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Samsung Chromebook review: Google's new $249 computer

October 19, 2012 10:30 AM ET

Based on my time with the new Chromebook so far, I'd say its performance easily surpasses that of the first-gen Series 5 Chromebook model. There's really no comparison; this is a better device all around. The higher-end 550 Chromebook, however, is still top dog and would probably be the preferable choice for power users who tend to have a lot of tabs open or plan to perform heavy multitasking.

Speaking of power, the new Chromebook is listed for "over 6.5 hours" of battery life (information I received from Google earlier this week indicated 6 hours, but that estimate has since been revised). That's slightly more than the 6 hours listed for the higher-end 550 Chromebook model.

While I haven't had a chance to thoroughly test the staying power of this new device, I can tell you that its battery stats indicate it's pretty far above the 6.5-hour estimate so far. The 550 model, meanwhile, consistently outperforms its listed 6-hour spec.

All considered -- and taking into account the low-power nature of the new Chromebook's ARM-based chip -- this system promises to be pretty impressive when it comes to stamina.

A good computer -- but not for everyone

I've said it before and I'll say it again: The Chrome OS has come a long way since its introduction two years ago. The platform now features a familiar-feeling desktop with movable windows and a customizable taskbar. There's a status bar in the lower-right corner that shows you the current time and network connection status; clicking it allows you to access a host of system settings.

Users who spend most of their time in the cloud will find that Google's Chrome OS offers several advantages over a traditional computing environment. You avoid annoying and time-consuming OS upgrades; Chrome OS updates frequently and seamlessly in the background, with new system updates coming in every week or so and delivering improved performance and fresh functionality to your device.

Beyond that, Chrome OS eliminates the hassles of manually updating applications over time; the platform's Web-based apps all update seamlessly on their own, just like the OS. You don't have to deal with messy drivers and software conflicts or worry about virus protection, either. And thanks to the nature of the software setup, Chromebooks don't get gunked up and slowed down over time, as more traditional PCs frequently do.

At a Glance

Samsung Chromebook
Price: $249
Pros: Thin, sleek design; excellent keyboard; good battery life; simple to use
Cons: Subpar performance with high-intensity use; display is adequate but not great; limited to running only Web-centric apps

Chrome OS also benefits from Google's universal syncing system: Within seconds of signing into any Chrome OS device, all of your Chrome bookmarks, settings, extensions and applications appear and are ready to use. And any other user can sign into the same system and access her data and settings, too -- without disrupting or in any way affecting your stuff.

Chrome OS certainly isn't for everyone, but for people who live Web-centric lives, it can be an excellent way to get the benefits of online computing without the annoyances that usually accompany them.

(For a much more in-depth look at the platform and its pros and cons, see my software-specific assessment: Chrome OS reviewed: The final verdict on Google's cloud platform.)

The bottom line

Whether as a secondary system or a primary computer, the new Chromebook is outstanding for light Web browsing and Web-oriented work. It's a slim, light, attractive device with good performance and promising battery life. Google seems to be marketing this machine as a secondary computer for the family, and in that regard, it's a pretty enticing proposition.

But its limited resources put a firm ceiling on its usefulness. If you're a power user who keeps numerous tabs and windows open or multitasks heavily throughout the day, you'd be better off investing in the higher-end Samsung Chromebook 550, which is more suited to handle that level of usage.

With this new Samsung Chromebook, though, Google has finally achieved a compelling and complete lineup of Chrome OS choices. At a starting price point of $249, it's a fantastic value -- especially when you consider the included two years of expanded Google Drive storage, worth $120 by itself. I suspect this new addition will help Google amass a far larger base of Chrome OS users than it's ever seen before.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Google-related tips and insights, follow him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

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