The Chrome OS experiment: Getting to know Samsung's new Chromebook

By JR Raphael (@jr_raphael)

Right now, I'm living in Chrome.

Google Chrome OS Samsung Chromebook

As part of my two-week Chrome OS experiment, I've traded my typical Windows 7 work environment for a Chrome OS-centric setup. I'm using Google's new Samsung Chromebook and Chromebox for the bulk of my computing needs, both in the office and out. My goal is to immerse myself fully in Google's cloud-centric vision to get a real feel for how the experience stands up in the real world.

To be clear, I've used Chrome OS before -- quite a bit, actually. I tested the original Cr-48 Chrome OS notebook and, after reviewing last year's first-gen Samsung Chromebook, ended up buying one myself. But for me, Chrome OS has always been a side system -- a complement to my regular work environment. I use it for travel and for casual Web surfing around the house.

While I've always liked the concept of Chrome OS -- and certainly appreciate its positive qualities -- the user experience has always come with a few too many caveats for me to embrace it wholeheartedly. One of those is the hardware: The first generation of Chromebooks simply didn't have enough horsepower to keep up with my multitasking-heavy style of use, and that made it hard for me to rely on the system outside of specific and limited circumstances.

With Samsung's new Chromebook, I'm happy to say that the hardware has finally caught up. The Chromebook Series 5 550, as it's officially known, delivers massive speed and performance improvements over its predecessor. At long last, this is Chrome OS the way it was meant to be experienced.

Samsung Chromebook Series 5 550: Performance

Samsung Chromebook Series 5 550

The new Chromebook runs a dual-core Intel Celeron CPU along with 4GB of RAM -- a serious step up from the Atom chip and 2GB of RAM in last year's model. Specs are specs, though: What matters is that this thing works wonderfully. The lag of last year's Chrome OS experience is gone; the Chromebook of today is a true pleasure to use.

Case in point: When you open the lid of the new Samsung Chromebook, it takes three to five seconds for the system to start up and the sign-in screen to appear. From there, you simply type in your Google ID and password, and three seconds later, you're in a browser window, online and ready to go. That's a refreshing change from the three to five minutes it takes for my Windows 7 laptop to boot up, finish loading its various drivers and startup services, and actually be ready for me to use.

It doesn't stop with the startup, though: The new Chromebook handles pretty much everything I throw its way without any signs of a stutter or slowdown. I tend to have a lot of tabs open during the day -- typically anywhere from 20 to 40 at any given time. Even so, switching between tabs and windows is smooth and snappy, unlike on the older Chrome devices, where tab-switching was sluggish and would often require me to wait a few seconds for content to appear.

Browsing on the new Chromebook is similarly speedy; to be honest, the speed is so good that you don't even think about it, which is about the best scenario you could ask for. Even resource-heavy tasks like video-streaming have worked flawlessly for me; whether it's Netflix or YouTube, I've had no trouble getting good quality video playback (and even multitasking with other windows while the video continues to play).

The one downside to the new Chromebook's more powerful engine is its impact on battery life: The new model is listed for six hours of continuous usage, compared to 8.5 hours on the first-generation model. That said, the system's stamina has been quite good in my experience: In a practical setting, I've had no trouble making it through an entire day with the Chromebook (and have even gone a few days without charging at all).

Samsung Chromebook Series 5 550: Display and Design

So what about the rest of the Chromebook's hardware? The Samsung Chromebook Series 5 550 has a 12.1-inch, 1280 x 800 display -- pretty much the same display used on the previous model. It has a matte finish that's a welcome change from the glossy and glary displays seen in most laptops these days. While the Chromebook's screen specs may not jump out and grab you, I've found the display to be easy on the eyes and perfectly fine for most purposes. Let's face it: The Chromebook isn't meant to be a high-def gaming machine. It's designed mainly for Web browsing and productivity, and its display is matched well to those types of tasks.

