05 April 2013

Samsung Series 3 Chromebook Review

Samsung Series 3 Chromebook. Yes, I used Google's photo, it is better than the one I would take!

I've had my Samsung Series 3 Chromebook for a little over a week now, and I've gotten asked questions here and there, so I figured I would write a bit about it.

When I first got it I noticed the biggest issue with it and really my main issue - the screen is small. 11.6" is definitely the smallest laptop screen I could possibly work with on a regular basis. I'm coming from a 14" laptop, so not a monster, but 11.6" is a very noticeable decrease in size. I didn't realize everything on the screen would be scaled down so much smaller. I've set the page zoom to 110% and that helps some, but that is still my main dislike. There is also an oddly large amount of space around the screen, particularly at the bottom, so I feel like Samsung could make the screen larger without making the laptop any bigger (granted the area around the screen probably reduced the production cost, so I suppose there isn't too much room to complain).

After the initial night to get over the size of the screen, I love the device. It is super thin and small which makes it incredibly portable. I can nestle with the device on the couch and not have to awkwardly position myself. It is incredibly light, making my backpack noticeably lighter and it doesn't take up much space at all. Perfectly laptop to carry around, toss in one's bag and go, etc. Samsung definitely got the size factor right. Much thinner and it would feel fragile, I think it is just the right thickness.

The other thing I noticed right away is how quickly it boots. While the first time upon booting it has to get itself set up, and once logged in to my Google account it had to download and sync my data (I use Google Chrome, so it syncs everything across the devices). After this it is fast. It boots from being off in easily under ten seconds. I just have to close the lid and it is asleep. It wakes in maybe a second or less upon opening it. It is very noticeable, especially coming from Windows 7. I'm much more willing to just pull this laptop out for a quick task than my main laptop (from now on referred to as my Vaio). I don't have to wait for Windows to start up / resume. Chrome OS definitely stays out of the way in this regard, and it is much appreciated!

When first buying a Chromebook it seems crazy. I bought a laptop that essentially has a cellphone process and RAM. The thing is the Chromebook doesn't have the clunky OS to deal with. I actually find Chrome to crash less on my Chromebook so far than it does on my Vaio. It is obvious with boot up and shut down. The operating system just stays out of the way and leaves me with what I really wanted to access - the Internet. It really changes how one thinks about the computer. For most of the tasks I do I don't need the power that my Vaio provides. I just need a process good enough to run a few different tabs, RAM enough to store these, harddrive enough to store the handleful of pdfs that I need at the moment. Otherwise everything else can be handled elsewhere. My documents can be stored / accessed through a number of services like Dropbox and Google Drive. If I want to run R I can do so through the University of Minnesota Statistic Department rather than make my computer run it. My journal articles are organized in Mendeley which is synced online so I still have access.

I can also remote access my Vaio if I need to run something I can't do online - like GIS. Now saying this I haven't had the smoothest time with remote access, but I haven't used it much. When I set it up at home it worked fine. When I tried to do it at school all I got was a black screen. That said once home I decided to try again, got the black screen, but then told it to send the Ctrl-Alt-Delete command and it worked just fine. I haven't tried to remote access again, so I don't know if it only works when I am home or if it will work fine from school.

The wireless card in this device is definitely better than the one in my Vaio. I get Internet in a few places on campus I otherwise would not have it. This is especially good since I don't have an ethernet port on the computer! Typically on campus or most anywhere I would go there is wireless though, so I don't really need an ethernet port. The port I miss is VGA. I have a VGA monitor in my office, and the projector in the classroom I teach in is VGA. In both of these situations I can't use the VGA, and I don't think it makes much sense to spring for an expensive adaptor that would actually work. This does have HDMI which works great for connecting to my TV, but there is still enough VGA around to make the lack of that port a bit upsetting. The other port I suppose I should mention is it does have a USB 3.0 port in addition to a USB 2.0 port. I have an external harddrive with USB 3.0 so I suppose this is useful, but I really only use a USB mouse so right now it isn't a huge plus. It is good to know I have it, but I don't know that it changes how I use the laptop at all. There is a card reader and a place for a sim card too, for those interested in either of those.

I suppose there are a few stock features of a laptop that have to be discussed. A lot of people will complain about the matte screen, but I actually prefer it to a glossy screen. I think the matte is a plus over glossy (due to not having glare/reflection issues), but that doesn't seem to be the norm. I also like the keyboard a lot. It is the button style keys that are becoming common place, so I don't think I really have to try to sell them. They are popular for a reason. Having the multi-finger gesture track pad is also really nice. My Vaio doesn't have that, and it is a huge plus for the tack pad. Scrolling with it just feels natural. I also like that I can tap the pad or push down on it to click. I do both, not sure why one or the other, but those with a Mac will be used to this.

