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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Chromebook Review

Meet the New Chromebook - Starting at $200,
this device is perfect for the web surfer and as a
family device.
I bought my Samsung Series 5 Chromebook back in February of 2012. It was a birthday present to myself. My new years resolution was to start writing more, one medium being this blog.

I have a desktop computer, but it is set up as our home theater PC. The distance from the sofa to the TV is great for watching TV and movies, but not so great for reading text. Plus, writing is personal and I didn't want to be broadcasting it to the family. When my fiancé purchased a laptop, roughly half a year earlier, I felt slightly envious. I used to have a laptop before I bought the desktop and loved the intimacy that a laptop offers.

I originally planned on doing a Chromebook review when I first bought my Chromebook, but it seemed like my article had aged by the time I got my blog up and running. Well, Google just released their new Chromebook version at the same time that I encountered an error on mine. This was perfect timing, as the new Chromebooks have a great new low price tag that really makes them more competitive. My coworker has considered getting one, especially after I talked it up with him on what I love about mine. When the price dropped, this made it much more worth while for him versus the competition.

Why Chromebook?

So why did I pick a Chromebook over a tablet, laptop or one of those ultra/mini laptops?
  • Perfect for the web surfer
    The main thing I do at home on a computer is surf the net, do emails and write. I don't typically run applications at home. The Chromebook is the perfect device for the web surfer. Upon booting it up, you are on the web within seconds. It seriously took me less than 10 seconds to set up my Chromebook and be on the internet out of the box.
  • Production versus Consumption
    I had just gotten my Kindle Fire for Christmas, so I already had a tablet (it was rooted within a couple of days). What I discovered was that I really wanted to be able to produce content on the Kindle. I had made a new years resolution to write more (and start-up this blog). I did some research looking for a mini keyboard for the Kindle Fire. Since it has no Bluetooth, there just wasn't anything like that for the Kindle. My brother got the Transformer Prime  at about the same time, so I was super jealous of his android tablet that can dual as a laptop. Having a keyboard was essential for actually sitting down and writing. Tablets are great consumption devices for web surfing, playing games, reading and watching tv/movies. They are not good for the writer.
  • Lighter and more portable than a laptop
    When I say "lighter," I don't mean just the sheer weight of the device, which it is indeed lighter at 2.4 to 3.3 lbs. The OS is also extremely light weight. It is a Linux based OS that has been stripped of the majority of what makes a computer a computer. The only thing that the user sees is the Chrome browser. It literally is like taking your Chrome browser and slapping it on a monitor with a keyboard. The user doesn't have to deal with any of the BS that a full computer entails.

    For instance, my old laptop quickly got sluggish and bogged down as computers do. Traditional laptops get HOT after use. Don't think you'll be wearing shorts and working on your laptop! My Chromebook stays the same speed and temp 100% of the time.

    It is also ultra-portable with a battery that lasts around 8 hours. My old laptop lasted around 2 hours when it was new and eventually had to be plugged in at all times. You won't be sitting out at the park working on your laptop.

    In addition, since the OS is so light, you will never have to worry about virus protection software. The Chrome browser is pretty secure on its own. The device's slimmed down OS adds an extra layer of protection.
  • Syncs with all your other Google devices
    If you are a Google/Android fanboy/girl, then a Chromebook is an intuitive and logical device to add to your device family. When you start-up the Chromebook, you get a log in screen similar to most computers. Instead of creating a new username and password, you log in with your Google/Gmail account just like an android device. If you have set up your chrome browser on a computer, than all of your bookmarks, extensions and preferences get synced to your device. I love switching between my Chromebook, desktop, android tablet and android phone and being able to open any tab that was opened on my other devices.
  • Excellent for families
    Does your family fight over who's turn it is to use the computer, tablet, laptop? Do people complain that they wish they had their own? This is an excellent device to add to a family that suffers from a ratio of too many web surfers to too little devices. Each individual can log in with their own google account and have their own personalized experience with their own apps, their own extensions and their own web surfing history. This is an inexpensive device to add to a family and is a perfect device for sharing.
  • Great for the non-techy
    I'm a techy type of person, so this doesn't apply to me. However, a non-techy person who isn't comfortable with a real computer would feel very comfortable with a Chromebook. I could see a Chromebook being a great present for an older person who is interested in email and getting on the internet (or Facebook?). It is such a simple device and is perfect for someone uncomfortable with the computers. All they would see is the browser and they would never have to worry about maintaining a computer.

