In April 2014, I had the opportunity to try a Samsung Chromebook. I used it to replace my Nexus 7 as my primary writing device but also for other productivity duties as well as dipping into social media.
Most of the mainstream reviews I’ve read of the Chromebook platform concentrate on comparing it with a Windows or MacOS notebook computer. Whilst I understand the comparison, my Windows box is not portable so instead, I’ll be reviewing the Chromebook from the perspective of it being my mobile computing device and replacing my Android tablet rather than replacing a Windows or MacOS device.
The Samsung Chromebook Series 3 is one of the older Chromebook models, originally released in October 2012. As I write it’s about to be replaced with the newer model due at the end of May 2014. It’s based around a dual core Cortex-A15 ARM processor, which is similar to the processor lurking inside the Nexus 10 Android tablet. However, the Samsung Series 3 Chromebook is a different kind of product; it uses a larger, lower resolution, non-touchscreen and a keyboard.
This keyboard is close to full size, but misses the numeric keypad on the side. It also has a track-pad too, under the keyboard, which is also decent. Neither is the last word in keyboards or trackpads but both are fully serviceable. It’s not quite as comfortable as my Apple wireless keyboard, but close enough.
At the back of the Chromebook you’ll find a proprietary charger port, a HDMI and two USB ports. This model Chromebook has no moving parts so it is silent in use. Some other Chromebooks have cooling fans and hard drives, so are not silent.
My preference is for a cool running, silent machine as it makes things less complicated when trying to use the device on my lap, for example. Plus an absence of moving parts bodes well for battery life.
The main difference between an Android tablet and a Chromebook is the software running on the device. Essentially, the Chromebook runs the Google Chrome browser over a lightweight LINUX installation, although most users will not see the LINUX foundation. The Chromebook is close to a thin client with Google providing the power for the productivity stuff.
As a Google product, the Chromebook is integrated with Google’s services. You need a Google Account to get the most from the machine. Actually, no; it’s as essential as it is on an Android tablet. As most of my readers are likely to be Android users, you should use the same account to sign into the Chromebook.
The dual core processor is backed up with 2 GB of memory and 16 GB of storage, plus a SD memory card slot to the side. It has a combination of WiFi and Bluetooth radios, although some models come with a built-in 3G modem. The 11.6″ screen is usefully matt and of 1,366 by 768 pixel resolution. It has relatively poor viewing angles; this doesn’t matter too much if you’re sitting at the machine. Power comes from an internal 30 Wh rechargeable battery. This Chromebook is small and light, weighing just 2.4 lbs.
Restricting what you do on a computer to inside Google Chrome sounds very limiting, but in reality there’s a lot that may be accomplished using just a browser. If you already use several Google Services on your Android device the chances are that at some point you’ve also used these on a web browser. If this is the case, you’re most of the way there.
For myself, it turns out that most of my day to day productivity tasks are accomplished within either a Google Service or a browser. By this, I mean Gmail, Google Drive, Google Documents, Google Search and Google Keep. I keep myself entertained via my Amazon Kindle, Play Music or Netflix. I can access my bank website, order groceries, visit Twitter and Google+, edit images and even play an odd game or two all from a browser. Each tab can contain a document, spreadsheet, browser window or indeed anything you want.
I need to caveat the above by highlighting that I am writing about my day to day productivity computing tasks and I don’t use any specialist applications beyond a word processor. Your mileage will vary.
The browser works as well on the Chromebook as it does on any other machine I’ve used, although webpages are slightly slower compared with more powerful machines.
You can download additional applications via the Google Chrome store. Some applications are online-only, some are little more than URLs whereas others are browser extensions. It’s not always clear what you are downloading until you try it; but for the most part, when you add functionality to your Chromebook is it not the same as installing an application to a Windows or Android device.
I touched upon the Chrome browser being less responsive than some other machines and this leads me on to the Series 3’s system performance.
I’ve always find trying to discuss device system performance as something of a minefield because it depends on what the user is doing and what is expected from the device. As such, it’s a personal thing: what I do with my devices and how responsive I expect it to be is unique to me. However, this written I don’t want to simply write, “your mileage may vary,” because this doesn’t put things into context.
Nor do I take any comfort in benchmark scores because whilst these can produce a numeric score illustrating the performance, the scores are produced under test circumstances and do not always apply to the real world.
Putting the Series 3 Chromebook into the equation, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how responsive the device is. Depending on what I’m doing on the Chromebook, I’ll have anywhere from two to ten browser tabs open. There are some performance hiccups, the most obvious one when I am editing a document in one tab with Gmail open in another and I sometimes see the device momentarily pause if an email arrives. The more tabs open, the greater the likelihood that I’ll see the pause.
As I’ve written, the more complicated webpages can be a little less quick to open compared with other devices, but this is difficult to quantify because there are many other variables, starting with network speeds.
One personal benchmark for me is how quickly I can activate the device and start writing. In simple terms, the Nexus 7 takes less time to open the document and be ready to edit it but requires longer to set up the wireless keyboard. The two devices are comparable in this respect and neither has more than a sip of coffee time advantage over other other.
For academic interest, my Windows box is a four year old machine based around the entry level Intel i3 processor of its time, running 64-bit Windows 7. It has mechanical drives and is considerably slower than my Chromebook from a cold start.
Switching between browser tabs is usually quick on the Chromebook. One advantage over the Android Google Docs application is that the Chromebook can have multiple documents open, which makes it much quicker to move between files you are working on.
The other aspect of performance is battery life. Here, the 2013 Nexus 7 has an advantage over the Series 3 Chromebook. With the back-light low on both, the Chromebook will see somewhere over seven hours of screen use from a full charge. The Nexus 7 sees over nine hours of use, whereas the 2012 Nexus 7 sees around the same up-time as the Chromebook.
For offline access, both Android and Chrome OS support offline Docs and Sheet access. Their implementation is a little different: in Chrome OS, there’s a master offline access toggle, which automatically synchronizes your documents. Android users have to manually enable offline access for individual files, plus are also treated to more visual clues that the device is syncing your data once you are back online. The Chromebook does this silently to the user and in everyday use, this makes it friendlier.
Neither device can hope to be as functional when offline compared to being online. Some Chrome OS applications have an offline mode but it is not always clear if this works until you try it. And at the risk of overusing the phrase, here again “your mileage may vary.” For writing purposes, the Chromebook has a small advantage over the Android platform.
To summarize, I’m finding the Chromebook to be at least as productive as my Android tablet in day to day use. Battery life is almost as good, the keyboard is good and it fits into my bag; what’s not to like?