My Birthday came up (again!) and my wonderful wife asked what I would like as a birthday present. Since I’m a man that already has everything, I couldn’t answer her question. I already have a iMac as my desktop computer, a small Windows 7 laptop, two Android tablets (10″ and 7″), a Android smartphone, etc. I really had all the gadgets that I could want.
That same week, I heard about the impending release of the next version of the Google Chromebook, so I decided to investigate a bit. It was very intriguing to me, so I mentioned to my wife that a Chromebook might be something she could get me as a birthday present. As such, it arrived on my doorstep (albeit, a week after my Birthday) and I had one more new gadget to play with and ultimately write this review.
First of all, I’ve only been using this for a day now, so you’re getting a review from a fresh new user’s perspective. But none the less, I felt compelled to write this review since it would give me the opportunity to test out the Chrombook’s WiFi connection, keyboard, etc.
I’ll start with the positives. First, the Chromebook is well constructed and looks very much like a Macbook Air. The keyboard especially looks and feels very close to an Apple Macbook (which is a good thing). If I covered up the “SAMSUNG” label on the bottom of the screen frame and slapped an Apple icon sticker on the top of this device, you would probably mistake it for a Macbook Air.
When I first started up the device, it immediately wanted to connect to my home WiFi, and then followed by downloading and installing a software update (which took about 15 minutes). After the update, the system came up asking for my Google login name and password (which was my Gmail account). After typing that info in, within a few seconds my Chromebook was up and ready to go! In fact, one of the best features of this device is how fast it boots up. From being completely turned off, the system is up and ready in just 8 seconds. That’s super fast in my book!
The system is basically a very light version of Linux, but the only thing you see is the Chrome web browser. You do everything in the browser, which is probably the biggest limitation you might have if you’re use to running native applications. So if you want to run Microsoft Excel locally on your Chromebook you can’t; you’ll need to use a comparable spreadsheet program that can be run from a web browser in the cloud.
If you want to see what it’s like to use a Chromebook, try going a full day by only using the Chrome Browser on your current desktop or laptop computer. Web Browse (of course), check your email, upload and edit photos, create spreadsheets and documents, read news, listen to streaming music, watch videos, etc. all using the Chrome Browser. If this works for you without any major issues, then you may be good using a Chromebook.
I’m currently working on this blog article with my Chromebook on my lap sitting in my family room while watching the evening news. I have my earbuds plugged into the Chromebook and I’m listening to streaming music via Pandora running in a browser tab, while a second tab has the WordPress editor screen. I also have a few other tabbed browser pages available which I switch between to read local weather reports and news. Everything is working just fine. If I need to take a break, I just close the lid to my Chromebook and it instantly goes to sleep. I can later lift the lid and within 3 seconds the screen is up and ready to go again right where I left off.
I won’t go into a full blown review of the Chromebook since you can find those on the web, but I will tell you a few outstanding features I like. The interface very much looks like a standard Windows laptop, where you can define a background image for the main desktop and also have a task bar at the bottom of the screen with a clock, WiFi indicator, and icons for currently running “apps”. There are dedicated buttons at the top of the keyboard that will move the current web pages forward or backwards and also refresh the page. My most favorite button is one that will act like the ALT-TAB button in windows, and will cycle through all the running apps bring them to the foreground. There’s another button that will make the currently displayed web browser page full screen or back to a resizeable window.
One thing I needed to get use to was the flat matte finish of the Chromebook’s display. My iMac has a very glossy screen, so using the matte screen of the Chromebook was a big change. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever used a laptop with such a matte finish. It reminds me of when you put a plastic screen protector on your smartphone and you have that matte see-through appearance. Personally, I don’t like it, but it’s not a deal breaker and I’m getting use to it.
One important and probably obvious limitation with the Chromebook is that you need to have a WiFi Internet connection to effectively use it. So you need to be connected to the Internet otherwise you’re pretty much dead in the water. Sure, you can turn on your Chromebook and try to use it, but since it depends on the cloud for apps and primary data storage, there’s not much you can do without an Internet connection. So games such as Angry Birds, Plants vs. Zombies, and Poppit will not run unless you have an Internet connection. The only apps that will work without a cloud connection are those such as Google Docs, Scratchpad, Google Calendar, Calculator, and Files. So very few apps will work offline from the Internet. Surprisingly, it seems that Google Music works offline, allowing me to play my music on my Chromebook (I must have configured it to store my music locally on the flash drive). For most of us, we’re constantly connected to the Internet via WiFi so this limitation may not be that big of a deal. WiFi Access seems to be available everywhere these days; at all Starbucks shops, Safeway grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, airports, etc. You also have the option of connecting to your cell phone via WiFi hotspot or USB cable with some cell providers.
So in conclusion, I believe the Chromebook is a very niche product that has a place in the electronic ecosphere. Tablets are good for web browsing, emails, and other functions that don’t require a keyboard, but if you want or need to type a lot then a Chromebook is a good (and cheap) solution than using a conventional laptop.