Samsung ARM Chromebook Review

The Blog of Tom Webster

  2012-11-20 02:08:00 PST

Samsung ARM Chromebook Review

I’ve been a fan of Chromebooks ever since Google shipped me the CR48. For what seemed like a pretty under-specced netbook, the potential was really the main thing that hooked me. I used the CR48 religiously until I upgraded to the new Samsung Series 5 (3G/Atom). It became my main computer in college courses, doing pretty much everything I needed a computer for, minus a few programming assignments. For those types of projects, I relied on LogMeIn to get me through, but it wasn’t a great solution.

With the old Chromebook, I encountered quite a bit of slowdown when streaming some high-def content or streaming music and browsing image-heavy websites (non-recovering Reddit addict here). I had to make a rule for Chromebook use, no Gmail in the background if I wanted to keep things running smoothly. For the most part, this wasn’t a huge problem, but over time it starts to get grating. I’m happy to report, as I write this review from my new $250 Samsung Chromebook, that I am streaming music, keeping an eye on Gmail, streaming 720p from YouTube, Redditing, and writing this review in Docs (Drive?) with only a few hiccups here and there as new songs and videos load, not even enough to be an issue. If there’s any general-purpose computer that could make me believe in the power of ARM, its this.

The good news is that Google has finally done away with the under-powered ‘feel’ of the old Chromebooks. This computer feels fast, and in reality, that’s the only thing that matters. It finally feels good to use. If I were Intel, I’d be reviewing the battle strategy right about now.

As far as software goes, the stable build of Chrome OS is nice enough, its still mostly cloud based, although the majority of what I use Drive for works offline. I had to restart the system to switch to the Dev channel, and Chrome OS restored my tabs and windows to the exact location where I had them open on the screen, that’s pretty cool. You can even pin files for offline access (think pinning Google Books or Music in Android). Chrome OS also has support for VPN connections (L2TP/IPsec [PSK or User Cert] and OpenVPN), although as of this writing, I haven’t had the chance to test this functionality.

Now, lets get to hardware. Initially, the build quality feels a bit plasticy and cheap, although this wears off once you get your hands on the keyboard. The whole machine is incredibly lightweight, so much so that it feels more like a toy or display model than an actual computer. Its light enough that carrying it from room to room with one hand almost feels natural. The keyboard is rather nice to type on and feels very natural. The whole system has a very sleek look of it. With a slightly-shiny silver paint job and a matte black keyboard, it really has a professional look going for it. Google Goggles even thought I was taking pictures of a Macbook Pro. I can only imagine how cool it would look with a backlit keyboard. Battery life seems less than other Chromebooks I’ve used (from my averages, about 6ish hours of high usage / high brightness), but I don’t see this being a problem. The power adapter scares me a bit, it uses a very thin plug that seems like it may get bent out of shape if a wayward child or dog ran at it from the wrong angle, but time will tell on that point. In this build, Samsung decided the majority of ports would be better places on the back of the system, and given the sleek design, I’m inclined to agree with them. Full-size HDMI, 1x USB 2.0, 1x USB 3.0, SD slot (with a really nice auto-flap that you can’t break off), 3.5mm Audio Out, and Sim Slot. The Mali-T604 GPU really shines when streaming 720p video. I watched an entire movie streaming from Google Drive with 2 performance hiccups, much better than previous models. Next year, I’m placing my bets on ARM.

But this is a Chromebook after all, and Google is all about building open platforms, so lets talk dev options. Samsung did away with the physical ‘jailbreak’ switch in favor of a key combination to launch into recovery mode. I can’t say I really blame them, as long as the feature is well documented (and it is). Even the boot flash is writable (if you remove the write-protection screw from the bottom first), much better than taking the CR48 apart to put it into write-mode. Theoretically, you could hack the software on this as much as you wanted without prying apart the case once. This is absolutely wonderful. Check out the developer page for everything from component information to disassembly guides to dev mode guides:

All in all, for $250, you can’t really go wrong. This is an outstanding build for the money, and I finally feel that Chromebooks have hit the price point where they are considered more than a joke or a nerd product. Friends of mine have actually purchased this model at retail stores because the price was right. I do still dream of a day when you can buy a Chromebook for $100, and it looks like Acer is moving that direction already.

Check out the gallery for some pictures of the machine: