Samsung Chromebook 2: Hands-on preview

The Chromebook market continues to grow as more manufacturers begin to offer their own inexpensive Chrome OS laptops, and as established players in the Chrome world revamp and improve their own selection of web-connected Chromebooks. Samsung, already a strong player in the category, is announcing two new Chromebook models – the Chromebook 2 11in and the Chromebook 2 13in – and we got a chance to look them over.

Samsung has got a lot of mileage out of its first Chromebook, selling more than 1 million of the slim, web-connected laptops. The two new models, the Chromebook 2 11in and the Chromebook 2 13in, will be sold alongside the already popular Samsung Chromebook Series 3 to fill out what Samsung calls its "Good, Better, Best" offering. The first Samsung Chromebook will still available for £230, while the 11in and 13in models are slated to sell at $319 (£190) and $399 (£240) in the US, respectively (where the original sold at $250).

The Samsung Chromebook 2 models have a new look with a faux-leather finish instead of the sleek, silver-coloured plastic used on the previous model. The new 11in models are available in black or white, while the 13in model will come in a dark grey (pictured). Both models feature a pebble grain, faux-leather texture, complete with false stitching along the edges, and a rubberised finish that gives the black plastic construction a more leathery feel.

In our brief hands-on time with the two models, some of the changes that stood out the most were the new displays. The 11in model offers the same 1366 x 768 resolution seen on Chromebooks past, but it's brighter at 250-nits, up from the 200-nits offered on the previous model. The brighter display also made the colours pop a bit more, but it still didn't offer the clarity and colour gamut of the IPS panel used in the HP Chromebook 11. The 13in model, however, doesn't just have a larger 13.3in display, but it bumps up the resolution to 1920 x 1080, a substantial improvement.

The keyboard and mouse seem right in line with what we've seen in the past. The chiclet keyboards – now with curved, sculpted keycaps – feature the distinctive Chrome layout, with a row of Chrome OS function keys along the top and a dedicated search button where the Caps Lock key would normally be. The keyboard on the 11in model feels no more cramped than those offered on other small Chromebooks, like the HP Chromebook 11, but the grey 13in model does feel noticeably more spacious, even though the keyboard isn't actually any larger. The touchpad is largely unchanged from the previous iteration and still offers all of the usual Chrome OS gesture controls, like two-fingered tap for right click and two-fingered scroll-and-zoom.

The spec sheets for the new models expose the real changes to these Samsung Chromebooks. Both of the Chromebook 2 models are equipped with Samsung's new Exynos 5 Octa processor, an ARM processor with eight individual cores. As explained by Samsung representatives, the new octa-core processor has four primary cores, which do most of the work under normal circumstances, and then four additional cores which kick in when the processing load increases. The new processors will also offer faster boot times and better battery life – up to 8 hours on the 11in, and up to 8.5 hours on the 13in. Although both the 11in and 13in Chromebooks will be outfitted with Exynos 5 Octa CPUs, there are actually two models using this name, with the Chromebook 2 13in offering the more powerful of the two (running at 2.1GHz as opposed to 1.9GHz).

The two models of the Chromebook 2 are also equipped with 4GB of RAM and 16GB of eMMC on board storage. Samsung's new Chromebooks are also the first to be "Google Hangout certified," getting the Google stamp of approval due to certain features which are optimised for Google's video chat tool, like 720p webcams, dual-array mics for better sound with less ambient noise, and enhanced graphics processing (thanks to the new processors) for smoother video.

Samsung also offers a preloaded software package, of sorts (Chrome OS uses browser-based Chrome Apps rather than traditional software). The first is the inclusion of AirDroid, an Android management app that also includes desktop SMS, sharing files and media between your phone and your laptop, and tools for locating or remote wiping a lost Android phone. AirDroid's premium version also includes multiple device support (up to six devices), support for large file sizes, and remote camera capability. While a free version of AirDroid is available for anyone to download and use, Samsung is bundling the new Chromebook 2 models with AirDroid's premium features for one-year (normally $20 or £12).

A second app, Wunderlist Pro, also comes with a free year of premium service. Wunderlist is a to-do list manager that includes the ability to sync and share lists across multiple devices, and to share lists with family members and colleagues. The premium Pro version includes other features such as unlimited subtasks, file attachments, and the ability to assign tasks.

Both Chromebook 2 models are set to release in the US next month, and hopefully the UK won’t be far behind.