Samsung XE303C12 Chromebook review
Samsung's Chromebook is designed to be used with an active Internet connection and could be interesting for those of you who already use Google's services
- Small and light
- Useful if you already rely on Google services
- Limited in what it can do
- Needs an Internet connection for proper use
- Touchpad sometimes innacurate
Samsung's Chromebook is a great size for an everyday laptop. However, it makes use of Google's Chrome OS, so it's not like a regular Windows or Mac laptop, and it needs an Internet connection to function properly. It's worth considering if you already make extensive use of Google's services in your everyday work.
Price$ 349.00 (AUD)
Samsung's XE303C12 is one of the first Chromebooks to hit the Australian market, armed with a small form factor, light weight and an attractive price tag. It's a laptop that resembles a netbook, but because it runs Google's Chrome OS, it's nothing like the Windows-based netbooks of old. In fact, the Samsung Chromebook is a Web-based laptop that requires an Internet connection in order to be used optimally.
What is it?
This Chromebook has a screen size of 11.6 inches and weighs only 1.1kg. It feels very light to carry around on a daily basis, and it also looks quite sleek and modern. Around the edges, it doesn't have a lot: you get a USB 3.0 port, a USB 2.0 port, HDMI, a combination headphone/microphone port and an SD card. There is also integrated Wi-Fi (dual-band), a webcam and Bluetooth (although we couldn't get that to work during our review period).
While all this seems conventional, when you first boot up this laptop and get a peek at its operating environment, that's where convention ends and Web-based computing starts. The Chromebook features Google's Linux-based Chrome OS and the system is designed to be used primarily with an Internet connection. Only Google Docs can be used in offline mode (and you can also read and write emails as well as use Scratchpad and run locally-stored media files).
Furthermore, unlike a Windows or a Mac machine, on which you're able to install a lot of the programs that you are already used to as well as store lots of files and do extensive file management, a Chrome OS-based laptop runs almost every task in a Web browser. It's not a laptop that's suitable for everyone, but it's certainly a laptop worth considering if most of your work is done using Google Docs. It's also possible to view photos on it, as well as listen to MP3s and watch videos.
Chrome OS: a Web-based experience
The look of Chrome OS is clean and there is not much that you need to configure. In fact, once you boot up the device for the first time, you'll be prompted to select your language, keyboard layout, your wireless network, and then you'll be asked to log in to your Google account (just use your Gmail account details). That's all you have to do to get going. You can do some extra things like select a user icon and a new wallpaper picture if you like, but there are no other settings that need to be played with. It's very much a ready-to-use system straight out of the box.
If you're familiar with the Google Chrome Web browser, then using this Chromebook should be a piece of cake. Furthermore, if you log in to the Chrome browser while using it on other machines, then you will be able to share bookmarks, history and add-ons with the Chromebook. The overall interface is not unfamiliar either. There is a desktop with a Launcher along the bottom (the equivalent of the Windows Taskbar), there is an Android-like app drawer, and there is a clock and system settings on the right side.
When you launch the Chrome Web browser, it opens up in a window. Likewise, when you launch Google Search, Google Drive or YouTube, they all open up in tabs within that main browser window. When you click on any of their icons on the Launcher, you'll be taken to the tab that they are occupying. Only the File manager, media player apps, Scratchpad (a quick way to jot down notes that can then be stored in Google Drive) and the Calculator app open up in their own windows. There is a Task Manager, too, so that you can see exactly what's running on your machine.
An app drawer on the Launcher allows you to access all of the apps that are pre-installed on the Chromebook, which, in addition to the ones mentioned above, includes the Google products Maps, Docs, Sheets, Slides, Google+, and Hangouts. All of these can be pinned to the Launcher, too. Many apps that you install from the Chrome Web Store will also appear in the app drawer.
The Chrome Web Store doesn't appear to segregate content based on operating system, which means you might end up downloading a few things that don't work under Chrome OS, such as the game Need For Speed: World, for example. Unless the app you are using is Web based, you won't be able to run it on the Chromebook. You'll be able to download exe files, but you won't be able to run them (and you'll be warned against them all the way through).
What runs the Samsung Chromebook is Samsung's own ARM-based, 1.7GHz Exynos 5 Dual system on chip (SoC), which provides an adequate amount of grunt for Web browsing and most multimedia tasks, and there is 2GB of RAM. You can easily watch YouTube videos (even Full HD ones played back quite smoothly during our tests) and you can play locally-stored video files with relatively smooth results.
Video playback was hit and miss for us on this unit though. We noticed some sluggishness when playing Xvid-encoded AVI files, and we noticed that H.264-based MP4 files played back much smoother. We should note that file support is a little limited. For example, MKV files won't be recognised by Chrome OS, but if they are encoded as H.264 files and you rename them with an MP4 extension, they probably will play (they did for us).
|Benchmark||Acer C710||Samsung XE303C12||Dell Latitude 10||Samsung Galaxy Note II|
|Futuremark Peacekeeper (score)||1444||1157||721||586|
However, the Samsung is a lot better than Acer's Chromebook when it comes to battery life. The Samsung's integrated design (it doesn't have a removeable battery like the Acer), its seemingly efficient ARM-based processor and its solid state storage, all combined to give it a relatively long life. In our rundown test, in which we played MP4 video files with maximum screen brightness and Wi-Fi enabled, the Samsung Chromebook lasted 4hr 14min. To put this in perspective, a typical 13.3in Ultrabook lasts, on average, 3hr 30min. Acer's Chromebook lasted only 1hr 44min in the same rundown test.
Chrome OS: file management and general usage
To play video files, you can either transfer them from a USB stick to the Chromebook's built-in 16GB of storage, or you can play them straight off a USB stick or hard drive. You can access the integrated storage (which is simply called the Downloads folder) and any USB devices by launching the Files app. Through this app you can move and copy files, create folders, rename files and even compress files.
Somewhat confusingly, the Files app is associated with the images, music and video player apps, which means that if you're listening to music or watching a video and you happen to close the Files folder, you won't be able to open it again until you close the music or video apps. At least, that's how it worked on this review Chromebook and it was unintuitive. You'll have to bear in mind that photos also load within the Files app, so if you close a photo, the Files app also closes.
You can easily play music while you work on other things. To play multiple tracks, you can simply select them all and then right-click on any file and click 'Listen'. Songs will play in their own little player, which is very basic. You need to click on the list icon to show all the tracks that are in the playlist you have created. There is no way to randomise or repeat tracks, so it's just a play or pause experience. When you close the lid of the Chromebook during play, the music pauses and then starts up again from where it left off when the lid is re-opened.
Because there is no way to really browse your local area network, if you ever get the urge to stream video files from your desktop to your Chromebook, for example, you'll have to find a third-party, Web-based app. We used a video serving app called Emit. You can install this and run it as a server on your Windows or Mac desktop, and then connect to it via the Chrome Web browser on the Chromebook. All videos will be encoded on-the-fly by Emit as they are streamed to the Chromebook over your local network (this task used one CPU core of our AMD Phenom X6-based PC).
To set up video sharing, you'll need to create an account and login to Emit (or allow it to connect with your Google account), add a directory with video files in it to share, as well as forward some ports in your router. We had no problems playing any shared video files from our desktop on the Samsung Chromebook, except for the Chromebook switching off the screen when we didn't move the cursor for a while.
Physically, we found the Chromebook to be light and easy to carry on an everyday basis and its build quality is on par with what we expected for the price -- it's a little creaky. The screen has a matte finish and is acceptably bright, but what we really like is the extensive brightness control, which can turn down the brightness until the screen is almost black. There is a built-in ambient light sensor and this adjusted the screen intensity accurately during our tests.
The keyboard is a good one. It has large keys in a chiclet layout that are easy to hit and we think typing for prolonged periods on this laptop should be fine once you get used to the overall size of the laptop. You'll also need to get used to some layout changes. There is no Delete key on the keyboard, nor do you get Page Up, Page Down, Home or End keys. The caps lock is now a Seach key and if you want to type in all-caps, you have to press it in conjunction with the Alt key or change the function of the key in the settings.
There are dedicated keys along the top row that can be used on their own to control brightness, volume, Web navigation (forward, back, refresh) and you also get a print screen key and a full-screen key. The power button is located on the same row as these keys and is easy to press by mistake (especially if you think it's the Delete key), but it needs to be held down for a couple of seconds before it does anything. And what it does is lock the computer. Simply closing the lid of the Chromebook won't lock the computer, so you'll need to use the power button to when you know you won't be using the computer again for a while. If you hold it down a couple more seconds while you're at the lock screen, then the Chromebook will be switched off.
When you press the power button to boot up again, everything will open the way it was before you shut down, even the music will start playing from the exact same spot you left it. Boot up takes less than 5sec, but it can take a while before the computer is usable, depending on how much stuff you left open. In our case, the laptop also didn't detect a network connection right away and Docs took a long time to load. When they did, they were in offline mode and we had to change back to online mode manually. We'd recommend not leaving too many things open before signing out or shutting down, because it will take time to get up and running when you sign in again. You can go into the settings though and tell the Chromebook to change its start-up behaviour. You can set it so that it only opens one new browser tab or the pages that you specify.
The one component of the Samsung Chromebook that we had some issues with is the touchpad. It worked fine a lot of the time, but it sometimes tracked a little awkwardly and moved off from where we intended it to go. We put this down to weird capacitive issues. It's a pad that's quite large for such a small notebook, and this is because it doesn't have any separate buttons. It has only one button, which is the left-click button that's located under the pad itself. If you want to do a right-click operation, you have to tap both fingers on the pad.
There's no doubt that Chromebooks are, for now, niche products. The necessity of an Internet connection and a reliance on Google products ensures that the Samsung XE303C12 will only appeal to those of you who already use Google Drive, Docs and other Google services all the time. The addition of offline mode for Docs is useful though. One thing that's disappointing is the lack of built-in 3G on the current model, and we also couldn't get our Optus-based mobile broadband USB dongle to work with it -- it was recognised as a removable device, but the Optus network never showed up under the 'mobile network' heading in the system settings area. You'll have to use your smartphone in hotspot mode in order to get online while you're out and about.
For $349, it might be a laptop that's worth trying out, especially if you're already a user of Google's services, and especially if you know you'll always be using it in an area with Internet connectivity. We grew to like it the more we used it, but we only used it at home and in the office.
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