Review: Samsung Series 5 Chromebook (2013)

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The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook is a like a MacBook Air suffering an identity crisis. There are great intentions, and the software is amazing, but in the end it’s just the web and it’s a slow computer in a fast computers body. However there are glimmers of hope that make the Series 5 Chromebook a decent laptop, for the price.

  • Score:

    7.5 / 10

  • The Good:

    Great concept, great OS, good looking hardware, beautiful software design, and very polished.

  • The Bad:

    The hardware is really cheap, it performs fairly poorly with the ARM processor and a number of little problems arise in extended use.

  • Bottom Line:

    Slow but filled with potential. I’d personally wait for a faster Chromebook, but the software is still fantastic enough to buy this with few regrets.

The hard question to answer when reviewing the Chromebook is whether to judge it on potential or the reality.

I’d always wanted a Chromebook. I always saw Google’s vision of the web as an operating system to be courageous, but also a safe bet, especially for a company only possible because of the internet. Right now you’re likely reading this from the web (unless you’re caching us). Your email is likely used through the web, whether it’s a Gmail, Hotmail or an ISP-powered system. Even movies and music have been positioned to work right from a web browser, with Google Play Music, Spotify, Rdio, JB Hi-Fi Now and BigPond Music all living in the browser. In fact, Google’s efforts to defy logic, by working against the benefits of ‘native’, through YouTube, Google Docs, Gmail, Google Reader (oh, wait) and even Search, shows that the Chromebook wasn’t a step into the dark for them, but an eventual conclusion. The problem is whether they had finished the previous stage of actually creating the platform.

I believe they have.

The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook, though, is practically built to be a secondary device. It’s got great design principles, but its cheap materials, ARM processor and ‘netbook’ OS show that this, unless you’re not reliant on any native software (Photoshop, Office, Final Cut), is meant to compliment your tower or heavy laptop. And I think it does this job well. Kind of.

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The plastic body creaks below the weight of my hand, while the top of the clamshell requires force to open. There is no hinge like you see on modern laptops, where the computer will open without holding down the keyboard area. But it speaks volumes on the weight of the Series 5 Chromebook. It’s really light.

From a distance, family members assumed I’d received a Macbook Air. My school, a Apple-only laptop haven, didn’t bat an eye when I began using the Chromebook. And you can’t blame them. The metallic paint-job, the black island-style keyboard layout, and even the way the plastic surrounding the keyboard dips into the frame of the device, show that Samsung surely took ‘inspiration’ from Apple. The comparitively unique design of the Pixel is proof of this. Samsung took an expensive design and recreated it under the conditions of a $350 notebook. And they did a great job when you consider that price.

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While the body feels cheap, and even flimsy, weighing in at 1.1kg, when you actually use the device  the restraints of using cheap materials melt away into a decent keyboard, and a great trackpad. And while continuing the theme of plastic over more industrially-preferable materials, seen in the smooth MacBook trackpad, Samsung and Google have made something that works really well. And my only complaint is that it can be a little loud, especially if you’re in a quiet room where every noise draws attention. The trackpad, overall, is responsive and never becomes a barrier, unlike so many other Windows laptops. It even has Macbook-quality scrolling, with Chrome OS providing inertial scrolling. But the performance of the processor let the trackpad down.

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Screen Shot 2013-04-24 at 3.52.22 PMInside the case is Samsung’s Exynos 5 Dual Processor, an ARM processor, and while it isn’t bad, it isn’t good. YouTube videos regularly stutter, the browser can freeze with just 5 tabs, and the smooth scrolling can turn from butter into gridlock quickly. It’s disappointing that something as essential as watching a video via Chrome can break the OS, occasionally even forcing a reboot.

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Despite this major issue, battery life is still nice because of the processor, usually getting me the expected 6 or more hours of use. It still confuses me how this could get worse battery than a good tablet computer, such as the Nexus 10 or iPad since it’s essentially a Chrome browser running on a phone processor.

