I Tried to Love Samsung’s Chromebook. I Failed

By  |  Monday, July 25, 2011 at 10:52 am

Last Thursday morning, as I packed for a three-day trip to San Diego for Comic-Con, I couldn’t decide whether to take my trusty first-generation MacBook Air, or use the trip as an excuse to review Samsung’s Series 5 Chromebook, which I’d just received. So I didn’t decide–I took both.

And then, once I’d arrived at the airport, I realized that I’d forgotten to bring the Air’s AC adapter. The Blogging Gods clearly wanted me to try the Series 5, one of the first commercially-available devices that runs Google’s Chrome OS.

The notion of using a laptop purely as a window to the Web–which is the Chrome OS proposition–isn’t inherently unappealing to me. (In fact, I tried to do just that back in 2008, in a project I called Operation Foxbook, long before Google announced Chrome OS.) Using Google’s first Chromebook, last year’s experimental CR-48, had left me more skeptical about Chrome OS rather than less so. But I still want to be impressed with a truly Web-centric computing device. Sadly, my time with the Series 5 at Comic-Con was frustrating in multiple ways. Google and its hardware partners are selling Chromebooks to the public at prices which aren’t lower than those for similar Windows laptops, but the Series 5, like the CR-48,still feels like an experiment.

If the $499.99 Series 5 were a Windows 7 machine, it would probably be a pleasing one. The black-and-white case of the one I have looks good, and it’s reasonably thin at .8″. The keyboard is full-sized and comfy. 12.1″ is an appealing screen size–highly portable, yet without the crammed feeling of a netbook. I had trouble with the touchpad (see below), but it’s surprisingly spacious.

This is a Chromebook, though, and one of the defining aspects of a Chromebook is that it doesn’t really work without Internet access. (It’s possible to listen to music using the bare-bones media player, and Google is working on limited-function offline versions of part of the Google Apps suite.) I figured I could still be OK: after all, I spend around 85 percent of my time using Web apps such as WordPress.com anyhow. I would just use Google Docs instead of my favorite word processor, Scrivener, and something like the Web-based graphics suite Aviary instead of Photoshop.

News coverage of Comic-Con leaves the impression that everyone there is strolling about dressed as a superhero–or, at least, is attending a preview of a major upcoming superhero-themed movie. No, not really. I spent much of my time in small rooms attending interesting panels with folks such as veteran cartoonists. And while I listened, I tried to do my day job, by blogging and answering e-mail.

The San Diego Convention Center has free Wi-Fi, and the Series 5 I tried has embedded Verizon Wireless 3G. That gave the Series 5 two ways to get online–and much of the time, either or both of them worked fine. I blogged. I browsed around. I tried out apps from Google’s Chrome Web Store. I mostly liked the user interface–I spend so much time online that using a browser as the primary interface makes sense to me, and Google does so in a thoughtful way. (The way Chrome OS manages multiple windows–a sort of stripped-down-but-slick equivalent to OS X’s Spaces–is especially well done.)

The Series 5’s battery life was terrific, too–if it didn’t hit Samsung’s estimate of “up to” 8.5 hours on a charge, it came mighty close.

Trying to do graphics for Technologizer using a Web app, however, was a fundamentally unsatisfying experience. Aviary is impressive in many ways, as are competitors such as Google’s own Picnik. But none of them are as swift as a good image editor that’s a piece of traditional software. I felt like I was working in slow motion. (Aviary, actually, didn’t work at all for my purposes: after I’d resized and cropped an image, I couldn’t save it as a JPEG file for use on Technologizer. In Chrome for OS X, it worked just fine.)

The Aviary file-save glitch was the only instance I noticed of a Web site that should have worked on the Chromebook failing to do so. Flash-enabled sites such as Amazon’s video on demand service performed adequately, which was a pleasant change from my experience with them on Android handsets and other mobile devices. And I knew that Netflix Watch Instantly wouldn’t work–it requires Microsoft’s SilverLight–so I wasn’t startled when it didn’t. (If you log into Netflix on a Chromebook, you get a version of the site focused entirely on the DVDs-by-mail service.)

