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.
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.