Samsung Series 3 Chromebook 303C review

3.5 out of 5
£229

For

Small, transportable, Google OS is simple, tie-ins with Google Drive and other Google products, price is closer to where it should be

Against

Poor screen viewing angle, no 3G, an occasionally poor browsing experience, limited on-board storage, needs to be online for full experience, app limitations, just not exciting

The Samsung Series 3 Chromebook is the latest in the line of Google OS based laptops.

For those unfamiliar, the Chromebook concept is simple - a small, light and ultimately affordable laptop that, in many respects, is nothing more than a web browser capable of running additional apps, not the more heavyweight programmes of an OS such as Windows.

It's also "always connected" - or at least tries to be - so your data will be stored in the cloud, never to be lost. A two-year tie-in with Google Drive offers up 100GB of space to complement the on-board 16GB of storage.

For many that will cover all the needed basics: browsing, watching YouTube clips, sending emails, word processing and the like are all possible and, if you don't need the extra power or a more standard operating system to install specifics, then it could be right up your street.

Problem is we've not been too taken by Chromebooks thus far, largely due to the price not matching up to the limited feature set and the limitations to offline use. Does the Samsung 303C Chromebook trim the fat of its weightier, larger Series 5 brother and also fill in some of the performance gaps to make it a more rounded machine, or is it still short of the expected mark, particularly in the era of the tablet?

Design

From the outside the Samsung 303C - or EX303C12 to give it the full and inevitably snappy name - Chromebook certainly looks like a no-frills laptop. It's all grey plastic and looks, well, cheap, for want of a better word. But there probably isn't one: it just looks cheap. The raised Samsung and Chrome logos do add an extra level of sheen that helps the 303C look a little more palatable.

Flip the lid and initial impressions are far better. The keyboard is large in size considering the model's 11.6-inch screen size, is well positioned to rest the wrists when in use and the keys have a good bounce and just the right amount of resistance to them. It's comfortable to type on for long periods - and that's a really important thing that shouldn't be overlooked.

The trackpad is decent too. It's responsive to the touch, accepts two finger gestures and single finger taps aren't a million miles away from a Macbook-style use. For some users that'll be great, but for more basic users or first-timers the apparent - or at least visual - lack of a "left and right click" system might feel a little alien.

The 303C model is fairly slim and weighs in at close to 1.1kgs, which makes it an ideal companion for use on the go. That's one box ticked against the earlier Series 5 model then.

Unlike the Series 5 model there's no Ethernet port, but the 303C's SD card slot, dual USB slots - one of them is USB 3.0 which, again, is a step above the Series 5 model - HDMI out and 3.5mm headphones out port round off the package.

The Series 3's 11.6-inch LED screen performs just okay, largely because its poor viewing angle requires an exactified eyes-to-screen lock. Once it's married up to your line of sight the 1366 x 768 certainly looks acceptable, and colour rendition is vibrant, though it all could have been so much better with an improved allowance to the angle of view. Such a shame.

The 303C Chromebook is a fairly full package considering the £230 price tag, although 3G connectivity isn't available in the UK, and with the range of tablets out there, such as the Google Nexus 7, it does make any Chromebook that bit harder to justify.

Chrome OS

As we touched upon in the intro, Chrome OS is, at its core, just like a web browser with cloud storage facilities for your files. That means if you're not connected to Wi-Fi then there are limitations to what can be done. But that's not to say it becomes useless as offline apps, and some onboard storage will prove useful for commutes, flights and the like.

But it's a bit of a dressed-up browser. There is a "desktop" and even a start-bar-esque navigation to the bottom of the display, but all these shortcuts will effectively ping your experience back into the browser where applications are run.

We needn't get too bent on where things run though, as it's ultimately about the experience, and Chrome OS sure does keep things stripped back and simple. Once it's wirelessly connected to the internet - more or less the first thing that the machine will ask for upon its first run - various tabs to your GMail email, Google Drive documents, Google+ social network and so on are offered as possible connections. It's rather like your personal Google hub.

Insert a USB stick or SD card loaded with files and the file manager window automatically pops up. It won't handle every format under the sun - you can forget about MKV, movie fans, and PSD files aren't going to do anything either photo enthusiasts - but it can handle plenty of common files such as MP4 and AVI. We watched a couple of episodes of Boardwalk Empire and, despite the issues with the screen's viewing angle, the 720p files' playback was fine.

The Samsung Series 3 Chromebook also comes without unnecessary bloatware - those "sign up right now or your computer will die!" alerts that pop up on pretty much every Windows-based laptop - which is a breath of fresh air. Phew.

Without excess software installed it also makes loading fast: the computer boots in under 10 seconds, can sleep with the lid shut and, when reopening, will be up and running in about three seconds. All of this time-cutting is very good indeed.

Battery life is also fairly phenomenal for a small machine, so long as you don't use the more process-intensive apps. Dim the screen a little and type and it'll keep you going for about six hours.

Otherwise it's all about the apps. They're okay for the most part, but the lack of critical ones such as Skype, for the obvious reason that Google's rival and operating system creator Microsoft bought it, is a shortcoming.

There are titles such as the now-classic Angry Birds which can also install offline to run without the need for an internet connection. There are plenty of other bits and bobs to browse through, but the browser-featured format does make some apps feel a little less immersive, and even if the Series 3 is the first ARM processor powered Chromebook it's not at all designed for hardcore gaming in mind. Just to be clear.

The overall browsing experience isn't as smooth as we'd like either. Loading can be slow, flash objects can flicker about on screen and the more tabs you open the greater hindrance it is to the experience. It's not bad, but it shows how demanding some websites have become - something, it goes without saying, is better handled by a pricier machine. Though, of course, that comes with the added cost.

Verdict

The Chromebook concept is a potentially great one, but one that's largely been a letdown on account of its price just not matching up to the limited feature set.

However, the Samsung Series 3 is a definite improvement on the Series 5 model. The £230 price tag makes it a far more attractive prospect - ignoring its plasticky exterior of course - than its pricier predecessors; an absolute essential for a laptop such as this.

Google OS is practical for day-to-day tasks, free of bloatware, loading is swift, but the in-browser based apps can lack the kind of immersion that gamers will want.

But it's the screen's limited angle of view that costs the 303C dear. And let's not forget, this is the era of the tablet. The temptation to buy the smaller and lighter Nexus 7, complete with a far more usable screen, is a significant factor to consider. So that's not a laptop, but it has its own perks and is just far more exciting in our book.

The Samsung Series 3 does elevate the Chromebook concept a step further, and it's the best one we've seen, hence a slight improvement compared to the Series 5 550's score, but we're still not totally sold. It's a mix of good and bad, which makes for an untimately average experience.