Google wants you to buy a Chromebook: Should you? (Review)

Google wants you to buy a Chromebook: Should you? (Review)

Summary: Google really, really wants you to buy one of the newly reduced in price Chromebooks. Is it worth it?

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TOPICS: Google, Mobility, Tablets
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The Samsung Chromebook open and ready for work.

The Samsung Chromebook open and ready for work.

Judging from all those Chromebook ads you've been seeing pop up on every tech. Web site known to man. Google really, really wants you to buy a Chromebook. Should you?

I like my Samsung Chromebook, but it looks like not many people fell in love with these Chrome OS powered netbooks. So, Acer and Samsung have reduced their price from a high of $499 to $299 and Google started banging the advertising drum for Chromebooks. So, should you let the new price tempt you into getting one?

I say yes.. My Samsung Series 5 Chromebook, which I've been using for months now, is the perfect grab and go laptop. It’s weights just over three-pounds, the battery lasts for about ten hours, and the lightweight Linux desktop with a Chrome Web browser interface is all I need for work out of the office.

That said, the first generation of Chrome OS had its problems. On the other hand, since then Google has made numerous significant improvements to Chrome OS and almost every week sees new improvement to Chrome OS, the Chrome Web browser, and Google’s family of cloud-based applications that Chromebooks use in lieu of traditional desktop apps.

How to try ChromeOS without a Chromebook.

Rajen Sheth, Google’s group product manager for Chrome for Business. recently explained, “We’re not selling a device, we’re selling a new paradigm of Web-based computing.” Google’s long term goal is to the blur the difference between Web-based and local desktop applications so that both will work equally well for you. Google knows, however, that this will require a “mind shift.” So, is today’s Chromebook ready to shift your mind? Here’s where we are today.

Chromebook Hardware:

The Samsung Series 5 comes with a matte 12.1-inch display. It’s powered by an Intel Atom N570 dual-core CPU running at 1.66Ghz, has 2GBs of RAM, and a 16GB solid state drive (SSD). For graphics, it uses an Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 3150.

Sounds as slow as a 2009 vintage netbook doesn't it? It's not. All that hardware has to do is power a very thin-Linux operating system and run the Chrome Web browser on top of it. For those purposes, the processor is more than fast enough and 2GBs of memory is all you'll need. Storage? Almost everything you do will be stored on the cloud. 16GB is more than enough.

The Chromebook at work (gallery)

On the netbook sized system’s left side you’ll find a headset/microphone jack, with a USB 2.0 port and a proprietary port for a VGA dongle hidden behind a plastic door. The second USB port and a SIM card slot hide behind plastic door on the right side. In the front you’ll find a card reader that can handle SD, SDHC, SDXC , or MMC cards. At the top of the display, it also has a Webcam. For networking it uses a 3G radio and 802.11n Wi-Fi. It doesn't, however, have an Ethernet port.

There’s also no Bluetooth. I can live without an Ethernet port, but the lack of Bluetooth bugs me. The Samsung's Webcam is fine, but I’d love to be able to make Google Voice calls from my Chromebook via my Motorola H17 Bluetooth headset.

On the other hand, the keyboard, while not back-lit, boasts large, well-spaced out keys. Although larger than most netbooks, many laptops have abysmal keyboards. I found the Samsung Series 5 keyboard to be the next best thing to my gold standard for keyboards: the Lenovo ThinkPad’s keyboards.

That said, the Chromebook keyboard is not your usual keyboards. It has no function keys and the delete key is also missing in action. Instead, it duplicates some of this functionality with keyboard shortcuts. To find out about ChromeOS' keyboard shortcuts, use the keyboard combo “Ctrl-Alt-?” to open up a display that will show you all keyboard shortcuts.

The touchpad is good-sized and I was able to work with it without much trouble. I hate all touchpads though, so I replaced it with a mouse.

The touchpad is capable of multi-touch gesture. At this time, only two-finger scrolling, right button clicking, and drag and drop multi-touch are supported. To drag and drop, you use one finger to click on an item, then use a second finger to move the item to your intended location and then release both fingers to drop it.

The battery life is remarkably good. I’ve used my Chromebook constantly for up to ten plus hours and I’ve yet to bring it under 10% of remaining battery life. I’ve finally found a laptop that, provided my plane had Wi-Fi, I could use constantly over a trans-Atlantic flight.

I could actually keep it that long in my lap as well. The Samsung runs cooler than any other laptop or netbook I’ve ever used and at a bit over three-pounds it can sit there, or on a flimsy airplane table, all day.

Chromebook Software:

The Chromebook’s real strength is the Chrome Web browser and your Google account. Without a Google account, you can’t use a Chromebook. Yes, there is Linux underneath Chrome, but only the most hardcore of Linux hardware hackers are going to bother with it.

You don’t need to be online to use a Chromebook. You can save music, documents, video and what have you on the local SSD. It’s not ideal though. For example, while you can work with Gmail off-line, you still can’t use Google Docs off-line. Sure you can save and view your Google docs off-line but you can’t edit them. Google promised that we’d have the ability to edit Google documents and spreadsheets off-line back in August, but we’re still waiting for it to show up.

