It isn’t often you come across a computer that makes you wish it ran Microsoft Windows. The new Chromebook Series 5 laptop manages that impressive feat.
The Chromebook, born of a partnership between Samsung Electronics Co. and Google Inc., is the first commercially available computer to run Google’s Chrome Operating System. The idea is that you use “the cloud” -- that is, the Internet -- to replace many of the functions traditionally handled by the computer hardware.
It’s a seductive notion, sort of like canceling your cable TV subscription and relying on the Net for all your video entertainment. But much like cable-cutting, it proves to be more attractive in theory than in fact.
The Series 5, which went on sale this week from Amazon.com Inc. and Best Buy Co. at $500 for a 3G-enabled model and $430 with Wi-Fi only, is less than an inch thick and weighs 3.3 pounds. It has a 12.1-inch screen, two USB ports and a card reader. The keyboard is comfortable, and there’s a track pad for navigation that is generously sized but that had problems registering some clicks accurately.
Outside of the operating system, software doesn’t reside on the computer itself; instead, you use online alternatives like Gmail and Google Docs to create your word-processing, spreadsheet and other documents. And you don’t store those documents locally on a hard drive; they live in the cloud too, where they’re accessible to you through any Web-connected computer anywhere.
Under the Hood
Under the hood, not that it matters all that much, are an Intel Corp. microprocessor, two gigabytes of memory and 16 gigabytes of solid-state storage, which is less than you’ll find on many smart phones.
Anyone who’s ever suffered through the wait for a Windows computer to boot up -- which is to say, everyone who’s ever used a Windows computer -- will be grateful for the Series 5 experience.
Thanks to the lightweight nature of the operating system and the solid-state storage, I clocked the time from startup to login screen at a mere eight seconds. And battery life is good enough that you’re more likely to just close the lid rather than turn the computer off, in which case you’re back in business in three seconds.
Samsung claims the battery will last 8 1/2 hours in normal use; I got more than six hours in my torture test, which included cranking up the screen brightness and streaming a continuous series of “Simpsons” episodes.
Ease of Use
As for ease of use, if you know how to work a Web browser, you know how to work Chrome. All functions -- even accessing files, playing games or watching movies -- run through the browser. You can acquire new apps customized for the operating system, including the New York Times and “Angry Birds,” from the online Chrome Web Store. And upgrades to the operating system can come in the form of incremental, over-the-air improvements.
But the Series 5’s speed and ease of use were offset by a series of problems I encountered that should fairly be laid at Google’s feet rather than Samsung’s.
I ran into the first one within moments of pulling the computer out of the box. Even though it had embedded 3G service from Verizon Wireless, it required a Wi-Fi connection to activate, and it wouldn’t log on to Bloomberg’s Wi-Fi network.
It isn’t like there’s anything exotic about our setup; I’ve used it for legions of tablets, e-readers and even phones running Google’s own Android operating system. But it turns out that Google didn’t include support for the authentication standard we use -- a strange oversight in a device that, without an Internet signal, might be more accurately labeled a Chromebrick.
I finally activated the Chromebook by pulling out a spare wireless phone, calling the carrier to activate its mobile-hotspot function and using it to connect. Once I got over that hurdle, I was able to use the built-in Verizon service when I was in the office or otherwise didn’t have a usable Wi-Fi signal.
The price of the 3G model includes 100 megabytes of data per month; beyond that, Verizon offers prepaid month-to-month data plans starting at $20, and a $9.99 unlimited day pass.
An even bigger problem is the lack of an offline mode for Google Docs, Gmail and Google Calendar. So if you’re on an airplane or someplace where you can’t get an Internet signal, you can for now forget about being able to do anything productive. (Google says it expects to introduce offline functionality sometime this summer.)
At least you can lean back and watch a movie -- as long as you’ve remembered to download it first to an SD card or USB thumb drive.
As for printing: It’s complicated. In most cases, you’ll first have to enroll the printer you want to use with Google’s Cloud Print service, then send it your document via the Internet. Hooking the Series 5 directly to the printer with a USB cable won’t work. It’s all enough to make you yearn for the simple pleasures of installing a Windows printer driver.
You might put up with the hassles if the Series 5 were really, really cheap. It isn’t: For the same cost, you can have a choice of highly capable Windows machines. (PC maker Acer Inc. is coming out with a couple of slightly lower-priced Chromebooks, but I haven’t tested them yet.)
Someday, when the Internet is even more ubiquitous than it is now and connectivity is as available as oxygen, the Chromebook may make sense. For now, though, it dwells in a netherworld, neither as convenient as a tablet nor as potent as a PC.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)