Samsung Chromebook 2 Review: Compelling -- But Not Without Compromise

Samsung's Chromebook 2 has a distinctive design and a roomy 1080p display, but it also has some meaningful drawbacks compared to other devices.

Boy, oh boy -- Chromebooks have come a long way.

Just a few short years ago, Google's Chrome OS was a rough-around-the-edges platform with a small selection of nearly indistinguishable devices. Fast-forward to today and the operating system has evolved into a polished ecosystem with a rapidly expanding array of hardware choices.

The latest entrant to the field is Samsung's Chromebook 2, the company's follow-up to its popular 2012 Chromebook. With the Chromebook 2, Samsung is attempting to step up its game with a distinctive design and the option for a large display with better-than-average resolution.

Samsung Chromebook 2

You can get the Chromebook 2 in a 13.3-in. model for $400 or in a more typical 11.6-in model for $320. I tested the larger iteration, but keep in mind that size and display are the only significant things that set these two apart.

The products were originally set to launch in April, but Samsung tells me both devices are now expected to start shipping on May 26.

So what's the new Chromebook 2 like to use, and is it the right laptop for you? Let's find out.

Body and design

Chrome OS is basically constant from one device to the next, so there's not much new to say about the software side of the experience here. (Samsung has preloaded a couple of apps on these devices, which is a tad unusual -- but it's really not a big deal.) If you aren't already familiar with Chrome OS, you may want to glance over my previous coverage for a quick primer.

With software out of the equation, hardware is what truly sets one Chromebook apart from another -- and the first thing you notice about Samsung's Chromebook 2 is without a doubt its physical design. The lid of the laptop utilizes the faux-leather (but actually plastic) notebook-like look introduced with Samsung's Galaxy Note 3 phone, and it works surprisingly well in this context.

Samsung's Chromebook 2 sports a faux-leather look.

The fake stitching effect is still a little tacky, to be sure, but all in all, it's not a bad look for a laptop -- especially relative to the entry-level Chromebook category, where most devices have generic and underwhelming plastic shells. I should note that the 13-in. model has a gray color scheme while the 11-in. version of the device comes in a less subdued black or white motif. Based on my time with Samsung's Note 3 products, I'm a bit skeptical as to how the design will look with those less gentle hues, but in gray, at least, I've been pleasantly surprised.

In terms of build quality, the Chromebook 2 is a definite step up from Samsung's past Chromebook efforts. It's still a plastic-centric construction, but it feels solid and less flimsy than its predecessor (as well as some of the other devices in its class from different manufacturers). It's not at the level of a design-focused system like Google's Chromebook 11 -- and it's nowhere near the level of a high-end laptop like the Chromebook Pixel, as you'd expect -- but for a $320-$400 computer, the Chromebook 2 is reasonably well assembled and pleasant to use.

At 12.7 x 8.8 x 0.65 in., the 13-in. Chromebook 2 is larger than the typical 11-in. Chromebook -- naturally -- but at 3.1 lbs., the device doesn't feel at all bulky or uncomfortable to use and carry. The size is actually a sweet spot between the compact-but-small-screened 11-in. form and the roomy-display-but-somewhat-unwieldy 14-in. option at the other end of the spectrum. (For perspective, HP's 14-in. Chromebook 14 is a full pound heavier than Samsung's 13-in. model.)

The 11-in. Chromebook 2, meanwhile, is comparable in form to the majority of the Chromebooks on the market, at 11.4 x 8.1 x 0.66 in. and 2.43 lbs.

The Chromebook 2 has a headphone jack and USB 2.0 port on its right side and an HDMI-out port, USB 3.0 port and covered microSD card slot on its left. The left side of the system also holds a proprietary charging port that -- huzzah! -- actually matches the proprietary charging port used on Samsung's 2012 Chromebook. In other words, if you have the older model, your existing charger will work with this laptop and vice versa.

Display, speakers and keyboard

One of the most distinguishing features of the Chromebook 2 -- on the 13-in. model, at least -- is its display: The system has a 1920 x 1080 glossy screen, making it the first Chromebook other than the top-of-the-line Pixel to go beyond the baseline 1366 x 768 resolution. (The 11-in. model has the more common 1366 x 768 resolution.)

The bump up in resolution makes a noticeable difference. Next to a typical 1366 x 768 screen, the 13-in. Chromebook 2's display looks extra crisp and clear. Even something as simple as text in a document appears less grainy, and watching 1080p videos on the device is a great experience.

The 13.3-in. display also provides a meaningful amount of additional real estate compared to the 11.6-in. standard, which makes the device feel pleasingly roomy -- more like a traditional laptop and less like a netbook.

It isn't all good news, though. Samsung opted to stick with a lower-quality TN panel instead of going with a higher-end IPS display on this device -- and even with the higher resolution, that puts a firm ceiling on the display's potential. Colors are grayish and dull, contrast is lacking and everything looks kind of washed out. Viewing angles, especially on the horizontal, are also rather poor; if you aren't staring at the display straight on, its picture becomes distorted and text is frequently difficult or impossible to read.

I've also found that the combination of the higher resolution and the TN-based display causes text to appear too thin and light for comfortable reading, even when you are at an ideal angle. I constantly have to zoom pages up to about 125% in order to make them minimally presentable, which is something I've never felt the need to do on any other system.

