Scope of review

In the week before Christmas, we took delivery of a Samsung Chromebook Series 3 (303C) – with the intention of reviewing it for suitability towards a distinct usergroup we administer.  So to that end I’ve spent many hours using this machine in place of my usual MacBook Pro (for work) and occasionally for personal use in place of my usual Windows 8-based netbook.  I’ve taken some notes as I’ve encountered thoughts and issues provoked in daily use, which have been compiled into this review (which itself was written on the Chromebook in Google Docs) for others to see where I’ve got to with it and why.  Hopefully it will inform and comment rather than poke holes or fun.
Please note therefore that this review is neither an analysis of Google software/policy/infrastructure, nor is it an in-depth user manual for this machine or the Chrome OS it runs.  Others have these functions covered far better elsewhere.

Setting the scene

The computing market has been flooded with sub-£400 laptops in recent years, with many being in the small “netbook” form-factor.  Their primary intended use is for the consumption of online content, and getting simple tasks done like email, letter-writing, online banking etc.  Most of these netbooks run full copies of Windows or Linux and offering power enough to run basic internet, office and even multimedia software – this has given us a new class of affordable machines with surprising processing power and flexibility, despite being designed for much simpler tasks.  New models continue to be offered with Windows 8 and Intel/AMD x86-compatible processors.

Cheap, powerful computing – what it *can* be

I bought an Asus EeePC 1011PX to aid study and note-taking in 2011.  As I progressed through the studies beyond simple note-taking, writing up projects in Microsoft Office 2010, it has been used for mixing multitrack audio on the move, as well as room-acoustics analysis with a USB test mic.  That’s an amazing amount of processing power and flexibility for £230, even though that doesn’t include the extra hardware and software I now use with it.
To get the best out of such a small machine, I’ve had to carefully analyse my needs and find solutions that scale down appropriately to such a small machine.  Document compatibility issues finally pushed me to purchase and relearn Microsoft Office 2010.  To make that transition I ditched the dog-slow Windows 7 Starter Edition in favour of the two major consumer-previews of Windows 8, enjoying both enough to finally upgrade to the release version Windows 8 Pro.
I’ve also had to deal with what I feel was more than my fair share of maintenance.  Within 11 months of purchase both the fan and hard-drive failed, both of which were dealt with surprisingly quickly by the manufacturers’ UK repair agents.  No surprise that these moving parts needed replacement, but within 11 months?  The OS itself needs to update itself from time to time, as do most of the individual applications – albeit less often and usually without requiring a reboot.
So all this leads me to ask; what makes the Chromebook any better than what I know of an arguably similarly-specified Windows machine at a similar price point, and what can one expect from such a machine?

Software and hardware

First-off, a Chromebook comes preinstalled with enough of an operating system (OS) to run Google Chrome, and connect to the outside world via WiFi and Bluetooth wireless, alongside slots for USB and SD-cards.  Anything that can be done inside a web-browser can be done with a Chromebook.  This essentially makes it a Netbook in the most literal definition of the word.
Additional software is available, but only in the form of web-apps that can be installed inside Google Chrome itself.  This should ensure an increased level of OS security and stability compared with a full-blown Windows, Mac or Linux installation, since the user cannot fiddle with it.  It should also ensure that software updates are much more limited in scope and number, since there are less components on the Chromebook.
Installing Microsoft Office is out of the question, but that doesn’t mean that the machine can’t be useful for paper-based productivity – but instead of Office, Google would expect you to use their Docs/Drive package with a Google account.  Instead of Outlook, Gmail – this would include calendar and contacts functionality.

User data

A Chromebook typically comes with very little built-in storage.  The Samsung 303C tested here comes with a 16GB SSD which is seemingly used for both the built-in OS and any user-data such as downloads, etc.  With such limited onboard storage, multimedia options are limited to anything that can be downloaded from the Internet, or played directly from USB/SD media.
The idea of the Chromebook platform is that it acts as an interface to cloud-based storage and management of email and documents – and is clearly best used with a Google account.  If you don’t have one, the machine will allow you to create an account as part of the login process.

First impressions – hardware

 

  • Fast boot time (needs measuring)
  • Easy to get going with Google account credentials or as a guest user
  • Fast to sleep and to wake up.

Display

Pros

 

  • Surprisingly nice screen – compares well with existing Asus EeePC 1011PX netbook. Pixel size seems ideal for form-factor.
  • Text rendering looks surprisingly crisp – without being fatiguing.
  • Matte finish much nicer to use than the reflective shiny glass finish on Macs and some PC laptops.