On the back is a SIM-slot, a USB 3.0 port, USB 2.0 port, HDMI output and the power adapter. On the left side sits the SD card and headphone port. Stock standard, although including USB 3.0 is odd. Perhaps intended to run another OS off?

Screen Shot 2013-04-24 at 3.50.58 PMThe 11.6″ screen is also quite average. It has the texture of a cheap iPhone matte-screen protector, a hazy look. Viewing angles are poor, and while you get used to its quality, returning to a computer with a nice screen is a serious treat.

But, otherwise, the device is as you would expect. It is a $350 laptop and nobody will deny it.  But for what you’re paying, the actual overall design is nice and I eventually learned to love it, not because of how it felt, but for what it holds within: the OS. It’s just a shame that they couldn’t make it fast enough to feel better than a Netbook, instead retaining the reputation of a secondary-device, intended to become an afterthought of daily life rather than a delight.

Screen Shot 2013-04-24 at 3.52.13 PMDespite the manufacturers grip on Android, Chrome OS remains in the power of Google and only Google. Even the start screen, which only appears for 10 seconds max (the quickest I’ve seen being 6 seconds) shows a shiny Chrome logo, with no Samsung influence ever seen in the OS. When you startup the computer its apparent that, if you’re a person scared of a Google account or part of the unproven ‘Google doesn’t give me privacy’ clan, then this isn’t the computer for you. It’s the Google OS in ways Android can never become.

fA bridge wallpaper sits in the background, and your first interaction with the Series 5 Chromebook is logging in to your Google account. And as a Chrome user, I was then greeted to a Windows-style taskbar filled with my Chrome apps and all of my settings. It’s magical that Google have finally realised the dream of stateless OS, where you can have the same system on any device. As a Google Drive user, this was my computer. My files, my settings, everything just there from boot. It was so incredible that I started to forget which computer I had been using last while switching between a marble-white MacBook and the Netbook of my dreams.

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As you start using Chrome OS, which is simply a browser in a window-environment, it’s still apparent how much attention to detail Google has put into it. There’s the app drawer, with the option to open apps as Windows, pin them to the browser or just open them as tabs. The search key on the keyboard opens up the omni-bar from anywhere in the OS. ‘Natural-scrolling’ is an option, as well as switching the Control and Alt keys to match an OS X users instincts. And the design of the OS just shows that Chrome OS is the Google OS. Everything about it screams Google, and that’s a good thing for me. Even something as simple as powering down the computer shows an interesting fade-to-white animation, rather than just flicking the screen into darkness.

shutdown-gifIt’s the care of Apple, with the design of Google. And Google hasn’t created the OS and then created the platform, like every other company does, but rather released an OS to work with their existing platform of the web. I am that weirdo who uses Google Docs, the one who listens to all of my music through Spotify and watches the majority of video through a browser.

I am the definition of Gen-Y, without the Tumblr addiction.

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And Chrome OS just works for me. You can’t explain why the Pixel isn’t so crazy unless you have used Chrome OS. If you replaced my MacBook Pro with a Pixel, I’d likely never realise. And complaints of it only working when internet is available, while definitely realistic, have been subdued by Google through offline apps for Google Drive (which finally works), Gmail and Calendar. It isn’t complete, but it matches the offline capabilities of Office, excluding Excel. And for me, I never had to worry about being offline because I never use a laptop offline. Most people are the same. And if you aren’t if you do somehow drag around a laptop on public transport or through your daily routine, then the option for a 3G connection or just tethering your phone is obvious.

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There are plenty of flaws. It’s slow. It feels like a $350 laptop. And a few little things, like the shallow-keyboard, poor video performance and the lack of an Android-style universal search or notification section is odd, do subtract from perfection. But it still feels great, in a weird way. The problem is that I wouldn’t buy it. I’m waiting for the $350 equivalent of the Pixel.

A laptop that does perform to the standard of a 4 year old MacBook. And when that comes, I’ll be jumping on the Chrome OS bandwagon and never looking back. A stateless OS is the future. Windows and OS X show Apple and Microsoft’s desires for this. But neither have fully realised it. Google has.

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