Google's vision of a computer where everything was online turned heads in the tech world last year, when the first Chromebooks appeared. The real world? Less impressed. Apple's iPad proved a much more compelling idea for people spending their hard-earned monies, but Google, undeterred, has gone back to the drawing board and updated its Chrome OS.
This review (and its associated rating) is based on the forthright and informed opinions of our CNET.com colleague Scott Stein, who got to use the new Chromebook ahead of its launch.
Samsung's Chromebook Series 5 550 (no, the space isn't a typo) is the first on the market in the UK with the new OS, alongside the Chromebox mini-desktop. Older Chromebooks will receive the update "in the next few days", according to Google. It's available now for £380.
Should I buy a Samsung Chromebook 5 550?
For almost everyone, the answer is going to be no. There's nothing wrong with the hardware -- it's the limitations of the software and crucially the price that kill it. This isn't your father's laptop -- you can't install programs on it. No IM client, no Spotify, no Photoshop, no Steam, no alternative browser. You have to do everything via websites, web apps and Google's online services. For almost everything except playing back photos and movies from a USB stick, you need an Internet connection.
And for £380, you could get a perfectly good, if basic, Windows laptop that can do all that stuff just fine. Or you could buy an iPad, which can do most of what a Chromebook can, but is much thinner and lighter, and has a much better app store. Compared to last year's Chromebooks, still on sale for around £300, it has a slightly faster 1.3GHz Intel Celeron processor and 4GB of RAM, as opposed to 2GB. The 16GB solid-state drive is the same.
If you only need a laptop for web browsing, emailing and writing documents, and you're reasonably sure of having Wi-Fi everywhere you'll use it, then this has its bonuses -- it's really fast to boot up (just 7 seconds the first time you turn it on) and there's none of Windows' fussing about security. Its limitations more than outweigh these good points, however.
Chrome OS update
Chrome's file support has been much improved since last year, with zip files, PDFs, MP3 and MP4, M4A, and most image formats all on board -- at least, you can read them from the laptop's drive. To edit them you'll need to upload them to Google Docs or another compatible online service (images can be lightly edited). Scott found he couldn't drag and drop files from an SD or USB drive -- you have to copy and paste, which is hardly intuitive. Still, it's a bit more than you can do with an iPad.
The Chrome Web Store is the same as the one you access from Chrome on any other computer. It's growing steadily and even has some high-profile games, such as Angry Birds and Command & Conquer: Tiberium Alliances. It's nowhere near as comprehensive and rapidly changing as the iTunes App Store, but many apps are free, and some, such as Angry Birds, can be used offline, as they're downloaded to the SSD.
Some, however, are designed for more powerful computers than this -- Ubisoft's From Dust failed to work for Scott. It would be helpful if apps that won't run weren't shown in the store, as happens on Android. It's hardly the smooth experience you might expect from a laptop that ties you into this ecosystem.
The Chromebook runs version 19 of the Chrome OS, and version 20 is set to bring offline access to Google Docs and integration with Google Drive, the company's online storage system. That may well add a lot of functionality and fix many problems, but it's not here yet.
Design and specs
With a comfy keyboard, a wide clickpad and a sharp, matte, 12.1-inch screen, this is a tidy little laptop. Its screen resolution of 1,200x800 pixels is more than enough for its size. Its plastic body is well fitted together, with no flex, and weighs a svelte 1.4kg. The keyboard has loads of useful dedicated keys, such as search, volume, brightness, page back and forward, and full-screen.
There's no DVD or Blu-ray drive, of course, and only two USB ports and an SD card reader, plus a DisplayPort, headphone jack and Ethernet. It supported a random USB mouse Scott tried just fine.
The built-in HD-resolution webcam worked really well with Google Chat and Google+'s Hangout feature, with video quality just as good as any normal laptop.
The 1.3GHz processor seems fine most of the time, more demanding games aside, and played downscaled 1080p video perfectly adequately. It's certainly a faster experience than last year's Chromebook, letting you have more windows open at once and swap between them easily. Benchmarking wasn't readily available, and wouldn't be comparable to a Windows laptop or iPad anyway.
As for battery life, Google promises 6.5 hours and, indeed, the Chromebook lasted a full day with pretty typical use. The need for Wi-Fi means you won't usually be far from a plug, but you should be able to get at least a couple of movies' worth of use on a transatlantic flight.
If you eat, sleep and breathe Google services, the Chromebook 5 550 could work for you. Everyone else: get a Windows 7 laptop. You'll get much more storage and functionality, and a bigger screen for less money -- Toshiba, HP and others offer bog-standard 15-inch laptops for under £350. If simplicity is what you're after, you can bag a Wi-Fi only iPad for £400, or an Asus Transformer Pad (which has a detachable keyboard for added flexibility) for the same price.