Worse, I quickly figured out that:

  • I couldn’t get on the free Wi-Fi at all in some parts of the cavernous building, and when I did get on, the Wi-Fi would often die for no apparent reason, and stay dead for extended periods. (This didn’t come as a surprise–if there’s a major convention center on the planet with truly robust wireless service, I haven’t been there.)
  • The Verizon coverage inside the building is also shaky. (This didn’t come as a surprise, either: at the 2010 con, my Verizon Mi-Fi often failed to get me onto the Internet.)

End result: I spent a lot of time futzing with the Series 5, hoping that I could coax it into reconnecting to the Internet. Sometimes I succeeded; often I failed. When I failed, I closed the notebook and paid attention to the con.

If the Series 5 had been a cheap Windows laptop, I would have presumably had the same connectivity woes, but the lack of Internet access would have been aggravating but not devastating. I could have used a word processor, an image editor, or a fancier music player than the rudimentary one built into Chrome OS. The Chromebook, however, might as well have displayed a picture of a boat anchor when it couldn’t find the Internet.

Even when I was online, I had trouble with Chrome OS. Google’s Chromebook site talks about Chrome OS laptops avoiding “all the headaches of ordinary computers.” Which they sort of do–it’s just that the Series 5 turned out to have a bunch of headaches of its own.

To wit:

  • The touchpad is much, much better than the one on the CR-48–and much, much worse than the ones on Macs and on most Windows laptops. I often had considerable trouble selecting and dragging items, although I couldn’t tell whether poor functionality or bugs–or both–were to blame. (I do assume that it’s a software issue rather than a hardware one.)
  • Individual browser tabs crashed frequently, with a cutesy “He’s dead, Jim!” message that said memory issues might be to blame.
  • Sometimes–quite often, actually–clicking on links on pages didn’t do anything.
  • On more than one occasion, the keyboard froze until I rebooted the Series 5.
  • On more than one occasion, Chrome extensions stopped working until I rebooted the Series 5. In other instances, I got error messages telling me that extensions had crashed. (I haven’t seen the same sort of extension difficulties with the same extensions on the Chrome browser.)
  • When I stuck an SD card full of photos into the laptop–hoping to edit one of them and upload it into a blog post–the laptop couldn’t see the card until I rebooted.
  • When I started using the Chromebook, references in the help to a File Manager option in the Tools menu befuddled me–it wasn’t there, and pressing, which was supposed to pull it up, did nothing. Later, the File Manager showed up, possibly after I’d gotten the machine to notice the SD card.

At one point, the Chromebook seized up altogether, suffering a sort of Blue Screen of Death without the blue screen. When I rebooted it, I briefly saw a message that said that the preferences file was corrupt or invalid. Maybe a damaged preferences file caused some of the glitches I encountered. But I’m not sure how it got damaged, or how to fix it. (A Google representative contacted me about the issues after I mentioned them on Google+: I’ll let you know if the company helps me figure out what’s going on.)

My friend Louis Gray is using a Series 5 and says the experience is largely trouble-free, and so pleasing that he rarely uses his Mac anymore.  Still, the oddities I’ve seen may also stem from bugs, plain and simple. One of Chrome OS’s selling points is that Google can push down updates and have a Chromebook silently auto-install them, much as Chrome-the-browser does. As with major new versions of Windows and OS X and other operating systems, waiting a bit will surely get you a more reliable Chrome OS.

But a Chromebook that behaves as intended will be almost entirely dependent on the Web. You have to find a Wi-Fi hotspot. Or pay for 3G, once you’ve used up the 100MB of free monthly Verizon service you get for the first two years–which you can do in a few hours even if you’re not doing anything that’s particularly bandwidth-hungry. And if you can’t get online, as I often wasn’t in the nation’s ninth largest convention center, you’re toast.

In other words, Chrome OS and Chromebooks are built for an era of genuinely pervasive Internet access and all-powerful Web apps that isn’t here yet. If that age arrives at all, it will take years, not months.

For now, using the Series 5 has given me new appreciation for Windows 7 notebooks that offer Chromebook-like hardware at a Chromebook-like price. (My pals at Laptop Magazine, in their Series 5 review, suggest Asus’s Eec PC 1215B.) Sure, Windows 7 has all the downsides that Google is fond of enumerating: bloat, security issues, update difficulties, and more. The only thing is, Chrome OS is still too short on upsides of its own.

