What does a computer need to do to be useful? With the flood of smartphones, tablets, slates, phablets and Chromebooks that try to bridge the gap between a pure communication device and a traditional PC, the question looms large.
This is the question that I asked myself when looking for a new laptop. What did a laptop really need to do in order to be useful to me on a daily basis. I already had a perfectly functional Core I7 based laptop, but I wasn’t happy with it, so I started looking. The concept of the Chromebook has been around for a couple of years now, but so far, the machines have generally fallen into the toy-puter category. Too small and slow for real work (I have by all account a pair of veritable gorilla hands, so the keyboards on the 11″ Chromebooks out there just frustrate me).
Due to my size constraints I was pretty much limited to the Toshiba 13″ Chromebook, the HP Chromebook 14 or the brand new Samsung Chromebook 2. All three devices have decent specs and are of an appropriate size for me to type on, so away I went searching. After doing the usual round of web based research and some in person demos at stores, I decided on the Samsung Chromebook 2 13″.
The thing that is instantly striking about the Chromebook 2 is how similar it is in layout to the Macbook Air. This is a pure compliment as the Macbook Air is one of the best designed laptops of all time. The Chromebook 2 captures the clean lines and lack of clutter of the Macbook Air for about a third of the price. In the design department, it isn’t all flowers and rainbows though. The back of the lid for the Samsung Chromebook 2 has that silly faux leather with stitching that Samsung really want to push on the consumer.
Personally, I am not a fan. Sure it looks nice, but if you’re going to make your laptop look like a leatherbound notebook, why not do it on both sides? Practicality? Right, because it isn’t a leatherbound notebook, it is a laptop computer, so it should look like one. Next time around, I would prefer it to simply go for a smudge resistant plastic and leave it at that.
The next striking feature about the Chromebook 2 is its screen. At the time of writing, the only Chromebook with an equal or higher resolution screen is the Chromebook Pixel; but that’s frankly a museum piece that you happen to be able to read your email on. Back on this particular plane of existence, a Chromebook that costs north of $1000 is frankly a non-starter.
The Chromebook 2 screen is bright and very sharp. Its native resolution is 1920×1080, but surprisingly it can actually go up to 2160×1215. That’s an odd resolution, but there’s actually a very good reason for it. It you happen to use the Chrome Remote Desktop app from the Chrome Web Store and you are rendering a 1080p or 1200p screen, those extra 100ish pixels are much appreciated. The viewing angles are not great, but this is a 13″ laptop screen, not a home theater TV, so that doesn’t really bother me. On a side note, who came up with this contrived test of sharing movies on a laptop screen? Do people really do that? Nobody I know ever sits huddled around tiny computer screens to watch Netflix.
In terms of input, the Chromebook 2 keyboard is nicely spaced out and the keys have this wonderful slight concavity that nestle your fingertips and reduce typing errors. Key movement isn’t great, but this whole laptop (screen included) is just over half an inch thick, so what can we honestly expect?
The touchpad is large and non-twitchy. What I mean is that while on the default speed setting, it isn’t the most responsive touchpad I’ve ever used, it also doesn’t suffer from the problems that cheap laptops generally have where a slight mistouch will send the cursor flying across the screen. The thin chromed bezel around the touchpad is a nice touch and actually helps me position my gorilla hands well clear of the touchpad (Give the user an indication of where their hands are? Shocking).
In terms of ports, you get two USB ports, one 3.0 and one 2.0. I would say this is not enough, but in the two week that I’ve owned the Chromebook 2, the only thing I’ve used either port for is an external mouse. There is also HDMI out, which works well and without issue. Chrome OS has a very simple easy to use screen mirroring/desktop extension settings menu that has helped me use this device to give a few presentations. You also get a headphone/mic combo plug and a kensington lock port. There is also a MicroSD slot, which I did put a 32 GB card into that I have yet to use, but it reads it and shows with the correct size, so yeah… The charger port is ludicrously small and I am being very careful while plugging it in to charge for fear of snapping the plug in half. Come on Samsung, at least make the plug as sturdy as a headphone jack (never thought those words would come out of my brain, but here we are).
