I have to admit that it has been a while since I last used a Chromebook. Even my beloved Cr-48 has been collecting dust in a row of abandoned notebooks in a corner of my office.
At some point, I concluded that Chrome OS would need more time to mature, wireless broadband would need extra time to mature and I probably would need some time to get used to Internet services instead of locally installed software as well.
With the release of the Samsung Chromebook last month, I felt I was ready to give Chrome OS another shot. As much as I would not have spent any money on a first-generation Chromebook, would I now be willing to spend money on this generation?
Look and feel
For $249, this is one handsome contender. The notebook market below $400 includes a lot of junk, but this Chromebook is a welcome exception as far as it looks are concerned. There is an elegant matte silver shell that looks like aluminum (but is plastic) that makes it look like a premium device. Even by today's standards, it is relatively thin at 0.7-inches and has more sex appeal than any other Chrome OS-portable computer before. There is an 11.6-inch screen with 1366x768 native resolution, a USB 3.0 port, a USB 2.0 socket, combo headphone / mic jack, as well as an SD card slot (to add to the installed 16 GB Flash memory). The computer runs on a dual-core A15-based Samsung Exynos 5250 SoC with 2 GB RAM, which does not deliver explosive performance, but falls into the good enough-category.
The keyboard is a carryover and features the signature search instead of the tab key well as some browser-specific buttons (reload, back, tab selection) instead of the F-key series. It is not the highest-quality keyboard, but keep in mind that you only paid $249 for this device and what you get is acceptable.
The setup is pretty much accomplished by entering your Google name, your password and choosing a Wi-Fi network. In my case, it took less than 2 minutes until the device was ready to go. The boot time is, by the way, 9 seconds.
Chrome OS still is mainly a tweaked web browser. However, the software has grown over the past two years and is now much more appealing than the plain browser. Sure, you can hold all your apps in browser tabs, but you can also pin them to a floating launch bar at the bottom. As basic Google's UIs typically are, the interface certainly is a matter of taste, but there is no denying that the appearance of Chrome OS has gained more elegance.
Applications: Live and let die
Every operating system lives and dies with the applications that are made available by the platform. Remember the wonderful BeOS from a decade ago. It was arguably the best multimedia OS of its time, and the best Internet appliance OS. Without the necessary resources to create an application ecosystem, however, it stood no chance to succeed. Chrome OS felt a bit like BeOS and the platform has been severely restricted by the fact that its services ran only with an active Internet connection.
Google has put much more emphasis on offline functionality and is forcefully encouraging developers to follow this path. While the Chromebook still feels largely like a brick without Internet, there are some offline applications such as offline Docs and offline Gmail so you can get some work done even when you are stuck in a place without Internet. Of course, the point of the Chromebook is connectivity and there are some extremely useful applications that can turn the device into a productivity device. Take for example, InstallFree Nexus, which can edit Microsoft Office documents (via LibreOffice). Sure, you can't get power apps such as Photoshop and you will have to accept the fact that the software running on the Chromebook is service-based, but if you embrace this model and can count on available Internet connectivity, this is not a big issue.
The killer application for the Chromebook for now is the Chrome Remote Desktop App. There will be scenarios in which you will want to and need to return to your regular PC/Mac, and this is the tool that allows you to do so. So, if you really need Photoshop, if you really need some other software that only runs on your regular computer, you can access anything via this app.
The 16 GB local file storage won't get you very far, but every Chromebook comes with 100 GB of free file storage on Google Drive, so you should be in good shape. Google Drive, however, is a different way to deal with your files if you are used to organizing your data in folders like on a local disk.
So, would I buy one? It depends. I could not help finding myself constantly comparing the Chromebook to Apple's iPad, which has become a standard entertainment device in our household. If you simply want to entertain yourself, then the iPad is the favorite device in my family.
However, the Chromebook is not so much larger and not so much heavier that you would not consider as a type of entertainment notebook either. Compared to the iPad, it is about twice as thick (0.37 versus 0.7 inches), but not quite twice as heavy (1.44 pounds versus 2.43 pounds). Its clear advantage over the iPad is that, if you have typing to do, you would want to use the Chromebook.
Keep in mind that a tablet is a content viewing ("lean back") device and a notebook is a content creation ("lean forward") device. These are two completely different scenarios and as a buyer you need to know what purpose this new computer will have to serve. Mostly content viewing? Go with a tablet. You need to do more writing than just emails? Take a Chromebook, even if it may not the popular choice. So, my answer is that I actually do find this a very mature device that has enough compelling features that I would buy it - if I needed a basic notebook for web surfing and some writing, and if I knew that I would always have Internet access available.
In that sense, the Chromebook feels very much what the netbook should have been and what the netbook should have evolved into.
Of course, this device is not without issues. The Chromebook's biggest problem today may be a bit of an identity crisis. It's not as good as a tablet in app usage, and it's not as good as a productivity device as a regular notebook. It feels very much like a compromise. To win more supporters, the Chromebook needs a signature feature that is unique to this device. The Chrome Remote Desktop App is an example, but it relies, of course, on the functionality of another device.
Google's opportunity may be in connecting Android and Chrome OS much tighter than it has so far. Adding a touchscreen and integrating Android support that would allow users to exchange data between Android and Chrome OS more easily could be a feature that would make these devices much more appealing and attract much more interest.