Thoughts, comments, and concerns about the Samsung S5 Chromebook

Toward the end of July, I received a Samsung Series 5 Chromebook as a result of attending the Google I/O developer conference. For those who don’t know exactly what a “Chromebook” is, it’s a laptop running Google’s Chrome OS which, for all intents and purposes, comprises the Chrome web browser and nothing else. In other words, this is a computer designed for surfing the web, utilizing web apps (e.g., Google Docs), and virtually nothing else. In the time since I’ve had this little machine, I’ve put it through its paces, and I wanted to take a moment today to share some observations.

First, the good. At the top of the list must be Chrome OS. By its very nature, Chrome OS is extraordinarily secure. Obviously, security is never 100%, but the fact that Chrome OS is so minimalist (i.e., you can’t do anything but the web with it) and has a number of built-in security measures (e.g., it checks its own MD5 sum against a master sum stored on a Google server to verify that the system image’s integrity is intact) make it one of the most secure platforms in the world. If the system does get cracked by a virus or some other nefarious code, all that is required is a quick reboot, and the system automatically fixes itself. In addition, I have been pleasantly surprised by the level of functionality I am able to enjoy from the multitude of web apps which are available today. For example, I am able to use Google Docs to prepare sermons and spreadsheets, presentations and more. There are apps for email, quick notes, calendar, and even editing graphics. And of course, you can use Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn, and virtually any website you can find. (The one exception to this last rule just happens to be one of my student loan providers, the Oklahoma Student Loan Authority. Seriously, guys, your site doesn’t do anything that needs to be browser specific!)

Battery life is superb. I have on multiple occasions taken the S5 to the church office without the charger and used it virtually the entire day. It is that good.

I have also been relatively pleased with the hardware in general. Granted, the S5 is not a powerhouse computer. It would probably never satisfy a gamer or hard-core developer in the performance arena. But it does do video, audio, Google Hangouts, and even web-based games (e.g., Angry Birds) with aplomb. I suppose that this makes sense; these types of things are exactly what the Chromebook were designed to do. But more specifically, I do find myself growing increasingly attached to the various hot keys on the keyboard. Having a back, forward, and refresh key built into the thing are revelations. And while I’m really not a fan of the recently altered minimize functionality of the switch-window button, the keyboard itself is good even if I do keep hitting the Search/New Tab key looking for Caps Lock. I never realized how often I do use Caps Lock!

Also on the list of good things, I was extremely pleased to find that the Sammy, as I’ve been calling it, is considerably thinner than the prototype CR-48. Except for the rubberized feet. Which actually just about eliminate the difference. Oh, well.

And lastly under the good, I would point out the trackpad. Normally, this would fall under hardware. I get that. But the fact that the CR-48’s trackpad was so bad for so long makes it worthy of its own note. The S5’s trackpad generally works. At least for me.

How about the bad? Well, I suppose that the thing which tops the list here is, again, Chrome OS. While I appreciate the security and web functionality, I am also compelled to recognize that there is no possible way that I could trade in my MacBook for a Chromebook on a permanent basis. Web apps just can’t replace all of the functionality of desktop apps, especially when it comes to design and development, server support, or more. Sorry, Google!

Also under the bad, under the hood, the S5 just doesn’t have the horsepower to run a browser the way I want it to run (i.e., with piles of tabs and windows!) On a couple of occasions, I have seen the system warning indicating that I’ve used all the memory and need to close a tab or more. And on other occasions, I’ve seen Flash and other programs come to a screeching halt or become extremely jittery, simply because there isn’t enough power under the hood.

Third, I have tried a couple of times to connect the S5 to the Verizon network, but I’ve never succeeded. The thing will just sit there spinning, even right in the middle of Des Moines. This could be a hardware issue, but the signup process seemed clunky as well. It should be more streamlined and more reliable.

And the ugly. WiFi reception tops the list. The S5 loses connectivity at my dining room table while two and three other computers have full boats of signal strength. And worse, while the CR-48 is generally connected before the screen is completely opened, the S5 often takes seconds – minutes, even – to make a connection. And sometimes, it doesn’t even connect at all. That is extremely irritating, and I suspect that it is the result of an inadequate WiFi antenna. I mean, I have no other real explanation for it.

So, what’s the verdict? Well, the first commercially available Chromebook out the gate is pretty good. But it certainly wasn’t worth the $500 they were wanting for it at the start. I was pleased to see this past week that Samsung has lowered the price to $399 for the WiFi only model and $449 for the 3G-equipped version. But according to TechCrunch, though, this price reduction is part of a two-week back-to-school promotion. Honestly, I can get a netbook with more horsepower and functionality for less than that. The greatest beauty of the Chromebook should be its price: it shouldn’t be more than $299 for the 3G-equipped version. Get it into that ballpark, and these things should – and I think will – fly off the shelves.

That said, as I mentioned above, I received mine for free. And for the record, when we got it, my wife used it almost exclusively for some three weeks. Only after she went back to work and had to take her work MacBook with her did she really stop using it! She loved the thing, and when it was sitting right beside her MacBook, she would grab it for web surfing and general goofing around.

So the S5 will be used at my house. I use it regularly for writing. In fact, if I’m just working on a sermon or other writing project, I will grab it or the CR-48 without any hesitation. But until the price drops even more, I don’t know that I would recommend actually paying for one. Again, sorry, Google and Samsung!

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