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The Samsung Chromebook is a perfect example of the difference between inexpensive and cheap. At $250, it is in impulse-purchase territory. But unlike the Acer C7, nothing about it feels cheap. It feels, as the Verge’s Chris Ziegler described it, like “$1,000 worth of design made with $100 worth of materials.”
Why a Chromebook?
I bought the Samsung Chromebook to replace my 2-year-old iPad 2, which I loved for its portability and battery life. But even though I don’t mind typing on the iPad’s touchscreen, it remains a less-than-ideal device for serious writing, which is what I do most of the time, after all. For that, you need a keyboard. And for blogging, I need to be to download and upload images and easily switch between windows. This is all possible with the iPad, but, as with writing, less than ideal.
I have already reviewed two Chromebooks, the excellent Samsung Series 5 and the awful Acer C7. I loved the Samsung Series 5, but a year ago, Chrome OS was barely a viable platform. I hated the Acer C7, but when testing it, it was obvious that Chrome OS had come a long way. It tempted me to try Chrome OS again.
To see whether I could live with a Chromebook as my portable machine, I resolved to use nothing but my browser on my other computers for a full week. I did, and everything went surprisingly smoothly. So I ordered a Chromebook of my very own — this one.
Living in a browser
When I reviewed Samsung’s original Chromebook, the Series 5, a year ago, I said it was not ready to be a primary computer:
For nearly everyone, … 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.
A year later, that is still technically true, but it does not matter as much. Google Drive is now a well-established cloud storage service that is deeply integrated into Chrome OS, and there are browser-based replacements for nearly everything you need to do. They might require some adjustment, but if you want to do everything in the cloud, you absolutely can. Just about. (More on the important exception in a moment.)
There does remain the problem of working offline. Chrome OS does not have local file storage apart from a single /Downloads folder that is basically just for temporarily storing files while you move them from one place to another (downloading an image from Flickr to attach to a blog post in WordPress, for example). You can also use many apps offline, from Gmail to Google Docs, and your Chromebook will sync up your offline files the next time you are connected.
Some things you cannot do in a browser
There are, however, a few things you cannot do in a browser. The biggest is Microsoft Office. As I observed the other day, you don’t strictly need Office, but you probably ought to have it. You can, however, get around this problem — it just isn’t completely straightforward.
You can use the online version of Office to edit existing documents, but unless you have a template with your preferred styles, it is not very good for creating new ones. You could also switch to Google Docs, but as I said in my FAQ post, that is not completely compatible with Office. What I do, since I don’t need Office all the time, is use Chrome Remote Desktop to log into my Mac mini when I absolutely need to use Word. Otherwise, I use Google Docs.
You can use remote access for any other software for which you cannot find a replacement. This is not an ideal solution if you hope to use a Chromebook as your primary computer — but then I don’t think Chromebooks are suitable for use as a primary computer, at least not for lawyers.
What I like about the Samsung Chromebook
The Samsung Chromebook is basically the size and weight of an 11″ Macbook Air (a bit thinner and lighter, actually), with better battery life and a $750 lower price tag. Granted, Chrome OS is not a full operating system like OS X, but for $750 less, you can allow a few compromises.
Since I have been steadily moving my software to the cloud over the last few years, those compromises are pretty small for me. If I need to use Word, I generally do it on my desktop. In a pinch, I can still do it on my Chromebook. Otherwise, I can do everything I need to.
Mainly, this consists of writing, email, and social media. I do a lot of writing, both legal and otherwise. I read and respond to a lot of email. And I read a lot of news, opinion, and commentary through social media. I also do a fair amount of web development, which is easy enough with web apps like Sourcekit.
The keyboard travel is very shallow, but it is still an excellent keyboard for typing. I have had no trouble typing out blog posts — including this one — on it.
What I don’t like about the Samsung Chromebook
The Samsung Chromebook may seem like $1,000 worth of design, but it does not bear close scrutiny. There are definitely a few aspects of this Chromebook that remind you that it only costs $250.
For starters, the chassis is plastic. It is well-put-together, but it is still plastic. Pick it up by a corner, and you can see the whole thing flex. This is not a big problem, except that the trackpad is also plastic. It works fairly well for left-clicking, but right-clicking is iffy. I only seem to be able to right-click reliably about two-thirds of the time.
The processor is basically a smartphone processor. Chrome OS is an extremely lightweight operating system, but if you open enough tabs — or just the wrong ones — you can slow things down. The “wrong ones” include HD video and, unfortunately, Evernote. It is plenty fast for “regular” use, but it certainly does not fly. Fortunately, at $250, you can afford to buy every hardware upgrade Samsung offers.
I have already acknowledged the limitations of Chrome OS, but they bear repeating. Chrome OS will not work for a primary operating system for most users. While I do not particularly miss Microsoft Office, most of the time, I do miss having access to a text replacement utility like TextExpander or AutoHotKey. Not having it drives me crazy, but I am willing to live with it for the other advantages that come with the Chromebook.
Who should buy a Samsung Chromebook
A Chromebook makes an idea portable computer to supplement your existing PC. It is small and light enough to toss in any bag, and it is cheap enough to buy almost on a whim. With 6+ hours of battery life, it is ideal for mobile computing, as long as you understand the inherent compromise in a browser-based operating system.
In a way, this Chromebook is the realization of the goal of the brief netbook phenomenon of several years ago. It’s just way better than anything that came out of that fad.
Samsung Series 3 Chromebook
Reviewed by Sam Glover on .
Summary: The Samsung Chromebook is a huge value for a small price. It makes computing in a browser a pleasure, despite a few limitations.
Overall score: 4 (out of 5)