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A Laptop, Its Head in the Cloud

David Pogue |The New York Times
Thursday, 16 Jun 2011 | 10:57 AM ET

You can say all kinds of nice things about Google’s Chromebook laptop concept. You can say it’s ahead of its time. Or that it’s thinking way, way outside the box. Or that, as failures go, at least this one swung for the fences.

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 oriPhone).

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.)

Maybe in Silicon Valley, where Google’s engineers live, you can live your entire life online. But in the real world, you can use this laptop only where you can find, and afford, Wi-Fi hot spots. Or a Verizon cell signal, if you’ve bought the $500 Samsung model.

Verizon offers two years of free service with that model, but you’re capped at 100 megabytes of data a month — a laughably small quota for a laptop that can’t even scratch its nose without an Internet connection. You can upgrade: for example, 1 gigabyte of data for $20 a month, or 5 gigabytes for $50. At least no two-year contract is required.

I tried valiantly to use the Samsung as my main machine, but by the end of a week, I was about ready to toss it like a Frisbee.

I took four flights with it. At each departure gate, I had to pay $7 for Wi-Fi. Three of the flights had no Wi-Fi on board, so the Chromebook sat uselessly in my bag. On the fourth, Wi-Fi cost $13. That’s right: $13 every time you fly, just to look at your own photos and documents. Then $17 for the hotel’s crummy Wi-Fi. Heaven help you on a cruise ship, where Wi-Fi can cost several dollars a minute.

What about the second assumption — that Google’s free online software can do everything you’d ever want?

Google’s software does the job for the basics (you can’t use a Chromebook without a Google account). But what if you want to run real, brand-name software? Photoshop? Quicken? Skype? World of Warcraft? FileMaker or Access? How will you sync or back up your iPad, iPhone or iPod if you can’t run iTunes? What about the specialized apps that your company might require?

The Chrome marketplace offers 1,000 Chrome programs. Most are free. But most are also lightweight, phone-type programs: weather, sports tickers and so on. They live online, so all you’re actually installing is a bookmark.

There’s another, more disturbing problem: doesn’t it make you feel a little antsy that your photo collection isn’t on a computer that you can put your hands on? That when the Internet goes down, you can’t get to any of your files?

Furthermore, Google says that its Chrome operating system is supersecure. But these days, every week brings another story of a hacker attack on a major corporation, and more of our private data stolen: Sony, Citibankand so on. In March, someone hacked a marketing company and gained access to the mailing lists of Best Buy, Wal-Mart, TiVo , CapitalOne , Marriott , the College Board, Hilton, Ritz-Carlton , US Bank , Chase Bank , Kroger, Barclays and many others.

Is “the cloud” really where you want to keep the only copies of your most private, most important files?

Truth is, considering how stripped-down the Samsung is, you have to wonder why it’s as big, heavy and expensive as it is. You can find plenty of full-blown Windows laptops with the same price, weight and size.

Maybe the Chromebook concept would fly if it cost $180 instead of $500. Maybe it makes more sense if you rent it (students and corporations can lease Chromebooks for $20 to $30 a month). Maybe it will fly once this country gets free coast-to-coast 4G cellular Internet, which should be just after hell freezes over.

For now, though, you should praise Google for its noble experiment. You should thrill to the possibilities of the online future. You should exult that somebody’s trying to shake up the operating system wars.

But unless you’re an early-adopter masochist with money to burn, you probably shouldn’t buy a Chromebook.

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