So, sure, Chromebook works hand-in-glove with such Google services as Gmail for e-mail,Google Docs for your office work, and Picasa for photos. And, you don’t have to use Google-based software as a service (SaaS) or cloud-services. For example, I’ve used Salesforce and Zoho applications with it. You can also always find more Chrome applications in the Chrome Web Store. But the bottom line is that the Chromebook works best, as promised, as an Internet, cloud-based device.

When you use it as intended, it works well. I can write this story, grab mail, video-conference with a plan using Google Talk or ooVoo and listen to music from my cloud-based Google Music library (http://www.zdnet.com/blog/networking/google-music-your-great-music-locker-in-the-cloud-review/1671).

Since the Chromebook first showed up, Google has made numerous improvements to the ChromeOS. The current stable version is Chrome version 16.0.912.63 and it’s a real improvement over the first version.

For example, it’s now easy to use virtual private networks (VPN)s with ChromeOS. If that is, you use L2TP over IPsec with PSK and L2TP over IPsec with certificate-based authentication. It still doesn’t support SSL VPNs, such as OpenVPN or proprietary VPN implementations, such as Cisco Anyconnect. I’d really like to see both supported.

It’s also faster than the last version and, thanks to its Chrome Web browser brother 15 release, ChromeOS has inherited its new tab and screen display. This makes it easier to jump from your favorite pages to your favorite applications and back again.

So, so long as you're connected to the Internet, the Chromebook is great. But, ChromeOS still has trouble dealing with files on the SSD. For example, when I look at my local files I can view PDF documents and PNG images, but Chrome OS still doesn’t know what to make of Word document files, LibreOffice document files or zipped files. Come on! Google Docs can open both the first two and it’s 2011, what other operating system doesn’t know how to at least view the contents of a zipped archive?

Still, at least with the latest release, Google has made some process with local files. ChromeOS now suggests that that I upload it to Google Docs rather than give me an unknown file type error message. That's nice, but what I really want is for Chrome OS to do is either open the file in Google Docs, which is what I'd expect it to do, or at least give me a choice to open it rather than ask me to do it by hand.

Curiously, with some file types, such as PNG. ChromeOS will both show me the file and give me the option of using the appropriate Google program: Picasa. Clearly, there's still room for progress.

Still, while these problems are annoying, the bottom line is that Chromebooks aren't meant to be used offline. They're not meant to be yet another fat-client, ala Windows, desktop. They're cloud-based desktops that just happen to use Linux as their foundation.

So is a Chromebook worth getting? Problems and all, I think so. It’s not going to replace my weighty Linux Mint 12-powered Lenovo ThinkPad R61 anytime soon, but it's just what I need for when I need for run and work computing. Sure, I could use a tablet, but as nice as they are, when it comes to serious work I need a keyboard and for that I’ll take an inexpensive Chromebook any day of the week.

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Topics: Google, Mobility, Tablets

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120 comments
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  • Nothing wrong with the concept.. just the current price..

    When chromeBooks cost $100 or less I'm sure they'll sell a lot I will even buy one.. currently they cost as much or more than much more capable and versatile devices and just don't provide good value..
    theFunkDoctorSpoc
    • RE: Google wants you to buy a Chromebook: Should you? (Review)

      @theFunkDoctorSpoc I agree. Given that I can get a PentiumD laptop for the same price, it mkes more sense to buy that and put Chrome on it...

      Especially as I don't have access to WLAN or 3G here...
      wright_is
      • RE: Google wants you to buy a Chromebook: Should you? (Review)

        @wright_is
        Agreed. I'm not sure why you'd pay that much for that low a spec hardware? With the exception of long battery life there's not much going for it. Especially since you can download and install ChromiumOS Lime on a wide range of computers. I installed the Dec 2nd build on a Dell Inspiron 1525 and dual boot it with Xubuntu 11.10 and it works perfectly. When I just want to surf the web I boot into ChromiumOS when I want to do anything else I boot into Xubuntu.
        JasonLG
      • RE: Google wants you to buy a Chromebook: Should you? (Review)

        @wright_is
        I am not sure the Pentium D laptop would be any faster for just running a browser. Graphics and media acceleration is going to be more important.
        Mah
    • RE: Google wants you to buy a Chromebook: Should you? (Review)

      When it comes to laptops I'm only interested in Windows 8 or MAC OS X Lion. End of.
      bradavon
      • Author obviously a Linux user

        @bradavon If you like Linux then I guess at $299 might make sense. But for most who needs a stripped down Linux with a browser on Netbook hardware? I don't.
        jscott418-22447200638980614791982928182376
    • Agreed, the price has to come down

      @theFunkDoctorSpoc

      If they can get the price down to 150$ they could sell a ton of these.
      dfolk2
    • Agreed

      @theFunkDoctorSpoc

      Still too expensive. Great concept, not cost effective....yet....
      linux for me
      • RE: Google wants you to buy a Chromebook: Should you? (Review)

        @linux for me <br>There seem to be a lot of skint computer hobbyist kids who want to tinker around. <br><br>This is probably more in line with what you are looking for:<br><a href="http://www.raspberrypi.org/faqs" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">http://www.raspberrypi.org/faqs</a><br><br>You could stick ChromiumOS or Linux on that.