Will Chrome OS get the opportunity to become great? It’s tough to say. Google cofounder and new CEO Larry Page says that the company is going to put more wood behind fewer arrows–which presumably means that at least a few additional projects that aren’t established successes will be going bye-bye. I’m honestly vague on whether Page and other Google powers that be see Chrome OS as a strategic necessity or an arrow that might not make the cut.

Seems to me that an affordable laptop that ran Google’s Android would make more sense in the real world than any Chrome OS device. It could be mean, lean, and browser-centric–and give you the ability to run apps that weren’t dependent on Internet access. This idea is so obvious that I’d be staggered if it hasn’t occurred to people within Google. And if the company decides that two mobile operating systems are one too many, isn’t it clear which one will go and which one will stay?


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53 Comments For This Post

  1. Aaron Pressman Says:

    I am having exactly the same experience with mine (aside from the frequent crashes). I tried to warn you about the image editing when you asked the other day 😉

    I am hoping/thinking that the "summer" OS upgrade adding more offline capability will be a big deal.

  2. Muay Thai Says:

    I have the crash problem too… sucks.

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  3. Scott Says:

    The Samsung Chrome dev channel has a netflix plugin. You can enable that if you want to live on the edge. Netflix is coming. 🙂

  4. dieta Says:

    Sorry but chrome it's not a good "operative system" to work on…

  5. Dalila Says:

    Thx a lot for this detailed review. I am sure now, that I don't need a chromebook and even don't want to test it by myself.

  6. Harry McCracken Says:

    Some offline capability would help a lot….

  7. nicholascontramundum Says:

    I find Pixlr works very well for online image editing, although I admittedly do it on a Mac, so I don't know if there are other issues associated with that.

  8. Stefan Weitz Says:

    It was really a frustrating product to use. My review from launch time: http://stefanweitz.wordpress.com/2011/06/10/chrom

    See you soon, Harry

  9. ahow628 Says:

    Bummer Harry.

    I've been using my CR-48 since they first started offering them for testing and it is far and away my favorite notebook. I will say I don't do any photo editing, although I have done some screenshots which worked nice after finding the right extension (Printee FTW).

    The only major snag I hit was when I tried to enable two-factor authentication for my Google account. That created problem after problem and I've had to disable it.

    I've had zero trackpad problems (which I had the CR-48 trackpad on all my computer), no random reboots, and no lock ups. I've watched Amazon VOD on it quite a bit too.

  10. matt Says:

    I have a very good experience so far with my Acer. Obviously, if I don't have internet access this thing is useless. But I have been using google services in the cloud extensively for just about over a year … so I have not had much of a learning curve. What will truly make this much much more better is the ability to have offline access to recent email, docs, pictures, and other content. I would never recommend anyone to switch from a mac (or PC) to a chromebook in one day. You would just be setting yourself up for a bad expectation.

  11. adam moore Says:

    Good write up. I’ve been wondering what’s going on with Google OS. Sad to hear it’s not all it could/should be. But I think you have a great solution there. Thanks.

  12. Wardog Says:

    If you are on the beta channel, users have experience the same problem. Stable channel is is very stable.

  13. Mike Cerm Says:

    Asus Windows netbooks get greater than 10-hours of battery-life. If you put an SSD into one, the performance will be as good or better than a Chromebook, and the cost will still be $100 less than a Chromebook.

    With no advantages in price, battery-life, performance, features, softwrare… no advantages of any kind… why the heck would anyone want a Chromebook?!

  14. David W Says:

    Good thought Mike, but I occasionally do need the Verizon 3G backup which would add hundreds to the cost of the Asus. I've been using the CR-48 ChromeBook for 6 months and find that it's improving rapidly and quite usable now. I'm betting on the future and would love to see some real OS competition as we'll all benefit. Simplicity, security, and life cycle cost might be where the ChromeBook could win for some mobile users. We'll see more clearly in a year.

  15. Mike Cerm Says:

    Connectivity should not be a problem, if you're carrying a smartphone of any kind. With the exception of Windows Phone 7 (which I'm not sure about), all of the other smartphone operating systems support tethering. Also, it's free, if you don't mind jailbreaking/rooting/hacking. Any person with a Chromebook should be tech-savvy enough to figure it out.

