Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, the area once known as “netbooks” is more or less dead, but Google isn’t leaving it alone, and with the Chromebook movement, is trying to provide an option for people who don’t want to spend more than $400 on a web-capable machine. For fifty less than that, Samsung is offering its interpretation in the form of a slim and light notebook.
Launched just over a month ago in Australia, Samsung’s XE303C12 Chromebook doesn’t have a fancy name, but it does carry some specs that put it on par with tablets, provided you forget about that whole touchscreen thing.
One of these is the processor, and Samsung has stuck with something it knows can take a Google operating system: the 1.7GHz Exynos dual-core processor used in the Google Nexus 10, a tablet we have yet to see released in Australia.
Like the Chromebook released by Acer, Samsung believes only 2GB RAM is needed for the operating system, but unlike Acer, has gone with a 16GB solid-state drive for the storage instead of the 320GB conventional hard drive we found on Acer’s Chromebook.
Wireless connectivity is pretty standard here, with 802.11 a/b/g/n here, as well as that new fandangled 802.11 ac support, and Samsung has also included Bluetooth.
Wired ports are reasonably varied, with one HDMI, one USB 2.0, one USB 3.0, a headset jack, and an SD card slot, as well as the power port for charging the laptop up.
Two small speakers are included, and you’ll find a microphone and webcam on this machine too, for those times when you want to hangout with your friends online.
A SIM card slot can be found on the back of the Chromebook, though it appears to be disabled in this model and has rubber lodged inside to dissuade you from using it.
Finally, there’s Google’s Chrome OS, which is the platform that comes preinstalled here.
With only one Chromebook reviewed to date – the $299 Acer Chromebook – we’re still coming to grips with what a “Chromebook” actually is.
If you haven’t heard of one or seen it in the flesh, the concept is this: Google’s Chrome web browser as an operating system, with all of Google’s services united under it.
You can surf websites and have those tabs open up on a different computer, provided you’re signed into your Google account and using Chrome browser there.
If you’re creating and editing documents on a Chromebook, all your files will be saved online, ready for you to edit and/or print them out at another computer.
In essence, Google Chromebooks are a platform agnostic platform, a concept that means you can take your browser and its applications with you, work on the go, and as soon as you’re in range of a wireless network, synchronise everything for use later on.
There are some limits to how this actually works, but in practise, it’s a neat idea, and as we’ve mentioned before, there are people we can see this working for, especially since there are no viruses for this platform (not yet, anyway).
Acer’s Chromebook was the first we looked at, and while we liked aspects of that machine, there were elements that didn’t work out perfectly. Bits like the glossy screen, the massive hard drive, and a keyboard that had barely been redesigned from Windows were just some of these, and in Samsung’s first model, it’s nice to see these issues aren’t shared.
We’ll start with the keyboard and usability, because these are two areas which feel better overall, as well as the design.
While Acer’s reminded us of a rebadged “Happy” netbook, Samsung’s Chromebook is like a smaller and thinner version of its Chronos notebook.
With a depth around 17.5mm when closed, this isn’t a thick machine, and sitting at just over a kilogram (1.1kg, in fact), it’s not heavy either.
The ports are all located on the back by the screen hinge, which we suspect Samsung has done to make this notebook look and feel slimmer, and it works well. In fact, the screen hinge sits inside a crevice just before the back, providing a small ridge to hold the laptop when it’s closed, which makes it easier to grasp.
Open it up and you’ll see an 11.6 inch HD-capable screen and wide keyboard, the latter of which lacks any keys that felt out of place on Acer’s machine, such as the “Fn” function and search keys. Making up for this are some keys that are extra long, easier to use, and – more importantly – harder accidentally press and waste a keystroke in frustration.
Likewise, the function keys at the top of the keyboard are dedicated function keys, not just keys with a double purpose, especially since some of the “F” function keys don’t really have uses under Chrome, as far as we can tell.
It is a reasonably comfortable keyboard, with just enough travel, and in writing the review on the Samsung Chromebook, we certainly had no complaints.
Over in that display section, Samsung has gone with a reasonably matt screen in its Chromebook, a choice which makes it easier to use thanks to the lack of reflections, which was a problem in Acer’s equivalent machine.
What Samsung’s Chromebook screen lacks, however, is a decent amount of contrast. Images and black-on-white text look dull, and while the reflectivity is low (yay!), so is the strength of the screen, which just feels like it needs more oomph and pow.
Viewing angles could do with some work too, and you’ll find that this screen needs to be positioned correctly otherwise the colours wash out or invert completely.
One thing we can say we like is the battery, which despite the small and slim size of Samsung’s first Chromebook, manages to achieve almost six hours of life with WiFi switched on.
With wireless constantly providing a synchronised connection for our Google documents, six hours isn’t bad at all.
Performance wise, we saw better results than the Acer, but the more tabs you have open, the worse it gets, with a typing response that gradually slows to a crawl and eventually throws your text on the screen after a second of typing with no response.
When lots of things are happening, you can see the slow-downs in more than just typing, with some lag appearing in tabs you happen to be scrolling, too.
It’s not a bad issue, the chip Samsung has opted for doesn’t help Chrome OS in such a way where excess multitasking – or just lots of Chrome browser tabs – is a strong possibility.
On the positive side, however, our return from standby on the Samsung Chromebook was roughly one to two seconds, while booting took ten seconds, showing that this computer was great if you want to work without waiting for the computer to catch up to you.
One area that might annoy some, though, is the storage, which in this computer is set to 16GB internal, with only around 10GB available for use.
This number pales in comparison to the 320GB hard drive Acer offered in its own version of the Chromebook, though we’re not bothered in the slightest.
Google Chrome OS still lacks a proper way to explore your hard drive, and since it relies so heavily on streaming and wireless connectivity, most of your storage is handled online rather than offline and on your physical drive.
Take music, for instance, which is stored online in Google’s Play Music account and streamed to your computer. While Windows and Mac PCs can download the tracks bought and stored on this system using Music Manager (as well as Android smartphones), Chrome OS lacks this piece of software, so downloading from your account isn’t as easy, and most will just stream.
Movies purchased through Google’s Play Movie system aren’t stored locally either, streamed instead via YouTube to a tab on your Chromebook’s Chrome browser.
In essence, very little is sent to your hard drive and kept there, and so the majority of things that will be stored on the ten-ish gigabytes of storage available locally are things you would have put there, whether it’s music you wanted copied over, movies, photos, or documents you plan to edit.
Applications don’t take much room at all because they’re generally web based, and you can’t install Windows or Mac apps to this, so there’s no reason to download any of that.
Basically, having 16GB of flash storage actually makes sense for Chrome OS, because you’re not exactly leaving much on your hard drive.
That said, we can still see people who would feel a little bugged by the storage situation, especially if Google ever updates Chrome in such a way where files are easily explored and accessed on the hard drive.
While there are better machines out there, though not necessarily for the price, this is easily the best Chromebook we’ve seen (out of two), and looks to be a decent option for anyone who doesn’t want to spend too much money, yet wants to surf and write and write and surf.