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The idea of doing all your computing in a browser, from answering email to drafting briefs and contracts, is pretty hard to conceive for many lawyers, most of whom are still perfectly happy with their fax machines and file cabinets (not that there is anything wrong with that). But that is probably what you will be doing in a few years, and the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook is a window into that future.
What’s more, the Samsung Chromebook is a really nice ultraportable laptop, even if it won’t (yet) replace a computer (laptop or not) running a full-blown operating system like Windows, OS X, or even Linux. If you want a Chromebook, though, you should probably wait until later this year, when Samsung plans to release an updated version. In the meantime, you may be wondering whether the Chromebook is yet another toy you don’t need, and whether you could actually get real lawyer work done on one.
It’s not a toy, and doing everything in a web browser is far less difficult than you might think. Whether you ought to—and whether you will be doing your clients a disservice by trying—is a separate question.
In some ways, the Samsung Chromebook is the ideal laptop for anyone who needs to work on the go. You will spend 2–3 times as much for a do-everything laptop with similar specs. Then again, working in a browser all the time has a few drawbacks.
Like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 I reviewed last October, the Series 5 Chromebook has two very distinct components. On the one hand, there is a very nice piece of hardware. On the other hand, there is Chrome OS, with which Samsung has little to do (this is a good thing, if its horrible TouchWiz UI is any indication of Samsung’s software chops).
I like both parts quite a lot, actually, but I’m not quite ready to throw out my regular laptop any time soon—although I’m now looking forward to a day in the not-to-distant future when I can.
Price and features
The Samsung Chromebook comes in two flavors, wi-fi only and wi-fi plus 3G through Verizon. The current difference in price on Amazon is only a few bucks, though, so you might as well get the 3G version just in case. That gets you 100 MB of data per month free for two years on Verizon’s 3G network. It’s not a lot, but if you need to check your email or grab a document a few times a month when there is no wi-fi in range, it should do the trick. You can always buy more data from Verizon, too:
- $20 for 1 GB (30 days)
- $35 for 3 GB (30 days)
- $50 for 5 GB (30 days)
- $9.99 for an unlimited day pass
Hardware and design
The Series 5 Chromebook is a really nice piece of hardware. It is thin but solid, and it has a nice heft to it that conveys a sense of quality and durability. Despite its plastic frame, it reminds me of the nearly-indestructible Samsung flip phones I used to own. The case is also refreshingly bereft of stickers, bumps, vents, and the sort of ugly stuff you usually find on Windows laptops.
It is also plenty fast. The specs are modest, but after all, the Chromebook just has to power a browser—and that’s it. Booting up takes seconds, not minutes, and waking from sleep is nearly instantaneous. If you use a Macbook, you will be used to that kind of wake-from-sleep speed, but Windows users will be pleasantly surprised.
The 12.5″ screen is exceptional. It is bright and beautiful with wide viewing angles. You will have to spend 2–3 times as much to get a comparable screen on a regular laptop.
The chiclet-style keyboard is also excellent. It makes fast typing easy, and has excellent give and feedback. I didn’t have any trouble going from my ThinkPad and Apple keyboards to this. I’ve got just one beef with the keyboard: there is no Home or End key on a Chromebook, and no keyboard-combo equivalents like there are on a Mac. That means the only way to quickly go to the beginning or end of anything is by two-finger scrolling or using the arrow keys. This is a surprisingly large pain in the ass, especially if you are trying to scroll through a long web page or document. You can page up or down using Alt+arrow, but this still takes longer than it should. Despite this annoyance, the keyboard is really good.
The trackpad is another story. As seems to be the tradition with Apple-style buttonless trackpads on non-Apple hardware, this one is difficult to use. Accidental button presses and mis-clicks are a regular occurrence, and right-clicking is nearly impossible. You’ll probably want to plug in a mouse, if you actually want to get anything done. That’s fine when you are working on a surface, but impractical when you try to use this laptop on, well, your lap.
