Samsung 3G Chromebook Review

2011-06-30 11:10:00 -0700

After over a month of waiting, my Chromebook finally arrived. I've played with the OS a few times before, and had my netbook dual booting for a little while. However, I had some issues with WiFi on campus, so I didn't keep it very long. The issues were the fault of the campus IT, rather than Google's. We only recently gained the ability to get access through the Wifi portal via Chrome. Needless to say, I was very excited when my Chromebook came in the mail. It is a gorgeous piece of hardware, and a very interesting take on software, which definitely fills a need. And that need isn't as niche as many people would lead you to believe. Note: Everything in this article was accomplished via ChromeOS, except taking the pictures. That was accomplished with my HTC Evo, and uploaded to Picasa. First, the obligatory unboxing photos:

Unboxing

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="Semi bland packaging."]IMG_20110629_172220.jpg[/caption]

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="What a happy looking box!"]|IMG20110629172255.jpg|[/caption]

The box is actually pretty boring. Personally, I was hoping for a giant Google logo across the front. So much white and open space! I feel like I just bought a Macbook, except an Apple package would probably look a bit better. Oh well, its really about the hardware, right?

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="Woot! 2 year warranty and 100MB of free data from Verizon!"]|IMG20110629172418.jpg|[/caption]

This is a pleasant surprise. Every laptop I've bought has only a 1 year warranty. The 100MB a month is pretty cool too. That will be great for those times when there's no other available Wifi or quickly checking something in the car. I've got a SIM that is good for a few months from Google I/O, so I might try and pop that in here later. The cheaper version of this Chromebook doesn't have 3G, so the 100MB per month is only in the more expensive version.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="Isn't she pretty? She's glossy white, and gorgeous."]|IMG20110629172507.jpg|[/caption]

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="Chromebook and accessories. Just the power adapter and a mini-VGA port to VGA adapter."]|IMG20110629172823.jpg|[/caption]

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="Booting! It was holy-crap-fast.  For some reason I had to plug it in before it would boot, even though the battery was half charged. Weird."]|IMG20110629172951.jpg|[/caption]

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="Logging into my WiFi. Yup it is named after one of my websites (soon to be ServerCobra.com I think)"]|IMG20110629173030.jpg|[/caption]

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="Ugh! Updates as soon as I turn it on. Then again, what device doesn't do this.."]|IMG20110629173319.jpg|[/caption]

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="Simple sign in screen, much better looking than the first versions."]|IMG20110629173931.jpg|[/caption]

I'm curious how this will work on Wifi that requires you to sign into a portal, such as my campus Wifi. I'll be testing that tomorrow.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="Learn how to use your Chromebook touchpad. It was surprisingly challenging..but I think I was just being dumb.."]|IMG20110629174251.jpg|[/caption]

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="I can SSH into one of my Linux servers from the "hidden" terminal. Yes, it is my Minecraft server."]|IMG20110629175049.jpg|[/caption]

To access the "hidden" terminal, just hit Ctrl + Alt + T. There really isn't much you can do here, except for open SSH connections, and some utilities for diagnosing and repairing the Chromebook itself, the Wifi, or the 3G modem. Type "help" to see all the options and "exit" to get back, or Alt + Tab to switch windows.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="Minecraft in the browser doesn't work? Boo..kind of glad Java isn't included though. Java applets need to die."]|IMG20110629175702.jpg|[/caption]

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="What more do you need?"]|IMG20110629200016.jpg|[/caption]

Hardware

My first impression is that it is insanely fast for booting up, and has great sleep/resume support which is even faster. I timed it at 6 seconds for boot up. I've seen a few people saying it isn't that impressive, and OS's like Ubuntu can do it in about the same time or a little slower. I love Ubuntu, but on my netbook, it takes 2-3 seconds on the BIOS screen, 5 on the bootloader, and another 10 minimum for the system itself to boot up. A lot of that isn't their fault, but from most people's perspective, that's not the "instant on" we want. It shuts down in about 2-3 seconds, and sleeps within a second of closing the lid. Resume takes maybe 2 seconds on a bad day. The hardware is speedy, and the screen is gorgeous. You get a 1280x800 resolution screen, which is nicer than most 10" netbooks, but just below what you'll get on many 13" laptops, like the Macbook Air. All the color seem to pop, and Google has crafted all the buttons and the interface to look even better in the ChromeOS version than the normal version of Chrome. The keyboard is very comfortable to use. It has full sized keys with spaces between them. Notably missing are a Windows/Command key, Caps lock, the F buttons, and buttons like Home/End and Page Up/Down. It does have a row of functionality keys where the F keys would be, such as power, volume up/down, brightness up/down, back/forward, etc. I was fooled for a second by the power button, because it looks like a normal key, rather than a button like most laptops. For ports, you get 2 USB ports (probably more than you'll need), a SIM slot for your 3G SIM, a root mode switch, a headphone/microphone jack, an SD card slot, and a mini display port. Basically everything you need.  Notably missing is an Ethernet jack, but with Wifi on all models and 3G on some, I don't think Ethernet is really that useful. That trackpad is a single slab, much like the newer Macbooks. The entire pad is clickable, and allows 2 fingers for scrolling and right clicking, and 3 fingers for middle clicking (open link in new tab). However, tap to click is disabled by default. Solve that by going to Wrench -> Settings -> Enable tap-to-click. You can also adjust the touchpad sensitivity here. For a full list of specs, check the Samsung Chromebook Specs Page.

