A Real-World Samsung Series 3 Chromebook Review

A Real-World Samsung Series 3 Chromebook Review

 

 

 

Is a Chromebook a viable netbook replacement?  What about larger laptops?  Could it really replace one?  I toyed with these in stores a few times and didn’t really think too hard about it.  Lately though I’ve been looking at the computer-related things I do in my personal time and most of it is actually browser-based.  I use GMail.  I use Google Docs (now Drive).  I shop online.  I use WordPress.  I use Facebook.  I think you get my point.  I also have a Droid though it’s not my personal phone (that’s an iPhone so I can’t be accused of being a Google fanboy) but I’m getting at the notion if you’re shunning Microsoft Office because you adapted to Drive, or realized you aren’t using those locally-installed apps as much as you did in the past this may be speaking directly to you.

To set the stage, I’m composing this article entirely on the Chromebook, on battery, which currently shows I have just under seven hours remaining (6:54 exactly).  Any pictures are stolen from the web or from my phone, sync’d to Dropbox and edited on the Chromebook.

The biggest complaint on-the-fence users have is the need to have always-available Internet.  Perhaps.  I find I rarely am anywhere without it.  To be fair, I don’t hang out at Starbucks like a beret-wearing tool sipping my mocha java latte writing my life story that nobody gives a squat about.  My phone has the hotspot enabled so problem solved.  If you don’t want to spend the $30 bucks per month for that then pony up another $80 dollars and you can get a 3G-equipped unit with a free 100MB per month for 24 months, for free!  I think it’s Verizon-only, could be worse I suppose.  I opted for the Wifi-only model for $249 for aforementioned reasons.  Coffee shops, airports, train stations & planes and trains themselves offer Wifi.  I’m thinking if being connected is what you require then you’ll either pay the $5 for access or stick to your laptop.  Or, you could set your Google Drive to be available offline, which allows you to edit existing files and compose new ones offline and then they automatically sync back up when an Internet connection is active.  So problem solved I suppose.

Another popular complaint is the lack of local storage.  Let’s think about this one… for what?  It comes with a free 100GB of Google Drive storage for free for two years.  You don’t have any local apps so what data do you want to store locally?  The idea here is you could lose your Chromebook, have it stolen, shatter it into a billion pieces, whatever happens your data is safe in the cloud.  Think about that time your laptop was stolen.  That data is gone.  Even if you had it backed up to the cloud your files are still in the bad guys hands.  Think about it.  It’s worth mentioning the Samsung Series 3 comes with a fixed 16GB of internal storage.  I know Acer sells a Chromebook with a 320GB drive.  If it makes you feel better go for it.  You can enjoy listening to the hard drive and fan spin, mine has neither.  As if the DVD player, Kindle and LeapPad weren’t enough, I loaded a few DVD rips for my daughter to watch on our last road trip.  The files are in MP4 format and  some were on local storage (shame on me) and others on a micro USB stick.  Both worked flawlessly in full screen.  One thing you can’t do is lock the keys so little girls don’t press things they shouldn’t.  Ahem.  The headphone jack spared our sanity as she watched Mary Poppins.  I think she preferred watching that mess without seeing blood run from her Daddy’s ears.

The battery life is a huge +1 for Chromebooks.  I popped the charging cable out before beginning this article, we’re now at 6:20 remaining.  Hours, that is.  Between the movies which actually didn’t drain the battery as much as expected and the backlight being cranked up so it was visible in daylight while on the road the battery hung in there for about 4.5 hours.  Try that with a netbook or laptop.  Good luck getting more than two hours of battery there.  Plus this generates very little heat so you could toss the fan-equipped lap-pad you dropped $20 on at Fry’s because this is a cool running unit.

The unit is extremely light.  Compared to my Dell laptop it’s like the difference between a phone book and a novel, seriously.  Yes, it’s plasticy and does feel a little cheap.  It was $249.  I could destroy four of these for the price of a MacBook.  Just sayin.

The first thing you should do is hit up the Chrome Web Store and search for some apps or extensions you could use.  I already used Chrome as my primary browser so this was stupid simple.  Most of my extensions automatically installed.  Bit.ly, Better History and Google Dictionary appeared instantly.  I had to install Last Pass and Chrome To Mobile.  Yes, Angry Birds appeared automatically.  A lot of things you see in the Chrome Web Store are nothing more than bookmarks cleverly disguised as apps.  For example, I use Spotify for streaming music and I found what I thought was an app which when clicked turned out to be nothing but a shortcut to play.spotify.com.  This is dumb and I wish Google would stop allowing this.  Unfortunately I’ve seen even Google do this for their own stuff.  You might find it funny to think about the old Apple ad that proclaimed “There’s an app for that”.  It seems there really is.

Uploading pictures is trivial if your camera uses SD cards.  My Canon dSLR uses CF which is frustrating to me.  My wife’s camera does use SD and she popped the card in the SD reader on the side of the Chromebook and transferred them to a USB drive to give to her boss for a project.  Just as easily she could have uploaded them to Dropbox or even Drive.

