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TIME Computers

Samsung Chromebook 2 Review: Almost Worth the Price

Jared Newman for TIME

I really thought this would be the one.

When Samsung announced the Chromebook 2 a couple months ago, it seemed to be the mid-range device that we’d been missing since Samsung discontinued its Series 5 550 last year. The 13-inch version is currently the only Chromebook with a 1080p display, and it comes in a slick package that mimics Samsung’s most expensive Windows-based laptops. I was hoping these features would justify the $400 price tag.

After using Samsung’s 13-inch Chromebook 2 for several weeks, I’m conflicted. The Chromebook 2 is a solidly-built machine with an impressive balance of weight and battery life, but it also has a couple of problems that keep me from giving it a wholehearted recommendation.

Let’s start with the display. On paper, the 1920-by-1080 panel should be the Chromebook 2’s strongest selling point. Not only does it make everything sharper, it allows the taskbar and icons to be smaller, leaving more room on the screen for actual webpages.

But like so many other laptops that cut corners on price, the viewing angles on the Chromebook 2 are atrocious. As you shift your position, you have to constantly adjust the screen to avoid having the colors wash out. The screen looks especially bad when watching videos or looking at dark webpages. It’s by far the biggest problem with this laptop, and a huge letdown for what should be a killer feature.

One other minor complaint about the display: By default, the high pixel density made text a little small for my liking, and I have pretty good vision. Increasing page zoom to 125 percent in Chrome settings made things more readable; it should probably be set this way by default.

Aside from the display, the build quality of the Chromebook 2 is superb. The island-style keys have just the right amount of travel and snappiness, and the keyboard hardly flexes at all under heavy pressure.

Below the keyboard is a spacious trackpad that’s smooth to the touch. You can click on the trackpad almost all the way up to the top without having to apply too much pressure, and it supports two-finger scrolling and clicking. (You can also tap the trackpad instead of depressing it.) Overall, it’s fantastic.

The Chromebook 2 is fairly light for a 13-inch laptop, weighing in at 3.1 pounds. That’s 0.2 pounds lighter than Toshiba’s 13-inch Chromebook, though it’s the same weight as Asus’ 13-inch Chromebook that’s due out later this month. (Both of those laptops, however, have 1366-by-768 resolution displays.)

Jared Newman for TIME

Samsung’s Chromebook 2 is also one of the slimmest Chromebooks around, at 0.65 inches, and its bottom half has the same contoured edges found on Samsung’s Ativ Book laptops. Aesthetically, I’m not crazy about the “titan gray” finish–I’d prefer the white or black color options of the 11-inch model–and the faux-stitching makes less sense on a laptop cover than it does on Samsung’s Galaxy phones.

Unlike most other laptops, the Chromebook 2 uses an ARM-based octa-core Exynos processor, a lot like what you’d find in a high-end tablet. This allows it to run quietly with no fan, and despite the high-resolution display it still lasts for more than eight hours on a charge.

That processor does have a downside, in that it’s less powerful than your average laptop. Depending on your needs, this might not be a major issue. I generally didn’t have a problem scrolling through webpages, editing Google Docs or juggling a bunch of browser tabs. But I did notice occasional sluggishness when loading heavy pages and switching between tabs. Compared to Samsung’s original Exynos-based Chromebook, which had a slower processor and just 2 GB of RAM instead of 4 GB, the Chromebook 2 is still a big step up.

For connectivity, the Chromebook 2 has two USB ports–one on each side–along with HDMI output and a headphone jack. There’s also a microSD card slot, though I wish Samsung had included a full-sized SD slot instead. The speakers are loud and clear enough for video, but like most laptops, you won’t get much bass when listening to music.

If Samsung had only shipped a higher-quality display with the Chromebook 2, I could have fallen in love with this laptop. I’m a sucker for build quality, especially when it comes to the keyboard and trackpad, and I could have forgiven the middling performance, given that it’s still good enough for most basic web browsing. Chromebooks can’t do everything that a Windows laptop or MacBook can–you can’t install desktop software, which rules out programs like Office and iTunes–but the simplicity of a browser-based operating system has its own advantages. The Chromebook 2 could have been the perfect machine for users who want to spend a little more.

Instead, I’m wishing Samsung had tried just a little harder to make the ultimate mid-range Chromebook. This one is frustratingly close.

