Well, it is undisputable : Samsung, ARM and Google did practically the impossible. They designed and constructed one of the best “value for money” tech gadgets in the history of technology; probably the best. A tool that was worth two to three times its price when it was released in October, and is still worth almost two times its price, since its mid May steep price rise. An entry level, more functional Mac Book Air for â of its price. Certainly not flawless, yet with many of its software sided flaws being worked out as you read this.
In the morning I am notified by Amazon via e-mail that due to a temporary shortage of that particular SD card they would send me the laptop the next day already via UPS at no extra cost. In late May I would be delivered the Sandisk card via snail mail. Indeed, on May 17, at around 2 p.m., a UPS employee knocks on my door, prompts me to “sign” on his PDA and merely five minutes later the Chromebook is already fed juice from my mains. Another ten minutes later it is fully set up and on-line, though I had never used -neither researched how to use- Chrome OS. The user interface of Linux Gentoo based Chrome OS is essentially Google Chrome on steroids, with just a few additional OS specific settings and functions.
On May 17, a few hours after I was delivered the Chromebook, I discover that, to my great surprise, its price soared a full 83 £ (98 €) to a hefty 299 £ / 352 €! Well that was too close; I couldn't afford it at that price point, I was particularly lucky. But let me tell you what makes the latest Chromebook so special, apart from its -not so low any more- price :
It is distinct from any kind of WinIntelAMD (x86) architecture. It rather implements the latest ARM v7 ISA. Exynos 5250 SoC, its CPU, is a collaboration between Samsung and ARM, and consists of two ARM Cortex-A15 cores, ticking at 1,7 Ghz and the latest Mali T604 quad core GPU to move pixels around the screen. The cores are fed by 2GB of low power DDR3 SD-RAM ticking at 800 Mhz. Since the ARM ISA is much more efficient than the obsolete x86 marchitecture it requires no fan at all. Heat? It has been fully operational for the last 6 hours, my room was pretty hot today and now that its bottom I only feel a very slight warmth.
Its 11,6" sized display bears a 1366 x 768 pixels resolution, it is LED baklit and -of course- it is non glossy, so you can work with it in broad daylight without any particular visibility issues. Like I wrote above this is a tool to do both your work and have fun on-line, not a "Look how shiny it is Roger! I wants it, now! Pleeeeaaase!" apple toy for Barbie girls with "generous sponsors".
The rest of the specs and ports include a 16 GB of a blazing fast SSD chip in the form of eMMC/iNAND, all the wi-fi protocols but the latest super fast 802.11ac (abgn), a USB 2.0 port, an oddly non bootable USB 3.0 port, an HDMI 1.4 port, an SD/SD-HC/SD-XC reader, a headhphone/mic combo port, an embeded mic, a webcam, a particularly large button-less touch pad and, last but not least, a full sized (13.3 - 14" laptop equivalent) inch QWERTY keyboard, which is missing a few not vital keys, like Del and some of the F keys.
It took me roughly a full day to get used to the custom keyboard and start touch typing fast, without many mistakes. The chassis of Chromebook 3 resembled Mac Book Air. It is slightly thicker, it is silver, look like it is constructed of aluminium, yet it is actually high quality plastic. All these weigh no more than 1,1 Kg / 2,42 lbs. along with the battery I mean. It is much lighter and thinner than my old trusted 10" Acer Aspire One D150 with its 6 cell battery, which reaches 1,7 Kg.
Perhaps when the new Chromebook excels most is in hom much it lasts with a single charge and how fast it can be charged when fully empty. Samsung gives a conservative 7 hours, yet at nights, when the embeded light sensor prompts the LEDs begind the screen to lower their brightness, I have hit 8 to 8,5 hours. Under sunlight or intense light, inversely, when the screen brightness must reach its peak, it lasts 6 to 6,5 hours on a single charge. Both on wi-fi while writing or surfing the web, not doing anything too demanding like streaming FullHD to my TV via HDMI or watchinh HD flash videos on Youtube.
