Samsung Chromebook: The $499 Google thought experiment
Oh, Google! You're so Googly!
Chromebook in black and white
Physically, the Samsung Chromebook is a welcome improvement over the Cr-48. The touchpad is far more adept, letting you easily scroll, drag and drop, and "right click". With its rather squishy keys, the keyboard is bit more comfortable. And the 12.1-inch matte display is brighter and easier to read at tight angles. None of these are particularly impressive pieces of hardware, but they're acceptable.
Plus, the machine looks better. The rather mysterious-looking Cr-48 all-black box has given way to a sleeker white-and-black case with a bit more finish to it (other colors are available). The machine isn't as small and light as, say, an Apple MacBook Air. But it's quite easy to carry, weighing 3.3 pounds and measuring less than an inch in thickness.
The core hardware is nothing to shout about – 1.66GHz Intel Atom N570 CPU, integrated Intel graphics, 2GB of RAM, and a 16GB SSD – but this too is beside the point. When everything's on the web, you hardly need the latest and greatest in CPU and graphics technology. What you do expect from such a machine is extended battery life, and that you do get. Samsung rates the machine's life at eight-and-a-half hours, and that seems about right. We used the machine about two hours a day, and it needed recharging after each week.
Yes, I/O ports are also kept to a minimum. You get two USB ports, a headphone jack, a port for an (included) VGA dongle, and a media card slot, but that's it. You can attach external keyboards and mice and displays, and you can plug in a thumb drive when the time comes. But don't expect to attach your camera. We couldn't. And you certainly can't attach a printer. Chrome OS is light not only of native applications but also of third-party hardware drivers – though the company has said it is working to accommodate cameras.
The machine does include a built-in one-megapixel camera, installed just above the display. And though you can't attach a printer, you can print. Google offers a beta web service that routes print jobs from your Chromebook, through Google servers, and down to one of your machines that can talk to a local printer. The service is dubbed Google Cloud Print, and it nicely encapsulates Mountain View's rather extreme approach to personal computing.
Print server in the heavens
To use Google Cloud Print, you need a traditional PC that's already attached to a printer. The PC must be registered with the service, and this involves opening a Chrome browser on the machine, locating the appropriate dialog box, and supplying your Google account credentials. Once this is done, when you log in to your Chromebook with the same Google account, you can print by way of Google's data centers. Selecting Print on your Chromebook launches a small dialog box that lists the printers you've registered with the service, and to print, you select one.
It works well enough. But there are caveats. And it's a tad creepy. Which adequately sums up Chrome OS as a whole.
The trouble is that you can't simply log onto a wireless network and print to an attached printer. You have to be in the same room with a registered Cloud Print machine – or else register a new one. HP is now offering printers that directly attach to Google's service, but these are hardly common. Google seeks a world where everything is connected to the net – and to Google – but we're not quite there yet.
Some people don't ever want to be there. There's something unsettling about routing your print jobs through Google, a company that already logs so many other things you do with your PC. For what it's worth: this data is vulnerable to subpoena or national security letter. With Cloud Print, Google stores the title of your print job, the printer it was sent to, and the document being printed, and all this is tied to your Google Account. But the company says it deletes the actual document after it has been successfully printed, and you can manually delete additional records.
Like Cloud Print, like Chromebook. You log into the machine with your Google account, and it is fundamentally designed to keep your data on Google's servers. But you have the option of using third-party web services – Microsoft's Office Web Apps, for instance – and Google tells us that when you use Chrome OS, it collects no more data about your behavior than it would if you were using an ordinary Chrome browser on Window PC or Mac. There's also a "guest mode", which lets you anonymously log in to the machine. Once you exit guest mode, all data from that browsing session is deleted.
It's the standard Google setup. There are privacy controls in place. But simply by using the product, you're giving up a certain amount of yourself. Richard Stallman doesn't approve. But Google is adamant that he's blowing things way out of proportion.