Ever since Google announced their first Chromebook laptops back in 2011 I’ve been fascinated by the idea. Computers that eschew the storage of data locally, but instead embrace the cloud in all its metaphorical glory. The idea makes sense to me, is workable for me, in fact it’s actually preferable to me. The only problem is that the hardware up until now has been, well, rubbish.
I had the chance to road-test Samsung’s initial Series 5 offering , and although I could see the potential in the system there was an undeniable lack of build quality or speed in that machine. Not the best way to promote a concept that many people still maintain as kind of pointless.
If you’ve never used a Chromebook, or indeed haven’t even heard of them before now, then they might sound a little odd. Essentially they are computers that do pretty much everything online. Most of us are familiar with Google Chrome, which has grown in popularity over the past few years to become one of the world’s most used browsers. The Chromebook does everything through Chrome, making the laptop similar to the old fashioned terminals that used to access mainframes in the 90s. All your data is stored online, as are the programs you run. This means you can’t lose your valuable thesis or family photos if you accidentally run over your laptop with a tractor – a very common complaint – as the information is safely nestling in the warm bosom of Google who, let’s be honest, are far more likely to perform regular backups than we are. This also means that you are free to log into your Google account from any computer, work on any project you like, then when you return to the Chromebook all the changes will be included.
But Sir! You cry. Surely any computer with a browser can do this, and a lot more besides?
The difference of a Chromebook is that it doesn’t run an OS like Windows or OSX, so it can’t get viruses. It also means that if someone steals your machine, or you upgrade to a newer model, all you need to do is log into your Google account and within a minute everything is there. No backups, or re-installing software, simple, and of course the information is constantly backed up by Google.
One real advantage, which myself and my wife have found invaluable, is that you can log in with various accounts, each with the relevant apps and documents attached. Of course laptops can also do this, but the Chromebook just feels very natural working this way as everything is online.
For people who use specific software packages to accomplish tasks – say Photoshop or Final Cut Pro – then the Chromebook is a non starter. But for most of us who use their laptop to browse, email, interact with social networks, or do a spot of writing, then the story is quite different.
In the past the real Achilles heel of the idea has been that once you find yourself without a WiFi signal the computer becomes a rather large waste of space, but Google have been updating the OS carefully and it now includes the ability to work on documents offline, which then sync up automatically to the online versions once you find a signal again. The whole thing is seamless and removes one of the last fears that many of us enthusiasts have had.
All this talk is nothing but pretty words arranged in spectacular fashion unless there is a worthy product in the end. Now, thankfully, one has arrived.
The Samsung Chromebook (2012) is the latest machine from the electronics giants, and with this one they have finally got it right. In recent months there have been Chromebooks that cost the best part of £400 but still feel like budget machines. In fact I’ve often thought that if you want to charge that much for a low powered, limited, machine then it had better be built like a Macbook Air – which of course it very much wasn’t. Now the new machine is built like a cheap imitation of a Macbook Air, priced accordingly, and I love it.
Don’t let any carefully shot promotional images fool you into thinking that this Chromebook has any Apple style brushed aluminium about its small body, it’s plastic through and through. This makes it light and enables Samsung to charge £229 – both of which I heartily approve of. Google have been clever in marketing the machine as your ‘other’ rather than main device. Let the kids play with it, welcome your butter fingered auntie back into the technological fold once more, even take it on holiday to Afghanistan with little hesitation. Ah, glory be! The age of disposable computers has finally arrived.
All this sounds a little derogatory, and it is, because strangely enough the Chromebook is actually a great little machine with a surprisingly fabulous keyboard. It didn’t take long for the diminutive laptop to find a special place in my heart, and thanks to the fact that I already use Google Docs for my work, and web-based services for nearly everything else, I’ve not felt restricted by its online nature at all. Yes the screen is a little frosty looking, and you need to wait a moment or two for webpages to load before you can scroll through them, but these are small gripes when you factor in the cost and the pleasure the machine is to use. Actually if the truth be told I use it rather less now because my wife keeps stealing it away for herself, which I can assure you is about as high a praise as can be given to a device.
Of course I don’t expect the machine to last for years, but that becomes less of an issue when the price is so low and the knowledge that a replacement will feature identical data once you log in. In fact I was heavily considering a Macbook Air to replace my ageing Macbook, but now I’ve used the Chromebook I can’t justify paying out £1100 just to be able to do a few more things on a much prettier machine. Instead I shall save the money and beef up the desktop I have at home, and maybe invest in a decent iPod dock with the change. Yep this little machine is the gift that keeps on giving.
The Google Chromebook is the ultrabook for the rest of us, and I’m well and truly smitten.
If you want to see an in depth evaluation of the machine then please visit the review here that I wrote for PC Advisor magazine in November 2012.