When Google decided to create its own computer operating system, it chose a strategy that left some people scratching their heads. Instead of building a cutting-edge, fully featured OS like the latest version of OSX or Windows from Apple or Microsoft, it chose to release a bare-bones version of the Linux operating system capable of running only one application: a Web browser (see “Google Unveils First Chrome OS Computer”).
The first laptops built to run Chrome OS—dubbed Chromebooks—appeared in 2011 and were promising but also overpriced and limited (see “Google Places Two Bets on a Post-PC World”).
My experience over the past week or so with a recently released Chromebook—the $249, Wi-Fi-only Samsung Chromebook—has convinced me that Chrome OS has at last matured from a quirky experiment to something that make sense for consumers. The sleek, 2.4-pound machine, clad in silver plastic with an 11.6-inch screen, not only runs a more functional version of Google’s operating system, but also carries a price tag far below most notebooks on the market.
Like other Chromebooks, the Samsung machine makes a great first impression. About 10 seconds after pressing the “on” button, I was presented with a log-in screen. A few seconds later, after entering my Google account credentials, I was on the Web. I tried closing and reopening the laptop, and it woke up in less than five seconds.
As you would expect, or hope, using a Chromebook to browse the Web is the most polished part of the experience. Like the standalone Chrome browser, which can be downloaded for PC, Mac, or Linux, the version at the heart of Chrome OS is fast and pleasant to use.
One of the big changes to the latest versions of Chrome OS compared to earlier ones is that Google has added a Windows-style taskbar to the bottom of the screen. That helps it look more familiar to a Windows user, but there are still no conventional programs. Instead you must turn to Google’s Chrome Web Store. You can browse the store’s limited selection, and click to add the apps you want to use; the next time you open a browser tab, they appear as icons. You can also add apps to the taskbar across the bottom of the screen for quick access—as I did for e-mail and online documents—or access them all from a menu button there. If you don’t pause to ponder the difference between an “app” and a bookmark (often there is none at all), it works surprisingly well. Apps exist for most things you might want to do, whether that’s play games or edit spreadsheets.
When you also consider what the Web offers, there’s a lot you can achieve with a Chromebook (except, of course, switching browsers, which is amusing considering the trouble Microsoft had with regulators over bundling Internet Explorer with Windows).
The parts of the Chrome OS that exist outside the browser—dialogue boxes, the task bar, and the file manager (another update)—are refreshingly simple compared to operating systems such as Windows or OSX. In line with recent redesigns to Google’s online services, text, buttons, and boxes are relatively large, and have a good amount of white space to swim around in. Chrome OS has the same minimal feel as a smartphone. The constrained space of a mobile screen often forces designers to display fewer options, and less information, at once making for a less cluttered experience.
Not all simplicity is good, though, and Chrome OS sometimes forces you into tedious workarounds. If someone e-mails you a Word document, for example, you can download and open it in a browser tab to read it. But editing it requires uploading the file you just downloaded to Google Docs to be converted into an online document and viewed online.
However, when the experience is balanced against the $249 price tag, it feels like a good value. The cheapest Windows 8 laptop now available on Amazon is $300, and it doesn’t offer such good battery life. The Samsung Chromebook would make a good first computer for a child, or a low-cost option for a college student or traveler. Samsung’s 2.4 pounds of hardware feels solid if not expensive, and although some people may find it interesting that it uses an ARM processor, a kind mostly used in smartphones, most people won’t notice any difference. I didn’t exhaustively test Samsung’s claim of 6.5-hour battery life, but it seems plausible based on my experiences. The speakers are also impressive for a small, cheap device.
What’s most disappointing about all Chromebooks—Samsung’s included—is the extent of their dependency on the Internet, and weakness without it. It’s possible for Chrome apps to work offline, but few of them take advantage of this functionality. Offline photo editing is impossible, which is a shame because a Chromebook would be a good companion on a vacation, when you might take a lot of photos.
The special section of Google’s store for offline apps is mostly populated by games (including Angry Birds).
It could be that many software makers don’t think Chrome OS is worth supporting. Or it could be that Google has technical work still to do, since even the company’s own lineup of offline apps is weak. There’s a version of Gmail that works offline, and it’s possible to create and edit word-processing documents offline using Google Docs, and read other documents offline. But you cannot create or edit other kinds of the documents, such as spreadsheets and presentations—a significant problem for many would-be users.
The reality of going places with a laptop is that not everywhere has Wi-Fi. And tethering your phone is something strongly discouraged by most cellular providers. Right now, if you’re disconnected from a wireless network, all you can really hope to do on a Chromebook is read and write e-mails, edit documents, or while away the time with Infinite Sudoku.
The solution might be to buy the version of the Samsung Chromebook with two years of 3G service. But to this reviewer, it doesn’t seem worth the $432 Amazon charges for it (although Google says the list price is $329). There are many conventional laptops in that price range that are more capable than a Chromebook, and the basic plan (100 megabytes of wireless data a month) is limiting.
At $249, the Wi-Fi-only Samsung Chromebook is worth buying for anyone who wants a cheap, functional laptop that’s also light and responsive. Acer’s $199 Chromebook is probably also a good buy. But if Google wants its computers to make sense as anything more than the cheapest serviceable laptops on the market, it will have to either subsidize 3G data or fix Chrome OS’s offline limitations.
Hear more from Google at EmTech 2014.