Samsung Chromebook: The $499 Google thought experiment
Oh, Google! You're so Googly!
Review The most amazing thing about Google's inaugural Chromebooks is that they come with a file manager. It's not much of a file manager, but it's relatively easy to find, and it gives you relatively quick access to the files you've download, or screenshots you've taken, or documents on a thumb drive you've plugged into the USB port.
This may seem like the most fundamental of tools. But in December, when Google released its beta Chromebook, the Cr-48, there was no file manager. And Mountain View was adamant that such a basic piece of software was beside the point.
Running Google's Chrome OS operating system, Chromebooks seek to move everything you do onto the interwebs. Chrome OS is essentially a modified Linux kernel that runs only one native application: Google's Chrome browser. You can install plug-ins and extensions, but otherwise, every application you use must be a web application. Rather than run a local copy of Microsoft Office, you use Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Calendar. Rather than iTunes, you use Pandora or maybe the "cloud" music services offered by Google and Amazon.
This also means that most of your data sits on the web, inside services like Google Docs. Google pitches the Chromebook as a kind of disposable computer. If you lose it, the company says, you lose neither your apps nor your data. You simply buy a replacement machine, sign in with your existing Google account, and find everything waiting for you, just as you left it.
The rub is that the world isn't quite ready for a machine that doesn't give you access to local files. Google admits as much in adding a file manager to Chrome OS, which made its official debut last month with the arrival of the $429 Samsung Series 5 Chromebook and the $349 Acer AC700-1099 Chromebook. Cr-48 beta testers called for a file manager, and Google gave them one.
But this file manager is rudimentary at best. Familiar nested folders give you access to downloaded files and screenshots and external drives, but there are few file types you can actually launch straight from the manager. If you click on a .doc file, for example, Chrome OS gives you an error message. It doesn't open the file with Google Docs.
The OS now offers a media player for playing MP3s and the like, but this too is the most basic of tools. It is merely in place to wean you away from local files and applications. Google is still very much intent on moving everything to the web.
We've used the Samsung Chromebook for the past two weeks, and with the exception of the file manager and the media player and a few other nips and tucks, the basic experience isn't that different from what we saw with the Cr-48.
Using a solid state flash drive rather than a traditional hard disk, the machine boots in about 10 seconds. It instantly goes to sleep and instantly revives when you close and open the display. And its security model makes an awful lot of sense. But if you're a consumer, this isn't a machine that can replace your primary laptop. And if you're a business, it is only suited to a portion of your workforce.
There are certain native applications that the web just can't duplicate, including design tools and video editors and high-end games. Even fairly mature web applications like Google Docs can't quite match what you get from desktop software.
What's more, shuttling files between web applications is still a painful process, and this is eased only marginally by Google's file manager. But the primary problem is that a Chromebook is all but unusable if you don't have an internet connection. Even Google's centerpiece web applications don't yet work offline.
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.
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. ®