Samsung Chromebook: The $499 Google thought experiment
Oh, Google! You're so Googly!
Syncs and sandboxes
There are clear advantages to Google's setup. Because you log in with your overarching Google account, the company can synchronize your settings across machines. When we first logged into our Samsung Chromebook, it synced with our Cr-48, right down to the extensions we had installed. And because Google keeps everything in the browser, it has greater control over security.
Every webpage is restricted to a sandbox, and if malware escapes the sandbox, Google does a verified boot at startup in an effort to identify any system tampering. What's more, like Google's Chrome browser, the OS is constantly updated across the wire with security patches. Some researchers warn that Google is simply "moving the goalposts" for scammers. But at least in the short term, moving the goalposts is nothing but a good thing, and there's no denying that Google has shrunk the scope of the problem – just as it has shrunk the scope of the applications the machine is capable of running.
For every advantage, there's a disadvantage. When using our Chromebook, we can't run the Yahoo! Instant Messenger we normally run on our Mac. We're forced to use either a third-party Yahoo! Messenger browser extension or the web-based version of Yahoo!'s tool. The extension is practically unusable, so we opt for the web service. It works well enough. But there are caveats. We don't always notice we have a new message, and it's harder to toggle back and forth between IMs and some other app.
That was just one example, but it is indicative of the platform as a whole. You can't use Skype or play a DVD. But you can use Google Talk or YouTube – at least in theory. Sadly, our Samsung Chromebook shipped with what appears to be a faulty audio system. We can't get sound... at all. We can watch videos, but we can't hear them. And we can't listen to MP3s on Google's new media player. Though we asked Google and Samsung about the sound system and Google acknowledged our questions, neither company provided help with the problem.
That said, it actually took us awhile to notice that problem. We were using the machine for work purposes, opening it on the train into the office each morning and in the evening on the way home. It serves certain purposes.
More future, please
Yes, it works on the train. The Samsung model we tested includes a built-in 3G adapter, and in partnership with Verizon, Google and Samsung offers 100MB of free service a month for the first two years of use. This isn't an awful lot of data, but it's something. This 3G version sells for $499, $60 more than the Wi-Fi version.
We ran through our 100MB after about four or five days and no more than several hours of email, IM, and web browsing. We were cut off in the middle of a train ride, as we typed another IM. We couldn't instant message. We couldn't browse the web. We couldn't write. We couldn't edit. We couldn't do anything.
Of course, most machines are only marginally useful when you use an internet connection. And the Chromebook will become more useful in such situations. A few web apps available from Google's Chrome Web Store already work offline, and Google continues to promise that its Google Apps suite will offer HTML5-based offline access sometime "this summer".
The Chromebook is an idea ahead of its prime. It makes sense for certain businesses – or at least portions of certain businesses – where you don't need high-end applications and you don't have to worry about losing internet access. Google is targeting enterprises with a subscription pricing model, in which you pay a monthly fee for hardware, software, and support.
But for consumers, the Chromebook is a rather intriguing creation that's ultimately less useful than you'd like it to be. It needs more than a file manager. It needs five more years of interwebs evolution. ®