I place a lot of value on battery life. I hate being tethered to the wall with a device that is supposed to be portable. And the power brick that comes with most laptops is just another heavy, clumsy thing taking up space in my bag. Most Windows laptops are useful for 3–5 hours unless you get a battery that sticks out the back and doubles the laptop’s weight. Macbooks are better—but still top out at about 6–7 hours of cordless computing time.
The Samsung Chromebook gets at least 8 hours, which means under normal conditions, you will probably only plug it in every other day or so. I left the cord at the office when I took the Chromebook home for the weekend, and still had about an hour of juice left when I plugged it in on Monday morning. This is true all-day computing. All couple-of-days computing, in most cases.
Software and performance
There’s no software on the Chromebook, really. Any software you use comes through the web browser, so the real question is whether you can move all your computing to the cloud and get work done in nothing but a web browser (although you can store files on the Chromebook’s small hard drive). That means the “software” you will use on a Chromebook is not controlled by Google or Samsung, even though it is critical to whether a Chromebook is a useful computer.
Signing into Chrome OS for the first time is simple: just log in with your Google Account. You can also sync up your passwords, apps, and settings with your other computers via Chrome Sync, so that everything in Chrome OS looks just like it did (well, almost) when you left the Chrome browser on your desktop or laptop. In a few seconds, you will be using Chrome OS, Google’s browser-as-operating system.
Despite being completely new, Chrome OS will be instantly familiar to anyone who has used a web browser before (i.e., everyone), and especially comfortable for those who already use Chrome on Windows, OS X, or Linux. It’s not nearly as jarring as switching from a Windows PC to a Mac, for example. You use a web browser every day, after all, and that’s all Chrome OS is: a web browser.
It will probably take a while before you notice anything different. You will notice, though, when you try to reach for Quickbooks or Word—and they aren’t there. That’s because there really is no software. Chrome OS is just a web browser, and besides a rudimentary file browser, that’s it. Anything you want to do must happen in the browser. For nearly everyone, that means a Chromebook cannot be a full replacement for a regular PC, because you will inevitably find yourself without an internet connection or in need of something you can’t do in a browser.
Computing in the cloud
That said, you really can do a lot in a browser. Pretty much everything, actually. You just can’t do it the same as you would on a normal operating system like Windows or OS X or Linux. That is at least a hurdle for many, and it will be a barrier for now, for some.
But there are advantages, too. With your data in the cloud, a computer failure is a hiccup, not a disaster. All you have to do is find another computer with an internet connection, and you will be back up and running without even thinking about backups. Chromebooks are more secure, as well, because your information is in the cloud, not on a laptop that can be lost or stolen. It’s going to be a dream come true for enterprise IT departments.
All in all, working in the cloud is not as difficult as you might think. For example, I needed to work on some Word documents, which was something I thought was going to be an exercise in compromise and annoyance. As it turns out, Office Live or Skydrive or Office 365 or whatever the heck Microsoft is calling its cloud-based version of Office these days works really well. In fact, I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t do all your document editing in the cloud, as long as you start with a document template with a decent theme, as Microsoft Office’s godawful default style (the only one available in Office Live) will get you laughed out of court.
There are some drawbacks to working in a browser, as well.
For me, the first non-cloud application I needed to use was QuickBooks. And while there is a cloud-based version of QuickBooks that works just fine in general, it required Internet Explorer the last time I checked, so that’s out. That’s not to say I can’t do my bookkeeping on a Chromebook; I just need to find a web-based bookkeeping package that can take the place of Quickbooks.
You might want to create or edit a PDF at some point, or even use a fillable PDF form. But there is no cloud-based substitute for Acrobat, so you’ll have to do it on another computer.
You can’t hook up a scanner. If you are going to do everything through a browser, you will need to turn a lot of paper into digital bits. Since you can’t use a scanner with Chrome OS because there is no software to manage the scans, that means you’ll need to keep another computer on hand for scanning.
This isn’t a huge drawback, actually. The Chromebook is a great laptop, but I would want something more substantial—and a bigger screen—for working at my desk.
