I spent a long time struggling with how to review a product like the new chromebook. With most reviews the product being reviewed fits an existing niche, has product peers to compare it to, or at the very least has a clear ambition to be something totally unique. The Series 3 Chromebook doesn’t quite fit any of those molds. It’s not quite a traditional ultrabook or netbook, there aren’t any products like it on the market (not even the other chromebooks), and google’s advertised ambitions for the chromebook are so broad that it’s impossible to judge whether or not it lives up to those ambitions. It’s the laptop “For Everyone”, but everyone is a hell of a lot of people.
What is the Chromebook? Exactly what you think it is. Remember when Dennis Green coached the Cardinals and had that huge blow up after losing a 23-3 4th quarter lead to the Bears?
Well, the chromebook is what you think it is. It’s a chrome browser in a light plastic housing. That’s really it. If you wanna crown their asses, crown them. I think I might.
The first impression out of the box was how incredibly light the Series 3 is. That shouldn’t come as a surprise with it’s full plastic body and 11.6” screen, but it’s still a little jarring even after a weeks’ use. It weighs in at just 2.4lbs, meaning you’re not likely to notice it in your bag or mind carrying by the spine like a book. I’ve already found myself carrying it places around the house that I never thought to carry my aging, soon to be retired, 15” Vaio.
The lightness comes with a sacrifice in general build quality, however. That’s not to say that the Series 3 isn’t an incredibly well-built machine for $250 - only that any computer at that price range has its limits in build materials. While the laptop feels solid throughout, there’s an inherent ‘flex’ just about everywhere. If you lift it up by a corner you’ll feel the rest of the machine bend under the pressure - if you push a thumb into the lid you’ll see it depress. What’s really interesting about all of this flexing is that it isn’t at all concerning. A small part of that comes from the base expectations of a $250 computer, but it’s mostly about how it’s doing that flexing. At no point does the computer feel like a sum of multiple parts as it bends. It’s hard to explain, but it’s the same feeling you’d get if you picked up a piece of rubber. You’d feel it bend a bit in your hand, but the feeling of the entire structure bending as one piece is a different experience than hearing the creaking of plastic on plastic. It provides great build experience for being so obviously cheap. But don’t expect Macbook Air quality, here. There isn’t a comparison and it one shouldn’t be expected.
The Chromebook Series 3 isn’t going to win any design awards, Alaskan beauty pageants, or Jon Ive’s approval. The outside of the machine is unassuming, the matte silver body being the least unique and most attractive feature. The Samsung and Chrome logos are slapped on the back in a positioning that drives me absolutely mad, but I refuse to make that a legitimate complaint. The notebook’s hinge is the most unique part of the design, and it’s unique for all the wrong reasons. It juts out from the lines of the body, making a little hump near the back of the lid. It’s ugly and a clear sacrifice that came with the price tag.
Flip the chromebook upside down and you’ll find a blank slate. There’s no fan, no battery seams, just a serial number sticker and some traction pads. Nothing of note.
Open the chromebook and you’ll see a familiar sight. The matte silver coating continues on the inside, and it’s joined by a simplistic black chiclet keyboard and oversized trackpad. It’s unmistakably…macbook-y. That’s not a bad thing at all, though. The simple design is gorgeous and fits the character of the simple machine. The 11.6” screen is framed by a bezel that is probably the largest (figuratively and literally) indicator of the device’s low price point. It’s easy to get used to, but it’s noticeably oversized in comparison to similarly sized (though not similarly priced) laptops.
This very well might be the most difficult factor to write a proper review of. I’ll break it into individual sections on the hardware side, but OS performance is difficult to describe without repeating the word ‘adequate’ ad nauseum. Can you watch video? Adequately. Will it handle the light picture editing you do? Adequately. Can it bear my usual 12 open tabs and music streaming? Adequately. To put it even more plainly - the chromebook series 3 will do everything your chrome browser can do right now, and it can do it at a speed that’s not going to be frustrating to most users. Here’s a list of tasks I’ve used it for so far and how it’s handled those tasks:
- Browsing: Absolutely great. Pages load quickly, multiple tabs are open, slowdowns are rare. Imagine a tablet experience with a non-detachable keyboard. That’s about it, but faster.
- Music Streaming: Good. Fair if you have other heavy activities going on. I use grooveshark and Pandora nearly every day, and the only hangups I’ve had are small skips in audio when the processing load gets high. The skips are rare, if a little discomforting.
- Video: The Chromebook has no problems streaming 1080p video, but I wouldn’t buy this machine if you’re primary uses are at all video related. There’s not currently ARM Netflix support (Google says they’re close, but still a disappointing ‘out of the box’ experience) and Hulu has it’s fair share of hangups. I haven’t had any problems with youtube videos, so it’s capable, but I wouldn’t want to rely on the Series 3 if I was planning on watching full films on a regular basis.
