If you’ve used a smartphone or tablet at any point in the last five years or so, you have ARM to thank for it. The company doesn’t actually manufacture any of its own chips, but it licenses its low-power CPU architectures and instruction sets to others like Samsung, NVIDIA, Qualcomm, and Apple, who all use the designs to build better battery life into tiny devices. The company isn’t content with its niche, however: it has PCs and servers in its sights, and we’re going to be seeing ARM chips in many more devices in the next year or two.
Samsung‘s recently announced ARM-based Chromebook is one of these devices: a laptop-shaped computer that uses a tablet-like processor. Using these low-power, low-cost CPUs is one reason why these new Chromebooks cost an impressive $249, rather than $449 like their current Intel-based counterparts. The biggest question is whether users of this new, cheaper Chromebook will care that they’re not running Intel inside.
Hardware: Good enough, especially for $249 Samsung
Samsung‘s new Chromebook should be more or less familiar to anyone who has used the Intel-based Series 550 model from earlier this year, though the latest model is slimmer (0.7 inches thin compared to 0.8) and lighter (2.42 pounds compared to 3.3). Both the screen and the base of the laptop are all plastic, and display a slight amount of flex under pressure, but considering the price the materials seem to fit together reasonably well. One jarring detail is its bulgy hinge, which isn’t a problem when the laptop is open but which sticks out from the lid when it’s closed, which is awkward if you’re stacking anything on top of it.
Most of the laptop’s ports are located on the back in my least favorite configuration: all crammed together right next to each other. As with other laptops that do this, using any USB cables or thumb drives that are significantly wider than the USB port itself blocks access to the neighboring port, and having no USB port available on either side of the laptop makes it more difficult to plug in and remove drives and accessories quickly. The power adapter also uses a thin, fragile-looking plug that worked fine for me but may not stand up to much horseplay.
The laptop has an HDMI port capable of 1080p output, one USB 2.0 port, and one USB 3.0 port on the back, along with an included USB Ethernet dongle for wired connectivity. It also has a small access port for a SIM card. Using the HDMI port, at least in the current Chrome OS software, is a bit iffy. For the one TV I had to test the laptop with, the Chromebook would output sound but not video, so if you’re looking to this $249 Chromebook for its utility as a home theater PC, you may want to reconsider. Chrome OS also continues to lack an extended desktop mode for multi-monitor users.
The inclusion of USB 3.0 is nice and doesn’t cost anything extra, since the Exynos 5 SoC supports it natively, but it’s a bit superfluous in this particular laptop—the limited nature of Chrome OS means you won’t be making many large file transfers. The laptop’s SD card reader and headphone jack are located on the left side, while two loud-but-tinny stereo speakers are located on the bottom. On the inside, the laptop features dual-band Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 3.0 for connectivity; there doesn’t appear to be an option to utilize the available SIM card slot, though its presence indicates that mobile broadband may be available later.
Open the laptop’s lid and you’ll see a black chiclet keyboard with a common Chromebook layout. This includes browser navigation, brightness, volume, and power buttons across the top row instead of traditional function keys, an inverted T-block of half-height arrow keys, and a search key in place of caps lock. Fans of INTERNET YELLING can still choose to revert the search key’s behavior to that of a caps lock key if desired. The keyboard is shallow, but the keys feel firm and anyone used to a chiclet keyboard from any other manufacturer should be able to type at full speed after a bit of acclimation.
Below the keyboard is a plastic multitouch trackpad that behaves well enough—basic gestures like tap to click, two-finger right-click, and two-finger scrolling work as intended (the two-finger scrolling is of the inverted, “natural” variety by default, though this can be reversed in the settings by disabling “simple scrolling”). Unfortunately, I found the trackpad’s palm rejection to be less than fantastic. My cursor would routinely jump to earlier parts of documents I was working on, interrupting my flow and generally making a nuisance of itself.
Above the keyboard are an 11.6″, 1366×768 display and a VGA webcam flanked by microphone pinholes. The screen’s brightness is good but its contrast and viewing angles are terrible, as is to be expected in a computer this cheap. The vertical viewing angles are slightly worse than the horizontal, but they’re both pretty bad—viewing the screen from anything other than dead-on makes the computer very difficult to use.
One of the nicer side effects of going with an ARM SoC is that the new Chromebook is completely fanless. As someone whose 2010 MacBook Air is routinely running its fans at full-tilt, I can say that a fanless system is conspicuously (and pleasantly) quiet by comparison. Its bottom does get a little warm during heavy use, but no warmer than most smartphones or tablets do, and certainly not enough to feel dangerous.
Samsung Software: Chrome OS is Chrome OS
Like the Chrome browser, Chrome OS is being steadily developed, though changes tend to be gradual and often subtle. The biggest change to Chrome OS since its introduction was probably theAura interface, which introduced true windowed multitasking back in April. Since then the changes have been mostly gentle touches and adjustments. The interface should be pretty simple to grasp for anyone who’s used to the Windows 7 desktop, and the “Get Started” app (new since the last time I used Chrome OS) that launches automatically the first time you sign in should be enough to familiarize newcomers with Chrome OS’ features.
One thing about Chrome OS that has remained the same since its introduction is that its strength is also its weakness. Having a browser on top of lightweight Linux underpinnings makes for quick boot times, snappy performance, and an uncluttered interface. However, it also severely limits the device’s functionality relative to a Windows PC, especially if you’re not a heavy Google user. Having a Google account gets you built-in bookmark and data syncing with your desktops and a built-in (if lightweight) office suite in the form of Google Drive and Docs. If you’re not already a Google and Chrome user on your regular computer, though, you’re going to find the Chromebook very limiting, even as a companion computer.
