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6/7/2011
08:02 PM
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Samsung Series 5 Chromebook: Hands-On Review

Samsung's Chromebook Series 5, based on Google Chrome OS, looks ready for its big launch. Our first look found sleek design advantages and a few small setup hitches.

Samsung Chromebook: Hands-On Visual Tour
Slideshow: Samsung Chromebook: Hands-On Visual Tour
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
The plastic covers that protect the SD slot on the right-hand side and the USB/VGA port bay on the left-hand side feel like they're going to break when you try to remove them, possibly because they're not hinged. They're connected by thin, flexible plastic strips, which actually makes them less likely to break off than a stiff hinge. But because they give so much when pulled on, it's not clear whether pressure applied to dislodge them will damage them.

The SD card reader provides a way to get images or music into the Chromebook and onto the Web. Inserting an SD card with supported files opens a browser tab that lists the contents of external storage media. From there, you can play songs or videos using the built-in media player. It's rather rudimentary in appearance, but it works. With a large enough SD card, you could store and watch a movie or two, without the weight of a DVD player. Clicking on an image file provides the option of viewing it or sending it to Picasa, Google's online photo storage service. In time, there will probably be other options.

Chromebooks make great travel notebooks. When configured not to store passwords, they can be left in hotel rooms without fear of data loss. However, they're not inexpensive enough to be left about blithely.

Chromebooks make a lot of sense for businesses that want a system for employees that provides Web access without the management burden of a full-blown computer. For individuals, the Chromebook value proposition is less clear. For writing, particularly at conferences, I prefer Chromebooks to iPads with wireless keyboards. For games, the iPad wins hands down. For the Web, I prefer the Chromebook because I can use extensions, like AdBlock; Apple does not allow users to customize mobile Safari with extensions. Chromebooks feature Google's Chrome browser, which is quite snappy.

I encountered a slight problem trying to start up: I was prompted to enter my Google Account information before I had been presented with the opportunity to sign into our corporate wireless network. The way around this is to sign in to a guest account, which presents the wireless network authentication webpage.

But this isn't an obvious process. The message "Sorry, your password could not be verified. Please try again" was not all that helpful in conveying that I didn't have network access.

And if you use two-factor verification for your Google Account, be prepared for possible headaches. Because I use two-factor verification, I initially logged into my Chromebook preview unit using an application-specific password rather than my regular Google Account password. The problem is that these passwords are meant to be used once. Google says you don't have to remember them.

Given the trouble I had authenticating myself on our corporate network, I had to re-enter an account specific password to get into the Chromebook--my actual Google Account password didn't work--and then I was told by the sync service--which tries to sync Chrome data across multiple computers--that my password had changed since I initially logged on. Logging back on required my previous application-specific password, which I hadn't written down because I believed there was no reason to do so. There was no option to bypass the "Your password has changed" sync page, and this effectively confined me to guest access.

Fortunately, Google offers free phone support to the press--at least in advance of major product launches--and I got a quick call from a Google PR manager and two Google product managers to resolve this situation. It required a switch to developer mode and factory reset. Logging in initially with my Google Account password at setup rather than a two-factor verification password prevented the problem from reoccurring.

I was told that two-factor verification remains a work in process and to expect some refinements in the next few months.

It should be stressed that most users won't make the same mistake I did by entering a one-time password. Generally speaking, the Chromebook setup process is easy enough, though there are clearly still some rough edges.

Google ought to have Chrome OS boot into the Chrome browser in offline mode before attempting to connect to a network. This would make settings configuration easier. Requiring connectivity before anything else is just asking for problems because connectivity is not certain; I expect Chrome OS will be significantly improved when offline functionality arrives in a month or two.

I also encountered a problem with making the Chromebook forget an apparently open Wi-Fi network I tried when I was having trouble getting on our corporate network. The option to forget the network didn't work from the guest account and it kept defaulting to this network every restart, forcing me to change it manually each time. If you login as a guest and subsequently login to your Google Account through the Web, you're still a guest as far as permissions go on the Chromebook. It would be helpful to have the option to convert a guest session to a session under one's Google Account identity.

In terms of hardware, Samsung has done an excellent job; the software--Google's Chrome OS--is coming along, too, but still has a few issues to iron out. Fortunately, Chrome OS is designed to deliver updates automatically.

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