The Device Itself

Samsung 550
Samsung 550: 12.1" (1280x800) display, 3.3 lbs / 1.48 kg,
Over 6 hours of battery, Intel® Core™ processor, 4 GB
RAM, 100 GB Google Drive Cloud Storage, with 16GB
Solid State Drive, Built-in dual band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n,
Gigabit ethernet, and 3G modem (opt), HD Camera, 2 USB
2.0 ports, 4-in-1 memory card slot, DisplayPort++
Output (compatible with HDMI, DVI, VGA),
Kensington™ key lock compatible.
I own the Samsung Series 5, which I purchased back in February of 2012. This portion of the review is specifically about the device I own. However, I imagine owning one of the newer devices will be a similar experience.

Out of the box, I noticed the Chromebook is very light and thin. Not thin like a macbook air, but thinner than a normal laptop due to the lack of hardware that a laptop would normally have. There is no DVD drive. The new devices have an HDMI out, a couple of USB ports, headphone/mic jack, power outlet, and memory card slot.

After turning it on, it booted up instantly. I signed in and away I go. The Chrome browser came up with my theme, bookmarks and extensions from my Windows chrome browser. The first page to load up is an introductory page that teaches some of the functions of the trackpad and provides links for additional resources to get to know your chromebook.

At first I did notice a slight jitteriness that other users had commented on. It is most prevalent when watching videos, but can also be experienced in intensive webpages, like Google+. This may have been addressed with the new models of Chromebook. The Samsung 550 offers additional speed over the other Samsung and Acer models.

The screen is typical of Samsung, beautiful. The keyboard is nice and compact due to the elimination of several Windows keys. I'll discuss the keyboard in further detail below. The trackpad is large with several functions that at first felt awkward but soon feels like second nature.
Chromebook keyboard and trackpad
The Chromebook keyboard and trackpad
are quite comfortable. The keyboard is full
sized, but many of the traditional buttons
have been stripped away as not necessary
for the ChromeOS experience. This allows
for a "compact" keyboard without feeling
cramped.

Keyboard Layout and Trackpad


I initially set up mouse clicks to be just a tap of the trackpad. I almost immediately reversed this setting. I prefer using the actual clicker (pressing down on the trackpad as a mouse click) as I have had some difficulty with how sensitive the trackpad can be while typing. After doing this, the trackpad gestures are pretty much perfect. They are simple and accurate. Two fingers to scroll. Two fingers click to right click. The whole experience is comfortable.

The keyboard layout is well spaced out and comfortable. They compacted the size of the keyboard by eliminating Windows function keys that are irrelevant for Chrome OS. Buttons that are missing that I actually miss are the del, home, end and capslock key. The traditional location for the caps lock is replaced with a search button. After a while you forget that these keys are necessary (except for the caps lock). There are several keystrokes that replace these buttons and add additional function:

  • del key = alt button + backspace button (I have found that I now try to use this key stroke on my Windows computer at work, haha!)
  • caps lock = shift + search button (originally this short cut was shift left + right shift key. This one is easier to hit)
  • page up, page down = alt + up or down arrow
  • move one word back or forward = ctrl + left or right arrow
  • More short cuts can be found on the CrhomeOS Wiki site: Tips and Tricks

I found that I hit that search button way to much thinking it was the caps lock, so I switched it back to the caps lock button. You can do this through the settings menu under language. I'm not quite sure exactly where it is, but you can do a search for "caps" and it brings it right up. Click the "modifier keys" button and you can revert the search button back to a caps lock button.

Some of the keys they added to the top row of the keyboard are back, forward and refresh (just like in your browser), full screen, window tab (works the same as alt + tab), brightness up and down, mute button, and volume up and down. These make more sense for a browser based computer than the traditional function keys on a Windows computer. I have found that I generally only use the brightness and volume settings buttons. The window tab button was required before the Aurora update, as you didn't have traditional windows back then. Its hard to explain, but the current OS version feels more traditional. This allows you to just use your mouse to switch between windows.

OS Experience and Apps


If you use Chrome on your computer, than a Chromebook is going to be like home. All of your extensions and settings will get brought over the first time you log in and will continue to sync with all of your devices. Similarly, if you use Google apps (Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, etc), then all your apps will be there waiting for you.

Updates


After receiving my Chromebook, out of the box there was an update available, which is to be expected. After roughly two weeks of ownership I had two more updates. All updates download in the background with the user never being aware. A little green arrow by the tool bar icon indicates that the device is ready to be rebooted to implement the update. After clicking on it, updating takes as much time as restarting the Chromebook normally would. In a matter of seconds, it is back up and asking me to log in. Wow, that was fast! It is nice knowing that I am running the most current version of the ChromeOS and it is painless to do so.

Most of the updates have been minor, just patching things that I wasn't even aware that needed patching. In late May, we had a major update with Aurora. I was overwhelmed with how beautiful my Chromebook had become! I have a desktop now! It isn't a tradition desktop. You can't add any icons to it, so it doesn't get cluttered with crap.

