When Google first announced the concept behind its Chromebook notebook computers, I was excited about the possibilities for small business use. I’m still interested in the concept of a highly portable, very secure, Web-only computer based on Google’s Chrome operating system, but after testing the Samsung Chromebook Series 5, I’m no longer convinced that small businesses should invest in them any time soon.
The problem isn’t with the hardware or even with the operating system. It’s just that as currently configured and priced, the Chromebook Series 5 isn’t very useful compared to standard laptops or tablets.
The Case of the Missing Disk
First the good news: The Samsung Chromebook starts up almost instantly, the 12.1-inch (1280 x 800 resolution) screen is clear and bright, and the unit quickly connects to either Wi-Fi or the optional 3G data service.
At just 3.3 pounds and .79 inches thick, the unit is easy to carry. And with 8.5 hours of rated battery life, you can leave the charger at home for the day. I used the unit off and on for almost a week before needing to recharge, even when leaving it in sleep mode instead of powering down.
The case is attractive — even if it is made of plastic — and the full-size chiclet keyboard is easy to use. (I would have preferred full-size arrow keys and a .com key, but that’s just me being picky.) The trackpad is relatively large, but you can’t tap it to click, and I often had a hard time getting the cursor exactly where I wanted it. Fortunately, there are a couple of USB ports where you could attach an external mouse, though that makes it less portable. There’s also a port for an optional VGA connector, a headphone jack, a high-def webcam, and 4-in-1 card reader. But, sadly, there’s no Bluetooth support.
You get only 2 GB of RAM and a netbook-class Intel Atom N570 processor. That sounds like a recipe for sluggish performance, but the Chromebook rarely felt slow – after all, it’s not running a bloated Windows OS or great big desktop applications.
The real problem, however, isn’t what’s there — it’s what’s not there. The Chromebook doesn’t include a hard disk, relying instead on a 16GB solid state disk (SSD). That’s sufficient to store items like Web cookies and a browser cache, but it isn’t going to provide much room for things like documents and media files. In fact, it’s pretty tricky to figure out HOW to get data onto or off of that disk in the first place.
That means you’re totally dependent on the Web – dependent on Google, really — to do any real work. That’s the whole idea, of course, and I get it on the conceptual level, but in practice it’s kind of a drag.
If you buy a 3G model, the price includes 100MB of data per month for two years. Remember, though, you’re doing everything through the Web, so you’re likely to burn through that data pretty quickly. Without an all-you-can-eat wireless data plan, Wi-Fi access is still an essential part of the Chromebook’s value proposition.