Software

You sign in with your Google account. As soon as you sign in, you are logged into all your Google services, like Gmail and Google+, which is handy, since that's the first thing I do on my other computers. This also means anyone else can log into your laptop, without fear they can get to any of your information. There is also a guest mode, for those few who don't have a Google account. All the Google services seem to be fully configured and working. Google Talk has the voice and video plugins already installed, and I was able to call my wife on Google Talk out of the box. Also, as soon as I signed in, all my extensions, saved passwords, bookmarks, and everything else was automatically copied over. There was literally no configuration needed for this laptop. It just worked. To work with files outside of ChromeOS, simply hit Ctrl + O to open up a separate window, or Ctrl + M to open it in a new tab. You'll get the very simple file manager. Local files (such as downloads) are in a folder called File Shelf, while external files, such as those on a flash drive, are found in External Storage. This will let you download and save docs to a flash drive, external drive, or your phone's USB storage. You can also play videos and music from external storage, and automatically upload pictures to Picasa. Docs automatically get imported into Google Docs and opened. The integration is so tight, you begin to wonder why you ever had Microsoft Office installed. I don't have an iPod, so I don't know how well that would work with a Chromebook. However, since iPod Touches can do most everything an iPhone can, as of iOS 5, you shouldn't need to ever connect to a computer anyway. Thankfully, Apple is removing a huge barrier for people considering Chromebooks by finally cutting the cord. Also, Java isn't installed. This could be a serious problem for some people. Until about 2 months ago, the time clock at work was a (poorly written) Java applet. I'm sure a lot of people have that one site that still uses Java applets. For now, they won't work, and you can't install the plugin to make them work. More importantly, this means Minecraft won't run in the browser. Almost a deal breaker, I know. On the high side, I'm hoping this is Google saying "It is time to kill Java applets and move to HTML5". Because it is. Except for Minecraft, which could be written in COBOL and I'd excuse it. Another app that is notably missing is Netflix support. The Netflix site mentions that Netflix support will come soon. Hopefully, this means Netflix will be coming to Linux soon as well. Google mentioned Netflix as a partner at Google I/O, so you can expect support pretty soon. Thankfully, Hulu does work, and works pretty well. It stuttered once or twice, but otherwise, was perfect. Support from Citrix and VMWare is coming soon to allow you to access desktop apps, such as Microsoft Office or your favorite development environment. Another pleasant surprise is a web app called Scratchpad. You can get this on any computer via the Chrome Webstore, but it comes pre-installed on the Chromebooks. It is just a simple place to take short notes and have them synced to all your computers. It is intuitive and really helpful, just like any pre-installed app should be. For people used to Spaces on Mac or multiple desktops on Linux, opening multiple windows has the same feel in ChromeOS. Just hit Ctrl + N to open a new window, and Alt + Tab to switch between them. You can also open an incognito window with Ctrl + Shift + N, allowing you to log into Google services as another user if you're like me and have a ton of Google accounts. Speaking of keyboard shortcuts, here's a great list of them. A lot of these will work in any Chrome browser on any platform. If you're a geek whose been burned by locked bootloaders and tedious rooting on Android, you'll be happy to hear that is just a switch to root your computer.  From there you can install custom version of Chromium. To get even more control, you can switch your BIOS to developer mode, and get full control. Google even published an article about how to do just that.

Conclusion and One Week Challenge

Overall I'm impressed with the simplicity of the Chromebook. I am curious if this laptop would be useful to people as their only laptop. That's why, for the next week, I will only be using my Chromebook. No netbook, no laptop, no workstation at home, neither of my workstations at work. We'll see how it works for every day tasks. I'm not going to quit my system administration duties or quit programming for this week or quit working on my websites. I'm going to try and do everything possible with this Chromebook and this Chromebook alone. Check back for daily updates.

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