So you win some, you lose some. Personally, I find that the TN panel cancels out much of the benefit the higher resolution provides; even with its lower resolution, the IPS LCD screen on Google's Chromebook 11 is easier on my eyes. But it's all relative -- and compared to the vast majority of entry-level Chromebook devices (which by and large utilize TN-based displays) the 13-in. Samsung Chromebook 2 is absolutely a step ahead.

Accompanying the display is a respectable set of stereo speakers, located on either side of the laptop's bottom surface. Because the bottom slopes up at its sides, audio played from the computer comes out loud and clear, even when the system is sitting flat on a table. The sound is full and as good as any non-front-facing laptop speakers I've heard.

The Chromebook 2's keyboard is another strong point: The plastic keys are soft and smooth with a subtle curve that makes them fit naturally under your fingers. They're nicely spaced out and responsive, too, making typing on the system a pleasure. It's a marked improvement from the keyboard on Samsung's last Chromebook effort and among the best keyboards I've used on a Chromebook in this class.

The same can be said for the Chromebook 2's trackpad: With its soft-touch plastic and reflective silver-trim border, the single-button pad has a high-quality feel for an entry-level laptop. Most important, it's accurate and easy to use.

The Chromebook 2 has a 720p webcam centered above its display.

Performance, battery life and storage

Performance on Samsung's Chromebook 2 is good -- but not great. The laptop runs on Samsung's own Exynos Octa 5 processor (clocked at 2.1GHz on the 13-in. model and 1.9GHz on the 11-in. version), which is a distinct change from the Haswell-based Intel chips used in most current Chrome OS devices.

For context, the processor in the Chromebook 2 is the same type of chip typically used in smartphones and tablets. Aside from Samsung, all the major Chromebook manufacturers have moved away from that configuration and adopted Intel's newer chips, which promise superior performance and power management.

So does it actually matter? In short, yes.

First, the positive part: With its full 4GB of RAM, Samsung's Chromebook 2 generally manages to hold its own. The system doesn't feel sluggish or as if it's struggling to keep up, as its predecessor and other past-generation ARM systems often did. Even when you get to extreme levels of multitasking, with 15 to 20 browser tabs open, the Chromebook does a decent job of humming along. Opening new pages tends to get a little poky in that scenario, but navigating through and using the stuff you already have open remains relatively snappy and pain-free.

The problem is when you start making comparisons. Next to a Chrome OS device running a Haswell-based Intel chip and the same 4GB of RAM, Samsung's model comes up short. I tested the Chromebook 2 side-by-side with the Asus Chromebox, and with all things equal, pages consistently took a few seconds longer to load on Samsung's device and the system felt less speedy and responsive. It's not an enormous disparity, but it's definitely noticeable -- and it was apparent whether I had one tab open or 20.

Here's where things get really crazy: Even next to a Haswell-based Chrome OS device with 2GB of RAM, the 4GB-packing Chromebook 2 can't quite keep up. With half the amount of RAM in place, the Haswell-based Chromebox still pulled up pages faster and outperformed the Samsung system, even when numerous tabs were running.

And then there's the issue of stamina: Samsung promises up to 8.5 hours of battery life on its 13-in. Chromebook 2 and up to 8 hours on the 11-in. model. During my time with the 13-in. version, however, it hasn't come close to hitting that estimate. In real-world use, with varying amounts of multitasking throughout the days, the laptop has given me between 5.5 and 7 hours of total on-screen time per charge.

Considering that the current crop of Haswell-based systems actually delivered 8 to 8.5 hours per charge in my real-world evaluations -- and the next generation of Intel-powered systems promises even greater battery life than that -- this level of endurance is a little disappointing, to say the least.

On the plus side, the Chromebook 2 runs completely silently and the laptop barely gets warm.

Last but not least, the Chromebook 2 comes with 16GB of internal storage (along with the aforementioned SD card slot for external storage expansion). The laptop uses the type of eMMC-based embedded flash memory typically seen in smartphones and tablets instead of the regular solid-state drive used in most Chromebooks these days. Curious as that may be, though, it's hard to detect any real-world impact from the change.

Bottom line

The 13-in. model of Samsung's Chromebook 2 comes so close to being the midrange Chromebook the world's been waiting to see. It has a distinctive design, roomy 1080p display and solid construction with an excellent keyboard and trackpad.

But the laptop is held back by a handful of significant issues: the use of a TN panel instead of a higher-quality IPS display, performance that's decent but not as good as comparable Intel-based devices and battery life that doesn't come close to what the competition provides.

So all considered, is the Chromebook 2 right for you? Here's what I'd say: On the 11-in. front, you'll get more bang for the buck with one of the current Haswell-based systems. You might also want to wait a month or two to see how the next-gen Intel models, which are slated to arrive this summer, stack up. Without the 1080p display -- and with the below-average performance and above-average price tag -- the smaller Chromebook 2 is tough to recommend for most consumers at this point.

The 13-in. Chromebook 2, on the other hand, fills an addressable void in the Chrome OS ecosystem. If you like the idea of a larger laptop and want a display that's a step above most others -- specifically, the mass of entry-level Chromebooks that also utilize TN panels but lack this model's higher resolution -- it'll give you a good overall experience you can't get anywhere else.

Just be sure you're okay with the compromises it requires.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Google-centric tips and insights, follow him on Google+ or Twitter.

This article, Samsung Chromebook 2 review: Compelling -- but not without compromise, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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This story, "Samsung Chromebook 2 Review: Compelling -- But Not Without Compromise" was originally published by Computerworld .

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