Each week, the Huffington Post Canada's Living team will try out something that has sparked our curiosity, and as long as we live to tell the tale, we'll let you know all about it.
Test Drive Subject: Samsung 11.6-inch Chromebook
What It Is: Google currently has two Chromebooks available for purchase in Canada. One is made by Asus and the one we're testing out is made by Samsung.
Many of us are familiar with storing our media in the cloud — using online servers to save data, while you use a fairly basic computer on the user end to retrieve the files. Facebook is a cloud-based application. So is the photo-sharing site Dropbox. The Chromebook takes cloud computing to the next level where even the applications and games running on the computer are performing from the cloud.
The Chromebook runs Google's own operating system, called Chrome OS. The device is very different than what you're used to with personal computers, yet it's very easy to grasp. At the heart of the operating system is the Chrome browser. Everything in the system has been optimized to run through this browser, including the settings of the operating system. Google is best known for its web services and there is no surprise that you must be connected to the Internet to truly leverage what the Chromebook can offer.
Trying It Out: The Chromebook powers up in about 10 seconds and wakes up from a sleep/hibernation mode almost instantly.
One of the first things you want to do is have it connected to your WiFi network. The American models come with a two-year, Verizon mobile data plan. The model that I was testing did not come with a data plan so I used it with WiFi.
You can use the Chromebook without a Gmail account, using the guest mode. I would advise that you login with your Gmail account, as the guest mode is rather limited.
Using the actual hardware is satisfying. The keyboard is responsive and has a solid feel, but lacks back-light, perhaps to conserve battery life? The screen is surprisingly crisp and bright. Two speakers at the bottom on the Chromebook produce a decent sound. The Chromebook is silent and runs cool, and the battery life is great. I was able to get over five hours out of it over continuous use, browsing the web and streaming media (both audio and video). I wasn't able to test the battery performance on the mobile network.
Browsing the web using Chrome in Chrome OS is blazing fast. You forget that you are using a cheap device because it performs so well. I was also surprised to see Flash content running well but did not take my chances on using it for too long as I was still uncertain about the battery life.
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Our Thoughts: The Chromebook is not yet for everyone. You have to “live and breathe” Google in order to be able to use the device to its fullest potential, and also be connected to the Internet. Lucky for me, I use Google's Enterprise service and it integrates beautifully with the device.
It's important to note that at this point, the amount of applications published for an iPad or an Android tablet exceeds what’s available for the Chromebook significantly. If you are in for a mature and widely available base of applications then I suggest that you look elsewhere.
There is a comprehensive list of offline apps for the Chromebook but it is clear that the intention is for the device to be connected to the Internet consistently.
The Chromebook could pave the way for how we will use computers in the future, where all apps are web-based and upgraded in real-time.
You may initially find it limiting but you quickly realize how many tasks could be achieved, assuming you are willing to readjust your workflow and use what is given to you with the Chromebook. For example, you can't run Skype but you can use Google Hangouts instead. If the majority of your computer habits are web browsing then this is the perfect computer for you.
Another Chromebook to watch for is the Chromebook Pixel which you can buy directly from the Google Play Store. The Pixel has much better hardware and a slicker design, which comes with a $1,000 premium.
The Warning: This is not your typical laptop and you really need to have Internet to be able to use it properly. There aren't a lot of popular third party applications and games available yet, so check the Chrome Web Store to see what is available. The applications will not automatically degrade to an offline mode. You must download offline versions of the applications that come pre-installed such as mail and Google Docs to be able to use it with no Internet.
Tips: I highly recommend checking out Chrome Experiments to see how powerful Chrome experience could be.
For a quick rundown of the features see this video.
Use the handy "Get Started" collection on the Chromebook to learn about important keyboard shortcuts. For example, pressing the Alt and Zoom keys at the same time is equivalent to pressing the Caps Lock button with other computers, which is not present on the keyboard of the Chromebook.