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

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

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 (https://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.

Related Stories:

Google exec discusses future for Google Apps, Chromebooks

Google: We don't need Chrome OS, we want cloud login for PCs

Chromebooks Live!

Google's Chrome operating system gets a much needed update

Chrome 15: The Best Browser keeps getting better (Review)

Editorial standards