So far, Google's Chrome OS has felt like an interesting concept, but not necessarily something that you'd want to buy into. The first-generation Samsung and Acer Chromebooks were too slow and too expensive, the cloud-only OS and software too restrictive. By the time the second-generation Samsung Chromebook arrived, fixing the speed, the OS and software were much improved, but the price was still too high for it to compete against low-end laptops, tablets and high-end netbooks.
However, with this third-generation Chromebook, Samsung and Google have pretty much nailed it. In moving to Samsung's own Exynos ARM-based processors, dropping the price and taking advantage of an updated Chrome OS and Google Drive, the new Series 3 Chromebook (XE303C12) makes the Chromebook concept not just intriguing, but compelling.
Design and connectivity
Physically, the new Chromebook looks and feels a lot like a lightweight 11.6in Ultrabook, albeit one that’s clearly been constructed to a budget. Needless to say all those metallic-looking surfaces aworkre actually plastic, and while the construction actually feels extremely solid, you're fully aware that you're not getting a Macbook Air at pocket money prices. At 17.5mm thick and 1.1kg in weight it's extremely lightweight and easy to carry, and with the hinge slightly forward from the back, it's well balanced either on the desk or on the lap.
One advantage of this hinge arrangement is that there's ample room for ports and sockets at the rear of the Chromebook, with the power socket, an HDMI port plus a USB 2.0 and a USB 3.0 port all easily accessible. Meanwhile, the left-hand side hosts an SD Card slot and a 3,5mm headphone output. You'll probably find yourself using the latter quite a bit - the onboard speakers are as quiet and weedy as they come - so it's worth noting that the socket on our sample is oddly stiff, delivering mono sound until you shove the plug in another couple of millimetres.
Given the low, low price you might expect some disastrous ergonomics, but in fact the news is surprisingly good. The island-style keyboard wouldn't disgrace the average Ultrabook; the keys are large, flat and have a nice degree of travel, there's not much flex under the keyboard while you're typing, and the usual problems of a cramped layout - tiny cursors or undersized shift and return keys - aren't repeated here.
You do, of course, have to contend with the now established idiosyncrasies of a Chromebook keyboard, like the replacement of the Caps Lock with a dedicated Search key or the replacement of the Delete key with an On button, but it’s worth noting that the Search, Ctrl and Alt keys can have their usage customised in the Settings menu, and that the replacement of the usual Function keys with dedicated function keys is probably a good thing for everyday use.
The trackpad is another plus. It’s generously sized, reasonably responsive, and can manage the few touch gestures that Chrome OS supports. We did find the trackpad oddly sensitive about the angle of the strokes you make while two-finger scrolling, failing to register unless they're almost perfectly vertical, but this is something you get used to. The buttons are integral, and work without any fuss.
If the Chromebook has a physical weakness it's the screen. There's nothing wrong with the 11.6in size or 1,366 x 768 resolution, both of which give it parity with low-end Ultrabooks and high-end Netbooks, while the matt surface makes it usable in all conditions bar bright sunlight. However, it can't match the brightness or contrast levels of a good Ultrabook, laptop or tablet, and you can't help wishing that the image was a bit sharper, the blacks a bit richer and the colours that bit more punchy.
It's a fine screen for word processing, writing emails or surfing the web, but not such a great screen if you're planning to watch films or edit photos. As with so many things here, it’s a question of expectations. On a more expensive Ultrabook we’d probably be more critical, but at this price mediocre is still more than good enough.
The established benefits of Chrome OS still work well for the new Chromebook. It boots in seven to eight seconds, restarts from hibernation almost instantly and requires practically no maintenance. Anti-malware protection is built into the OS and continually updated, and user accounts are tied into Google accounts, with your apps, files, settings and shortcuts all appearing as soon as you select your account and type in the password. Lose or break a Chromebook, and you can boot up a new one and carry on where you left off.
The old line with Chromebooks was that they were fine for simple tasks if you had a constant Internet connection, but absolutely no good as soon as that connection went. Sadly, it's a line you'll still see repeated even now, but it's no longer actually true. Now that Google Drive is integrated into Chrome OS, synchronising files stored in the cloud with files cached locally on the Chromebook's 16GB SSD, you can work on files using Google's steadily improving Docs, Sheets and Slides Office apps whether you're connected to the Internet or not. Edit or create a file while offline and it syncs with the online version when you next connect. Throw in the offline Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Books and a range of other offline apps, and an unconnected Chromebook is no longer useless. What's more, the built-in handlers for images, audio and video are better than ever, with the photo viewer even offering basic editing tools.
