As the first post about my Chromebook challenge experience, I thought I’d take a look at what Chromebooks are actually like to use, from the perspective of a Mac user. The model that I’m using is the Samsung Series 5, and I’ve actually had it for a few months. When we were burgled earlier in the year, rather than replace my beloved stolen MacBook Air 11in, I decided to spend a whole lot less money on something that filled the same need for a small, reasonably light, “throw in your bag” occasional computer. I was also, of course, curious about ChromeOS and decided that I needed to know more about it.
While the Chromebook hasn’t been in use as my main machine, I’ve used it enough over the past few months to get an idea of its strengths and weaknesses, so it seems like a good place to start to talk about them.
Given its relatively low cost, the Series 5 is a nice piece of hardware. The 12in screen is bright, although the colour isn’t as nice as the super-sharp LCDs on Apple hardware. Importantly for me, the keyboard has a good feel to it, and the track pad is a decent size instead of the horrible micro-trackpads that seem to be common on netbooks. There’s a couple of USB ports, a slot for an SD card, and monitor port (although this requires a non-standard dongle, supplied in the box and easily losable).
And, of course, there’s built in 3G, which is more than just a “nice to have” on a machine that depends on Internet-based applications. If you’re in the UK, you get a SIM in the box from 3 which gives you 3Gb of data which you can use over three months, which is a nice touch. I’ve used 3 for mobile data for a while, and I’ve always found coverage and speed to be pretty good.
Overall the hardware is pretty nice. It’s not Apple standard, but it’s perfectly acceptable, and much better than most machines I’ve seen in its class.
But there’s a little cloud on the horizon. The processor at the heart of the Series 5 is an underpowered Atom, and this means that it really struggles with some web applications. Flash video is OK, as long as you aren’t trying to do 720p full screen, but you get occasional stutters. And the overall feel is just a little bit sluggish – not unusably so, but just enough to annoy sometimes. I’d be happy to pay a little bit extra to have an i3 or i5 processor instead, and it would be good if someone offered this as an option.
Having said that, using the Atom gives one big plus point: the battery life. It’s exceptional, happily going through an entire eight hour day without running out of power. The Chromebook is the first laptop I’ve had where I haven’t even had to think about packing the power adaptor on a day-long trip, and it lets you laugh in the face of Mac and Windows users in meetings who end up fighting over who gets to use the power outlets.
One little touch which I like: where you’d expect to find the caps lock key you’ll instead see something with a magnifying glass on it. Yes, it’s a search button. Hit it and you’re taken to your search engine of choice (Google is the default, but you can change it) which is much more useful if you’re living an Internet-centric existence. I’d love to see this on non-Chromebooks too.
I’m not going to delve too much into it for now, but suffice to say that if you’ve used the Chrome browser, you’ll find yourself pretty much at home in ChromeOS. If you’re using the ability to sync your bookmarks, extensions and so on across machines using your Google account, you’ll find everything ready and waiting for you once you’ve signed in and turned on syncing.
The first time you use it, though, you’ll probably find it something of a culture shock. My first instinct was to tab out of Chrome – but you can’t. Chrome is all there is. Everything is the web. This takes some getting used to. You’ve got tabs, of course, and you can create new, separate windows which you alt-tab between. But there’s no desktop. There’s no desktop! Where’s my desktop!?! Where’s my files?!? In the cloud, of course. That takes some getting used to, and it’ll be interesting to see how it goes.
Image by masakiishitani