While we’re mentioning my wife using this thing, she logged in with her Google account while I was doing some things myself.  My stuff stayed in memory, frozen in time while she did her camera work.  This is nothing too special since it behaves like the Windows XP and newer option to “switch users” without affecting what the other logged in users were doing.  I mention it because to do this you must click “sign out” to get back to the login screen.  In Windows “sign out” closes all your running apps.  In Chromebookese it really behaves like a separate personality.  My stuff stays safe, her work proceeds, everybody is happy.

I tried using it for a day as my primary unit.  Remote Desktoping into my Win7 laptop to get my work stuff done.  It’s almost there but not quite.  I found myself getting frustrated at the smaller screen so I hooked it up to my monitor with the HDMI port.  That’s when my patience was tested.  It locked the Chromebook up several times.  There is no Ctl+Alt+Delete three-finger salute Windows users are familiar with but there is an Esc+Refresh+Power equivalent.  It popped a screen telling me Chrome was hosed up and that I should insert the recovery SD card.  No, no, no.  I pressed power again, it rebooted, back in business.  I still haven’t got the HDMI issues straightened out yet, maybe this weekend.  An interesting thing to consider with the Google Remote Desktop app, if you load it on all Chrome installation you have it gives you remote access to offsite PC’s without firewall hacks or VPN clients.  Chrome seems to be able to perform LogMeIn-type access where your PC’s are all online awaiting you to connect.  You can copy and paste between the hosts, too.  Take that Microsoft!  Security is two-fold: your Google account and each Chrome browser you install the app on gets a PIN that you create.  There is an SSH client if you can call it that.  Named CROSH, you access it with Ctl+Alt+T and it (not surprisingly) appears in a browser tab.  It really is stripped of a lot of commands but I was able to SSH into some servers and execute commands without issue.  There is; however, no Telnet or FTP client.  This sucks for some systems that don’t support more secure protocols.  Some people mentioned flipping the OS into developer-mode to get unrestricted access to the Linux core.  Not me, I can live without it I suppose.

I’ve been at this for 1.5 hours, battery is at 5:21 to go.

Chrome handles Word and Excel files well so you’re not lost if you get an email and panic about not having Office loaded.  It’s a little different but you get used to it.  That’s more of a Google Drive thing than Chromebook anyway.  I don’t miss using Office but I do miss using all of the hotkey and shortcut commands I memorized all those years ago.  Some work, most don’t.

The keyboard is 98% the same.  Caps Lock?  Gone.  Delete key?  Gone.  F-keys.  Mostly gone, all renamed with icons.  Let’s go over these as they are the ones most Chromebook-haters mention.  Caps lock is kinda dead.  Use it and get accused of SHOUTING (look it worked).  In it’s place is a search key.  No surprise though, it is Google after all.  You can reassign the search key be caps lock if it’s a deal breaker, or you can press Alt+Search and lookie there, caps lock is back.  Next up?  The delete key.  So backspace erases to the left of the cursor and delete erases to the right.  Since Samsung decided to whack the delete key you can recover that by pressing Alt+backspace (I’ve done it 213 times in this article, it works).  Then there’s the F-keys.  You remember F1 for help, F5 for refresh, yada, yada, yada.  What?  No F-keys for cut and paste?  That’s what Ctl+X, C & V are for, lazy.  Being basically all browser these are replaced with back, forward and refresh keys.  Also up top are screen size, an Alt-Tab equivalent to quickly scroll through open items, a backlight decrease and increase  pair of keys, mute, volume down and up and finally the power button.  If you have a hard time recalling all of the shortcut sequences you can call up the on-screen overlay (Ctl+Alt+?) that explains them all, and there’s A LOT depending on Ctl+Shift, Ctl+Alt, ext.

The mouse is a bit of an oddity for Windows users.  No buttons to press BUT the whole touchpad is a left click.  Kinda Mac-like.  You won’t break it.  To right-click you two-finger tap.  There are other gestures to play with but the two-finger scroll is the most useful one for a browser-based device.

If I could only get AirPlay on here my Appleness would be satisfied.  Streaming Spotify and piping it to my AV receiver and the garage would be the icing on the cake for me.

So could you cut the Windows or Mac noose from your neck?  I’m trying to.  There are better programs to do certain things on a PC or Mac with (think Photoshop or Final Cut Pro) but there are cloud alternatives.  For the majority of my things I can get by on the browser equivalents.  Think of it as a new page in the technology path.  Some things replace older ones, some compliment them.  Like cell phones have mostly replaced home phones, they compliment business phones.  Same thing here, does this replace a business-geared PC?  Nope, but you can buy the $800 laptop, the $200 Office Suite, the $50 Anti-virus or a $250 Chromebook and you’re done.  You tell me.

Battery is now 5:22, so somehow I’m making power.

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