TORONTO – Ask yourself, how often do you use your home computer for anything other than getting on the web? Unless you’re using it for work, you’re a hobbyist photographer, or play a lot of high-end games, Google is betting the answer is not that often, rarely or almost never.
That hypothesis is what spawned Google’s Chromebook concept, a line of low-cost laptops designed to quickly launch a web browser with no muss or fuss. Like tablets, they turn on quickly and are intuitive to use, with little to no computer experience required. If you can use a web browser, you can use this computer.
Samsung is one of three manufacturers that released a Chromebook into the Canadian market on Tuesday, with its version priced at $270. It’s lightweight at about 2.5 pounds, has an 11.6-inch screen, gets about six hours of battery life, and its processor runs cool, so the computer doesn’t require a fan and never gets warm.
What it does, it does well. Using the web on Samsung’s Chromebook doesn’t feel like a compromised experience, as it often does on a tablet or smartphone. Browsing with many tabs open and handling Flash video and games are no problem for this device. Video streaming within the browser on Netflix and YouTube is generally sharp and smooth, although occasionally there are little lags and hiccups that expose the machine’s lack of processing power. Switching to full screen viewing on YouTube is fine — as long as you leave the video alone. As soon as you move the cursor or try to switch back to a smaller video screen things noticeably lag and slow down.
Don’t expect much from the built-in speakers — music in particular does not sound great coming out of them — but they’re good enough in most cases.
The keyboard feels good to type on but because it’s a small machine there are many missing keys, including Page Up and Page Down, which some web junkies will miss right away. But there is a long list of keyboard shortcuts that replace the functions of the missing keys, for those willing to learn them.
While Google’s ads for Chromebooks suggest the laptops are “for everyone” that’s not really the case. They’re not a good fit as a primary computer for gamers, regular users of Microsoft Office and photo or video editing software, or anyone who’s looking for a conventional machine that does it all. But those users might find a Chromebook useful as a cheap second computer, to have in the kitchen or living room for some quick web browsing.
The Chromebook is primarily designed for web use but it isn’t completely useless while offline. Some apps available through the Chrome Web Store, such as “Angry Birds,” can be downloaded and run without an Internet connection, and you can work on Google Docs projects or respond to messages in Gmail while offline. But using a Chromebook is really about getting online and its functionality is severely reduced without the Internet.
Samsung’s Chromebook hits the market at an interesting price point.
It’s a little more expensive than Google’s entry-level tablet, the Nexus 7 at $209, but cheaper than any iPad, which might intrigue some tablet shoppers who mainly want a device for web browsing and don’t mind a little extra heft. Samsung’s Chromebook is about a pound heavier than a large iPad and about 1.75 pounds more than the iPad Mini.
Some consumers might argue that spending an extra $200 would buy a far better computer, which is true, but Samsung’s Chromebook is more about getting the best bang for your web browsing buck. For a user who rarely strays from the web browser, the sub-$300 machine performs just about as well as a $500 computer, at nearly half the price.