    I, too, would LOVE to see some real OS competition. That's why it saddens me that Google has aimed so low with ChromeOS. If this is the best that Google can do… well, I guess Microsoft's doesn't have anything to worry about.

  16. Harry McCracken Says:

    Maybe I’m unlucky, but I often go places–in big cities most of the time–where 3G connectivity (on multiple carriers) and Wi-Fi (even if it’s supposedly available) are sketchy. In some cases, it’s because I’m at a conference or other event where thousands of people are online, all at once. But not always…


  17. ahow628 Says:

    Also Mike, the Chromebooks have a full-size keyboard (as Harry mentioned) which would be a major selling point for me. Assuming you are talking about the 10" Asus netbooks, the mini keyboards are a deal-breaker for me.

  18. James Says:

    What happens with this thing if Google decides to suspend or outright cancel your Google account? There were many reports over the weekend that Google was doing just that. In many cases because they mistakenly believed that some names were fictional when they were not.

    Talk about a nightmare scenario if you use a Chromebook as your only computer.

  19. MJPollard Says:

    A notebook running Android instead of Google Chrome OS is exactly what Motorola had in mind when they developed the laptop dock for their Atrix phone (which I have, though I don’t have the dock). You plug the phone into the dock and it becomes a laptop, complete with keyboard, screen, and mouse touchpad. It’s not a great experience, mainly because you’re trying to force a phone to become a laptop, but it’s a sign of things that could be. A notebook specifically dedicated to running Android could be a real killer, and does make more sense than Chrome OS, if only for the ability to do work offline.

  20. MJPollard Says:

    @Mike Cerm: That’s why I personally would rather see Google put their energy into making Android more laptop-friendly, rather than split their efforts in two with it and ChromeOS. Right now, though, I realize that Android is fragmented into two camps — Gingerbread for phones and Honeycomb for tablets — but perhaps things will change with Ice Cream Sandwich and beyond, when (from my understanding) both code bases will be merged into one unified system. It shouldn’t be too much of a step up from tablets to notebooks, really, especially since (like I said above) it can already be done with phones like the Atrix and its laptop dock. If Google did that, I think they’d have a real killer on their hands in the low-cost laptop market: Android laptops that combine the form factor of a notebook with the low price of a netbook.

  21. Mike Cerm Says:

    That sounds like a terrible idea to me. I agree that it would be nice if it were possible, but it's just not. Android is a disjointed mess on phones, and the tablets are even worse. I'd hate to see them try to extend the broken platform to yet-another form-factor.

    Consider why you'd want to have the same platform on different devices. I guess the big one would be that you could write one apps that works on a phone, on a tablet, and on a laptop, using the same code. Again, it's nice in theory, but no one wants to run the same app on a phone as they do on a laptop! They want experiences tailored to whatever device their on. So, you've still got to write 3 different apps.

    Writing apps for Android is a miserable process, as you're stuck working in Java, with terrible developer tools, and 500 different devices to test against for compatibility. There's no reason to bring such a shoddy OS to another form-factor. Sure, ChromeOS sucks, but Android on a laptop wouldn't really be an improvement.

  22. The_Heraclitus Says:

    Really? I've not had problems with the 2 Android tablets I've used. What have you had problems with?

  23. Mike Cerm Says:

    For starters, the interface is a mess. They waste like 50 pixels at the bottom of the screen for a stupid black bar that doesn't do anything. Then, for some reason, they put the app-launcher button in the upper right… but it disappears when you're in an app. Why? There is no justifiable explanation for this. Just put it, and the search function in the giant black bar! I can think of a number of other examples of how Honeycomb is a big step backward in terms of usability from Gingerbread (and it's not like Gingerbread is all that great, either).

    Also, there's no apps. The last count I heard said that there's less than 150 tablet-specific apps in the Market. The freakin' HP Touchpad has more apps! Do you understand how insane that is?! Also, the apps that are there – and this is a common theme for Android in general – are generally less usable and less polished than their iOS counterparts.

    Also, the performance of the Honeycomb hardware is pretty poor, also. Load up a live wallpaper, and then scroll from screen to screen, and watch the frame-rate drop. That's pretty sad stuff. If they can't scroll smoothly and have live wallpapers, then they shouldn't have even included the feature.