Cons

 

  • HDMI connection to second monitor has yet to work with any DVI or HDMI-equipped TV or computer monitor I’ve tried – usually causing the laptop screen to go dark.  This might make presentations a problem.

Build

Pros

 

  • Thin
  • Light
  • Feels solid in the hand.

Cons

 

  • Fiddly to open one-handed, but too light and small to easily open two-handed.  Could easily have been solved by setting a bigger indent just under the trackpad to offer more grip.
  • Silver coating is really too easy to scratch. The underside of the machine is scratched up after a day’s use, and it’s only ever been on a clean desk, or inside a padded case.
  • The “G” from the Samsung lid decals has fallen off – not good since the unit has only ever travelled in my hand or a soft case!
  • While the machine feels solid enough in handling, the screen does seem to touch the keyboard when folded down, allowing dust and skin-grease to transfer, particularly from the spacebar to form lines on the screen.  This is a common problem to all plastic-screened laptops and notebooks I’ve used.  Models such as recent MacBook Pro’s with much more solid glass-faced screens seem to flex less easily to begin with, and mark less easily than the plastic if they do make contact with the keys.
  • Headphone socket is a very tight fit with most standard 3.5mm plugs encountered during the trial.  Really does feel like I’m going to break the machine if I push too hard.  This is the complete opposite case to most laptops I’ve ever encountered, whose headphone/line-out connections are generally too loose, causing nightmares for corporate presentations.

Keyboard

Pros

 

  • Full-size keyboard is very much like the MacBook (Pro) machines we’ve been using for the last five or more years.
  • Function keys well thought out with dedicated (and marked) keys for tab refresh, maximise, window cycle, brightness, volume mute/down/up, standby.
  • Typing longer documents (like this review, even) is a surprisingly comfortable experience – I’m finding it hard to feel any notable difference between this and a MacBook.
  • Dedicated “Search” button likely more useful to modern users than “Caps Lock”, but…

Cons

 

  • …Where’s the CAPSLOCK KEY SO I CAN SHOUT AT PEOPLE??!
    • Actually, Alt-Search has the same effect – makes sense since the search key is in the traditional place for the Caps Lock key, but this config could confuse new users who might not understand why their Chromebook “randomly” brings up a search function!
  • No “Delete” key, nor obvious way to replicate function.
  • Left and right arrow function keys would make most sense as a way of moving across tabs in the same window, but don’t appear to do anything?
  • No media keys – would be useful for YouTube, Google Play Music player, etc

Trackpad

 

  • Like many new machines, this was set a little slow by default. Soon fixed by adjusting settings (more on this later).
  • Right-clicking with two-finger tapping seems hit-and-miss.  Right side seems more sensitive/accurate to touch gestures than left.
  • Works best either with a firm thumb-push at the bottom (where buttons used to be before smooth trackpads became the “in thing”), or using tap-to-click. To this end-user, this feature seems no different to the glass Apple Trackpads fitted to aluminium unibody models.

Built-in software – in use

User accounts

 

  • Multiple user accounts can be set up on the same Chromebook.
  • “Admin” tools, suitable for remote control and corporate deployment are available as part of a Google Apps domain (how else?), but at a cost of something around $20 per year per machine at a quick glance.
  • Most users will likely be fine with a strong password and normal “user accounts”.
  • “guest” (browser-only”) access can be selected as an option at login/lock screens.
  • Accounts can be “locked” after sleep, requiring password (or switch to guest/alternate account) to wake – important for security.

Taskbar; a.k.a Launcher

 

  • Seems to be fixed at the bottom of the screen – but can be set to auto-hide.
  • Left side shows currently-open apps
  • Apps can be pinned to the launcher, much like Windows.
    • Some apps open in their own window, some open in a new tab.
    • Right side shows clock, WiFi, battery and account avatar pic by default.  Also shows notification of audio muting and caps-lock.

Menus

 

  • Relatively few built into the OS itself.
  • Tend to be limited to particular app (for the browser) or function (for things like WiFi, Bluetooth etc.)

Network connectivity

This machine’s sole means of connectivity with the outside world is via WiFi, which supports WPA, WEP and unencrypted connections on 2.4GHz (a/b/g) or 5GHz (n) WiFi networks.  Connectivity has been consistently good with a variety of Ruckus, Netgear and Apple access points.

Bluetooth connectivity

File transfer

Not attempted as couldn’t get the Bluetooth Stack to connect with any phone compatible with bluetooth file transfer protocols.

