In a rare instance of good timing, today was both the beginning of the build phase of my virtual desktop project and the arrival of a device I ordered a few weeks ago – a Samsung Series 5 Chromebook. My hope was, and maybe still is, that Chromebooks might make reasonably decent mobile thin client-type devices, perhaps even replacing the Dell Latitude laptops we currently use for our checkout program on campus.
Just so there’s no confusion or misunderstanding about where I’m coming from as I write up my impressions of the Chromebook, I’m a Mac guy. I don’t expect this $429 Chromebook to feel like or perform like my much more expensive MacBook Pro. I’m not cutting it much slack, though, for being inexpensive.
Look and Feel
The Chromebook is small and feels fairly light. Lighter than my 13″ MacBook Pro and maybe close to the same weight as a 13″ MacBook Air. It is also very thin. Not quite Air thin, but thin all the same. It’s fairly attractive, with an all black case and keyboard, and a white lid. Both the Samsung and Chrome logos are tastefully small and unobtrusive. The keyboard itself feels similar to the current MacBook keyboards, although it seems slightly thinner, leading to some typos and a general slowdown of my typing. Maybe I’ll get past that with continued use.
That’s about as much as I can say about the physical look and feel of the Chromebook without beginning to point out some flaws. For starters, it is all plastic, and feels cheap. The hinge on the lid is weak and doesn’t hold its position when I move the Chromebook around, opening or closing an inch or more as I shift it in my lap. If the hinge is like this on day one, how will it be six months from now? Finally, I believe I have grown so accustomed to the strength and firmness of the unibody Mac laptops that I find the plastic shell, particularly on the lid, to be alarmingly fragile.
Another issue I have is with the trackpad. I’m used to the quality feel and precision of the glass trackpad on my MacBook Pro, so the Chromebook’s attempt to duplicate it fails in many ways. It feels cheap and grainy – almost uncomfortably so. It’s also very imprecise, often registering clicks and jumping up or down a bit from where the pointer appears on-screen. I can look past the imperfect fit of the trackpad in its hole in the Chromebook’s case for $429. I can’t ignore the lack of precision or the cheap feel of it against my fingertips.
The Chromebook is snappy for what I’ve used it for so far – mainly light web browsing, email, and Twitter. I actually switched to Chrome as my browser a few weeks ago on my MacBook Pro as it proved to be more stable than Firefox on the beta OS I’m using right now. Chrome on the Chromebook feels just like Chrome on my Mac, which is, overall, a good thing, except when it isn’t.
Several UI gotchas have popped up as minor annoyances so far. First, getting Chrome OS to display the MAC address of the Wi-Fi card was a chore, requiring a Google search on my other computer. Second, several websites complained that I was running an older version of Chrome and needed to upgrade for a better experience. I thought Chromebooks were supposed to automatically keep themselves up to date? I had to tell it to update manually, which wasn’t a big deal.
There seems to be no way to modify keyboard shortcuts. I’m used to using Option-Cmd and either the left or right key to switch tabs on my Mac. I can switch tabs on the Chromebook, I just have to use Ctrl-Tab to go right, and Ctrl-Shift-Tab to go left. The built-in Help claims on one page that I can go left or right with just Ctrl left or right, but that doesn’t work, nor is it listed as an option on the full keyboard shortcut page. I’m not interested in developing muscle memory for Ctrl-Shift-Tab, so I’ll just use the mouse for now, or only shift to the right.
One other thing made me giggle more than really annoy me. I wanted to take a screenshot of an area of the screen, so I went to the Chrome Web Store and found an extension written by Google, so I clicked on it then tried to install it. I’ll attach a screenshot below, but Chrome threw me an error, stating “Extensions cannot install plugins on Chrome OS.” So why show it to me, then? I’m running a Google browser, on a Google OS, using a Google web store, and trying to install a Google-written extension. I can accept that it can’t be installed on Chrome OS, but what’s the point in displaying it in the list of extensions – just for kicks? If WordPress can flash a warning at me that my older version of Chrome might not give me the best experience, you’d think the Chrome Web Store could filter extensions it displays to hide ones that can’t be installed on Chrome OS.
How is it as a mobile thin client?
No idea yet – looks like the Citrix Receiver for Chrome still isn’t out, which is a bummer. I’ll do a followup post when it is released.
For now, though, I’d characterize the Samsung Chromebook as no more or less than what I’d expected in many ways. It costs $429, and if you’re looking for a device that costs $429 and don’t mind getting a cheap, plastic netbook with an imprecise trackpad and a few UI/software bumps, you may like the Chromebook. As of right now, I wouldn’t spend my money to own one personally, even if my MacBook Pro died today and I were strapped for cash. Once I get more time with the device and especially get a chance to use it with the XenDesktop environment I’m building, I’ll decide if I can recommend the Chromebook as an inexpensive mobile thin client.