Samsung Chromebook £250
14th May 2013 | 11:51
The Samsung Series 3 Chromebook reviewed and rated
This is technically the fifth iteration of the Google Chromebook – so long as you count Google's own CR-48 prototype.
Despite being the fifth Chromebook, this Samsung Chromebook (formerly known as the Series 3 XE303C12) shouldn't be confused with the Samsung Chromebook 550
If you know about Chrome OS already, you'll know that this laptop isn't like mainstream Windows laptops or even machines such as the Apple MacBook Air or the new 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display.
Instead, it is essentially a computer that does one thing: run a web browser.
In this case, of course, the web browser in question is Google Chrome.
Deciding whether or not the Samsung Chromebook is right for you is actually really easy. The first thing you have to know is that it's cheap. Really cheap.
At a launch price of £229/USD$330/AU$319, it undercuts most conventional laptops, and is cheaper even than the new iPad mini – though it's more expensive than the low-end Android tablets such as the Google Nexus 7 and Amazon Kindle Fire HD.
That's only part of the decision, however.
The other – indeed, main – thing you have to consider is whether you can live with a laptop that only runs everything in a browser, and therefore, with some caveats, depends on being connected to the web at all times over Wi-Fi.
It's not hard to decide if this is something you can live with; take a moment, close your eyes, and think whether what you mostly do on a computer is done through a browser – or could be.
Because while you can install apps from the Chrome Web Store they're not really applications or programs as most of us would recognise them.
In fact, they're little more than links that sit in your launcher and point to URLs on the web. (Actually, it's a little more complex than that; web apps can, if their developers implement it, add extra features such as using local storage on your Chromebook, rather than solely depending on storage on the servers of the companies whose services you're using.)
It's a slim, light, cheap, long-lasting little laptop that, partly because really the only thing it does is run a web browser and isn't based on Windows, is very secure, and if you live your life in web apps such as Facebook and Google Docs (or think you could), or especially if you are already immersed in the Google ecosystem of Docs, Gmail, Calendars and more, it's worth considering.
It comes with 100 GB of Google Drive free for 2 years.
While previous Chromebooks have been powered by various flavours of Intel chips (from a 1.66 GHz single-core Intel Atom N455 in the original to a 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Celeron 867 in the model this latest Chromebook supersedes), this one has an ARM processor – specifically, the 1.7GHz dual-core Samsung Exynos 5 Dual.
That it has an ARM processor at all is notable in itself, but it's especially interesting that this is a Cortex-A15 core, 40% faster than the Cortex-A9 core (all other things being equal); the A9 is a chip that takes various forms, notably the Tegra 3 series and A5 and A5X systems-on-a-chip that power the Apple iPad 3 and Apple iPhone 4S.
What all this translates to in real life is that the new Chromebook really does feel nippy – something we'll cover more in the next section – and is totally silent when you're using it.
Of course, part of the reason for the smooth performance is that the Chromebook only has SSD rather than a slower, mechanical hard disk.
But don't get too excited; there's only 16GB of space here, and it's really only for cacheing stuff.
You could expand that storage by connecting a hard disk (there's a USB 3.0 as well as the more normal USB 2.0 port on the back), but it's worth remembering that in order to be able to open files, you need a compatible app; while the built-in player will happily display H.264 MP4s, for example, most other videos, such as .divx and .mkv files, won't play without being uploaded to a transcoding service.
There's only 2GB of RAM in the new Chromebook, but in general usage, when you're writing documents, browsing the web and so on, it never feels underpowered.
Sure, 2GB of RAM would be practically insufficient in a traditional Windows or Mac laptop, where you could be running a dozen or more apps at the same time, but here, presumably in part because it's only running a single app, Chrome, it seems sufficient.
You get an HDMI port for connecting to an external monitor, an SD card slot, a combined headphone/mic port and a basic webcam.
Essentially, you get pretty much all the I/O most people will need, and though you can't install drivers in the traditional sense, lots of USB peripherals will work at a basic level just by plugging them in. (Printing is a little odd; you either have to connect over the web to a Google Cloud Print-enabled printer, or you have to go via the Cloud Print system on a middle-man computer with the Chrome browser installed which has a printer connected to it somehow.)
Unsurprisingly, there's no optical drive.