Keyboard/Mouse

Pairing an Apple keyboard/mouse set with the Chromebook was easy, once I’d remembered (searched Google for) the method to get the devices into a discoverable state.  Keymapping seemed reasonably logical – with volume, screen brightness, dashboard and windowing keys apparently behaving as expected.
Interesting discovery:  Playing a WAV file from a CF card (via USB card reader) brings up a built-in Music app – which does seem to respond even to the media keys on the Apple keyboard – impressive since there are no marked media keys on the built-in keyboard.  Nice little “easter egg” inserted to make developers’ lives easier perhaps?

Internet tethering

See “Interacting with Smartphones” below.

Windowing

Apps can be set (usually by right-clicking on them in the Launcher bar or menu) to the following windowing modes:

  1. As standard tab
  2. As pinnned tab
  3. Maximised
  4. Fullscreen

In real use, the actual implementation (and terminology) seem confusing and inconsistent.  “Maximised” Gmail has a different (and more minimalist) window style to any other “maximised” tab.  Some other apps (Scratchpad, for example) seem to be able to use the same minimalist maximised style, but not everything.

File management

It’s bound to happen – at some point in using a Chromebook, you’ll find that you’ve got some file(s) from a camera or USB drive that need attaching to an email or uploading to cloud storage somewhere.
Essentially, anything presenting itself as a USB Mass Storage Device, when plugged into one of the USB ports on the back of the machine, will bring up the File Manager window and make the contents available.  Obviously not every file type can be opened directly on the machine, but all files can at least be copied, uploaded or attached to emails.
Pretty much all common disk formats are supported, with no problems found during testing when reading and writing to USB drives formatted to default Mac OS X or Windows 8 settings.  According to the relevant Google support page, common Linux filesystems are compatible too – so the average user should rarely get into a situation where a given USB drive is unreadable.

A note about photos

Inserting an SD card or USB drive full of pics straight from a camera gives access to the pictures via the file manager.

  • Photos can be viewed as a slideshow directly from the drive.
  • Opening a photo will view the photo fullscreen.
  • Once the photo is open, the file manager also includes some simple editing tools:
    • Editing mode is enabled by clicking on the pencil icon that appears in the bottom-right corner of the preview screen/window.
    • WARNING:  ANY EDITS ARE AUTOMATICALLY OVERWRITTEN BY DEFAULT!

Web browsing

This machine essentially is Google Chrome, with enough of an OS to run it.  So browsing the web is essentially the same as it would be on any other machine supporting the same version of Chrome.

Apps

The Apps menu links to various built-in apps by default, including an app for the webstore where additional software from Google and third-parties can be installed. Note that this doesn’t mean you can install standard Mac, Windows or Linux software on this machine at all, let alone expect it to run.
Any apps installed are essentially plugins that extend the functionality of the Chrome web browser.  If you sync your Chrome settings to your Google account, then all pre-existing bookmarks, settings and apps installed on other machines should find themselves synced on the Chromebook.

Settings

All machine settings are essentially available through the Settings tab of the Chrome browser itself – with some shortcuts (date/time, WiFi, Battery) on launcher.

Email

Online

Uses the normal web Gmail interface, just like any other browser.

Offline

Available via a free downloadable Offline Google Mail app, from the Chrome web store.

  • Interface looks more like Mail.app on iPad than the usual Gmail web interface.
  • Offline syncing selectable up to whole of previous months’-worth of messages.
  • Some odd windowing issues when composing or filing messages.
  • Also default zoom levels needed reducing (eg press ctrl & – to zoom out) to make text in “Apply” and “Cancel” boxes

Smartphone interoperability

Given the cloud-based credentials of the Chromebook and Chrome OS, how does one get at photos, audio or video recorded on a smartphone?  it would seem that these should be synced to a suitable cloud-based service via some form of native app running directly on the device itself.  Once in the cloud, they’re accessed through a browser or web-app like any other web content.

Interaction with iPhone 3G (iOS 3.1.3)

 

  • No way to get photos or other content direct from device over USB.
  • No mobile Internet tethering via USB/Bluetooth. No WiFi tethering via iPhone 3G without jailbreaking the iPhone, which is untested as I don’t want to jailbreak my work phone!
  • All Google services accessible through Safari will be synced with same services accessed via Chromebook.

Interaction with iPhone 4 (iOS 6.0.1)

As iPhone 3G above, but:

  • Wifi hotspot may be possible but unable to test as the feature is locked out on my iPhone/plan.
  • All Google iOS apps, AND services available through Safari/any other browser app, will stay in sync with content accessed via the Chromebook.