I love how every time I get an updated I'm pleasantly pleased with small new features. There was one thing I didn't like about the update. Before new windows were opened in a mini window that was locked to the status bar. Aurora attempted to fix the locked windows (I'm sure some people complained about it, but I actually liked this feature). By doing so, they made it harder to have windows on top of windows so you can multitask between windows. Well, they have already fixed this.

I love how responsive, frequent and painless the updates are.

Customer Support


I mentioned earlier that I got an error on mine. For the past couple of weeks I have had this little orange exclamation mark icon in the upper right corner of the browser window. It tells me there was a syncing issue and that I should log off and log back in. I have attempted this several times and it doesn't resolve the issue.

This was a good thing to push me into wanting to write this review. Why you ask? Because I discovered the Chromebook support team. In the menu, there is  option for reporting a problem. I did so, just thinking that it would be sent to them and maybe get fixed in the next update which occur often.

I was shocked to receive an email from Chromebook customer support staff the very next day. How many times have I reported errors on Windows? I was amazed to find that the customer support staff was interested in getting to the roots of the error and trying to help me with some possible resolutions. It isn't just some automated email either. It just seems genuine. This is probably one of the best and timely responses I have had from customer service ever.

The error isn't even that big of a deal. It doesn't affect my ability to continue to use my device. In my mind, I could have seen most customer support services just blowing it off. I only reported it because I thought they should know that there was an issue for future updates. I never expected a response.

Future Hopes & Some Implemented!

HD screen and increased speed!
The new Samsung Chromebook 550 has increased
performance and an HD capable screen, which makes
it perfect for watching movies on your Chromebook
or plugging it into a TV.
When I first had my Chromebook, I set up a note in Evernote to brainstorm the things I wanted to discuss in a blog post. One section I brainstormed on was what I would desire in the future. Guess what? In reviewing this list, the majority on the list has already been implemented! Here is my list of future hopes that have already been resolved

  • Increased video performance and speed: The new Samsung Chromebook comes in two versions, a $250 and a $450 version. The Samsung Chromebook 550, selling for $450 is geared towards a higher frame rate with an HD screen. They advertise that it is the perfect device for playing videos, watching TV and movies. If I were to buy a Chromebook again, I would consider this version as I have found my Chromebook can be a bit sluggish and it is my main device while at home. The $250 version may also resolve some of the issues I have had with performance.

  • More apps on the market: The longer the Chrome Store is out, the more apps will be implemented. When I first got my Chromebook, the store was pretty minimal with most apps just being shortcuts to a web version. The Chrome Store is starting to fill out, but there is still room for more.

  • Offline Google Docs: They recently implemented offline Google Docs. It was kind of a big deal to me that they didn't have an app for offline word processing. They had a "scratch pad," which was a stripped down note taking app that then synced to Google Docs. It left much to be desired. If I am on a plane, I would like to be able to plan ahead and download some of my Google documents so that I can be productive. They now have this option! Woot! Go Google! (They've had offline gmail for a while now, but were a little slow with offline Google Docs.)
What's great about these implementations is that apps that work for Chrome work on the computer too. If you sync your Chromebook with your desktop or laptop, any changes you make to one is automatically implemented on the other devices Chrome Browser.

One future hope that I would still really like to see is Android apps ported to the Chromebook. There are so many great apps in the Android ecosystem, while many of the Chrome Store apps fall short of the mark. My hope is that with the price drop the Chromebook will get more momentum and eventually see a better ecosystem for apps. Even without this, the Chromebook is still a competitive device as it has the full range of the internet for web apps.

Cons of a Chromebook


Keep the above "future hopes - implemented" in mind, as some of the cons I have found may have been addressed with the latest iteration.

  • Speed: The largest problem with the Chromebook is the power of the device. It is NOT a high powered device. If you are into having the fastest device out there, a Chromebook may not be for you. I found that websites in general can load slowly. ESPECIALLY Google+. In fact, I actually abandoned Google+ when I got my Google Chromebook because the two just aren't very compatible. I expected that since the device is so streamlined, that it would be faster. Keep in mind that this is a "lightweight" device and is much more under-powered than your high performance laptop or desktop. On the plus side, the device never gets slower than what it is. The first time you take it out of the box is the speed it will be for the rest of its lifespan. It doesn't get bogged down the way a traditional computer does.

  • Video Playback: I noticed pretty quickly that the frame rate is pretty low. This causes videos on Youtube to be jittery. However, this may have been updated with the latest iteration.

