When Google debuted their Chrome operating system, there was lots of excitement about the prospect of a web-only OS. You could do away with pesky updates, niggling security worries and annoying software installations and fully embrace the web, at the same time benefiting from the increased speed that a virtually non-existent OS brings. I picked one up while in the US last summer, and now having used it as my primary machine for several months thought I’d write down some of my thoughts.
The physical hardware of the Chromebook is adequate, but it’s not going to win any awards. The entire body is made of black plastic (except the white lid on the version I bought), and as such has a little bit of flex and creakiness (annoyingly, Samsung has just shown off the next iteration, clad entirely in sexy aluminium, which should do away with these structural worries). It’s not going to fall apart any time soon, but doesn’t feel as well put together as some of its more premium counterparts.
The screen, as you would expect from LCD behemoth Samsung, is bright, crisp and usable outside thanks to it’s matte finish. Similarly the keyboard features big, chunky keys that are just as good as any other keyboard on the market – vitally important for somebody who spends the majority of their time tapping away. Google has seen fit to do away with keys it deems outdated – the capslock key is replaced with a “search” key, which can take a bit of getting used to, and the function keys are replaced with browser controls and volume / brightness adjusters.
Overall the Series 5 is well put together, and after several months of daily usage and frequent bag-borne travel shows no signs of wear and tear.
This is the real appeal of the Series 5 – Google’s Chrome OS. However it also makes reviewing the machine hard because there really isn’t that much software to write about. Google claim a 7-second boot time for their Chromebooks, but I think they may be being a bit self-deprecating there. My machine boots in 5 seconds or less most of the time – quick enough to be more-or-less unnoticeable.
It is also quick enough that now when I have to use a “normal” computer even the fastest boot seems like an eternity. Even the brand new MacBook Airs seem sluggish by comparison. Instant-resume is also truly instant – and the sleep mode is battery-efficient enough that I usually just close the lid rather than shutting the machine down overnight.
So Chrome OS does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s really fast, and there’s literally nothing superfluous about it.
This is where Google’s claims of lightning-fast performance shows some cracks. The OS itself is solid, but the machine is still built on a tiny netbook processor. For light use you would never know, but once you have several hefty tabs open you will begin to notice a performance hit. Large flash videos, hefty HTML5 content and Java-heavy pages will all make the Series 5 chug to some degree, although I have yet to bog it down to the point it becomes a major issue.
However, if you compare the Chromebook to other laptops in the same price range (mostly netbooks), you’ll find performance is significantly better due to the lack of a resource-hogging operating system.
The other major stumbling block is that my main word-processing application – Google Docs – is still non-functional if you don’t have internet access. Google promised a fix to this late last year, and delivered a half-fix, but offline editing is still not available. This means if you’re planning to do some writing on a plane, for example, you’ll have to use a third-party app from the Chrome web store (Chrome’s app store) instead of Docs.
The other major shortcoming of Chrome OS is file management. This is obviously something Google haven’t invested much time in as it’s not what Chrome OS is “about”, but on the rare occasion you have to upload some files from a memory card or email several attachments at once, you’ll find yourself with clenched fists.
The Series 5 is a great machine for a certain sliver of the laptop market. At the moment those who can use it without issue are a fairly small group (happily, one that includes me), but as Chrome OS improves, that niche will grow.
Before deciding to get a Chromebook, I would advise very carefully examining your usage scenarios. Is there a Windows / Mac application you absolutely cannot do without? Do you spend long periods of time without internet access? Do you perform lots of “heavy” computing tasks (editing photos, rendering videos, keeping a million tabs open)? If the answer to any of those questions is “yes” you may be better off sticking with a traditional operating system. Try spending a week using only your browser – can you do it?
However, if you need a lightweight, simple laptop with great battery life and already do most of your work in the cloud, a Chromebook may be just the ticket. As someone who doesn’t use a single desktop application in their day-to-day work (GMail, Google Docs and WordPress are my bread and butter), not having a desktop isn’t an issue for me, and for £300 I’d struggle to find a better machine.