Meanwhile, the core OS now feels more feature-rich and user-friendly than the bare-bones, browser-only version that shipped with the initial Chromebooks. It now has windows, a desktop, a taskbar and a little Apps tray that pops up at a click. Discrete notifications and a shortcut to key settings can be found at the bottom-right of the screen. As a result, a Chromebook is now a lot more useful if you need to, say, refer to notes in one window while working on a document in another, and there's a very nicely implemented maximise feature that maximises Windows to fill the whole screen, or dominate the left or right side. It's not quite as good as Windows 7's Windows Snap, but it shows that the UI is no longer an afterthought. In fact, moving from Windows, MacOS or Ubuntu to Chrome OS has never been easier.
The other question, of course, is over the apps themselves and the fact that you have to use them over an Internet connection. With services like WeVideo, Sumo Paint, Pixlr Editor and Pixlr Express, you can now do some fairly sophisticated creative work within Chrome OS - certainly good enough for most consumers. Professionals, however, will still need the advanced tools delivered by Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, Premiere and Aperture, and the fact that you're constantly uploading files or updating changes across an Internet connection does make the connection a bottleneck. It's not such a problem on a stable 8Mbps connection in the home, but I wouldn't want to use the Chromebook to edit photos if I was stuck working in a coffee shop or hotel.
Google's office apps have their own strengths - particularly in collaboration – but there are still issues of compatibility and familiarity if your workflow is based on Microsoft Office. Here, however, there's a neat workaround: use SkyDrive and the Office Web Apps instead. You'll lose offline access, but otherwise the apps work perfectly. I've spent most of this week working between a Windows 8 desktop with the Office 2013 preview and this Chromebook running the Office Web Apps and SkyDrive, and the experience has been pretty much seamless.
The biggest concern is peripheral support. Mice? USB sticks? External HDDs? No problem. Scanners? Printers? More exotic devices? No such luck. To use a printer you're forced to use Google's own cloud-printing service, which while okay, is still a bit of a faff. And while we've had no problems hooking up a Panasonic TV and a Samsung monitor by the HDMI connection, some users have experienced problems with other displays. As the saying goes, your mileage may vary.
The Chromebook runs on Samsung's new Exynos 5 Dual (Exynos 5250 processor) along with 2GB of RAM, and you really wouldn't know that it wasn't using a decent Intel Celeron or something more. The OS feels smooth and responsive, Web apps open speedily and run without any hitches, and the overall experience is good and snappy. Its Sunspider score of 758.2 is impressive for a laptop powered by what might normally be called a smartphone chip.
The only areas where we have experienced any performance issues are in gaming and video. Browser-based 3D games judder on the Chromebook, while HD video streams (and even some SD streams) stutter from time to time. We would hope that this is something that Google could fix in software. The Exynos 5 Dual was built to power tablets and smartphones, and its ARM Mali T604 GPU should be more than able to handle HD video and 3D graphics. In fact, WebGL benchmarks, like the WebGL Aquarium demo, show the new Chromebook to have a fairly capable GPU. Interestingly, the stuttering is much less pronounced with video files streaming from a USB memory stick, leaving us wondering whether it's the network hardware rather than the GPU at fault.
Google and Samsung claim up to seven hours of battery life from the new Chromebook. With simple word processing and web surfing we got close to that with around six and a half hours of use before a recharge, but video - particularly HD video - seems to kill that, cutting a good two hours from that time.
And while this latest model isn’t a rival to the Macbook Air or the latest Ultrabooks, at £229 it doesn’t have to be. It’s light, silent and comfortable on the lap, the keyboard and trackpad have most budget laptops beaten, and the screen is more than acceptable given the price.
If you’re looking for a device to handle games, web browsing, light email and media playback, then you’d be better off with a tablet than a Chromebook, but if you need to get some proper work done, then the Chromebook is a great choice. It’s cheaper than an Asus Transformer or Microsoft Surface, or even a more basic 10.1in Android tablet with a separate keyboard, and just as usable. The Chromebook might not be, as Google puts it, "for everyone", but it’s going to work brilliantly for a lot of people, and it’s never been more tempting to give it a try.
Manufacturer and Product
Samsung Series 3 Chromebook XE303C12 (Wi-Fi)
1.7GHz Samsung Exynos 5 Dual
SD memory card
11.6in, 1,366 x 768 TFT
1x USB 2.0, 1x USB 3.0, HDMI, headphone
Size and weight
209 x 204 x 17.5mm, 1.1kg