Google Chromebooks first look

We get hands-on with the new Chromebooks from Samsung and Acer.
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01.The details


Acer C7 Chromebook
Price: $298
3 stars out of 5

Samsung Chromebook
Price: $346

3 1/2 stars out of 5

The popularity of netbooks and tablets in particular shows clearly that most people want a portable computer that’s light, compact and inexpensive - and that’s where Chromebooks shine.

These are a special category of laptop designed for internet use, but instead of Microsoft Windows they use Google’s ChromeOS and rely exclusively on Google’s services and apps. While available in the US for a couple of years, Chromebooks have only recently hit Australian shores, with the first two models to arrive from Acer and Samsung. We took a hands-on look at both to see how they fare compared to conventional laptops.

Web browser-based OS

Chromebooks handle most of the things you'd expect, but work a bit differently to a conventional laptop.

Their fast boot-up and internet connection speed is welcome, but the flip side is that they need to be connected to the internet to function properly. They have relatively little onboard space for saving your files compared to most laptops, instead relying on Google Drive for cloud storage.

Then there’s the ChromeOS. There’s no “desktop” as such for you to litter with files and folders: everything happens in a browser window. While a simple enough concept, it takes a bit of getting used to. On the upside, it updates itself automatically, as do the Google apps, so it should be relatively free from the inevitable performance degradation that characterises most laptops. ChromeOS also has multilayered security built-in, so you don’t have to pay for a security suite every year.

If you’re used to using Google apps a lot, you’ll feel pretty much at home on a Chromebook, which comes with all the major ones ready-to-go: Gmail, Google Search, Google Maps, YouTube, Google Play Store and Google Plus. They’re all free, so a Chromebook is not only cheap to buy, but cheap to run. They boot up in seconds and are designed for an always-connected lifestyle. You’ll have to be signed into your Google account though.

There are lots of other free or cheap programs for Chromebooks on the Chrome Web Store, a ChromeOS-specific online marketplace similar in look and feel to the Google Play Store for Android devices. But if the kind of program you want isn’t there, forget it unless you can find a web version of it. That means you can still use Microsoft’s Office web apps, for example.

Hardware head-to-head

Here’s how the Acer and Samsung models compare physically. File storage is primarily online, so both come with 100GB of cloud storage on Google Drive, free for two years. For onboard storage the Samsung (XE303C12-A01AU) has 16GB of solid state storage internally, while the Acer C7 hedges its bets as a cloud computer by including a 320GB hard drive.

The Samsung has one each of USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 ports, while the Acer has three USB 2.0 ports. Both have a memory card slot and HDMI, but the Acer also has a VGA connection port and ethernet. Both have a built-in, though relatively low-resolution, webcam and microphone. Both also have an 11.6-inch display with 1366 x 768 pixel resolution.

The Samsung is the sleeker of the two, being thinner and lighter at 1103g, versus the Acer’s 1380g largely thanks to the built-in hard drive. Both are clad top and bottom in plastic, which helps keep the weight down, but have a nice finish: so they’re cheap, but don’t feel cheap and nasty.

The Samsung also has the larger battery (4080mAh), claimed to be good for up to 6.5 hours, while the Acer (2500 mAh) is claimed to last four hours. Both have dual-band Wi-Fi and though the Samsung has a phone card port, it’s not functional.

Windows alternative

As a Windows laptop alternative, Chromebook’s advantages lie in its simplicity; but that’s a two-edged sword. The trade-off is in losing the versatility and flexibility of being able to run any Windows programs, or any third-party programs, unless they run in a web browser.

If you’re tempted by the concept of a Chromebook but aren’t sure whether you’d like it long-term, you can get a good idea of what it’s like to use before committing to it. Simply start up the normal Chrome web browser on your existing computer and just don’t leave it for a day, or a few days. Log into Google and run all your standard Google apps, save your files to Google Drive and use only other apps from the Chrome Web store.  It won’t have quite the full integration of using an actual Chromebook, and of course you miss out on the instant start-up, responsiveness, lightness and portability that makes Chromebooks fun to use, but you’ll soon get an idea of whether or not the ChromeOS is worth a go.

Even if you don’t go whole hog with a Chromebook as your main machine, for many people a Chromebook could be a good second computer, perhaps as an alternative to a tablet. Remember however that as with a conventional laptop there’s no touchscreen.

More Chromebooks coming

Following the Acer and Samsung Chromebooks into the Australian market, HP has recently released a Chromebook under its Pavilion family moniker. It has a 14-inch screen, but the same 1366 x 768 pixel resolution as the other two models and like the Acer C7 it too has a 320GB hard drive. It’s priced at $337.

CHOICE verdict

If you’re a hardcore Google user you’ll probably be happy with a Chromebook.  They're easy to use and virtually no-maintenance, which also makes them attractive to those who find a conventional computer too complicated.

Of the two we bought, we lean towards the Samsung model for it’s sleeker, lighter body, and longer battery life. Though a bit more restricted with connection ports than the Acer C7, it better demonstrates the Chromebook concept.

You can buy Chromebooks from major retailers including JB Hi-Fi and Harvey Norman.

For more information on laptops and netbooks see Mobile computers.



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