TIME Technologizer

Depending on Who’s Counting, Chromebooks Are Either an Enormous Hit or Totally Irrelevant

Dell

The numbers on Google's operating system add up to an utterly confusing picture

I went to Intel’s Chrome OS event this morning, which filled its San Francisco venue to the brim with new devices running Google’s browser-centric operating system and packing powerful Intel chips–scads of new Chromebooks from major hardware makers, Chromebox mini-desktops and even an all-in-one “Chromebase” machine from LG. It was an impressive showing, and I came away lusting after some of the models I saw. (I like my own Chromebook, an 11-inch HP with a Samsung ARM-based processor, but it can be pretty pokey when I open too many tabs.)

As usual at a Chrome OS event, part of the goal was to make the point that Chrome devices are doing well. Figures got quoted: sales rankings and user star ratings at Amazon, and the fact that 10,000 schools have adopted Chromebooks. Certainly, the platform feels viable in a way it once did not. (When Gmail creator Paul Buchheit predicted Chrome OS’s imminent demise in December 2010, it sounded like a perfectly reasonable prognostication.)

Still, the more data points you consider, the harder it is to get a grip on whether Chrome OS is booming, filling a small-but-healthy niche or struggling to matter at all.

Let’s review the available evidence:

Chromebooks took 9.6 percent of U.S. commercial sales of computing devices from January-November 2013, up from almost nothing in 2012.

That’s according to NPD’s figures for the sales channels that target businesses, and it includes the iPad and other tablets as well as laptops and desktop PCs. For a computing platform that barely seemed to be going anywhere a year earlier, that’s a huge deal. And if you count only notebooks, Chromebooks have an even more impressive 21 percent market share. In all, NPD says that 1.76 million Chromebooks shipped through U.S. commercial channels in the first eleven months of the 2013.

image

Only 1 percent of PCs sold worldwide in 2013 were Chromebooks.

In this case the numbers are IDC’s. They’re for the whole planet, not just the U.S., and cover all sales channels, not just business-to-business ones.

IDC says that 2.5 million Chromebooks were sold worldwide in 2013. At first blush, that sounds like it might conceivably jibe with NPD’s figure of 1.76 million units sold in the first 11 months of the year. Except that NPD’s number was for sales to U.S. businesses, while IDC says that “virtually zero” Chromebooks went to enterprises (i.e. corporate customers) and that it’s consumers who are buying them. I can’t reconcile these viewpoints.

Six of the top 20 laptops on Amazon are Chromebooks.

…including two of the top three models. And the single best-selling desktop on Amazon is Asus’s Chromebox. These figures are as of the moment I write this–Amazon updates them hourly–but they always make Chrome OS machines look like hot sellers. Looking at them, I can understand why Microsoft is concerned enough about Chromebooks to helpfully advise people not to buy them.

As of January, Chrome devices accounted for only .2 percent of U.S. and Canada web traffic.

Chitika released that figure in February, and it covers September 2013 through January 2014. It represents a doubling of Chitika’s previous number, but it’s still so puny that you might as well round it down to zero. And in theory, the average Chrome OS user should be online more than a Windows PC or Mac user, since the whole idea is that Chromebooks provide an entirely web-based experience.

image

Disclaimer: Except for the Amazon rankings, all of these stats are at least a few months out of date, and they don’t include some of the data I’m most curious about. For instance, you can buy Chromebooks at Best Buy, Walmart and Target, but I haven’t seen any figures on how they’re doing at these major retailers. (For what it’s worth, I checked BestBuy.com’s laptop section, supposedly sorted with the best sellers up top, and the first Chromebook came in at number 23.)

It’s also possible that all the data points above connect into a coherent story: Chrome OS devices are selling well to U.S. businesses and Amazon customers but barely matter on a global scale, and aren’t yet being used by enough people to add up to meaningful web traffic.

If Chrome OS use is growing rapidly, and continues to do so, I’d expect the picture to be clearer in the months and years to come. But for now, all I know for sure is that both Chrome skeptics and Chrome boosters can point to stats that seem to back up their respective stances. Convenient, isn’t it?

TIME Chromebooks

For Better and for Worse, Chromebooks Have Become PCs

Chromebook
Bloomberg / Getty Images

Chromebooks are no longer a small, focused selection of purpose-built machines, but a sprawling array of increasingly meaningless choices.

If you remember the days when Intel and Microsoft were an unstoppable force, you might be tickled by the former’s newfound love for Chromebooks.

At a press event on Tuesday, Intel heaped praise on machines running Google’s Chrome OS, pointing out how well they’ve been doing on Amazon’s sales charts and in schools. A long list of PC makers lined up to announce new hardware, including new Chromebook laptops and tiny “Chromebox” desktops.

