The cheaper Chromebooks that Google introduced last month don't deserve credit for being a cheap way to read e-mail and surf the web: any smartphone meets that specification.
But the $249 Samsung model I've been testing for the past two weeks can do those things and also plausibly replace a low-end laptop.
Like an iPad or an Android tablet such as Google's Nexus 7, this Chromebook demands no special setup, provides an excellent window on the Web and updates itself almost automatically. But Samsung's WiFi laptop adds a physical keyboard and a bigger, 11.6-in. screen and then welcomes other digital devices without needing adapters: Like any other laptop, you can plug in a USB flash drive, SD Card, digital camera or HDTV.
It's a better computer than I expected after last summer's disappointing Samsung Chromebook--much less my dismal experiences with older attempts at the cheap, simple Internet terminal like the Sony eVilla, the 3Com Audrey or the AMD Personal Internet Communicator.
The basic Chromebook formula hasn't changed since 2011: This machine and Acer's heavier, $199 C7, a Chromebook with more storage announced Monday, still amount to a frame for the Google Chrome browser in which nearly every app runs.
But Chrome OS is now a little more welcoming to Windows or Mac users. Instead of being dumped into a full-screen browser window, you see what looks like a simplified version of the Windows taskbar, with the Chrome browser in a window above that strip of shortcuts to Web sites and apps.
You can use that as you would any other copy of Chrome, but Google's Chrome Web Store
(available in other releases of Google's browser) lets you add apps that don't need an Internet connection.
ranks foremost among them, enabling you to read and write messages away from WiFi--and without Gmail's usual ads. You can also now work on Google Docs offline, although doing so requires not an app install but changing a setting
in the same page as usual.
Some name-brand developers, such as the New York Times
, have also shipped offline-capable apps. But many others, such as Evernote, only offer overdressed bookmarks on the Store. (Netflix did worse by not including video playback; publicist Joris Evers said the company is working to fix that.) And the Store's interface doesn't distinguish between these categories of app.
It's confusing to figure out that the Alt key takes on the role of the Ctrl or Cmd key, and the occasional system freeze can be upsetting. But hold in the power button briefly, and you snap back to the same Web pages in about the time it would take to check e-mail on a phone.
In practice, using this laptop feels little different from spending a workday inside Chrome, Firefox or Safari on another computer. Even Flash animations worked as usual, courtesy of Chrome including that plug-in. As somebody smarter than me once noted
: Yes, a browser can grow up to challenge the traditional operating system.
Samsung, meanwhile, contributed light and efficient hardware. The 2.4-lb. model loaned by Google lasted through 5 hours and 37 minutes of nearly continuous Web browsing fueled by my obsessive Election Day interest.
But having its two USB ports and one HDMI output huddle on the back makes for extra work by the user. And on the right side of the review unit's display, I can barely crack the plastic bezel open with a thumbnail.
I still think I prefer this to the new, $199 Acer. That model's Intel Core processor and 320-gigabyte hard drive, instead of the Samsung's ARM chip and 16 gigabytes of flash memory, limits its battery life to an estimated 3.5 hours and requires the addition of a cooling fan. (It's also unclear how you'd use that extra storage, since Chrome OS's view of local space stops with your downloads folder.)
Even in a house with more computers than people, I could see this filling in as a backup machine. (I've used it all day at a tech-policy conference and haven't missed my MacBook Air as much as I thought.) "Road warriors" and "prosumers" probably won't go for it, but home users who don't throw around that kind of marketing vocabulary just might.