August 16, 2022

State of the Art: A Laptop, Its Head in the Cloud

Last year, Google made limited quantities of the CR-48, a gorgeous, sleek, prototype black laptop that it sent to journalists and bloggers, seeking feedback. Its hope was that, eventually, real laptop companies would manufacture Chromebooks. Tomorrow, the first one goes on sale: the Samsung Series 5 ($500 with cellular, $430 Wi-Fi only).

So what is the Chromebook concept? Assumption 1: These days, you can get online almost anywhere. Assumption 2: Google’s free online software can do almost everything regular software can do — e-mail (Gmail), Web browsing (Chrome), chat (Google Talk), photos (Picasa), word processing, spreadsheets, slide shows (Google Docs).

Conclusion: A laptop doesn’t need a hard drive. Doesn’t need programs on it. Doesn’t need Windows or Mac OS X. Doesn’t need a desktop, files or folders. Everything you need is online, so all the laptop needs is a Web browser.

It’s a sexy idea. No hard drive? That means no moving parts and long battery life (8.5 hours on a charge). That also means lighter weight (3.3 pounds). The Samsung has only a 16-gigabyte SSD drive (basically a big memory chip, like on the iPad or iPhone).

No Windows? That means no viruses or spyware. No serial numbers or copy protection. No payments to Microsoft for upgrades every couple of years. No two-minute start-up process; a Chromebook starts up in under 10 seconds.

No files stored on the laptop? That means you don’t care if your Chromebook is lost or stolen. (Well, not as much.) You don’t have to worry about backups. You can log into any other Chromebook, and find your whole software world waiting for you.

The Samsung itself is beautiful, with a sparse, uncluttered MacBookish feel. The rounded edges of the black plastic body (and the white or silver top panel) make it a joy to hold — and to behold.

The typing feel is fantastic. The simplicity and purity of this laptop is refreshing and unthreatening; it’s like an iPad with a keyboard (and no touch screen).

Samsung/Google may, in fact, have gone a little too far in the pursuit of spartan elegance. Instead of a row of function keys at the top, you get dedicated keys for brightness, speaker volume and Web browsing (Back, Forward, Refresh, Full Screen, Next Window). There’s no Forward Delete key, Fn key, menu key, Print Screen key or Windows key (duh).

In fact, there’s not even a Caps Lock key. It’s great that Google wants to weed out keys it doesn’t think people use very much, but come on — Caps Lock? What’s next, the bracket keys? The semicolon? Q, Z and X?

(Deep on a Settings page, there’s a way to reassign the magnifying-glass key — the Search key for Web browsing — so that it performs the Caps Lock function. But even if that were an ideal solution, which it’s not, you’d be lucky to find it: Samsung doesn’t provide a single page of printed operating instructions.)

The laptop has two USB jacks, a Web cam, a video output jack, a memory card slot and a headphone/microphone jack — but no Bluetooth, Ethernet jack, FireWire port or DVD drive.

It’s really weird to use a computer where everything happens in your browser; if you attach a hard drive or flash drive, you even see its contents in a browser window. You can never quit or minimize the browser; there’s no desktop behind it, no matter what your instincts say.

But let’s give this shifted paradigm a chance. How well does Google’s newfangled concept hold up in the real world?

Unfortunately, not very well.

The first assumption is that you’re online everywhere you go. That’s rather critical, because when it’s not online, a Chromebook can’t do much of anything. You can’t peruse your e-mail, read documents or books or listen to music. With very few exceptions, when the Chromebook isn’t online, it’s a 3.3-pound paperweight. (Google says that an upgrade this summer will at least permit you to read your e-mail, calendar and Google Docs when you’re offline, and that over time, more apps will be written to be offline-usable.)


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