I think Chromebooks are great, but as they gain support within the PC industry, they’re also inheriting the industry’s warts.

I’ve been worried about this scenario for a while now: Chromebooks are no longer a small, focused selection of purpose-built machines. Instead, they’ve become a vast lineup of computers in all shapes and sizes, meant to appeal to every niche. And most of them look pretty dull.

My colleague Doug Aamoth has the nitty gritty details, but in short, we’ve got Chromebooks with long battery life and lightweight processors, Chromebooks with shorter battery life and more powerful processors, bigger Chromebooks, smaller Chromebooks, Chromebooks with 2 GB of RAM and 16 GB of storage, Chromebooks with 4 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage, and a couple of Chromebooks with touchscreens. It’s a dizzying array of options, and it’s reminiscent of the Windows PC market, whose sagging sales have left Intel and its partners scrambling for alternatives.

The positive way to look at this is that you’ve got lots of choices, and choice is good. Not tickled by the design of Acer’s Core i3-powered Chromebook? Maybe you’ll like Dell’s version a bit better. Not comfortable with just 16 GB of storage? Asus has you covered with 32 GB options.

Here’s the downside: Choosing a Chromebook will become needlessly complicated, as the performance gap between low- and high-end Chromebooks grows wider. Nevermind that the justification for a Core i3 Chromebook is kind of thin–Intel says you might want it for Google+ Hangouts or 3D games–or that 2 GB of RAM can be a drag on multitasking, or that 32 GB of storage is overkill for a cloud-based computer. These are all factors you’ll have to consider when buying a Chromebook now.

The old Chromebook mantra was “speed, simplicity, security,” the implication being that all Chromebooks are fast gateways to the Internet. But that message is muddier now. Instead of making hard choices about what makes a good Chromebook, PC makers are taking the shotgun approach and leaving buyers to sort through the mess.

 

TIME Computers

Here Are a Bunch of New Intel-Based Chromebooks for 2014

Intel and Google recently partnered up for an event in San Francisco that could safely be referred to as a Chrome-splosion of sorts.

See, Intel understands that Chromebooks – Google’s low-cost, browser-based laptops – are here to stay. Problem is, some of the recent crop of Chromebooks have been using non-Intel processors.

In an effort to get the pendulum to swing back in Intel’s direction, the processor giant is upping its Chromebook lineup from a paltry four models in late 2013 to a whopping 20 to be trotted out over the course of this year.

You’ll have plenty to choose from, in other words. You’ll also need to opt for a Celeron-based model or a Core i3-based model when choosing a Chromebook. The Celeron models will generally be cheaper and able to last longer on a charge – Intel is promising up to 11 hours – while the Core i3 models will be more powerful (no 11-hour battery life promises, though).

Here’s a look at what was just announced, starting with the Celeron models and finishing up with the Core i3 selections. Just to make things interesting, we’ll throw the Chromeboxes in the middle, which use Haswell-based Celeron chips (more powerful but less energy efficient than Bay Trail Celeron chips) and most closely resemble desktop computers.

Bay Trail Celeron

Asus C200 Chromebook

ASUS_C200
Asus

Asus C300 Chromebook

ASUS_C300
Asus
  • 13.3-inch screen
  • Intel Celeron CPU
  • Available in June
  • Price unknown (C200 starts at $250; C300 likely around $300 to $350)

Lenovo N20 Chromebook

N20_Chrome_Standard_03
Lenovo
  • 11.6-inch screen
  • Intel Celeron CPU
  • Available in July
  • Price starting at $279

Lenovo N20p Chromebook

N20p_Chrome_Hero_01
Lenovo
  • 11.6-inch convertible touchscreen
  • Intel Celeron CPU
  • Available in August
  • Price starting at $329

Lenovo ThinkPad 11e Chromebook

  • 11.6-inch screen
  • Intel Celeron CPU
  • Available “this spring”
  • Price starting at $349

Lenovo ThinkPad 11e Yoga Chromebook

Lenovo
  • 11.6-inch convertible touchscreen
  • Intel Celeron CPU
  • Available “this spring”
  • Price unknown (11e starts at $349; 11e Yoga likely around $400 to $450)

Toshiba Chromebook

Toshiba
  • 13.3-inch screen
  • Intel Celeron CPU
  • Available “over the next few months.”
  • Price unknown (current model starts at $300)