Samsung Chromebook Chrome OS

Though its casing is still plastic, the new Chromebook has a more premium-looking feel than its predecessor, thanks largely to its silver-colored, brushed-metal-inspired design. But colors aside, it's pretty comparable in look and feel to the first-gen model. The new Chromebook is slightly heavier, at 3.3 lb. compared to the older model's 3.26-lb. weight, but it's not a terribly significant difference, and the device is plenty light and comfortable to hold.

The Chromebook Series 5 550 uses Google's custom Chrome OS keyboard, and let me tell you: It is outstanding. The chiclet-style keys are responsive and well-spaced out; they make typing as easy and natural as can be. I'm not sure I've seen any other laptop keyboard that even comes close; seriously, gang, this is about as good as it gets.

The multitouch trackpad on the new Chromebook is no less impressive. Google says it redesigned the trackpad from scratch, and the effort was not wasted: The trackpad is smooth and easy to use, both in typical point-and-click functions and in more advanced multitouch gestures.

Samsung Chromebook Series 5 550: Connectivity

With the new Chromebook, Google and Samsung have beefed up the options for connectivity: The device has two USB 2.0 ports, a 4-in-1 memory card slot, and a DisplayPort++ that supports HDMI, DVI, and VGA. (It's worth noting that there is no standard HDMI connection port, so you'll need a special cable if you want to hook the system up to your TV.) The Chromebook has a full-sized ethernet port, too, in case you want to go hard-wired instead of using Wi-Fi.

Speaking of Wi-Fi, the new Chromebook, like the previous model, comes with the option of getting 3G data access through Verizon. Especially if you travel, this option is a valuable one to have; I've ended up relying on the Chromebook's integrated 3G (with my first-gen model) numerous times while working on the road.

The 3G version of the Chromebook comes with 100MB of data per month for two years. That's not a lot, by any means, but it's enough for some quick Web browsing or email checking here and there. And once you're set up, you can buy extra data as you need it for fairly reasonable costs (and with no contract requirements). Verizon offers several pay-as-you-go plans, including a 24-hour unlimited "day pass" for 10 bucks and a 1GB month-long pass for $20.

Unfortunately, I've had trouble getting my demo unit to connect to 3G, so I haven't been able to test it first-hand. This may be an issue specific to my demo unit or the account involved; I've used 3G service on Chromebooks in the past and have had no problems.

(UPDATE: Google tells me the issue is, in fact, specific to my demo unit and related to the fact that the device didn't go through the standard supply chain. The error has been corrected, and 3G connectivity is now working fine for me. Google assures me the issue will not impact any consumer devices.) 

Wi-Fi connectivity has been A-OK in my experience. Speeds are consistent with other Wi-Fi-connected devices on the same network, and the Chromebook has had no trouble finding and connecting to networks in the area.

Samsung Chromebook Series 5 550: Final Thoughts

All considered, I couldn't be more impressed with the new Chromebook and what Google and Samsung have achieved. The hardware has finally reached the point where it's no longer holding Chrome OS back -- and with performance problems out of the picture, Chrome OS has evolved into an interesting and very compelling product.

Of course, hardware is only half the story. With Chrome OS in particular, the software is what really sets the experience apart. And Chrome OS has come a long way since its 2010 debut.

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In the next chapter of my Chrome OS experiment, I'll take a close look at Google's newly refreshed software and the ups and downs of using it on a daily basis. After that, I'll turn my attention to the Chromebox -- Google's cloud-based answer to desktop computing -- and then I'll share some of my experiences with using Chrome OS offline.

Our journey is just getting started; stay tuned as the Chrome OS experiment continues and my full impressions fall into place.    

The Chrome OS Experiment: The Complete Series

The experiment begins: 2 weeks with Google's new Chrome computers

Getting to know Samsung's new Chromebook

Samsung Chromebox: Chrome OS meets the desktop

Chrome OS in-depth: Cloud-centric simplicity, evolved

Chrome OS offline: Using a Chromebook without the cloud

Chrome OS reviewed: The final verdict on Google's cloud platform

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

Article copyright 2012 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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