Could you ditch your computer operating system and live entirely in your browser? That's the question Google is asking with its new Chrome OS Chromebooks -- and it isn't an easy one to answer.
Google's Chrome OS revolves around the idea of a cloud-centric existence. Every application you need runs on the Web, whether it's a productivity tool like Google Docs or a game like Angry Birds. Your documents, files and email are all stored online in services like Google Docs, Dropbox and Gmail. The PC itself becomes a mere vessel to your virtual life; you could smash it and replace it with a new one and you wouldn't notice a difference.
Google gave us a glimpse at the Chrome OS concept with its Cr-48 notebook, a test system sent out to a limited group of beta users last year. The hardware on the new commercial Chromebooks has been significantly improved since that system, and Chrome OS itself has evolved considerably, too.
Now, Google's first Chromebook -- made by Samsung -- is available today. (A second, made by Acer, was supposed to ship today as well, but has been delayed.) Is a Chromebook right for you? Here's a detailed look at Samsung's new Chromebook computer and the kind of experience the Chrome OS provides.
Samsung Chromebook: Hardware and design
Google's Chromebooks are available in two basic models: the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook and the Acer Chromebook. Both come in two versions: Wi-Fi only, or Wi-Fi with 3G. I was able to test the 3G model of the Samsung Chromebook.
The Samsung Chromebook features a 12.1-in. 1280 x 800 display. The screen is bright and easy to read; its matte finish is a pleasant change from the glossy screens on most notebooks these days, particularly in outside or otherwise glary conditions.
At 3.26 lb., the Samsung Chromebook is slightly lighter than the Cr-48 test system that came before it -- that notebook weighed in at 3.8 lb. In terms of design, however, we're looking at a night-and-day difference. Whereas the Cr-48 had a minimalistic and angular matte black exterior, the Samsung Chromebook has a smooth and glossy top with rounded edges and a colorful Chrome logo. The system is available in either an "Arctic White" or a "Titan Silver" finish. Both options are classy and sleek.
The left side of the Samsung Chromebook has a 3.5mm headphone jack along with a USB port and a mini-VGA port (a standard VGA adapter is included). One low point: The plastic cover protecting the USB and VGA ports feels a bit flimsy, like it might snap off after a few months of regular use.
A four-in-one memory card reader sits along the front of the unit, and on the right you'll find a second USB port next to a covered SIM card slot. There's also a "user-mode" switch that lets you switch from the default setup to hack-ready, giving you access to tinker with the system, if you're the adventurous type. There is no Ethernet port; this is a wireless-only machine.
Above the Samsung Chromebook's display is a 1-megapixel HD webcam and a microphone; a preinstalled Google Talk app makes both video and voice calls easy to manage, though Skype is not available as a Web app at this point and thus cannot run on Chrome OS. The notebook has two small speakers along its lower edges. Sound quality is decent enough -- more than fine for phone calls, but a bit on the tinny side when listening to music. If you want a full, bass-filled sound, you'll want to bring along headphones when using this system.
The Samsung Chromebook has a customized keyboard similar to what I saw in the Cr-48, though with darker printing and a glossier material surrounding the keys. In place of the standard PC function keys, the top row of the keyboard sports keys dedicated to Web-centric functions like navigating backward and forward, refreshing a page and switching among windows. Generally speaking, I found the keyboard to be outstanding; its chiclet-style keys are nicely spaced and conducive to speedy typing.
Samsung's Chromebook touchpad also performed quite well in my tests. The trackpad was reliably responsive -- a nice contrast from the Cr-48's temperamental touchpad. Even right-clicks, achieved by tapping two fingers down at the same time, were easy to accomplish; on the Cr-48, it often took me several tries to get those to work.