The screen size and resolution – 11.6-inches, 1,366 x 768 pixels – are perfectly good, though the quality is distinctly lacklustre.
The Chromebook, though, does well in portability and reasonably in longevity.
At only a little over a kilogram (1.1kg), it's eminently toteable (and 400g lighter than its predecessor, which makes a difference), and the battery usually lasts somewhere a little over six hours – not enough to make it through most people's working day, but certainly enough that you don't have a constant background anxiety about being away from the mains.
One fairly major caveat, though: while there appears to be a slot for a SIM card in the back, it's bunged with a rubber gromit, and while Google (via Amazon) offers the option to pre-order a 3G model in the States ($330 rather than $249 for the Wi-Fi-only model), it's not currently available in the UK.
It might seem stupid to make a computer that essentially wants to be connected to the internet at all times and that doesn't have a SIM slot to allow mobile broadband, but, as we'll see in the next section, it's not quite the handicap that it might seem.
The important point here is that for most of what you'll probably be doing on a Chromebook – browsing, emailing, writing, watching YouTube and the like – the performance is so good as to be unremarkable.
Even though we find it interesting that this model proves you don't need the grunt of an Intel processor (albeit a low-power one), few people who buy one should know or care.
Essentially, the only times you notice delays are when it's pulling information from the internet; on one hand, this issue is exacerbated by the fact that the Chromebook's whole schtick is 'pulling information from the internet', but on the other, even the meatiest Core i7 monster would have basically the same delays if you were using a suite of online services.
You do begin to notice delays in the auto-saving to the cloud when you're working on big documents, but it's not unacceptable, and it doesn't slow you down when working.
It's not perfect, though.
While it had no problems playing standard-definition streaming video from BBC iPlayer, say, once we tried HD streams, it struggled.
It always gave it a damn good try, and always made it through to the end, but there was sporadic flickering and slight audio glitches. It was almost there, but not enough.
At least now we do have the option of watching films and TV shows online through services such as Netflix.
Gaming, of course, is poor, even when those games are simple HTML5 ones such as Angry Birds and Bejeweled; there just isn't the horsepower here to behave well.
Stability was curious. Most of the time, it proved to be rock solid, but occasionally – and when doing apparently innocuous things such as trying to watch a live iPlayer stream or plugging in an external monitor – it would hard reboot with no warning.
It wasn't disastrous, though, especially if you're using Google's web apps such as Docs or Gmail; changes are continuously saved to the cloud or locally if you have enabled Offline Mode, and as soon as the Chromebook has rebooted (something that only takes 10 seconds), it can restore your open tabs.
We had a few crashes but lost no work, which makes it an odd thing to judge; ultimately, of course, any crashes are bad.
That offline mode is important, especially since this is a model that only has Wi-Fi; it's why you can keep using the Chromebook in a cafe, say, without having a connection to the internet.
Not all web apps have it, but Gmail, documents, Google Calendar and a few others do; see the list that Google maintains here.
You'd be forgiven for being suspicious of how well and reliably this offline mode works, but in truth, it has proven to be both since it was formally launched a year ago; in the process of writing this review, for example, we switched from being connected to being away from Wi-Fi frequently, and we had zero problems. To steal a phrase from Apple, it just works.
Again, though, we have to temper our enthusiasm.
There are some limitations and problems, and not just those that come from the whole idea of Chrome OS. For one thing, we tried a few different displays plugged into the HDMI port, but some weren't recognised, and some had trouble finding a good resolution.
And while we appreciate that this is a cheap laptop, it's nevertheless true that you can see and feel where costs have been cut in the manufacture: that ugly hump of a screen hinge; the flex in the display; the use of silver plastic which, no matter how you squint, doesn't quite convince you that you're using a MacBook Air; the basic black power brick with a fiddly little connector; the screen which is terribly washed out, has poor viewing angles, and which looks like it has a layer of sugar sandwiched between the pixels and the outer surface – some will like that it's reflection-suppressing matt, at least.
And then there's the fact that, on ours at least, the foot at the left of the wrist rest hovers a fraction of a millimeter above the table, producing an infinitesimally irritating little 'clunk' if you tap it.
The keyboard at least is good. It's a little too flat and unresponsive to be called 'superb', but it's certainly eminently usable for long periods at a stretch – and we also like that there are dedicated keys for page forward/back, refresh, window toggle and more.