Nothing really works together, though. The internet really needs a central, cloud-based file storage solution that allows you to store your files and work on them in whatever software you need at the moment, whether it is a photo editor, document editor, PDF editor, blog, and so on. Maybe iCloud or Office Live or the rumored Google Drive will eventually be the answer, but for now, you’re stuck downloading, uploading, editing, downloading, and uploading everything you want to hold onto. It’s a royal pain.
So that’s the big asterisk after Chrome OS: you are going to have to change the way you do things, and adapt to doing them in a browser. It’s definitely possible. There are a lot of cloud-based alternatives to desktop software out there, and there are more popping up every day. But it’s maybe not the best use of your time, just now. Lawyers can afford to wait until (and if) Chrome OS becomes standard, instead of experimental.
Is a Chromebook better than a netbook? How about an iPad?
Do you type things? If so, netbooks and iPads are fun toys, but not very useful for getting real work done. I say this as an iPad lover who “touch-types” pretty competently on my iPad’s on-screen keyboard, and who frequently drafts blog posts on my iPad using a Bluetooth keyboard. But with an iPad, you always feel like you are compromising when it comes to getting work done. You don’t have access to full Google Docs or Office Live, for example, so you can’t really do legal work. On a Chromebook, you actually can.
Netbooks, on the other hand, share many of the features of a Chromebook, and some even have comparable battery life and screen sizes. It really comes down to whether you really want to be able to use Windows or Linux, and whether you are comfortable with a much more slower-moving computing experience. While Chromebooks are fast, netbooks are pretty pokey because they have to run a full operating system, instead of just a browser.
Honestly, if you are looking for something besides a laptop for doing real work away from the office, I think a Chromebook is a pretty good bet.
Does Chrome OS have a future?
Samsung just announced its next-generation Chromebook at CES, so it looks like the answer is yes, even if the hardware choices remain relatively slim (right now, there are only two options: Samsung and Acer). I also got updates every few days while I was using the Chromebook, so Chrome OS seems to be still in active development.
I wouldn’t be too concerned about the future of Chrome OS. Everything Google is doing right now seems focused on turning the internet into an operating system—or at least, the backend of an operating system for which Chrome OS is the logical front end. As long as Google is focused on cloud-based services, I think it is going to continue to develop and support Chromme OS.
My impression is that the Chrome OS platform—including all the cloud-based software it relies on—is that it is still in a sort of beta status. Lots of it is very good, but significant parts of it need further development.
This Samsung hardware, however, is really good. The sorry trackpad aside, I really loved using the Series 5, and I will be reluctant to send it back to Samsung. The combination of amazing battery life and super-fast wake times made it an ideal laptop for about 90% of what I need a portable computer to do. I’m happy to do the other 10% while I’m in the office.
So would I recommend a Chromebook? I’m on the fence. The cloud is in a state of flux, and that’s what Chrome OS relies on for viability. You can do nearly everything you want to do in the cloud, but you will have to make some compromises in order to do it.
But it’s close. If someone offers a cloud-based alternative to Quickbooks that makes my accountant happy, and if someone else introduces a way to edit PDF documents in the cloud, we’re pretty much there. A more robust Google Docs or Office Live offering wouldn’t hurt. Then, we just need a better way to connect all those services so I can keep all my files in one place without having to constantly download, upload, and re-download everything (Google Drive, maybe?).
If you are looking for a very portable laptop and you don’t plan to use it for full-time brief drafting, a Chromebook is worth considering. If you want to be able to do everything on your laptop that you currently do on your desktop, Chrome OS probably isn’t for you—yet.
Reviewed by Sam Glover on .
Summary: The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook is a fantastic laptop for the ultra-portable lawyer—as long as he or she doesn’t spend all day editing documents.
The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook is an impressive laptop for anyone who values battery life and portability, but it won’t replace a computer running Windows, OS X, or Linux just yet.
Rating: 3 (out of 5)