For a few weeks now, I have been using an ARM Samsung Chromebook as my primary PC. Initially, I was skeptical that it could fulfill all of my needs. After all, it’s a $250 machine made of plastic and equipped with Google’s minimalist Chrome OS. But its overall capability has surprised me, and it has given me what I feel like is a glimpse of a truly futuristic casual computing experience.
Chrome OS is exactly what it sounds like – an operating system based on Google’s popular Chrome browser. Technically, it’s a Linux distribution that features only one native app, the titular browser which is integrated with a file manager and a media players. All of its “apps,” downloaded from the Chrome Web Store, run in the browser as Web applications.
Google has guided its OEM partners in the design of Chromebook and Chromebox devices, but until this year both parties struggled to create a cohesive software/hardware experience. Older Chromebooks were either test-grade machines or Intel-based power hogs whose old school internals seemed ill-fitted to their quirky software. This new Samsung device hits a sweet spot, however. It’s too bad that the term “Zenbook” is used to market an Asus ultrabook, since this Chromebook is the most Zen laptop I have ever used. It runs on a low-power ARM chip related to the Exynos line of processors that power the Galaxy Note II and the Nexus 10. It runs completely silently, emits no heat, has no fan (Apple III-era Steve Jobs would be proud) and barely has a hard drive in the form of its modest 16GB SSD. But it does one thing extremely well – access the Internet.
Samsung obviously made a huge number of compromises so that they could ship such a cheap PC. They made the right ones, by ditching Intel, massive hard drives, glossy/touch screens and metal (the chassis is plastic). At the same time, the Chromebook makes the most of its shoestring budget. The plastic chassis is painted to look like aluminum, an imitation that it pulls off nicely, especially from a distance. The redeemable offer for two years of free extra Google Drive storage (100 GB) similarly makes up for its slight onboard storage. The mobile ARM chip (which at one point confused Yahoo! into thinking I was accessing the site from a phone) doesn’t scream like an Ivy Bridge processor, but it keeps the whole package completely silent and cool.
Most importantly, this sleek Chromebook highlights something that many users feel but perhaps do not mention aloud: that their laptops are increasingly just doorstops whenever they aren’t connected to the Internet. The latest release of OS X is so iCloud-intensive so as to discourage almost any offline work – even its iWork suite boasts, as its killer feature, its ability to keep documents in iCloud. Similarly, Windows 8 provides Metro/Modern UI-optimized apps thru its new app store only. Rather than keep on with the illusion of a somewhat-usable offline device that nevertheless should be connected to the Internet, Chrome OS simply surrenders to the Internet, running all of its functionality thru the browser. It’s simple, honest, fast and surprisingly robust, and it will change your life.
Word is that Google itself is working on a touchscreen Chromebook, which would further integrate mobile sensibilities into the laptop PC space. This convergence has long seemed inevitable, and we’ve seen steps in that direction, even if some of them have seemed odd, such as Apple’s introduction of skeuomorphic iOS mainstays like Notes and Game Center to the Mac. Google’s seemingly niche, hobbylike Chromebook project may never be a smash success, but I think it achieves an important end. Specifically, it succeeds in radically reinventing the laptop even after 30 years of iterative change, and it demonstrates that, with a few tweaks, “mobile” devices can operate much like vastly improved and simplified versions of the productivity devices we’ve been using for decades.
-The ScreenGrab Team