The laptop is plastic, though they tried to make it look like metal. It is actually sturdier than I expected, so I don't find it disappointing that it is plastic. My Vaio is plastic though, so I guess it isn't a change for me at all. Not having a fan is amazing though. The Samsung Series 3 uses an ARM chip, which means it doesn't need the fan and doesn't run as hot. It is really nice not to have the fan being noisy in the background. I don't feel I notice it having a cheap processor either. There really isn't a bunch of behind the scenes stuff to occupy the processor, so it can have lower specs and get away with it. Like I said, a Chromebook really does change how one thinks about computing!

While I addressed it earlier it is obviously the biggest question with a Chromebook and so I will touch on it again, and that is whether or not I feel limited having a computer that essentially only runs Google Chrome. It really doesn't feel that limiting. It may initially mean having to find a few websites to replace things one was used to doing, but for most tasks the local applications aren't necessary. I now know of two online office suites that support comments on word documents. I synced my iTunes library with Google Play so I can still access all of my music. Much of what I do is online - email, access course documents, read the news, Facebook, etc. Much of what I do can also easily be moved online - writing documents, making presentations, reading journal articles. Also, the offline functionality isn't as bad as some reviews made it out to be. I added the offline Google docs app so I can make a document offline that will sync when I get online again, and it caches some documents locally to access when I don't have connection. I did try this out the morning after I got it, and it worked just fine. While it only has a 16 GB solid state drive, it does have a 16 GB solid state drive, so I can download pdfs if I'm worried I won't have Internet access and then just pull them up. Also, there are some pretty awesome pluses to a Google Chrome computer. It is set up so it updates itself, so it is always up to date (no more annoying prompts to restart for an update!). It syncs across my devices (so my bookmarks are synced on my Vaio and phone as well). That also means I could easily transition to another Chromebook. I would just fire up a new one, log into my Google Account, and there my apps and bookmarks and settings would be.

There are some tasks I will of course need my Vaio or a computer lab computer to do. Making a scientific poster is probably a bit much to do with an online office suite. GIS applications that fit my needs are not online yet. If I want to run R on a dataset I don't necessarily want to be public yet then I won't be able to do that (at least not that I know how at the moment, though playing with things like SSH might fix that). I can't play many of the computer games I have on the Vaio. Yet I can remote access, or my Vaio, or a computer lab computer. I didn't get the Chromebook to replace my Vaio. I got the Chromebook to reduce the wear-and-tear on my Vaio by reducing the number of days I need to cart it to and from campus. I don't know if it is because it is new, boots faster, or because it really does just run nicely, but I find myself using the Chromebook at home when I could easily choose my Vaio instead. Like I said, I really do like the device.

I also wouldn't do any talk about this computer justice if I didn't mention the battery life. So far it has basically lasted me the entire day on campus which is absolutely amazing to me.

I like the Chromebook. I had thought about buying them when they first came out but they were way over what I was willing to pay for the device. The ARM-based Samsung Series 3 hit the price point for me where I was willing to give it a try (especially considering my Vaio runs fine but the plastic case is starting to crack).  If you are wondering why I chose the ARM device over the Acer C7, it really comes down to the solid state hard drive. Not having the moving parts to worry about is really nice. Not having a fan was a benefit I realized later, not initially.

I really like the device, and I would encourage people who are thinking about them to really give it some thought (and the benefit of the doubt). You might be surprised at how functional it is, especially after you give yourself a day or two to adjust your thinking. I don't know if it would be good as one's only computer, but as an everyday computer it seems to be an excellent choice. If you have another computer you could remote access (/ leave at your home or office) or easy access to other computers (say on campus), I'd say try it out. Maybe buy one through a place you could return it and give it a week (give yourself more than your initial impression because it is, after all, a computer that just runs Google Chrome). I think you will be pleasantly surprised. I was pretty well sold the morning after I got it when I opened it, it was instantly on, and I right away started typed up an offline document.

And yes, I wrote this from my Chromebook.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for good review Nicholas. I agree with you that this is one computer that does far more than you'd initially imagine. It's now my full "go to" machine at home... we bought a new iMac at the same time, which means I don't have to wrestle for the Mac. Yay!

    One thing I didn't see (forgive me if written) was that you can plug in an SD card to cheaply and quickly expand storage, if needed.

    Viva la Chromebook!