Samsung Chromebook £350
25th Jun 2011 | 15:03
Samsung's Chromebook Series 5 arrives on UK shores
Samsung Chromebook Series 5: Overview
Cloud computing is a term we've heard with increasing frequency recently.
It's the idea that our usual computing tasks are not run by the hardware in our computers, but instead on powerful servers connected to your machine via the internet.
Operating systems on netbooks and laptops are still firmly tethered to the hardware, with Windows 7 and Linux distros being the OSes of choice. Into this fray comes Google's Chrome OS, an operating system designed to drag laptops and netbooks into the cloud.
The machines that run Chrome OS are known as Chromebooks, and Samsung is ahead of the pack by releasing the first Chromebook in the UK – the Samsung Chromebook Series 5.
For more information on what Chrome OS is all about, check out our guide: Google Chromebooks - what you need to know.
As the first of its kind with no immediate competitors - an Acer Chromebook has been announced by Google but Acer has yet to confirm if we will see it in the UK - the Samsung Chromebook faces some interesting challenges.
While it launches with no other competition from Chromebooks, it's currently solely responsible for persuading consumers to move from the more familiar Windows operating system to Chrome's browser-based interface, and to encourage early adopters to embrace the new technology.
The Samsung Chromebook Series 5 also needs to set the bar for what we can expect from this new breed of computer.
Samsung Chromebook Series 5: Features
One of the biggest selling points about the Chromebook is its simplicity.
Where other laptops would boast of their specifications, cramming in powerful components wherever space allows, the Series 5 is proud of its pared-down simplicity.
Google's aim with Chrome OS is to offer as uncomplicated a computing experience as possible, ideal for people who just want to use their computers with little fuss. Google wants you to 'just use' the device, rather than have to tinker with and maintain it.
While this back-to-basics approach could seem limiting and frustrating in the wrong hands, Samsung has created a remarkably accomplished machine that offers simplicity without being patronising.
It might be inevitable that the focus is going to be on Google's new operating system, but it would be a shame to ignore what Samsung has achieved with the Series 5 Chromebook.
On the outside it appears to be a standard Samsung netbook, although the Chrome logo that's displayed underneath Samsung's name hints that this is no ordinary device.
Opening it up shows what both Google and Samsung are trying to achieve with Chromebooks. The keyboard has larger buttons and greater spaces between them than you'd find on other netbooks. The usual 'F' function keys are dispensed with in favour of Chrome OS-specific buttons for changing volume and flipping between tabs.
We found that even though this gives the Series 5 Chromebook a slight air of a Fischer Price 'My First Laptop', it feels very comfortable to use.
The mouse track pad is a lot larger than on most laptops, and you click with one finger for a left mouse click, and with two fingers for a right mouse click. It's quite an elegant solution that works well.
The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook comes in two versions, one that's Wi-Fi only and a 3G version which costs £50 more.
Because Chrome OS is web based, the Series 5 Chromebook needs to be connected to the internet for it to work properly - one of the very first things it asks you when you turn it on for the first time is to connect to a wireless network.
Whilst the Wi-Fi only version works fine around the home, the 3G version is recommended if you are going to be using it while out and about. The constant need for an active internet connection is a good example of how you need to think differently when using a Chromebook, and if you're unwilling to commit to a 3G contract just to use your computer, then you're going to find the Series 5 Chromebook very limiting.
With other laptops the biggest worry is running out of battery – with the Chromebook it's losing your internet signal.
Talking of the battery, the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook has a very decent lifespan of eight to nine hours between charges, mainly due to the fact that Chrome OS is so light to run.
It comes with just 16GB of internal memory, the idea being that you'll be saving your work in the cloud. While this is all well and good in areas where you can easily get an internet connection, if you're stuck in a 3G blackspot, you're not going to be able to access your work.
You can also plug in external storage to load media and documents using the Chromebook's file browser. A file-browser opens as a new tab as soon as you plug one in.
The right-hand side of the Chromebook is where the SIM slot is for your 3G USIM card, and that sits next to one of the two USB ports and the developer switch.
Front left sits the SD card slot for plugging in the memory card from your camera, for instance.
And on the left is the second USB port and the display output port- you can plug the chromebook into a monitor using the bundled VGA adapter - alongside the charging port and a 3.5mm headphone/microphone port.
If you buy the 3G version, in the box you'll find a Three SIM card with 3GB of free PAYG data on it - so you'll be able to get yourself online straight away before sorting yourself out with a contact. Alternatively, you can wait for your free data to run out and then simply top it up.
Samsung Chromebook Series 5: Performance
Cutting the bloat that can often be associated with the more complicated Windows operating systems for the simpler and lighter Chrome OS has resulted in one area where the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook is leagues ahead of its Windows-based brethren – startup speed.
While computers such as the Acer Aspire One 721 and Samsung NC110 take around three minutes to fully load and allow you online, the Series 5 Chromebook takes less than 10 seconds. Open the lid after some downtime and it'll resume from sleep and get you online instantly.
Media playback on the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook is more hit and miss.
Clicking on JPEG photos, a small thumbnail was displayed on the right-hand side of the screen, with options to view the photo or send it to a Picasa online album. We selected a number of images and clicked on 'View'.
This opened up a new tab and we were able to scroll through each photo using the arrow buttons. Admittedly the photos were quite large, but the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook showed noticeable signs oflag when flicking between the photos. Not something we'd expect to see in a new machine straight out of the box.
We tested a variety of video file formats and were rather disappointed with the results. Out of the box, we managed to get .mov and .MP4 videos to work just fine, but more exotic formats like .wmv, .mkv and a basic DivX .AVI were not recognised by the OS.
We looked online to try to find an extension or plug-in to allow us to play the wmv file type, but with little luck. This is hardly the pick-up and use simplicity that Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Chrome at Google, promised when we talked to him earlier this week.
The files that worked showed off what the 12.1-inch display is capable of, with colours looking bright and vivid. However, when playing in full screen the limits of the hardware again made themselves known, with choppy playback when we tried HD content on the BBC iPlayer site. However, 720p video on YouTube played without much of a hitch though the framerate again was ever so slightly lower than we've been used to with other devices.
Samsung Chromebook Series 5: Verdict
As soon as Chrome OS was first demonstrated we had a feeling that its much vaunted simplicity would be a defining element that it would succeed or fail on. And so it has come to pass.
In the areas where the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook's simplicity works well, the machine really benefits. The keyboard and the mouse work well, and the almost instant startup time is fantastic.
For people who don't want to mess around with operating systems, worrying about installing anti-virus software and having to deal with Window's crashes and quirks, then the simplicity of just opening up the Chromebook, signing into a Google account and then getting straight into browsing the internet is certainly attractive.
Unfortunately on many other aspects the simplicity of the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook works against it.
Its Intel Atom CPU and integrated graphics card just doesn't have enough horsepower to play back demanding videos with optimal spoothness, and while its ability to play media might not be its main selling point, when you're paying £350 to £400 you'd expect it to be a bit more competent.
Compatibility issues with some file types will no doubt be ironed out in future updates, but at the moment performance is limited, so early adopters should approach with caution.
It is very early days for both Chrome OS and the Chromebooks that run it. The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook gets enough of the basics right that we can see the potential of the new operating system.
However it is not the strong start we'd have hoped for. We can see the logic in keeping the hardware simple when it keeps the performance streamlined and costs down. However in this case the hardware is just a bit too weak for any tasks more strenuous than viewing a website, and for a price that rivals more powerful and more feature-rich laptops.
With a few choice upgrades and a lower price, Chromebooks could be a hit. But at the moment, on the evidence of the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook, they still have a way to go.
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