Katherine Boehret

A Cloud-Based Laptop That’s as Light as One

You’ve heard that Microsoft has a new operating system — Windows 8. You probably also heard about Apple’s latest operating system — OS X Mountain Lion. But have you heard about the new version of Google’s Chrome operating system?

If it doesn’t sound familiar, you aren’t alone. Though Google has made a lot of noise about its Android mobile operating system, it has been relatively quiet about this operating system for computers. Chrome OS, which Google introduced in 2009, relies on the cloud, or remote servers. This means it automatically syncs content with other devices and gets system updates just by turning on.

This week, I tested Google’s newest Samsung Chromebook, a laptop designed to run Chrome OS. This is Google’s fourth Chromebook to date and it’s the most portable design yet. It weighs just 2.4 pounds, measures only seven-tenths of an inch thick and is priced at $249. That’s $80 less than Apple’s iPad mini and the same price as Amazon’s 32 gigabyte Kindle Fire HD. The Chromebook now comes with 100 gigabytes of storage on Google Drive for two years and will be available this week in some 500 Best Buy stores, as well as via Amazon.com and the Google Play Store.

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Multiple users can sign into the Samsung Chromebook with their Google credentials and see personalized settings and content.

How will people use this Chromebook? They’ll use it for a lot of the same things they do with a tablet or smartphone: Composing and reading emails; browsing the Web and social networks; and running Web apps. And its full laptop keyboard and track pad make it a productive device.

People who use a lot of Google tools, like me, will feel right at home in the Chrome OS. After logging in with my Google account, I found all of my Chrome browser Web apps, Google Calendar content, Gmail messages, Google contacts and Google Drive documents waiting for me on this computer.

This device will attract users who want to save money and get rid of their heavy, slow PCs. While it won’t run Microsoft Office programs like Word or Excel, viewing and editing with Google Docs will likely work enough for people not to mind. And the cloud is a lot more familiar to people now than it was a year ago.

Google sees this Chromebook as a second or third device, like a laptop that could sit on the kitchen countertop or coffee table for all family members to use. I tested that theory in my home, asking visiting relatives to set up new user accounts on the laptop by logging into their Google accounts. They selected a photo to represent their accounts and found their Gmail, Google Drive and other saved documents on the laptop.

But Chrome OS has more limited functionality because it depends on a Wi-Fi connection. That would understandably make some people nervous. This Chromebook has only 16GB of local storage on a solid-state drive, but smartly caches files to this storage so they’re available even when the computer is offline. For example, the Offline Gmail app caches all of your emails back to every message you received a week ago; Google Drive caches the 100 most recently used Google Docs for editing and accessing offline; and Amazon’s Kindle Cloud Reader app makes books available for reading offline.

This $249 Chromebook comes with 12 Gogo in-flight passes for free Wi-Fi access on equipped planes. And if the thought of not being connected is too nerve-racking, a 3G version of this Chromebook will be available sometime in the next two to three weeks for $330, a spokeswoman says.

This Chromebook runs on an ARM processor, like tablets and smartphones, and has no noisy fan like some laptops. It resumed from sleep almost instantly and booted up in less than 10 seconds, in line with Google’s estimate. It includes a built-in webcam, two USB ports, an SD card slot and an HDMI port for sharing content with TVs.

The keyboard can feel a little cramped if you’re doing a lot of typing and the decision to replace the Caps Lock key with a Search button will leave lots of users baffled. To use Caps Lock, hold the Search and Shift keys simultaneously, or change the function of the Search key to Caps Lock in Settings, Device, Keyboard Settings.

Google estimates its battery could last 6½ hours on one charge. In my harsh battery test, where I turned off all power-saving features, set screen brightness to 100 percent, left Wi-Fi on to collect email in the background and played a continuous loop of local music, I got just over five hours, which might be up to six hours under regular circumstances.

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The new Samsung Chromebook is priced at $249.

Since the last Chromebook in May, Google’s Chrome OS has received some subtle but important changes. Apps are now shown in a pop-up window called the Apps List. Past iterations of Chrome OS had these apps appearing in a full-screen view. I’d prefer these apps appear as they do in Google’s Chrome browser — letting me see them as I open a new browser tab. Another change is that each user’s start screen shows his or her wallpaper, so the user knows exactly what account he or she is using. And a new notifications center in the bottom right of the Chromebook screen lets people keep notifications minimized until they decide to deal with them.

If you’re looking for an additional computer and you don’t want to break the bank, you may be pleasantly surprised by what you can do with this cloud-based operating system running on a $249 Chromebook.

Write to Katie at katie.boehret@wsj.com.


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