Samsung Series 3 Chromebook Review
I've spent a decent amount of time now with the ARM-based Samsung Series 3 Chromebook. The cheap price (£229 from PCWorld) and what seemed like gorgeous design won me over straight away, and since then I've been running the device through its paces to see how usable it is day in and day out.
Design and Build
The Chromebook comes packaged in a very minimalist box. Simple but functional, which I think does well to explain the whole package. You would be forgiven for mistaking the Chromebook as a Macbook Air, the silver-finish and black chiclet keyboard do a lot to conjure that image in your mind. It’s definitely not as sturdy as an Apple offering though, being built out of plastic. As any Samsung user can attest to, they do have a slight plastic-fetish which finds its way to this device. At first when using it I felt like I could do some serious damage with the thing, but after a couple of days of it being slung (without a case) in a standard bag it’s proven that it does have some strength to it’s build. At a tad over a kilo too, you can carry this thing around under your arm all day without realising it.
The keyboard does have a lovely feel to it, though the major drawback would be the lack of a backlight. The keys have a nice bounce to them, and for long-term writing the device is a joy to use. If there was something else for me to nitpick at, I would have liked some media controls.
The trackpad really is something else. It’s a nice wide size and it just works perfectly. It has two finger multi-touch for swipes and scrolling, it’s tap and click-able and never drags or lags or has thus far caused an issue for me. You really can compare this trackpad with one from a Macbook Air - a device nearly £800 the Chromebook’s senior.
The major ports, a USB3, USB2 - for some reason - and full-sized HDMI all sit on the back edge of the Chromebook. This would be the main point in the design of the build that has felt a bit off. The amount of times I have plugged a USB drive into the Chromebook have been negligible, but each time it does require reaching round the back and finding where the socket it. The design choice was to keep the main body of the device really thin, and it is, but for constant access to the ports it could be a pain. Presumably if you’re using a Chromebook there won’t be a tonne of plugging and unplugging.
The biggest thing that has been compromised with the price point is the screen. A matte-finish on a screen does feel strange, being one of the first times I’ve been a long time with a device like this, but it does really benefit for heavy web-browsing and writing. For media, the colours can feel a little washed out, but it suffices for a movie or Youtube video, if you have the right expectations. I think a regular user would have no qualms. The plus is you’ll never see your own face looking back at you in the reflection. The biggest drawback is the viewing angles, particularly looking from the top - nothing that really gets in the way, you can just adjust the screen.
Overall in terms of the build and design there’s a definite influence of Apple products again in this Samsung package, but it is sleek and slinky and weighs next to nothing. If it wasn't plastic that would be a huge boost, but presumably it would be to the price as well.
I feel like it’s important to note the thing is basically a high-powered tablet shaped as a thin laptop. It makes no noise whatsoever. There’s no fan, no moving hard drive, nothing to cause a noticeable amount of heat. On paper it's the perfect portable machine. The processor, the Exynos 5 Dual Core (clocked at 1.7Ghz), seems more than capable of running anything I've thrown at it. It’s coupled with a quad-core GPU and it hasn't struggled under any stress - even gaming. Though there is a limit to what could be stress-tested (see: Software) but honestly the power this thing is packing is more than enough to run a Chromebook. The more intensive games, such as the browser Battlefield for example, couldn't yet be tested, but the review will be updated accordingly.
The 2GB of RAM, I know elsewhere, has the been another point of contention with the device. In my regular use, with a couple of Youtube video pages open, a Google Docs page, Tweetdeck and a few tabs, it still runs fine. I've pushed it, hitting closer to twenty tabs, and that’s when it can be a little stuttery. Obviously 2GB isn't a tonne of RAM for the machine to work with, but for most people it should be fine. If you’re a heavy web user it might be worth heading over to one of the higher-end Chromebooks with 4GB RAM. In day to day use, for my needs, it hasn't yet been an issue - but it is worth taking note if you think it might affect you.
This is the section that really counts. Is Chrome OS really able to stand alone as a usable OS for a laptop? As a user who never had a chance to give an older version of the Chrome OS a spin, I can say that what’s out at the moment is basically there as a fully featured web-based OS. Everything that I’d need from a portable productivity device is on-board. Before using the Chromebook I was already migrating my work from the Office suite to Google Docs for sharing and collaborating and easy syncing across my devices. I found a fully featured screenwriting app on the Web Store, and Pixlr is as close as you’d really want on this device for image editing.
It does feel like an operating system for the portable, mobile market. It boots from cold to the login screen in around 7-8 seconds, and has revived itself from sleep in the time it takes for you to open the lid back up. In between meetings I've opened it up and been able to get on with some actual work within, literally, seconds. It’s fantastic. It never feels a chore - as it has done with previous laptops I've owned and used - to boot up and get into using it. It’s just on and ready.
There are some decent games on the Chrome Webstore, but some of the more popular offerings, such as Bastion, don’t work on this ARM Chromebook. Google’s NaCl (Native Client) hasn't yet been updated for the ARM architecture - though an announcement has said it should be available in around 6 weeks with the next major update. It does mean that at time of purchase certain things won’t be available, such as Netflix. ChromeOS is updated regularly, so any problems like this should be ironed out.
For everything else, there’s Chrome Remote Desktop. I can’t sing the praises of this app enough. Set-up your desktop beforehand and set a PIN code, and you can access the system from anywhere (as long as it’s already running). After a meeting, away from my office, I cut together a very simple video edit on Premiere Pro and exported it to Dropbox, where I was able to access it and have it running on my Chromebook. On a Wifi connection it’s nearly full-speed. In my example I was able to play back the timeline monitor in what was essentially real-time with audio. Cutting, dragging and dropping, all no problem and all completely usable. On a mobile connection, tethered through my phone on a H+ connection, it was perfectly usable. Slower than 3G is a pain, but upwards from that you’ve got a really solid workable solution. You wouldn't want to do any long form heavy work through it, but it definitely impressed.
The thing with Chrome OS, you really have to understand its limitations and its strengths before you decide to make the purchase. It definitely feels like a secondary device, or a primary device for those that don’t need anything too specialised or heavy. For a common user, browsing websites, watching media, casual games, and even a little photo editing are all perfectly usable, but the limitations are there. Though it is wrong to compare Chrome OS to Windows, the comparison will be made, and Chrome OS will always struggle. For me, it’s the ideal secondary computer, a mobile productivity machine. If you want to do some heavy work, video-editing or anything more demanding than Pixlr could offer you, then it isn't the machine for that, but I do think that it’s probably more a niche market that would require that on the move. The software is all there and available though. If there is something specific you require, a quick browse of the Chrome Webstore should give you an idea of what to expect.
The ARM architecture feels perfect for what the device is. You've got a well-designed, lightweight, portable, powerful, silent laptop for £229. It looks far more expensive than it is with the Macbook-inspired design. The touchpad and keyboard (minus the backlight) are contenders against machines over double its price. The OS is perfect for a mobile, quick-access market. It just works - which is more than can be said for a lot of tech these days. Anything that can be said against it: cheap screen, plastic build, doesn't run Photoshop. All this can be balanced by its price. The best thing to be said about the device is that when using it, it never feels like £229. As the review on The Verge says, it’s $1,000 dollars worth of design, and it does often feel like you’re using a high-end device, as long as you don’t want to stray away from the Chrome ecosystem. The Chromebook is a pleasure to use, it never feels slow or low-end, and for me personally it’s a fantastic support device to supplement my workhorse of a desktop.