In-depth: Google's Chrome OS and Samsung's Chromebook

New Chromebooks from Samsung and Acer trade the desktop for the cloud. We dive in deep to see how Samsung's system -- and Google's Chrome OS -- stack up.

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Chromebook performance

Under its hood, the Samsung Chromebook packs a 1.66GHz dual-core Intel Atom N570 chip along with 2GB of RAM and a 16GB internal solid-state drive, used primarily for storing downloads and local caches. I found the Chromebook's performance to be impressive in casual (and likely normal) use: New tabs opened instantly, and navigating among tabs and windows was smooth and fast, even with several tabs or windows open. It wasn't until I started really pushing the multitasking boundaries that things started to get a little laggy.

With four windows and a total of 20 tabs open -- including one running TweetDeck, another actively playing songs from my collection, and an active Google Talk chat in progress -- the system struggled to keep up. New tabs took a few seconds to open and active windows became sporadically less responsive.

The lag came and went, though, and switching among windows remained fluid and fast. Even with the heaviest of workloads, I never experienced any kind of crash, and closing a few processes always seemed to restore the system to a more manageable state.

In terms of battery life, Samsung's Chromebook promises 8.5 hours of continuous use, and in my tests, it did not disappoint. There's no reason you shouldn't be able to get a solid day of use out of this thing -- and if you aren't using it nonstop, you'll likely be able to go a few days between charges.

What about Acer's Chromebook?

As of this writing, it wasn't certain when the Acer Chromebook would ship (and Acer did not have a review unit of its Chromebook available prior to the product's launch) so I wasn't able to get any hands-on impressions of that device. According to the company's spec sheets, the notebook is smaller, lighter and a little less powerful than its Samsung-made cousin.

Acer Chromebook

The Acer Chromebook has an 11.6-inch screen, weighs 3.19 lb., and is listed at 6 hours of continuous-usage battery life. It runs on the same Intel Atom processor as the Samsung model and shares the same HD webcam, four-in-one card reader and dual USB port setup. Unlike the Samsung Chromebook, Acer's model also includes an HDMI port.

Meet the new Chrome OS

Starting up a Chromebook actually just entails opening it -- once you've swung up the lid, you're about eight seconds away from signing in and getting online.

On your first boot, you have to put in your Wi-Fi network credentials and wait around 30 seconds while the software updates itself to the latest version. Then you simply type in your Google username and password, select an avatar and you're good to go.

Like the Cr-48, Google's new Chromebooks automatically sync your bookmarks, preferences and extensions from your PC-based Chrome browser. The sync is automatic and continuous, so any changes you make on a Chromebook show up on your desktop browser and vice versa.

As you may have read in previous Chrome OS coverage, what's unique on a Chromebook is that the browser is your desktop. You can open new tabs and windows, using either on-screen icons or the same keyboard-based commands available in the standard Chrome browser, but that's pretty much it. Almost everything you do is tied to the Web and runs right there.

There are a few exceptions. Chrome OS now has built-in functionality for file management and multimedia playback -- features that were painfully absent in early test builds of the software. The new file manager appears automatically anytime you insert a USB device or SD card, giving you a way to browse your and interact with the contents.

Double-clicking on an audio or video file within the file manager causes a media player to pop up in the lower-right corner of the screen (the player can also be expanded if you want a full-screen view). With images, the file manager offers full integration with Google's Picasa photo service, letting you upload individual pictures or groups of photos to the cloud with a couple of quick clicks. The idea is that the Web effectively functions as your own personal hard drive.

What's unique on a Chromebook is that the browser is your desktop.

That idea is great in theory, but when I tried it out, everything wasn't quite as seamless as I expected it to be. The file manager does not yet recognize some standard word processing (.doc) and spreadsheet (.xls) file formats, for example; double-clicking on any such file results in an "unknown file type" error. You can upload the files directly to Google Docs by opening its Web app, but that's the kind of nonintuitive process that frustrated me in my early review of the Cr-48.

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