The real story here is that Chrome OS runs well on ARM processors, and if you don’t need the extra performance of the bigger Chromebook 550′s dual-core Celeron, you won’t even notice the difference. If you’re coming from one of the older Intel Atom models, you’re actually in for a sizable performance increase, especially when dealing with Flash and video.
Internals and performance Of Samsung
This new Chromebook is the first shipping device we’ve seen to use a processor based on ARM’s Cortex-A15 CPU design, which is a big deal: Cortex-A15 represents a huge performance jump over the Cortex-A9 that powers popular devices like the Nexus 7 or Apple’s new iPad mini. We’ll be seeing the A15-based chips in a lot of devices soon, as they’re going to power plenty of smartphones and tablets in 2013 and beyond (for reference, Google’s new Nexus 10 tablet is running the exact same chip).
The bad thing about this is that Chrome OS works with none of our normal benchmarking programs—Geekbench, Linpack, GL Benchmark, and the rest are all out, so we don’t have a great way to compare the 1.7GHz Samsung Exynos 5520 and its Mali-T604 GPU to other popular ARM-based platforms.
Chrome OS is pretty light on resource usage in general, which limits the amount of computing horsepower Chromebooks need in the first place. The Exynos 5 gives Chrome OS plenty of CPU oomph to run quickly and smoothly, and more importantly the Mali T604 GPU gives it the power it needs to play 1080p content and Flash video smoothly. The original Intel Atom Chromebooks had trouble with these tasks, so this is a welcome change. Once you get to the point that you’re streaming videos without dropping frames, you’re doing all that most consumers are going to need from their computers.
That said, things aren’t perfect, especially when multitasking—opening another Flash-heavy tab while playing Pandora in the background would make the music stream stutter, for example—and you’ll be waiting a few more seconds for pages to load on the ARM Chromebook than on the Intel model (or a standard PC or Mac running Chrome). This Chromebook’s mantra is “be good enough,” though, and the CPU and GPU are indeed good enough.
Battery life Of Samsung
One of the advantages of going with an ARM chip rather than an Intel one is power usage; it is, after all, why current smartphones and tablets use mostly ARM-based processors rather than Intel’s processors. It seems like the new ARM-based Chromebook disappoints on this front, though. Google promises about six-and-a-half hours of battery life and in our general usage tests with screen brightness maxed out we got just over seven, which is decent but by no means exceptional compared to current smartphones and tablets.
Closer inspection reveals this issue not to be one of power efficiency, but of battery size: Samsung has opted to include a smaller and cheaper 30Wh battery in the ARM-based Chromebook, rather than the 51Wh that the Intel-powered Chromebook 550 uses to achieve its estimated six hours of battery life.
The $249 Chromebook’s battery life isn’t exceptional, but it’s reasonably competitive given the price and form factor, and it shows us that Cortex-A15 processors shouldn’t reduce battery life much from what we’re used to in today’s smartphones and tablets. Again, we’ll have some more detailed commentary on this point in our forthcoming Nexus 10 review.
Samsung Conclusions: Intel’s price umbrella
At $249, these new Chromebooks come awfully close to solving the platform’s biggest problem: that they offer just a fraction of the functionality of Windows-based laptops. Older Chromebooks offered netbook-like performance, but with an operating system better suited to their hardware; these new Chromebooks offer better performance and slightly better build quality at a similar price.
As we mentioned earlier, one of the reasons for this reduced price is because these new Chromebooks use ARM processors, which generally sell for much less than Intel’s chips. On the other hand, Intel’s chips often perform better and support decades of Windows programs, but those considerations simply aren’t important for something like Chrome OS. This drives home a point that must have Intel running scared: the x86 instruction set is slowly becoming less important.
Don’t misunderstand: the vast majority of personal computing devices sold today use Windows running on Intel (and Intel-compatible) processors, and they still sell in large numbers despite the fact that their market may have peaked. However, tides are turning, and the times they are a-changing: important platforms like Android, iOS, and Windows Phone are all made for ARM first. Even Windows, an operating system once synonymous with Intel’s processors (hence the “Wintel” portmanteau), now comes in ARM flavor, even though at least for now the scarcity of apps in the Windows Store makes Windows RT difficult to recommend over Windows 8.
Intel has the advantage of money, decades of experience, superior manufacturing, and by far the best general-purpose CPU performance on the market, but Intel chips come at a cost that doesn’t make sense for all use cases. This price umbrella, along with a slowly but steadily decreasing dependency on x86 compatibility for many consumer operating systems and programs, is the biggest threat that ARM makes to Intel. In the near future, there’s no chance that even the recently announced Cortex-A50 processors can take on Intel’s performance, and Intel’s newer Atoms are erasing the huge power consumption advantage that ARM enjoyed a couple of years ago. Still, ARM’s pricing (and the sheer number of companies beginning to design their own ARM CPUs rather than using ARM’s Cortex designs) is what’s going to help drive competition over the next few years.
The good Samsung
- At $249, it’s a more reasonable choice than the $449 Chromebook 550.
- Keyboard and build quality are generally decent.
- Performs well for basic tasks, including video streaming.
The bad Samsung
- Smaller battery means laptop-like battery life despite tablet SoC.
- Screen is bright but otherwise awful.
- Port layout is cramped.
- Chrome OS is still best suited to individuals or businesses deeply invested in Google’s ecosystem.
The ugly Samsung
The HDMI port needs serious work, as does the trackpad’s palm rejection.[ Source :- Arstechnica ]