Review: Internet-focused alternative in Chrome PCs

Samsung Series 5 550
Samsung Series 5 550

Two new computers running Google's Chrome operating system are looking to lure people to a browser-based environment. Both target light-duty computer users who don't need the full range of capabilities that traditional Windows and Mac computers provide.

The first thing to know about these machines is they lack regular hard drives for storage. There's a small amount of flash memory available, the kind you'd find on a camera memory card, but Chrome OS machines are designed for the cloud. That means documents are stored over the Internet, and programs are run over the Internet through a Web browser.

However securely and discretely the Internet services you use claim to keep your data, your content is one step removed from your tight-fisted control. Cloud computing also limits what you can do during those times you may not have an Internet connection.

In addition, because the machines emphasize not just cloud storage but cloud services as well, you won't be able to install full-blown programs such as Microsoft's Office. You're limited to the selection of apps written for Chrome.

What you get instead is speed. The Chrome OS machines boot up quickly because they don't have to load a lot of software — all that is run over the Internet. The machines also don't need the most expensive and fastest parts because they aren't doing a whole lot.

If you're OK with that approach to personal computing, the Chromebook laptop and the Chromebox desktop computer hit the mark. Both are made by Samsung Electronics Co. and represent the second-generation of Chrome OS machines, following the models out last summer.

Here's a closer look at the two:

— Chromebook

Officially called the Samsung Series 5 550, the $449 Chromebook laptop is an updated version of last year's debut Chromebook model.

As notebooks go, the Chromebook is sleek and simple by appearance. It sports a 12.1-inch display, weighs a tidy 3.3 lbs and has built-in Wi-Fi. The model I tested also came with a 3G cellular modem and two years of free online connection to Verizon's network. That model costs $549.

Under the hood is an Intel Celeron processor and four gigabytes of RAM, which is plenty for most Web-based activities. There's a paltry 16 gigabytes of flash storage, which can quickly get eaten up if you store a lot of songs or photos — forget about lengthy video. Again, the idea is for you to keep all that on the Internet instead.

Google's Chrome Web store has plenty of useful, free applications to run on the machine. These are the same apps that you can add to Chrome Web browsers running on Windows or Mac computers. The selection includes accounting software, wish list management and "Angry Birds" (Yes, they're still angry).

But if all of that can also be installed for Chrome on a Mac or Windows machine, why have a whole computer with the entire functionality dedicated to one browser? Isn't that severely limiting?

Some will find it is, but others will soon determine that the vast majority of their activities in front of a computer screen are Web-based anyway. There are Chrome apps for Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and other services that represent the bulk of the casual user's computer time.

The frustrations I had with Chromebook were related to its hardware. First, there is no caps lock key. I had to simultaneously press the shift key and a key with a magnifying glass right above it. That may seem like a small inconvenience, but Chrome just made it more cumbersome for me to yell at someone in ALL CAPS on Facebook.

Also, the touchpad's right-click sensitivity was poorly calibrated and dominated a good two-thirds of the surface. Hence, a right-click dropdown window of options kept popping up when I merely meant to left click on text fields and other objects. These are small things, of course, but they were annoying.

— Chromebox

The $329 Chromebox Series 3 desktop computer, by comparison, a real gem.

The diminutive unit sports lots of crucial connections, including six USB 2.0 ports, a DVI output and two DisplayPort outputs for the transmission of high-resolution video to an external display. Like the Chromebook, it comes with 16 gigabytes of storage.

Review: Internet-focused alternative in Chrome PCs
Chromebox Series 3

The first thing I noticed when powering up the Chromebox was, well, nothing. It was the quietest electrical device in my home office, thanks to a flash drive that doesn't need to spin, unlike magnetic hard drives found in most traditional computers. The unit generates very little heat and therefore doesn't need a roar of fans to move that heat away from the 1.9 GHz Intel processor.

The desktop experience is identical to the Chromebook, of course. They run the same OS and operate in the same fashion.

I was able to use the quietness to my advantage. The Chromebook is quiet, too, but the Chromebox is more inviting because you're more likely to leave it in one place. That makes it easier to use the device for entertainment, as I wouldn't need to reconnect wires to the TV each time.

It's much nicer to stream high-definition Netflix movies to the TV from the mouse-quiet Chrome device than from my PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 or a regular desktop PC, all of which get warm and loud.

And I'd get a proper browser and online apps on the television, instead of apps repurposed for the game console experience. For instance, the Twitter app for Xbox is cartoonish, whereas reading a few tweets from TweetDeck via Chrome (with a Bluetooth keyboard attached) is pretty nice.

That said, I see neither Chromebook nor the Chromebox as replacements for traditional computers, as cloud computing isn't fully robust yet. Instead, Chrome OS machines are likely to be additions, the way you might buy an iPad to supplement your main desktop or laptop.

If you're comfortable with cloud computing, the Chromebook and the Chromebox deliver a clean networked experience and give you a full keyboard than touch-screen tablets lack.

But the new Chrome OS machines, while improved over previous models, don't offer many advantages over traditional computers that can do much more. So if you're not comfortable yet with cloud storage, there's no reason to force yourself to embrace Chrome OS. You can get by with the browser on a regular machine.

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User comments

Jul 19, 2012
So what happens when you don't have internet access? Useless brick. What about slow access? Semi-useless brick.

Jul 20, 2012
I'm not going to store my personal data at some data mining mammoth unless they can guarantee client side encryption. I don't think companies are eager to do that with their intellectual properties either.

Just that things are possible don't mean they're desirable.

Jul 20, 2012
This company is obsessed with data about web users way too much. Before some time Google started to require phone number for account "validation". Every link clicked from Google search engine is logged into its database. Not to say about Google update engine, which is nearly impossible to remove from system at the moment, when it's accidentally installed (for example with Flash update) and which is logging all internet activity. From these reasons I do prefer Bing in web search, whenever possible.

Jul 20, 2012
When the Chromebox drops to a reasonable $200, it will become viable. Otherwise, Chrome on a used PC makes more sense.

Jul 22, 2012
An additional benefit is it's support of low power ARM CPU's that are remarkably efficient as well as being a cleaner design.

Unfortunately the overhead of running everything in bytecode on top of twenty abstraction layers in a web browser pretty much kills that advantage.

Besides, comparing ARM to x86 is kinda apples to oranges, because one hails from the CISC end of the spectrum, and the other is more of a RISC architecture. They both have their own pitfalls, such as the simplicity of the ARM instruction set that makes it inefficient for complex operations.

ARM is great for embedded systems where you can design the software around the hardware's limitations and vice versa, like using fixed point arithmetics instead of floating point so you can leave out the FPUs and save energy and cost. The ARM core is highly customizable by the client who buys the lisence to have it manufactured - you don't always have the same parts in the processors.

Jul 23, 2012
It runs perfectly well on a 15 year old Dell GX-1

Linux does, but none of the software you'd want to use will. There's very little you can do with just a command prompt. Maybe run Irssi and Lynx, like it was 1992 again.

I tried to make a nettop machine out of an old 800 MHz VIA C3 board and it ran like molasses just trying to load the web browser, much less display any pages.

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