Samsung Series 5 550 Chromebook review
What do you do on your laptop? Surf the web, write documents, watch a bit of video? Yeah, we thought so. Despite having machines that are capable of incredible things, laptops that have enough computing power to achieve almost anything you can imagine. But these computers are wasted on most people, because most people write things and surf the web.
Google's idea was to create a very secure platform that allowed people to surf and use office-style productivity tools while keeping themselves safe, and having to avoid complicated or expensive computers.
And its idea worked with the last Chromebook, but does the new Samsung Series 5 550 stack up?
The Samsung Series 5 550 Chromebook has, in the version we have for review, lost a little of its charm, visually. The old one was white and pure as the driven snow, but the new is a more standard silver. There's still a loud-and-proud Chrome logo on the front cover, which we love, but this machine looks like any other portable computational machine. Is that a bad thing? Not really, but it doesn't give us much to salivate over.
It's quite heavy too. At a smidge under 1.5Kg, it's not light, and it's pretty thick too. An Ultrabook or Macbook Air will blow it away. Of course, we know that people might consider a Chromebook for different reasons, like price, but for those looking for portability, this is not the way to go.
In terms of sockets though, the Chromebook shows Ultrabooks the door, and kicks it shut behind many of them. There's Ethernet here, which outdoes both the Air and the Dell XPS 13. There's a full-sized DisplayPort too, which is less useful than an HDMI output but much cheaper to install because there is no licence needed. A pair of USB sockets is included, but neither is USB 3 capable. This isn't a huge problem though, as you won't be transferring a massive amount of data on or off the Chromebook - that's just not what it's for.
There's also a headphone and microphone jack, enabling you to use music services that operate via the web or to conference call using Google Talk or Google+.
Best of all though, a full-sized SD card socket is provided for looking at images from a digital camera, and/or uploading them to any of your favourite sharing sites. It's simple, but for us, it's pretty much everything we need to work out in the field.
The trackpad on the original Chromebook was a disaster. The new one feels better, though the click can still be annoying to activate if you're at the top of the pad, and if you use two fingers it can send the pointer a little crazy.
The keyboard is an island-type affair, is very positive and has sufficient travel to make touch-typing a possibility. As always, the function keys on the Chromebook are bespoke, and don't work the same way as those on a normal keyboard. There are controls here for volume control, brightness and navigation. This makes a huge amount of sense - and try to remember when you used a function key that isn't F5 for anything at all, they just take up space on normal computers. And we despise the way most laptops prioritise them over the much more useful secondary controls they have, like sound and display controls.
It has to be said, that the display on the Chromebook is very nice indeed. It's not crazy high resolution, but it's easy to read and has a decent enough viewing angle. Colour is vibrant but realistic, too. There are also no discernible hot spots from the LED backlight, which is good news.
As with other Samsung laptops, we note that the viewing angle isn't totally brilliant, but if you stay fairly central, everything looks good.
Streaming 1080p video from YouTube looks good too, although there isn't a staggering amount of detail here. Of course, YouTube videos can be a mixed bag, but we watched an official Batman trailer in 1080p on both the Chromebook and our desktop. The desktop - with a larger monitor - looked better, and had more detail. But the Chromebook certainly didn't disgrace itself either.
One nice surprise is that the Chromebook speakers are excellent.
They're on the base of the unit, near the front, so you need to be careful not to block them with clothes or body parts, but in normal use, they sound fantastic. Clear, distortion free and with plenty of volume. They are pleasant to use for anything, and have more than enough power, even in larger rooms.
How does Chrome OS work then?
In its original incarnation, Chrome OS was literally a web browser, and that was it. Now things have been changed slightly. There is a sort of desktop, although it's a bit of a cheat to be honest. You'll see on it shortcuts for various "apps". Of course, these are all web apps, so they're essentially shortcuts to web pages. It's handy though, because it provides bookmarks to your favourite services.
We continue to find Google's approach here a little baffling. We'd really like it if the firm could build some HTML 5 functionality that gives a more "application" feel to the various services. It seems a waste, for example, not to provide a more exciting interface to YouTube. But more so, things like Google Docs, which would benefit from having an option to save locally. In terms of set-up, all one really needs is a Google account. Oh, and internet access, of course. With those things in place, you sign in within seconds and are up and running. If you use Chrome on your desktop, your bookmarks, favourite web apps and such will all be there, waiting for you. It's a seamless system, and it makes moving from one device to the other very pleasant.
Configuration is minimal. You can select a wireless network, or input a non-listed one. There are some basic customisation options too - you can change the desktop wallpaper, for example. This simplicity is great though, because for one thing it means anyone can pick up this machine, and with nearly no configuration, be up and surfing the net in no time at all.