We occasionally hit the power key at the top right, but it cleverly gives you a tiny hint, by bouncing the window, that you need to hold the power button down to shut down the system.
There's also, controversially, no caps lock key. Instead, there's a universal search button in its place, which pops up the list of installed 'apps' and lets you perform searches online without first opening a tab in Chrome.
It took a while for us to train our muscle memory to remember to use it, but it proved a boon – and at least without caps lock, YouTube comments should be a bit more civil.
(The boring real answer is: you can reassign it as caps lock in Settings, just like you can enable/disable tap-to-click and reverse trackpad scrolling direction.)
We've always liked the promise of the Chromebook idea.
Traditional computer users will sneer at it, despite its low price. They'll use phrases like 'full-fat operating system', 'no local storage', 'just an ARM processor'. They'll ask what use it is when it's not connected to the internet.
They miss the point.
Google say this is a computer 'for everyone' in big blue letters on the Chromebook homepage. This is hubris. It's not the computer for everyone, not by a long shot.
However, it is a very good little machine that should appeal to a few distinct groups.
First, if you're on a budget, here's a brand new computer for £229.
Second, if you already heavily use Google's online services (including if you use Google Apps to manage your business's domains, email and so on), signing into your Chromebook will feel like home, instantly.
Third, if most of your life is done through a web browser anyway, and there's nothing stopping you doing the rest of it online too, then you could argue that paying even £399 for a cheap Windows laptop that has more storage, more power and can run normal apps is a waste of money.
And perhaps more importantly, if you think you could be the sort of person who could do all their computing using web apps, you could well benefit from the good battery life, silent operation, light weight and portability, simplicity and implicit security of the Chromebook, not to mention its price.
It always takes a few days for you to really 'get' the Chromebook – though that period is shorter if you're a card-carrying Google aficionado who uses Gmail, Docs, Calendar and so on all the time anyway.
But once you get it, it gets under your skin. The simplicity and security of it – a nice compromise between the one-app-at-a-time mode of the iPad, say, and the potential complexity of a traditional computer – is refreshing and welcome.
It's also cheap, light, easy to use, silent, reasonably well built, innovative and, broadly, a pleasure to use.
Though the offline mode supported by some apps mitigates against the problem, we would nevertheless have preferred a model that had 3G as well as Wi-Fi; the Chromebook needs to access the internet in order to be able to do meaningful work, and even if you're in range of Wi-Fi most of the time, or carry a smartphone to which you can tether, it could still prove frustrating.
The sporadic crashes irked, and the build quality issues niggled – that grainy, washed-out screen being the worst offender.
What's more, media playback is sketchy, and while it would technically be possible to edit video using YouTube, we'd strongly counsel against it.
This is a laptop for browsing, writing, Facebooking and the like, and if you buy it without carefully thinking through what you use a computer for and deciding that one that only runs a web browser would suffice, you could be in for nasty surprises; even if there's just one tiny app that you use on a traditional computer that can't be comfortably replicated online, never mind if you rely on something like Adobe InDesign or want to play Medal of Honor, the Chromebook's not for you.
There are no niceties such as a back-lit keyboard or Apple's clever MagSafe connector.
Traditionally, we'd have said that a Chromebook isn't good enough to be your primary computer, and in too crowded a market with smartphones and even tablets, to consider as a second computer.
Things change, though. It's not the technologies that change – broadband speeds and processor power haven't changed all that much since the Chromebook was announced late in 2010 – but what is beginning to change are our habits and priorities.
Where five years ago lots of people would have preferred desktop email clients to webmail, for example, these days millions of us access Gmail in browsers without giving it a second thought.
With that in mind, we think we might just be at a tipping point for the Chromebook concept.
This latest model is good, and for lots of people would be perfectly sufficient as a primary computer.
It's a great cheap machine for students (so long as your campus has Wi-Fi), and not in a patronising way; younger folks are more likely to be happy using web apps rather than traditional programs anyway.
And actually, it could be a useful second machine, especially if your primary computer is a desktop tower or all-in-one, or even just a bulky, heavy laptop. It's a good chuck-it-in-a-bag-and-head-to-Starbucks-to-get-some-work-done machine.
It is, ultimately, good at doing the thing it's designed to do. All you have to do is decide if that thing is right for you.