Not that you’ll have to charge all that often. From real world usage, I have not had to plug in to charge during a regular day’s worth of work. Of note is that I am using this Chromebook 2 as a secondary machine to bring to meetings, take notes on and use to remote in to my main machine. I generally will have several hours of meetings per day and I am generally around 50% after using the machine throughout the day without any charging during the day. This is not the most scientific of experiments, but I think this is likely a more practical test than some of the YouTube loop rundown tests I’ve seen (unless your job is to watch a single YouTube video on a loop all day long while not plugged into AC power).
Which brings me to how useful is the Chromebook 2. So, how useful is it? With Office online, Outlook Web Access, Google Docs, a cloud based ticketing system and Sharepoint being web based as well, I can almost do all of my job from my Chromebook. For Visual Studio, SQL Server, and really any other Windows or Mac OS based app, you need those operating systems. You are also going to be out of luck if what you do requires massive hard drives, since Chromebooks don’t come with big, medium or even small hard drives. They generally come with fast, but tiny solid state drives. If you are considering a Chromebook, then know this: It isn’t a Windows or Mac OS based PC. Personally, I don’t compare my car’s acceleration with that of an F1 racer, and similarly people should stop comparing Chromebooks with $1000+ Ultrabooks. The might look the same, but they are a different product and don’t occupy the same market segment, so cut it out.
You might also be asking: Isn’t that Samsung Chromebook 2 the one with the phone processor? In a word: Yes. Please see the previous paragraph for repetition. This machine comes with a 2.1 GHz Octocore Exynos 5800 processor. In normal terms, it has four fast cores for when you are actually doing stuff, and four slow cores for times like this when I am looking at a wall of text. All this runs is Chrome OS, which is essentially the Chrome browser. You aren’t loading the Windows networking stack or all of the drivers and services and startup garbage that permeates even the most powerful of machines. You start one thing, the Chrome OS (plus lots of garbage plugins that you decide to install yourself). From a cold boot to the login screen, this machine comes up in less than 10 seconds (I didn’t count it because who really cares if its 6 or 7, it’s still 10 times faster than a Windows or Mac). From standby, it’s just on; flip the lid open and login, no wait time at all.
The machine is responsive, but no, it will not be as responsive as a Core i7 Desktop that’s liquid cooled and running off a RAID array of SSDs. If you think that’s what you need, then by all means, go drop 5-10 times the price of this machine for one of those. It notice stutter on media intensive web sites and even YouTube is a little slow moving from page to page. However, once videos start, I have seen no hiccups, dropped frames, mistimed audio or anything of the sort.
The final question I had was: OK, so it’s great to take notes on and give presentations and all that. That’s nice, but can I use it as a secondary machine in my private life. With that in mind, let me tell you what it won’t do. Do you like Steam or really any intense PC gaming? Great, this won’t do any of it. Do you like to have lots of peripherals hooked up to your computer and have 9 monitors hooked up to your machine? Just no, what are you doing looking at a laptop review? Go find a DIY PC Kit with a giant motherboard that you can plug like five video cards into. Do you like to crunch numbers and figure out the mysteries of the universe? Then why are you sitting there reading a Chromebook review; go contact NASA or CERN or something.
Joking aside, if you like browsing the web, listening to music, watching movies (except Blu Rays or DVDs) or really doing anything inside of a web browser, then this is a great little machine. I was really surprised at the speakers on this thing. They are no match with a multi-hundred watt speaker system, sure; but for what is essentially some glorified phone hardware, you can really kick back and enjoy some tunes. With Google Music, or Spotify or any of many other online music streaming services out there, I can use this machine to fill a small room with music or set it outside on the porch while I enjoy an afternoon. It has bluetooth connectivity as well, so if you want that extra boom, connect it to your favorite bluetooth speakers and go nuts.
Last but not least from a media standpoint, remember that this runs Chrome and as long as you have a Chromecast, you can cast any tab straight to your Chromecast, so you can turn any TV or projector into an extra screen for $35.
For the $399 price tag, I have little to no complaint with the device design, the build quality or the performance. The only really problem I have with the device is that they decided to use that silly faux leather look. Get it right next year Samsung and I might pick up another of your Chromebooks.