        Chromebooks aren't really for computer hobbyists - they don't feature the high maintenance requirements or the configurability or hackability that Windows or Linux has.
        Mah
    • At a price of $0.00, they'd still be overpriced. The right price? -$200/yr.

      In other words, Google would have to pay me to take their Crummybook. By them paying me $200, I'd be agreeing on a license to let them use my data and my browsing and purchasing habits, to enrich themselves through their datamining schemes. <br><br>I say $200 is a fair price. But remember, that's $200 per year to me.
      adornoe
    • RE: Google wants you to buy a Chromebook: Should you? (Review)

      @theFunkDoctorSpoc

      @theFunkDoctorSpoc
      If that's really about price: you can try to WIN a laptop or a pad from ASUS' end-of-year competition. Just go to their Facebook page here & invite friends to get more chances of having a prize: http://apps.facebook.com/asusnewyear/contests/171060?wfrefid=2a6ec5f03fa0

      I hope it helps overcoming the money issue! Good luck.
      Hectoor
    • RE: Google wants you to buy a Chromebook: Should you? (Review)

      @theFunkDoctorSpoc
      Chromebooks can be cheap and cheerful, but price is a little on the high side for a reason. The reason is that Google is marketing chromebooks to business, education, and public use markets primarily, and Chromebooks are engineered for that market rather than the consumer market.

      Basically Chromebooks have better build quality because businesses and schools, and libraries won't buy flimsy cheap netbook type devices that can't handle rough use. They have full day battery life so they don't spend half the day recharging. They have non removable batteries so that kids can't walk off with them.

      Hopefully we will see consumer Chromebook devices not long from now - hopefully ARM based.
      Mah
      • And...

        @Mah, "They have non removable batteries so that kids can't walk off with them." Yup, and a web camera to photograph and/or videotape them if they try to, eh? ;)
        Jim Kirk
  • I would argue that you should not purchase a Chromebook

    Since it is locked into Google, and should you find that it is not capable of what you need it to accomplish, then you are "out of luck" as the term goes, as you are locked into Google. You are wholey at the mercy of Google in terms of functionality and usability.

    As it sits now, should a particular Linux distro not do what you need it to do, you have other Linux distros or Windows avaliable to load onto a laptop, thus allowing you to utilize that which you purchased.

    :|
    Tim Cook
    • RE: Google wants you to buy a Chromebook: Should you? (Review)

      @Mister Spock
      Not sure what you mean by "locked into Google", do you mean "locked into the internet"? Does Google control the functionality and the usability of the internet?
      albucian
      • RE: Google wants you to buy a Chromebook: Should you? (Review)

        @albucian you cannot use a chromebook if you do not have a google account. thats what he is saying. for example, those.. google plus naming violations locked people's google account out of their gmail, docs... everything. would you want to take that chance in the future?
        xeptf4
      • RE: Google wants you to buy a Chromebook: Should you? (Review)

        @xeptf4
        How hard is it to create a Google account just for the sake of logging in? If it gets blocked you can create another one. Not sure I see the lock in.
        anono
      • RE: Google wants you to buy a Chromebook: Should you? (Review)

        @anano
        It is not hard to create the account, however the whole point of Open Source is not being locked in to any single company. Sounds like you forgot why you hate MS.

        Google subsidizes the Chrome Books, and for that subsidy, they expect you to watch their advertising. It???s how they pay for the subsidy.

        Funny, the lock in sounds all too much like Microsoft. Funny how the clowns here give Google a pass while castigating MS for the same tactics. You can???t see the lock in with Google, but you sure can with MS. Do I smell more than a bit of hypocrisy?
        Cynical99
        • Can they watch us?

          From my POV (and having recently read about yet another Google Maps/Street View violation of privacy...), I'm inclined to rather think that Google is being paid for subsidizing their Chrome Books by selling your browsing history to their paying clients in the ad business.

          Cookies? Heh... "Backdoors" in the OS? Hah..!

          Who needs 'em when you're the maker of the laptop, OS and browser, eh? If I was still being paid to be paranoid, I'd be thinking of a hardwired GPS receiver to give 'em tracking ability (what's that app: FriendLocate (or something like that)? ).

          Ah well, back in the day I was just this side of clinically paranoid and besides which, Google wouldn't do something like that, would they?

          And at this point, I can almost feel someone watching me... :X
          Jim Kirk
      • RE: Google wants you to buy a Chromebook: Should you? (Review)

        @Cynical99
        Again, I don't see the lock-in to begin with. Who says you have to watch their ads? What subsidy?

        As far as I know, they haven't forced you to go to only Google owned websites or go on Google owned websites at all.

        Now if they were to force users to only go to Google approved sites and then force site owners to pay 30% of their revenue to create a Google approved sites. Then you could argue there's a lock in.

        Or better yet. Create an illegal monopoly and then do that like Windows 8.
        anono