a browser. Unless the work you do is fairly technical (ie, programming, CAD, graphics, or video, on a professional level), the Chromebook is likely to meet your needs.

The Logical Evolution of the Netbook

Google recently introduced the Chromebook Pixel, a proof-of-concept high-end Chromebook with an ultra-high resolution touchscreen and higher-end processor. Though the Pixel trumps the SS3c in nearly every metric possible, it also costs over five times as much. ChromeOS’ premise is that your computer’s muscle doesn’t matter anymore, so it doesn’t seem like spending an arm and a leg on a Chromebook makes much sense for the average user.

If you are a student, the portability and low cost of a Samsung Series 3 Chromebook may make it the perfect choice for a main computer. It boots in seconds and easily lasts over 5 and a half hours without a charge.

If you are in the market for a tablet or secondary computer, you owe it to your checking account or credit score to at least take a Chromebook for a spin. If most of what you’re doing takes place in a browser or Microsoft Office/Office clone, the versatility of the Chromebook may surprise you.

If you know someone who is afraid of computers for fear of “breaking” them, the Chromebook is a safe way to get them comfortable with technology. A beginner has absolutely nothing to fear with a Chromebook, though they’ll still need some lessons to get started.

I don’t know if I’ll be keeping the Chromebook after I am done reviewing it. I already have both a MacBook Pro and an iPad. It seems superfluous. If it had a slightly better keyboard and could run Scrivener, I’d keep it as a writing machine. Still, it has three weeks to change my mind.

Posted on March 19, 2013 and filed under Review, Tech.