Would you buy a laptop that comes with only one major program—a Web browser—and doesn’t allow you to install widely used software such as Microsoft Office, Apple’s iTunes, Adobe Reader, or, in fact, any other locally installed program?
Are you ready for a laptop that has almost no storage space to hold your personal files, photos and videos, and is designed around the idea that you’ll keep all that precious personal stuff on remote servers?
How about a laptop that can do almost nothing unless it has an active Internet connection; for instance, one that wouldn’t let you read and write email, or check your calendar, offline? Would you buy that?
Google is hoping you will. This month it introduced a line of just such radical machines, in partnership with two laptop makers, Samsung and Acer. They are called Chromebooks, after Google’s Chrome Web browser, which is the gateway for everything they do. And they are meant to challenge the two dominant computer platforms, Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s Mac OS X.
These laptops are “cloud” computers—essentially full-screen Web browsers designed to do everything via the Internet. Instead of using traditional programs, you will rely on “Web apps” accessed through the browser—email programs, word processors or photo editors, for example.
Series 5 Chromebook by Samsung, one of Google’s partners on the new laptop.
I’ve been testing one of the Chromebooks, the Samsung Series 5, a handsome, relatively light machine with a 12-inch screen. It costs $430 for a Wi-Fi version and $500 for a model that also includes a built-in modem for cellular Internet connectivity, which requires a monthly fee if you exceed the modest amount of free data Google gives you.
My verdict is that, while the Chromebook is a bold idea that may be a harbinger of the future of computing, it’s too limited and buggy today to be the main computer relied upon by mainstream users. I can’t recommend it over a standard laptop, except perhaps as a secondary machine for techies or early adopters.
The Chromebook does have some advantages over Windows and Mac laptops. But Google concedes these traditional laptops can run all the same Web apps as a Chromebook, in addition to running local programs, storing all your files and operating offline. Even tablets, like Apple’s iPad and competitors based on Google’s Android operating system can run hundreds of thousands of locally installed apps and Web apps as well. And they can run offline and store files locally. The Chromebook offers only about 5,000 Web apps today. Plus, tablets weigh less than half the 3.3 pounds of the Samsung Series 5, and are much slimmer, though they have smaller screens and lack the Chromebook’s physical keyboard.
As for price, there are numerous Windows laptops that cost the same or less. You can buy a Toshiba Satellite with a 15-inch screen, three gigabytes of memory, and a 320 gigabyte hard disk for $400. And it’s powered by one of Intel’s latest and most powerful processors, while the Samsung Chromebook uses the wimpy Intel Atom processor, primarily found on inexpensive netbooks.
But Google is a smart, forward-looking company and there’s a logic to the Chromebook, which it sees as the first laptop designed for the Internet era. And it does have some attractive advantages over PCs and Macs:
- Cloud computing is here to stay and many people already rely daily on Internet-based software, like Web mail programs or streaming video services. So a cloud-centric computer isn’t a crazy idea. To help find useful Web-based apps, the Chromebook has a Web app store, similar to the app stores on tablets and smartphones. (The same store is built into the Chrome browser on PCs and Macs.)
- The Chromebook starts up almost instantly—in 10 to 15 seconds in my tests—much more quickly than most Windows machines. This is partly because it’s really just a big Web browser. In my tests, Apple’s MacBook Air started just about as quickly, but it costs twice as much.
- The Chromebook claims very long battery life—a whopping 8.5 hours for the model I tested. I didn’t do a formal battery test, but I was able to go for several days of intermittent use without charging it.
- Because all your apps, settings and files are stored in the cloud, if you lose your Chromebook, or wish to use someone else’s Chromebook, you can just log into your Google account and all your stuff will appear on the new machine.
- Google automatically updates the operating system, so you don’t have to deal with manual updates.
- Google claims that, because every app runs in a tab in the browser, and those tabs are walled off from the rest of the system, the Chromebook is much more secure than other computers and doesn’t require security software. The system even checks to see if it has been tampered with every time it starts.
- As for the offline problem, Google provides a small amount of memory to which you can save some files. You can insert a flash memory card or USB flash drive containing files. Some of these files, like images and PDFs, can be viewed offline in the browser, but not edited.
And the machine contains crude built-in music and video players, and a simple note-taking function, which work offline. Google says a handful of Web apps today work offline as well, and it is planning this summer to bring the same offline functionality to its own Gmail, Google Docs and calendar apps.
Top left, you can log into someone else’s Chromebook and find all your stuff there; while the keyboard is nice, the touch pad was clumsy to use.
But there are problems. For instance, I found watching a live baseball game to be a jerky, halting experience. Google blames this on the weak processor it’s using. And Netflix doesn’t work at all. Google says it’s working on this.
Also, while the keyboard is nice, and even includes special keys for switching between Web pages and browser windows, I found the touch pad on the Samsung to be imprecise and clumsy to use.
The Chromebook also crashed on me four times, mostly because of a “memory leak” problem Google says it will fix.
Printing, which only works over Google’s “cloud print” service and can’t be done via a cable, worked only some of the time for me.
And common files don’t automatically open in Web apps, though Google says it is also working on that.
It’s important to note that when you use a Chromebook you are trusting Google with the privacy and security of your data, and the company has run into occasional issues on both counts.
The bottom line: The best and most numerous programs are still designed for Windows and the Mac, and we still live in a world without ubiquitous, speedy, low-cost, unlimited wireless connectivity. So typical laptop users are better off with computers designed for the current hybrid world, where both robust offline and online functions are needed.