Samsung's latest Chromebook benefits from rapid improvements in Google's Chrome OS. Is this cloud computing vehicle right for you?
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Google's latest Chrome OS device, the third-generation Samsung Chromebook, isn't quite disposable, but it's so affordably priced--$249, or $330 with 3G--that you could drop it and live with yourself. All your valuable data would be safe in some distant data center.
When Google senior VP Sundar Pichai introduced the new Samsung Chromebook at a media event in San Francisco on Thursday, he said, "To us, Chrome OS represents the most distilled form of cloud computing we can find."
For Google, Chrome OS is not about the hardware, it's about cloud services and online ad revenue. In the era of mobile devices and cloud computing, hardware no longer matters, at least not the way it did in the era of desktop computing.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos articulated the new reality at an event introducing the second-generation Kindle Fire last month. "People don't want gadgets anymore," he said. "They want services that improve over time."
Taken literally, this is an absurd pitch to sell gadgets. But Bezos has a point. Most people don't want to be IT administrators; they just want their devices to work well, for local or remote applications.
But people do want gadgets, even if they're now looking at factors beyond price and performance. And the new Samsung Chromebook is a gadget worth wanting.
The Specs Impress
Samsung's third-generation Chromebook features an 11.6" screen with a 1366 x 768 display. It measures 11.4" x 8.09" x 0.69" and weighs 2.43 pounds. Its form factor is close enough to the 11" MacBook Air (which weighs 2.3 pounds and measuring 11.8" x 7.56" x 0.68") that it's comparable as a mobile device.
If compared on the basis of price, the Chromebook wins by a factor of four. But Google doesn't expect anyone to stop using their $1,099+ MacBook Air for a $249 Chromebook. Pichai acknowledged that Apple, with the MacBook Air, "set the bar in terms of what a great laptop is," and hinted that higher-end Chromebooks may be developed. But he sees the latest Chromebook filling a different niche, as a second or third computer in affluent households, as something that gets picked up and passed around for checking email and surfing the Web, or as an affordable computer, particularly in areas where mobile devices are more popular than pricey computers.
The Chromebook looks more than a bit like a MacBook Air, though it feels more flimsy: Samsung encased its electronics in plastic rather than aluminum, albeit serious-looking silver plastic rather than the Chromebook Series 5 Arctic White that suggests a child's toy. The Chromebook gives and flexes in a way the metal MacBook Air doesn't. It's also more easily scuffed and scratched. But for the price, that can be forgiven.
The new Chromebook is also less elegant from a design perspective. A cylindrical screen hinge protrudes from the closed Chromebook, adding an unnecessary speed bump to the device's otherwise clean lines.
The device, however, isn't really designed to compete with the MacBook Air. It's more of an alternative to tablets, like the iPad, the Galaxy Tab, and the Nexus 7. As a tool for accessing Google Apps, the Chromebook works better because it has a built-in keyboard. For e-book reading, you'll probably be happier with a tablet. As a portable video screen, it's probably a toss-up--some viewing scenarios may favor a tablet but having a keyboard to keep the screen in a fixed position can be useful too. Like many Android devices, but not Apple's iPad, it can accept external storage cards card through its 3-in-1 multi-card slot (SD/SDHC/SDXC).
The Chromebook comes with 16 GB of internal storage capacity, but Google is throwing in 100 GB of online Google Drive storage for two years at no charge, which would cost $120 if purchased.
Like most tablets, the Chromebook relies on an ARM-based chip. The device's Samsung Exynos 5 Dual runs cool enough that no fan is required when the processor is being taxed by computational-intensive applications, like playing videos and games. Silence is an under-appreciated aspect of computing.
The Chromebook's ARM architecture also helps keep the device running longer. Google says the device will last for 6.5 hours on a single charge.
In terms of I/O ports, the Chromebook is well-equipped: It comes with one USB 3.0 port, one USB 2.0 port, an internal mic/headphone port, and one HDMI port. It includes a 0.3-megapixel VGA webcam and a pair of 1.5-watt speakers. It's Bluetooth 3.0 compatible and supports dual band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n. The $330 model includes a 3G cellular radio for connecting to a mobile data carrier.
Server Market SplitsvilleJust because the server market's in the doldrums doesn't mean innovation has ceased. Far from it -- server technology is enjoying the biggest renaissance since the dawn of x86 systems. But the primary driver is now service providers, not enterprises.
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