We’re living in an age with an almost confounding variety of options when it comes to choosing your tech. With a panoply of smartphones tablets all-in-one PCs desktops ultrabooks desktop replacements tablet hybrids and tablet convertibles to pick from actually figuring out which combination best suit your own needs can be a tricky task.
If you’re in that particular boat we’ve got some good news and bad. While Google’s local launch of its Chromebook line won’t particularly help to calm that choppy sea of choice these small and simple laptops do present an option that could for some users cater for all their basic needs at a very compelling price. In fact is there anyone who wouldn’t want a go-anywhere laptop for under $350?
A cloud-based OS?
If you’re unfamiliar with the Chromebook concept it’s relatively simple. These are laptops that run Google’s Linux-based Chrome OS which has the Chrome web browser at its core as the name suggests. As an OS it’s designed to cover your basic needs via Google’s online services – Gmail for email Drive for file storage Docs for office functionality and so on most of which are accessed through their standard web interfaces.
So while the OS itself lives on your laptop you really need a web connection to use most of its functions – and obviously being heavily invested in Google’s cloud services won’t hurt either.
If you’re already a big user of the search giant’s products then it’s relatively easy to get started – just log in with your Google account and you’ll have almost instant access to all your bits and pieces. If you’re a Chrome browser user it even automatically installs your extensions.
The Chrome OS isn’t limited to just Google’s services however; you can of course access any other web-based apps you desire and there’s also a range of third-party applications and games you can download via the Chrome Web Store. Plus there’s a basic file browser and media playback programs built into the Chrome OS itself.
All those pieces do help cover most basic computing tasks but whether you can actually use a Chromebook ultimately boils down to one question: are you happy doing most of your computing through a web browser?
Given the cloud-based nature of Chrome OS’s design it’s fair to ask what offline access is like. It’s a bit of a mixed affair. We found that many games can be cached locally for offline access and your Google Drive contents can also be set up to sync to your Chromebook to allow for offline Docs access. (Buying a Chromebook also nets you 100GB of free Drive storage for two years via online redemption.) Email is a bit trickier and if you want to read old emails or draft new ones you need to use a dedicated ‘Offline Gmail’ app rather than the regular web-based one.
The first two Chromebooks available in Australia are the latest units built by Acer and Samsung and with their compact form factors 11.6-inch (1366 x 768-pixel) screens and chiclet keyboards they do look at least passingly similar on the surface. On the inside though they’re actually radically different little beasts.
While the $299 Acer C710 runs on traditional x86 laptop hardware (a 1.1GHz Intel Celeron 847 CPU 320GB hard drive and 2GB of RAM) Samsung has taken a rather different approach with its $349 Series 3 Chromebook repurposing the ARM-based Exynos 5 architecture primarily used in the Korean giant’s smartphones and tablets and putting it to work in a laptop. That means there’s a dual-core Exynos chip running at 1.7GHz powering the show combined with a 16GB SSD for storage 2GB of RAM and a special ARM-based version of the Chrome OS.
Physically that’s allowed the Samsung unit to be a little slimmer and lighter coming in at 1.1kg compared to the Acer’s 1.3kg. It’s also had quite an impact on battery life. Acer and Samsung rate their respective units at running for 4 hours and 6.5 hours respectively but we found the difference between the two was even more marked in our own testing. Playing back a standard-definition MP4 video the Acer machine only lasted around half as long as the Samsung: 2:41hr compared to 5:27hr.
Chromebooks on test
That said the Samsung’s great battery result does come at a slight cost to performance. While there are no real benchmarks for the Chrome OS given that it’s largely a cloud (and browser) based affair we settled on using the web-based SunSpider and Peacekeeper browser benchmarks to assess each machine’s performance. We’ve also included a Core i3-equipped Acer Aspire S3 in our performance tests to see what you can expect compared to a ‘real’ laptop.
That said in subjective use we found both Chromebooks were close to each other in terms of overall responsiveness and the difference in page load speeds wasn’t so great that using the Samsung was a drag. On the other hand the Acer Aspire S3 was noticeably faster and smoother than either unit in general use and the difference becomes more apparent when you start multitasking – open a couple of dozen tabs on the Core i3-powered Aspire S3 and it doesn’t bat an eyelid but on both the Chromebooks performance can get a little stuttery.
Those performance limitations are somewhat to be expected given the price but it’s worth pointing out some of the other shortcomings here too. The Chrome OS can’t access standard CIFS (aka SAMBA or Windows) network shares. In order to access files across a network they need to be accessible via a web interface. That’s something many network-attached storage boxes can provide but if your home or office environment relies on access to network shares this feature hole could be a deal-breaker.
Likewise media playback capabilities are a bit mixed. There’s support for common formats like MP3 Xvid and H.264 but some web favourites like MKV aren’t recognised. While we generally had no problems with SD movies both Chromebooks struggled with HD content. They played many YouTube 720p videos just fine but when it came to our own rips (which are often higher bit rate) the results varied from mild frame rate issues to not playing a file at all. (You’ll need to stick to SD MP4s or AVI files.)
There’s one last element that doesn’t help the appeal either: both these machines sell for $100 less in the US – $199 for the Acer and $249 for the Samsung. At those prices either unit would be an easy recommendation. On the other hand it’s not uncommon to see budget Windows laptops going for $400-$500 in Australia and the latter offer a lot more flexibility and performance than either of these Chromebooks.
If we had to pick between these two units for us the Samsung’s lower carry weight and longer battery life tip the scales in its favour creating a unit that’s more useful when you’re on the road.
Those caveats do all ultimately add up though and the price in particular. These Chromebooks are certainly an interesting idea but they’re one that could presently still use a bit more polish.
Acer C7 Chromebook
Price: $299 | Website: Google
Pros : Ample storage space pleasingly high-contrast screen removable battery.
Cons : Short battery life a little heavy for its size.
Rating : 6 out of 10.
Samsung Series 3 Chromebook
Price: $299 | Website: Google
Pros : Great battery life lightweight and sleek design
Cons : Aussie price gouging middling performance.
Rating : 7 out of 10.