Review: Samsung Chromebook

After the success of Google’s Android OS, and devices based upon it – it was time for me to take a bit of a venture into their other offerings – namely Chrome OS. The Samsung Chromebook represents the second generation of Chrome OS devices, one of the first to be based on an ARM processor, with a form factor more resembling a Macbook Air than a netbook. With a price tag of $249 (which is in US dollars), it was worth giving a bit of a try.

The initial Chrome OS devices were more netbook like, and really didn’t make much of a splash in the market. In fact, it’s hard to argue that even the current line-up of Chrome OS devices are making a splash either. Chrome OS was based upon the philosophy that most of our lives are online – as a result, the OS is more like a web browser hosting online web applications, with some abilities for offline storage and usage.

Of course, as with most of Google’s offerings, devices are often limited in their availability, being unavailable in some countries or being entirely out of stock. The Chromebook is no exception – it’s not available outside of the US and the UK at the moment. As a result, I had to pay a slight premium to obtain one from an eBay reseller in the US (as the legitimate retailers refuse to ship them outside of the US). As a result, the laptop ended up costing about AU$350 – making it a bit pricey for something on the “netbook” end of the market – you can get fully featured x86 AMD APU based laptops for the same price, however, they are bulkier and have shorter battery lives.

Just for kicks, I’m writing this post from the Chromebook … but not in Chrome OS …

Hardware

My Chromebook IMG_4637 IMG_4638

In a nutshell, the hardware for this laptop can be considered unique. It is equipped with a Samsung Exynos 5 Dual Core ARM Cortex-A15 CPU running up to 1.7Ghz built on a 32nm process. This high-performance mobile-and-tablet oriented SoC serves up a decent amount of performance and battery economy. As an ARM based laptop, there is no possibility of running Windows natively, at least not the x86/x64 editions and (unlikely) the RT edition (at least not without lots of EULA violating and “coding around” requirements).

The CPU is paired with 2Gb of DDR3 Low Powered RAM, soldered directly onboard and 16Gb of flash storage connected as eMMC (which, unfortunately means it’s not that fast).

The device is equipped with a 11.6″ 1366×768 screen based on the TN process with a matte finish – very “average” laptop-like, however, mine seems to exhibit slight banding in high contrast white-on-black situations like in the terminal.

Connectivity is available by dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11n, with Bluetooth 3.0. Surprisingly, this device has a USB 2.0 port and a USB 3.0 Superspeed port! There is HDMI output, as well as an SDXC compatible card reader slot with a permanently attached, spring-loaded cover. Unfortunately, with that design win comes a design fail – the SD card remains protruding by a significant amount so leaving one in for SSD-style use is going to be a bit ugly. On the higher end Chromebook, a WWAN module is installed for use with 3G networks, however, this wasn’t present on my model. There is an integrated speakers (which are tinny) and microphone, and also a VGA webcam (although of limited use only with Google chat). There is an ambient light sensor as well.

It is equipped with an integrated, non-removable battery which is claimed to offer in excess of 6.5 hours of life (close to 8.5 hours in light-usage scenarios with low screen brightness in my experience). This is charged by a power adaptor rated at 12v, 3.33A maximum with a very thin power plug (possibly fragile – but it seems everyone, including Asus is going this way). This is quite convenient because it might open up the Chromebook to alternative power sources (being 12v).

A teardown can be found here – and I have heeded the warnings on the page to not take mine apart, because it’s going to ruin it.

From a usability perspective, it’s a bit of a disappointment. While the device may be reminiscent of the Macbook Air, it’s nothing like one. Firstly, all that silverness is not aluminium – just plastic (yeah, at this price, what can you expect). Secondly, the plastic feels flimsy and weak – probably because it’s thin and the insides are devoid of metal. This results in an alarming amount of flex if you actually use it on your lap. This results in the trackpad registering a click due to flexing. The keyboard is a chiclet style – which I’ve hated. While it works, the short key travel and non-curved edges means that inexact keypresses often result in incorrect typing rather than not. They removed all the F-keys, and replaced them with other keys, replaced Caps Lock with search, and took away the Windows/Home key for a wide CRTL button with no Fn modifier, thus limiting the usability with other OSes. There is no Home, End, Page Up, Page Down, Scroll Lock, Num Lock keys, or num-pad emulation (just to name a few). The multi-touch touchpad is similar to Apple’s – single click if you push down with a “click”.

Due to the rear-hump, the screen doesn’t open to flatness, and the ports on the rear can make the ports vulnerable to snapping if the laptop is tilted upward. Balance for the laptop is good though, and the low power CPU and SSD results in this machine being perfectly silent.