Haswell Celeron

LG Chromebase All-in-One

LG
  • 21.5-inch full-HD (1920×1080) screen
  • Intel Celeron CPU (Haswell)
  • Available May 26
  • Price starting at $349

HP Chromebox

HP
  • Dual-display support (you supply your own) via HDMI and DisplayPort connections
  • Intel Celeron CPU (Haswell)
  • Available in June
  • Price unknown

Core i3

Dell Chromebook 11

Dell
  • 11.6-inch screen
  • Intel Core i3 CPU
  • Available “later this year”
  • Price unknown (current model starts at $279)

Acer C720 Chromebook

Acer
  • 11.6-inch screen
  • Intel Core i3 CPU
  • Available in June
  • Price starting at $350

Press Release [Intel.com]

TIME Security

Chromebooks Could Let You Skip the Login Screen When Your Phone’s Nearby

Google

A non-working feature in Chrome OS hints at a way to sign in without a password.

For a while, Google has been talking about killing the password with help from some physical object, whether it’s a phone, a ring, a tattoo or even a pill that you swallow.

The latest developer version of Chrome OS suggests that Google is putting those plans in motion.

Android Police has discovered a hidden setting, called “Easy Unlock,” that claims to let users sign into their Chromebooks without a password. As long as users have their phones nearby — and presumably paired via Bluetooth — they’d be able to skip the usual login screen.

Unfortunately, the feature isn’t actually working right now. Enabling it in the chrome://flags menu causes a notification to appear, and you can click on that notification for a basic explanation of what Easy Unlock does, but that’s as far as you can go. On my Chromebook, clicking the “Find your phone” button only caused the browser to crash and restart.

We’ve seen some similar approaches to device-based sign-ins before. Motorola’s Moto X, for instance, allows you to skip the PIN lock screen when the phone is connected to a Bluetooth device of your choosing. (When I reviewed the Moto X, I loved using this feature in conjunction with my Pebble smartwatch.)

But if Google adds device-based authentication for Chromebooks, it’d be the first time that such a feature was baked directly into a major computing platform. Neither Apple nor Microsoft have built anything similar into their operating systems, though Apple’s iPhone 5s does have a fingerprint sensor for unlocking the phone without a PIN.

Easy Unlock wouldn’t kill the password entirely, but it could encourage users to set stronger, more complex passwords that wouldn’t need to be entered as often.

There are also a lot of other directions that device-based logins could go. Instead of replacing the password, a paired phone could be the second step in two-factor authentication, eliminating the usual hassle of entering a code sent to the phone via text message. The paired device could also become a way to automatically sign into websites that are tied to your Google login.

Beyond the smartphone, it’s not hard to imagine Google adding other Easy Unlock devices, starting with Android Wear smartwatches, and maybe some day moving on to those crazy tattoos and authentication pills. The early work spotted in Chrome OS brings us a small step closer.

TIME Computeres

Lenovo Yoga 11e: Chromebooks Inch Closer to Tablet Territory

Lenovo's Thinkpad Yoga 11e Chromebook screen folds all the way around into tablet mode.
Lenovo's Thinkpad Yoga 11e Chromebook screen folds all the way around into tablet mode. Lenovo

Much like Lenovo's Windows-based Yoga laptops, the Chromebook version has a screen that folds all the way around into tablet mode.

Chromebooks haven’t gone full touchscreen just yet, but they’re getting closer with Lenovo’s ThinkPad Yoga 11e.

Much like Lenovo’s Windows-based Yoga laptops, the Chromebook version has a screen that folds all the way around into tablet mode. While we’ve seen a couple touchscreen Chromebook laptops before–including Acer’s C720P and the high-end Chromebook Pixel–the Yoga is more tablet-like, because you can fold the keyboard out of the way.

The idea of tablets running Chrome OS has been a long time coming. Even before the first Chromebook laptops launched in 2011, Google had started working on touch optimizations, including a virtual keyboard and larger buttons. That development work has continued over the last two years, with GigaOM recently noting some major improvements to the virtual keyboard.

Overall, Chrome OS is still best used with a trackpad and keyboard, while Google has a better touchscreen operating system in Android. Still, it could be useful to have a Chromebook that could slip into tablet mode on occasion. I’m guessing the Yoga 11e won’t be the last Chromebook we’ll see with this capability.

Lenovo is targeting the education market with the Yoga 11e, but it’s possible that the general public will be able to purchase the device as well. Pricing will start at $349 when the Yoga 11e goes on sale this spring.

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