  • Doesn't connect to the Galaxy Nexus: I wanted to grab some pictures from my fiance's GNexus and found that his phone isn't supported. So far it has only been the GNexus. For some reason the Galaxy Nexus doesn't work as a USB Mass Storage Device but uses the Media Transfer Protocol (MTP) instead. The Galaxy Nexus also supports Picture Transfer Protocol (PTP) but the Chromebook does not support either. I thought this was pretty shocking that the Google flagship phone was incompatible with Google's version of a computer OS. Lucky for us Android nerds, the GNexus is already obsolete and we have moved on to other phones. The new versions may have been updated to support their flagship phones/tablets, or the latest nexus devices may have gone back to USB Mass Storage Device.

  • Caps lock is substituted with a search button: The intent of the search button is that the main reason you are using the device is browsing the internet. Google's idea is that you must be using a search engine to surf the net. I find this is true maybe half the time or less. Social media has really pushed its way into  the foreground for how people surf the internet. Typically, I find that my go to is Pinterest for just casual surfing. If I have something specific in mind that I want to research, then I turn to the search engine giant. For leisure though, I like to just see what pops up on the social sites. The idea here was that you were supposed to use a key combination to trigger the caps lock. I think at first it was hitting both of the shift buttons. Then it was shift + search button. I got tired of these, as I was always hitting the search button when I really wanted caps lock. Lucky for us, they made it an option to change the search button back to the caps lock button.

  • Doesn't replace a computer: In general, a Chromebook does not replace a computer. I could see some people never needing a computer and just owning a Chromebook. This would be especially true for those who just want the internet and have no other requirements. For those who want to run applications and play games, a Chromebook isn't going to cut it. I find that the vast majority of the time I don't need anything more than my Chromebook. However, there are occasions when I really do need a real computer. We have two other computers at home and a computer at work, so I am not pressed for a computer when I do need it.

Is a Chromebook right for you?

Here are some scenarios I have come up with to help navigate your way to either a Chromebook or something else.

A Chromebook might be right for you if...


  • You find yourself spending the vast majority of your time in Chrome or another browser.

  • You get frustrated at having to maintain your computer. Updating your OS, virus protection, running out of storage space, slow down of processes, not enough memory, etc. With a Chromebook, you will never have to worry about these things!

  • You are looking for a device for surfing the net with a keyboard so that you can blog or engage with others online. Then a Chromebook might be better for you than a tablet. The keyboard and trackpad are uber comfortable and it makes for a great production device.

  • You are looking for a computer that is simple because most computers seem intimidating to you. Then a Chromebook might be good for you! It is super simple and great for the non-tech minded.

  • You are looking for an inexpensive device to add to the family repertoire to help discourage fighting over the main computer, tablet or phones. A Chromebook would be a great device to consider! They are inexpensive and perfect for sharing with family and friends. Each individual gets their own log in with a customized user experience and personal history.

Something Else might be better if...


  • You are looking for a reading or consumption device. Then you might consider a tablet over a Chromebook. They are nice to cuddle up to for reading a book or blogs, getting on social sites through apps, and watching TV/Movies while on the go.

  • You install applications or games and spend most of your time on a computer inside an application or game. A Chromebook is probably not right for you as your main device. Depending on how much power you think you need, a desktop or laptop would probably be better. If you are a high powered gamer, than look into a desktop. If you are low powered, aren't really picky about the device, and are looking for something inexpensive, then I suggest keeping an eye on Woot! I see low cost laptops come through Woot! often.

Closing Remarks

I have to say, I really love my Chromebook (and mine is last years model!). Before I had my Chromebook, I was trying to work on my desktop which is set up as a Home Theater PC (HTPC). This set up worked fine for me when I lived alone and I had a smaller TV set up closer to the couch. Now that my family is growing, the living room has also grown. The TV is bigger and the couch further away.

When I got my Kindle Fire (which I have since replaced with a Nexus 7), I immediately switched from web surfing on the desktop to web surfing on a tablet. Tablets are great consumption devices. They are very comfortable for reading your favorite blogs and even surfing social media. They, however, lack in two things that reduce productivity: no keyboard and mobile browsing.

My Chromebook is exactly what I wanted. The internet at my finger tips. Having a keyboard to browse the internet and interact is such a relief after so long of just surfing on my phone/tablet or barely being able to read the TV from the couch. Don't get me wrong. Surfing on my Nexus 7 makes for good casual browsing. The Chromebook is, however, more productive. It definitely isn't a computer and shouldn't be mistaken for one, but it gets what I need done.

Do you own a Chromebook? Are you looking forward to the new line of Chromebooks? Please share your thoughts on the Chromebook in the comments section below.

Resources

Check out these additional Chromebook reviews:
Disclaimer: All images in this post courtesy of Google.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the info. I use my nook 90%of the time and wondered if one of these would be a bit easier to do my word press posts ( at least the drafts) on
    You gave me some great info that wasnt overly techy!
    thanks...Kassie aka Mom

    ReplyDelete
  2. You're welcome! I'm glad you found it useful. :D

    ReplyDelete