As an added bonus, there is a 100Gb space in Google Drive for 2 years offer with every Chromebook, and Wi-Fi sessions on certain flights – however, I haven’t been able to redeem any of them, possibly due to my “reconfiguration” of the OS.

At this price, you may be wondering why you wouldn’t just buy a Atom N2600 based netbook and add an SSD to it (that’s exactly what I did myself). Well, for one thing, the screen on this thing is a bit better, and the larger keyboard makes typing somewhat more comfortable, and a similar argument goes for the trackpad. As for battery life and weight, it’s neck and neck, with the netbook being thick and chubby whereas the Chromebook is rather slender but with a larger footprint. Most N2600’s ship with 1Gb of soldered RAM – whereas this laptop has 2Gb – so that’s a bonus. But the big drawback compared to the netbook is the software compatibility and storage – an N2600 netbook with a 120Gb SSD can be had for a similar price which gives you much more storage. It’s x86 based CPU means you can run Windows (meaning loads of apps you’re already familiar with), or even Linux (but with difficulty – the N2600 chipset is notoriously Linux unfriendly). I’d have to say that the netbook probably wins out on this front, except that Asus and Acer both officially decided that netbooks should die and decided to stop production. Maybe this is the next best thing then …

User Experience

For most regular users, they will unpack this laptop and use it with Chrome OS, just the way Google intended. The laptop starts up automatically once the power plug is inserted and the lid opened, and Chrome OS is well started within 6 seconds from cold. Impressive.

Out of box setup is straightforward and pain-free, however, that’s really only if you have Wi-Fi. Once setup is completed, you are greeted with the desktop, which is mainly just wallpaper with a launcher at the bottom.

There is a welcome guide which introduces you to the features of the Chromebook and the OS, and show you how to do some tasks – including introducing you to the multi-touch touchpad, Google CloudPrint service, and free inclusions. It was very easy to follow and uncluttered – but didn’t make use of video at all.

Unfortunately, as it seems, most of the desktop is useless, and customizing the launcher bar is relatively limited. Apps are available from the Chrome Web Store, however, many of these are just shortcuts to web services. There are many services I wasn’t aware of – things like CAD, drawing and remote administration services for free via a web browser. Unfortunately, many of these are riddled with ads – making usage is a bit of a pain, and further to this – do you trust your information – your data, your passwords, your servers – to these third party app providers? What if they disappear? Make you pay? How can you safeguard your work? And do you want to remember the credentials for a large number of providers?

All of these considerations made it easy for me to say “No. This web-application dream is just a dream.” I can’t knowingly login to my remote administration server knowing that a third party is providing the service – they will have my password and all my screen data.

Plugins can be a bit of a problem too. By default, some pages are loaded with plugins disabled which sometimes makes it opaque as to what is causing a webpage to work incorrectly. This can easily be remedied by clicking on the broken-puzzle-piece icon in the top right corner of the address bar, but some plugins are just not available for Chrome OS.

There are some programs available from the store that are offline able – but their offline abilities aren’t clear. One really has to try and test these things before they “leave home” and then become stranded without their data or … indeed working app.

There is a basic complement of productivity software from Google, integrated with their Drive service. While it is a nice touch, and it does work, perfect compatibility with Microsoft Office and third party software (Endnote for example) is a problem which all the office clones face. A bit of a disappointment was the icons for Youtube, and Maps – they’re basically shortcuts to launch the web browser – even Android has dedicated apps which respond much faster and provide a much more fluid user experience. I think Chrome OS falls short of Android quite significantly in this regard.

Ditching Chrome OS for Ubuntu

Arguably, what saves this laptop from being a computer that’s even less useful than a tablet with an external keyboard is the ability to run Linux on it – and not just run Linux but run it decently! In fact, that’s what I’m doing now and that’s what I’m using to write this blog post.

While the hardware specs of this laptop suggest it should be somewhere in the ballpark of a Nexus 7 when running Ubuntu, in reality it is different. Ubuntu runs so much quicker and smoother on this than it ever did on the Nexus 7 – in fact, it was so painful on the Nexus 7, I advocated that people don’t actually try it! However, that being said,  in both cases, running the OS is considered relatively “alpha” quality and strictly for developers.

Installation instructions for ChrUbuntu (I use ChrUbuntu and Ubuntu interchangeably in this post) can be found at the Chromebooks and ChromeOS blog here. The installation process could hardly be described as painless, but isn’t painful either. It takes almost an hour – as it involves several reboots and wiping of the storage. Everything saved locally on the Chromebook will be lost as a result. A full storage wipe takes about 15 minutes on its own, and fetching the install image tars (about 1Gb) can take a while.

