The promise of making your data available wherever you are, from whatever device you're using, has come and gone over the years. Now it's back, this time from Google, which has licensed Samsung and Acer to place its Chrome operating system on the first two laptops known as Chromebooks.
The idea is that you store all your documents, photos, music, and other files online. You work in Google Docs (which also lets you work collaboratively, and pretty much instantaneously). Not much gets stored on the computer, but you can get to your files anyplace you can get online. And of course, the converse is true—if you can't get online, your Chromebook doesn't do much more than a rock sitting on your desk could do. (Google says it will address that problem this summer by enabling apps like Google Docs, Gmail, and Calendar to work offline.)
We took a look at Samsung's Chromebook, the Series 5. Prices are $430 for a Wi-Fi-only model, and $500 for one that adds 3G access. Overall, we felt that the Chromebook is an interesting laptop with limitations that some people will be able to overcome, and others won't. Here are some details on our first impressions.
Hardware. Samsung's Chromebook comes with a shiny white or silver finish. The white model has a black interior. It's got a 12.1-inch screen, the latest Intel Atom dual-core processor, 2GB of memory, and a 16GB solid-state drive. Two USB ports and a memory-card slot provide an opportunity for adding storage. There's also an HD webcam. The laptop weighs about 3.3 pounds.
The keyboard was roomy (although oddly, all the keys were imprinted with lower-case instead of upper-case letters) with plenty of wrist rest and a large touchpad. There is no caps lock key, although you can reprogram the search key to serve that function. There are also no function keys; those are replaced by Back, Forward, and Refresh keys, as well as a full-screen key and other controls.
The laptop starts from a full shutdown in about 10 seconds and instantly wakes up from sleep mode. The matte display looked bright and fairly crisp, with bright colors. You'll have to learn a few new moves for the multitouch touchpad. For example, you right-click by pressing the touchpad with two fingers.
Getting started. Since this is a new concept, those used to Windows and even Mac operating systems will be surprised to find a browser open on the desktop on start-up, and nothing else. In fact, you can't close the browser so that there's nothing on the screen. Even when you're scrolling through files stored on a USB drive, you do so through a browser window. And that's the point of a Chromebook: Everything works through the browser.
When you open a new tab in the browser, the screen shows your apps, including Google Docs, Google Calendar, and Gmail, as well as a "Web Store" where you can download other apps. If you want to create a text document, open up Google Docs, create a new document, and start typing. You don't have to worry about saving, because the program does it for you automatically and instantaneously.
Battery life. Samsung claims its Chromebook has a battery life of 8.5 hours, and our model came pretty close, logging 8 hours in our tests that continuously load a series of Web pages. That's two hours less than the top netbook we've tested recently, but in the general range of most of the other best netbooks, and about the same as laptops with the best battery life.
Compatibility. We encountered a few compatibility issues using the Chromebook. Although we were able to play MP3, WAV, and Ogg Vorbis music files, WMA and Apple Lossless .m4a files didn't play. JPEG and GIF photos were viewable, but Photoshop PSD files, TIF, JPEG2, and TGA weren't. And the only movie files that played were MP4 files. You can't view AVI, DIVX, MPEG, or WMV files on the Chromebook. You also won't be able to open zip files, a simple task that you take for granted on a traditional computer. Of course, if you find a Web site that supports them, you may still be able to access these file types.
Pitfalls. You won't be able to save much on the Chromebook's 16GB solid-state hard drive, although you can view items from an SD memory card or USB drive. But you won't be able to do things you're used to doing on a Windows or Mac computer, such as viewing photos as a slide show. Instead, you have to open them one at a time, or upload your photos onto a photo Web site and view them as a slide show from there.
The Chromebook didn't have enough power to play videos in full-screen mode from a USB drive or from its hard drive. They stuttered and paused, and there were breaks in the audio. But videos played well in a small media-player window.
3G plans. Samsung partnered with Verizon to provide Chromebook buyers with a free 100MB of data per month for two years. Considering this is a computer built to work online, that likely won't give you much wiggle room, unless you stick to Wi-Fi-only most of the time. For more than 100MB, you'll have to shell out $10 for an unlimited day pass, $20 a month for 1GB of data (over the 100MB), $35 for 3GB, and $50 for 5GB. There are no contractual requirements; you just pay month-to-month.
Bottom line. The Chromebook is a cool, easy-to-use laptop if you're looking for something a little bigger than a netbook and a lot cheaper than a 13-inch laptop. But we think the Chrome OS is too limiting for most typical users, and the need to be constantly online to do anything at all with your computer is daunting. But if you're sure you'll be working within the Chrome OS and you've got access to Wi-Fi most of the time, it's worth considering the Wi-Fi model, especially for the price.
—Donna L. Tapellini and Rich Fisco
UPDATE: Here is a photo of the keyboard with lower-case letters, which is what will ship to retail.