So, is Chromebook 3 perfect? Is it the ultimate sub-laptop? Not at all. There are many flaws, bug and limitations that I do not think all of which will ever be remedied. The primary limitation is that this is technically not a computer with a full blown operating system. Chrome OS requires Google Drive to operate, so all its machines are essentially terminals. Their off-line functions are very limited and still not particularly encouraged. Now, this has an upside : all your data reside in your Google Drive -that from the moment you log in via your Chromebook is upgraded from the free 5 GB to 105 GB, for two full years- so you tecnically have a machine you can wipe clean every day if you so desire.
The downside is that you require 24/24 network access with a really fat upload channel, and only 4G - LTE and WiMax can provide that while you are on the move. So if your country or city lacks broadband wireless coverage Chrome OS will not work for you. In that case, and if you need to install anything (Chrome OS cannot even run Skype), for instance Open/Libre Office, you will need a real operating system, not a server - terminal based one. So here comes Linux, the OS that already resides in the heart of Chrome OS.
There are quite a few Linux distributions but one of my favourites the last five years is Ubuntu. I would need two more articles to describe how to install the lighter XUbuntu flavour with XFCE 4+ UI on top of Chrome OS, utilising the new ultra efficient virtualisation extensions of ARM Cortex A-15. So I borrow a video with detailed instructions from Youtube user krayzielilsmoki That's also how I installed XUbuntu myself. A few remarks on this. Ubuntu support on the obsolete x86 architecture is very mature, since Linus Torvald's Unix derived kernel has been around for some 20+ years. Still on the ARM ISA Linux support is still beta level, even with the latest 3.8 kernel of 13.04 (X)Ubuntu.
That's the reason Ubuntu has to be run virtually, on top of Chrome OS. Still the performance hit is negligible, I estimate no more than a 2-3% performance decline compared to Chrome OS (I naturally still have no way to compare it to a natively run Ubuntu build). Native Linux ARM Cortex-A15 support is expected with either the release of 3.9 or 4.0 Linux kernel, but even then I doubt most apps in the repositories will be ARM15 compatible.
A couple of last points on the other bugs and limitations : it might sound absurd yet flash based Youtube (specifically) videos suffer from a serious bug. I encounterd no problems with HTML5 Youtube vids or other flash vids or games. The bug consists in this : while a Youtube is playing, if you open a new tab the vid stutters until the new tab is fully loaded. Sometimes even after it's loaded. Youtube should work flawlessly with Chrome OS and so it does on the previous x86 based Chromebooks. Yet the ARM specific Chrome OS, at this very moment I am writing this, does not mingle well with Youtube. This occured already from day one, before I installed XUbuntu.
Chromebook 3 is a writer's dream, but only when you install a real OS on it. Even if I had 24/24 ultra fast wireless broadband you clearly, unlike what Google maintains for more than obvious reasons, cannot do everything on the cloud. Web apps like Google Docs are flexible but weak, while native installable apps like Libre Office are a bit less flexible but ultra fast and not entirely depended on the web. You need to trust the web apps completely but do you really trust any third party completely? Coders also need native programming apps, for coding, compiling and debugging. I also write some code and you clearly cannot do that on the cloud.
I loved the fact that, under developer mode, you have the ability to wipe your system clean in a few seconds and not lose a byte of your data (well, almost, the stored wi-fi passwords are all lost). But I hated it every time I saw the "Connectivity Lost" lost alerts in Google Drive and I was left with merely a thin brick. So I installed the -still buggy- XUbuntu, with the help of this video, and eventually I had a fully functional and complete Chromebook.
Large price drop! Samsung and Amazon do not cease to amaze me. When I started writing this article a couple of hours ago the price was 299 £. Now it dropped to 229 £, a full 70 £ id est almost to mid May levels! Well, I now not a fewe of my friends who will be particularly glad about this.