- Word Processing: This is the Chromebook’s true calling. If you’re invested in the Google Drive ecosystem there’s really no downside to the Series 3’s writing capabilities. I have yet to see any typing stalls - the letters immediately appear on screen with no delay. I suppose that’s to be expected on any computer no matter the price, but it’s still refreshing considering word processing is probably the computer’s best selling point (That’s not supposed to sound as damning as it does. See the keyboard section).
Keyboard and Trackpad
The Chromebook’s keyboard and trackpad are it’s most appealing physical features - and they’re damn good. For maybe the first time in this review, I don’t mean damn good ‘for a $250 laptop”. The keyboard and trackpad on this machine are good even compared to computers in the $800 range. This is the computer’s saving grace for people focused on the plastic build - when your wrists are rested on that plastic and you’re typing and two-finger scrolling your balls off the build quality is the last thing on your mind. The only build quality you’re experiencing is wonderfully responsive, clicky keys and an effortless trackpad (“effortless” is high praise for any laptop trackpad outside of a macbook). Not once has the keyboard felt cramped despite its smaller real estate. In fact, I’m a poor typer (recovering pecker) and I’ve found that the slightly shrunken layout has improved my wpm.
The top of the keyboard isn’t adorned with any familiar function keys, and instead holds extremely useful chrome-centric keys, like ‘switch tabs’, ‘maximize’, and ‘refresh’. There are also brightness and volume keys, along with a strange behaving power button (you get used to it, but holding short logs off, holding long turns off).
The best feature the chromebook’s screen offers is its matte finish. The rest of the measurables don’t stack up well to most other laptops, and the screen is underwhelming in just about every metric. Yet I’m hesitant to call it bad, because at no time in using it have I noticed anything particularly bad about it. Don’t expect to be impressed by the screen’s performance, but you won’t be let down if you’re primary uses don’t involve multiple viewing angles, accurate color representation, or photo editing. That’s to say - if this display got slapped on anything over $600 I’d be outraged. But at $250 it’s more than acceptable. HD-philes beware.
There’s not much to say about Chrome OS because, despite all of the desktop UI and dedicated app views, it REALLY is just Chrome. Don’t expect anything else. What is worth talking about is what the Chrome browser is capable of, because it’s probably more than you realize. The single greatest thing the chromebook’s done for me personally is force me to discover just how far browser applications have come. If it’s not processor heavy, name it, and I’m willing to bet there’s browser app that can get the job done.
For example, I needed to edit some basic html recently. Usually I’d just fire up the the Windows wordpress app, but you can’t do that on a chromebook (trust me, you find yourself having these realizations a lot for the first few days). So I went on a search to find a solution. That’s something else you’ll find yourself doing for at least the first week of chromebook ownership: Searching through the ‘chrome web store’ for web equivalents to software you never realized you used so often. Now, it’s possible that could be a very negative experience if you don’t come into chromebook ownership with a full understanding of what you’re getting into. For me, I knew what to expect, and the experience was great because I’ve yet to fail in finding an application to fill the desktop voids. Cloud9, the IDE, filled my html editing void. It also added to my still tentative trust in a cloud-based life.
‘The cloud’ has become such a cliche’d term the last few years that it’s easy to dismiss the idea of all of your information being entrusted to one of the countless services promising complete security and reliability. But it really can be done, cloud life, and google’s making it easier than ever. I’ve said it before, but it’s never been more true: The more you give to google, the more you’ll get in return. That sounds discomforting, I know, but ecosystems are evolving to a level that’s making it hard to not commit to just one. The same thing is happening in the Microsoft camp with SkyDrive and the Apple camp with iCloud. You can leave the ecosystems, but your roots are pretty deep these days. The point: If you’re invested in the google ecosystem, the chromebook is only going to deepen that commitment. That’s not a bad thing considering the quality of their cloud services, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re still wary of the cloud life.
The Chromebook Series 3 is what we thought it was. It’s an amazing web browsing, word processing, casual laptop. But in no stretch of the imagination is this the laptop for “everyone”. It represents a completely new take on what makes a personal computer ‘personal’. The computer isn’t personal at all - your personal files aren’t even likely to be stored anywhere on the measly 16gb of storage on the chromebook. What’s personal is your information, your files, your online life that’s stored in the pixelated internet nether. The chromebook is just a portal to all of that information - a tool to manipulate the power of the web. It most probably also represents the future of casual computing, but you have to figure out if you’re able and willing to jump into a future that’s under construction.