Review: Samsung Series 5 Chromebook

Since late 2011, I've been using a Samsung Series 5 Chromebook, the first commercially available Chrome OS laptop. Well, actually I've used two, but I'll get to that. It's been an interesting experience so far.

Hardware

As is customary with these sorts of reviews, I'll touch on the hardware briefly before talking about experience that the OS delivers. The brevity is partly because there's not too much to say about it, and partly because that's not really the part that interests me (or you, probably). Also, I've never really been a laptop user so I have little to go on by way of comparison.

Photo of Samsung Series 5 Chromebook in Titan Silver

So, then: the 12.1" screen is fairly good, and bright enough. The keyboard has a nice feel and typing is quite pleasant, except when you forget that there's no caps lock key and that the key in its place will open a new tab. The touchpad is not bad as touchpads go, not that I use it all that much (on any computer, I use the keyboard whenever possible). It's a very compact and lightweight machine, it makes almost no noise (due to not much CPU-intensive activity and an SSD hard drive), and the battery easily sees me through a day of use.

Externally, it's not what I'd call beautiful, but it's not ugly either, and the aesthetic simplicity (helped by the scarcity of ports) appeals to me. Given a choice, I'd probably remove the logos from the lid and make the corners a little less rounded, but that's it. Mine's the Titan Silver version — from the pictures, I don't think the Arctic White looks good at all.

The build quality is questionable, though. A few weeks in, my Chromebook's display started playing up, and quickly worsened to the point where nothing was displayed at all on the bottom part of the screen. I contacted Amazon, who advised me to go directly to Samsung to see if they could help. What Samsung actually did was tell me that the display was not covered by the warranty, and that I must have damaged it myself anyway. I contacted Amazon again, not really expecting much, but they sent me a new Chromebook straight away — their customer service is hard to fault.

Chrome OS

Chromebooks really are netbooks in the most authentic sense — that is, they contain only a web browser, and that's all you use them for (you can use the file system, but only to download and upload files — there are no native apps). The UI isn't difficult to imagine, because it's just the Chrome you're used to on Windows or Mac, but with a clock, WiFi and battery indicator in the top right.

As is claimed on the Google website, the Chomebook will boot in a matter of seconds (about 8) and prompt you to login to a Google account, or to browse as a guest (e.g. history, cookies etc deleted when your session ends). This works pretty well for me, as I have a work Google account and a personal Google account that I use on my work and home computers respectively, so I can switch between work and home "modes" at will.

I do a lot of my work in a web browser, and because of that, the Chromebook is the first laptop that's ever really appealed to me (indeed, it's actually the first laptop I've owned). For very involved work like coding, I always want to be sat at a desk in front of a proper computer, but for the high volume of simple browser-based tasks I do on a daily basis, I just open up the Chromebook and in between 0 and 8 seconds I have a browser (specifically, the very latest version of Chrome) and can start doing stuff.

Problems

There are certainly some drawbacks to using a Chromebook, although many of them are not Google's fault, or Samsung's. Starting with the biggest:

Chrome OS is actually a very customised build of Linux. No, wait, GNU Linux. Sorry, Richard. Anyway, this gives it a somewhat unfamiliar user agent string:

Mozilla/5.0 (X11; CrOS i686 1193.194.0) AppleWebKit/535.7 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/16.0.912.77 Safari/535.7

On websites that do UA sniffing (hint: it's more than you think), this causes me a problem, because the default setting most of those sites have for unfamiliar UA strings is "You're not on the list, so you're not coming in". On some old Nokia dumbphone, this would be almost understandable, but on a machine running the most up-to-date version of arguably the most up-to-date browser, it's unforgivable.

A good example is Typekit, which checks your UA string before deciding whether to serve you with web fonts (there are some good reasons for doing this). Chrome OS isn't on Typekit's "supported" list, so it doesn't get them. I asked Typekit to add support for Chrome OS, and they responded, saying they intend to at some point but there is no plan for when. Then, to put the boot in, they began to support Chrome for Android only days after its release, even though only about 1% of Android users can even install it. For what it's worth, I have no such problems with Fontdeck.

Something I never thought of until I tried to do it was testing websites. It's fine for the most part, but you can't resize the viewport, so it's no good for testing fluid grids and responsive layouts. A small point, but worth noting.

Now we come to the elephant in the room: price. The Series 5 Chromebook is currently £349.99 (for the WiFi-only model). This is fairly cheap for a laptop, but it does seem expensive for what it is, especially given the quality concerns I mentioned. On top of that, the iPad 2 is now cheaper at £329.00 (again, that's for the WiFi-only model). Its browser is every bit as capable (except Flash, incidentally), and it has all the other things that make an iPad attractive. If I were making my buying decision now, I'd probably still go for the Chromebook (actually, if I had enough to spend, I'd get an 11" MacBook Air) — I do a lot of writing on it, so the keyboard is important to me . But for most people? It's a no-brainer: iPad 2.

I really love what Google has done with Chrome OS, but I think tablets (read: the iPad) might leave them with no customers and no future. As a user, that worries me, because Google has a well-established reputation for walking away from projects when their hopes aren't realised. So, how long before Chrome OS is "sunsetted" and I stop getting updates?

That last point brings me to an odd conclusion: I'm very hopeful that many people will buy a Chromebook, but I really can't recommend that anyone does.

Update: Good news — Google seems to be giving Chrome OS a real push. There's been a great update to the OS (my Chromebook has got it and still runs just as fast), and new hardware from Samsung, including the Chromebox, a Mac Mini style desktop machine.