Some great apps, some bad ones
Google has, as you would expect, got the Chromebook to integrate incredibly well with its services. Fire up the file manager, and you'll see any attached USB devices or SD cards listed, and you can browse them and use files. Of course, the support for various video formats is pretty limited. It won't for example, play MKV files. But MP4 in various resolutions are no problem at all - as long as the hardware as the oomph to play them.
Oh, and the really great news is that Chrome OS can read pretty much any filesystem from a USB device. We tested with a Mac-formatted drive, and it worked brilliantly.
We also love the tight Google Drive integration. Here, you can access anything you've stored via drive.google.com or you docs.google.com account. But with the new Drive functionality, you can store any kind of file here, and pay for more storage should you want to expand. This feature is, without doubt, one of our favourites and befits a cloud computer like the Chromebook very well.
We also love the Chrome Remote Desktop. It's like a hassle-free version of Windows Remote Desktop, or a free version of Citrix Go To My PC. It works through Chrome, but you can bookmark your PCs, and access them from any other computer using the Chrome browser. It's incredibly snappy, and a really nice way to use any app if you find yourself desperate.
We're less impressed by a lot of other apps. We wish there was Skype to be honest - not Google's fault there isn't, of course - because Google Talk or G+ just aren't popular enough to be that useful. Perhaps Skype will arrive in the future, but we're not holding our breath.
Of course, Google could allow users to have more access to the Linux underpinnings of Chrome OS. With a little bit more Linux, you could just run Linux apps. And that would open up a lot more avenues for this little machine. You can do this, to some extent, through the developer mode, but it's not for most users and Google still pitches this as a very consumer friendly machine.
We had a lot of trouble with the wireless on our Chromebook.
We also tried everything we could to fix it: rebooted the router, updated Chrome OS, tried the beta version of Chrome OS, but none of it really made any difference. The problem was that, while the Chromebook would often join our Wi-Fi network, it would also drop the link a lot too.
Commenting on wireless issues is always a risky proposition. When there are problems, the cause could be related to all manner of factors. Is your router flakey, is there a lot of radio interference in your area, do a lot of other people have Wi-Fi routers turned on.
So, blame must, at least in part, be handed to our router. But that doesn't exonerate Google and Samsung completely, because there are likely to be a lot of people with routers like ours. Perhaps it's every router this company makes, or perhaps the problem is a chipset that they use to provide wireless. However you look at it, the fact that the Chromebook won't connect to it, but every other device will, is a problem. In fact, even the Chromebox worked on the same Wi-Fi connection, so there is something amiss here.
However you look at it, this sort of thing is very frustrating, and if any normal user experienced these problems, they wouldn't keep the machine, they'd take it back for a refund.
Running a Chromebook for a long time - the 3G version will have slightly shorter life because of battery drain - is entirely possible. You will get five to six hours of life out of a single charge, although this will vary depending on what you're doing. Video and complex web apps can reduce the life considerably.
Overall, it's not bad. But again, we come back to the weight, and wonder why the simpler Chromebook can't outdo and Ultrabook or Macbook Air in terms of power.
It's hard to really test the performance of the Series 5 550. It's powerful enough to do the tasks expected of it, but it never feels lightening quick. Browsing isn't as fast as you might hope, from a machine that only does browsing.
We also tried to play a very high-resolution MP4, and it didn't work brilliantly, although here the transfer from USB could be the problem, but with limited storage there's no way around this. But the file did play, and 1080p content should be fine.
It's not the fastest laptop we've used, but it doesn't crash much either, so there's something to be said for that. And surely, people value stability, especially on a work computer.
There's not much wrong with the Chromebook hardware. It's actually a pretty decent machine, it has better connectivity than most Ultrabooks and is certainly a lot cheaper. That said, it's not as powerful as a normal laptop - many costing little more than the £380 of this machine - and it is still frustratingly limited.
What bothers us most, perhaps, is that the Chromebook isn't light, and it isn't all that cheap. These are the two things that we really do think would set it apart. If it was £250, and half the weight, it would probably fly off the shelves. But it weighs a bit under 1.5Kg, and that's only a bit lighter than a Dell XPS 15, which has an optical drive and capacious hard drive.
If nothing else, the Chromebook needs to be lighter, more portable and frankly, sexier, than it is. In fact, from a hardware perspective, there's nothing at all wrong with it - which is why it scores as well as it does - but it's not an inspiring product, and we think that will affect sales.
What the Chromebook is though, is a single-minded device that does its task with aplomb. If you want a cloud-based laptop, which keeps your data safe and sound, then there Chromebook will appeal. If you're looking to do exciting things, then we can't recommend it to you.