  24. The_Heraclitus Says:

    I understand. The lack of Apps being the biggest problem. There are the "polish" problems you mention. The apps is the biggest marketing one though.

  25. MJPollard Says:

    @Mike Cerm: Guess you missed the part where I said “Ice Cream Sandwich and beyond, when the code base will be unified.” Right now, yes, I agree, Android isn’t viable, but none of us can see the future, and if Android can be unified and refined, I see no reason why it can’t expand to the notebook level. I guess I’ve decided to take a more optimistic outlook, so I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree. 🙂

    (One thing I’m very adamant about: relying on “the cloud” for everything is, shall we say, a “less than optimal” way to go, as Harry already discovered. It sounds good in theory, but lose your network connectivity and your ChromeOS device is suddenly a very expensive MP3 player; the remote server crashes, you lose access to your data at best, lose the data itself at worst. At least with a “real” notebook or netbook, you can work offline with a backup. I’ll never believe that serious work can be done with a setup that relies exclusively on Internet connectivity and remote data storage, no matter how attractive companies like Google and Microsoft make it sound.)

  26. The_Heraclitus Says:

    A solution in search of a problem. That doesn't bode well for sales…

  27. Roog Says:

    It was great to read this validating post. I have owned and used a Samsung Chromebook for almost a month now and I have experienced all of your "To wit" bullet point issues. When I briefly commented about the crashed tabs issue in a different reviewer's blog post, I was lambasted by more than one member of the reading audience for trying to use the Chromebook as a laptop computer replacement. That wasn't a fair assessment, but what is a fair assessment is that I have been trying to use the Chromebook as I would Google Chrome installed on a Windows Vista/7 PC with the same amount of RAM. It doesn't hit the mark, mainly due to the crashed tabs and extensions.

    Otherwise, I quickly became accustomed to the "instant on" aspect of the device, operating in the cloud across synced devices (like Chrome on my Windows laptop), and the much-appreciated battery life. To its credit, the Chromebook has become my "go to" computer because of the instant on and the ease of use – flip it open and away I go.

    I have heard that Google plans to add a faster Intel processor to the next round of Chromebook products. That's great. But, how about adding another 2 to 4 GB of RAM since the memory limitation likely causes the tabs and extensions to crash (according to my online discussion with a Google Chrome "Ninja" and the note that is delivered with a crashed tab). Or, is it possible to write the Chrome OS to page/swap files with the provided SSD? In summary, I would be a happier customer if my Chromebook worked as well as Chrome 12 does on my Windows laptop (including adding the missing Chrome features, such as right-click "Open in New Window").

  28. Adam Greenblum Says:

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  29. ebpp Says:

    not sure who is supposed to buy these

  30. David Says:

    Some good observations, but the article could have been written a lot more concisely. Omit needless words.

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  35. Jeff Says:

    First, who in their right mind would want to do photo editing in a 12" netbook; doesn't make too much sense to me. Keep in mind it is a netbook, hence the net even though they call it a Chromebook it's still a netbook.

    I'm not a big fan of reading reviews from websites like these. Too many fanboys that aren't typical everyday users.

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  42. John Says:

    The most important thing is not Chromebook sum of its parts, its specifications, hardware, or even the characteristics of the Chrome browser itself. It is a vision. Google, the future of computing is all over the web, or in common language, the whole "cloud". The vision of Google, "app" is the browser, which in this case refers to the Google browser, Chrome.

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  45. bradholister Says:

    There are a few variations between Acer and Samsung's first Chromebooks. The Acer design has an 11.6-inch screen, while Samsung's Line 5 notebooks have 12.1-inches displays, a little roomier. Although Acer's displays are lesser, they do group greater pixel solidity than Samsung's more substantial displays, significance you actually get a bit more room to operate on the AC700. online coupons

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  53. Office furniture Says:

    We can see Chromebooks sinking slowly down the Best Seller lists at Amazon.com, but it's impossible to know how well they are selling, because Google hasn't released any numbers. Chromebooks are pitched mainly at large corporations who are generally sympathetic to the idea of dumb terminals, and might even have a few attached to their old-fashioned mainframes, sorry, private clouds. But if these large corporations are adopting Chromebooks, they're not buying them from Amazon, so they're almost impossible to track.