By doing this, you will be greeted with a familiar Ubuntu Unity interface (one which I don’t really love, but can get along with), and many of the familiar useful Linux packages. With this, you can finally get some work done – Libreoffice, Okular, Okteta, Kate, Firefox are just a few to be named. One can even install LXDE for some better performance and less annoying interface.

However, using ChrUbuntu comes with its own little niggles:

  • Turning off OS Verification on booting results in a full-brightness nag screen which sits there for 15 seconds and then finally boots. You can dismiss this with CRTL+D but that’s a bit of an annoyance.
  • Multi-touch on the touchpad isn’t supported properly – in fact, you do right click with two fingered tap, but dragging is somewhat awkward and unreliable, and performance is somewhat jumpy. There is no two-fingered scroll and the scroll bars in Unity are a bit finnicky to use.
  • There is no graphic acceleration supported – meaning sometimes sluggish videos, no 3D desktop compositing. Strangely, it also means that the mouse pointer flickers from time to time as well when hovering over certain items, and some of the pop up notifications behave unusually.
  • Hotkeys are broken – so screen brightness always boots up at full brightness – one has to venture into System Settings -> Brightness and Lock to change it every time. Unfortunately this adjustment doesn’t exist in LXDE so that’s a bit of a bummer.
  • The system may crash when the lid is closed or screen is allowed to sleep – doesn’t happen every time but manifests itself as a black screen. You can get it back to life after a little waiting or killing the X session with CRTL+ALT+Backspace, or by a full reboot. As such, I’ve disabled locking the screen which seems to help – but you shouldn’t close the lid or else it may not come back.
  • Suspend works, but you must click suspend, then close the lid before the system sleeps. Closing the lid after it sleeps causes a lid event which wakes up the sleeping laptop, lid closed and all. Sometimes waking from sleep gives you a black screen of death … similar to letting the machine sleep or closing the lid.
  • Sound doesn’t work out of the box, but a bit of a hack allows it to come back – but be careful as someone reported frying their speakers (comments section of this page).
  • The system name is set to localhost.localdomain or something like that, but you should change it to something descriptive and unique using the instructions here.
  • Changing between ChrUbuntu and Chrome OS requires hitting the command line and issuing a set of sudo commands (as listed at the bottom of this post). In Chrome OS, using the CRTL+ALT+-> combination at the login screen and issuing the command does NOT work – instead one has to invoke a shell by logging into Chrome OS, hitting CRTL+ALT+T, then typing in shell<return> and then enter the command.
  • The locale of the system is broken by default. This causes some of the programs to break and crash. I managed to recover mine by following some of the suggestions on this page.
  • By default the Universe repository isn’t enabled – by installing some things in the Ubuntu Software Centre, you can re-enable it to get access to some of the more useful packages. Unfortunately, many packages are just not available as they’re not compiled for ‘armhf’ architecture yet, so you might need to build from source and pray your dependencies are met … or give up and accept your fate as it is.
  • Battery readings can be problematic – it may show a static display with refreshed data not being available and it “appearing” to have 100% if you boot with the charger connected and then disconnect it.
  • Wi-Fi can be problematic with some APs and some security settings. Running it on the Cisco Aeronet based Uniwide at UNSW with WPA2-PEAP, the Marvell SDIO driver locks up and gives in within about 5 minutes of use necessitating a full reset to restore to functionality (only for about another 5 minutes).
  • USB 3.0 port drivers seem to have trouble with some USB 2.0 devices. Not sure why.

Restoring from Ubuntu to Chrome OS can be achieved by making a restore USB and using USB restore. You will need a 4Gb or larger USB, and it will be repartitioned so all data will be lost. But I don’t see why one would really want to come back to a Chrome OS only system, unless they were planning on selling the device or re-installing Ubuntu with different partition size.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I don’t think Google has really hit it on the head with the Samsung Chromebook. While the device looks attractive, build quality could be better. Some of the ergonomics of the laptop are unsuited to running other operating systems (not likely to be a consideration for Google, but is probably useful for the end consumer). Chrome OS leaves much to be desired, for many people they will ask why they need a dedicated device that is only just a web browser – and wonder how to “work around” the problem of not being able to run local utilities (especially those who would like to really do things with the system). In fact, enabling developer mode (akin to jailbreaking your device) and installing Linux is really the only way to get good usability out of the device – however, even then, there are niggles when it comes to hardware support. Performance is, however, acceptable for this price bracket – and the battery life, weight and dimensions are really handy. Compared to a tablet running Android, I can’t see what a Chrome OS device can do that a high-end tablet with a keyboard can’t. As a result, I can’t really recommend the Samsung Chromebook – it’s not a killer device, but on the same token, it’s full potential hasn’t been unleashed yet. However, one should remember that they shouldn’t buy things based on “hope and promises”, lest they be disappointed.

About lui_gough

I’m a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!

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