Samsung Galaxy Chromebook review: beautiful to a fault

Galaxy review: to a fault

Monica

Who is a $1,000 Chromebook? That’s the question people debated across the internet when Google unveiled the Pixelbook in 2017, and it’s a debate that will continue as the 2-in-1 Samsung Galaxy Chromebook makes its way onto shelves.

In a market packed with laptops that are getting thinner and faster each year, a Chromebook’s comparative advantage is usually in life and price. Sure, a number of companies make Chromebooks that are meant to compete with Windows machines on specs and performance, but those “premium” Chromebooks (aside from the 2017 Pixelbook) don’t carry starting prices above $650, and many (such as the Asus Chromebook Flip C434) are under $500.

And then there’s the Galaxy Chromebook, which is not at all cheap (it’s $999) and has battery life that leaves much to be desired. Samsung has taken a wrecking ball to what have traditionally been the two strongest arguments for buying a Chromebook. It’s clearly pushing a different vision for what a Chrome OS product can be: a premium device for power users.

Unfortunately, I think those power users will have to wait a bit longer. I have to credit Samsung for making this beautiful and bold bet. But it’s a bold bet that’s not ready for its $999 price tag.

I’ll start with the good things. The Galaxy Chromebook has a few standout features, but the most notable is what Samsung and Google are referring to as “craftsmanship.” At just 9.9mm thick and 2.29 pounds, this is the thinnest Chromebook in the world. The chassis is aluminum and comes in “Mercury gray” or a bold “fiesta red” color that looks orange in bright light. I had the red model, and the silver panels on the sides add a modern, chic touch. It’s a really beautiful device. My one nitpick about the build is that the 360 hinge isn’t terribly sturdy, so there’s a bit of a bounce every time your finger or stylus taps the touchscreen while it’s not in tablet mode.

The keyboard, while clicky, is a bit flat — but the keys and palm rests feel so nice that I am more than willing to forgive the shallow key travel. Similarly, the trackpad is somewhat stiff compared to those on some premium Windows laptops, but the smooth material made using it a good experience overall.

A unique design choice is that Samsung has placed an 8MP camera on the top right corner of the keyboard deck. If you fold the Chromebook into tablet mode, you can use it to shoot photos with the screen as a viewfinder. I’m not sure how many people actually want to take photos with an 8MP camera, but I can see it being a fun trick during video chats.

The second home run — and a big reason for the $999 price tag — is the display. This is the first Chromebook to sport a 4K OLED screen. The display is stunning, with vivid colors that make even those on the MacBook Pro look washed out in comparison. It is glossy, which means some glare, but the whole picture looked so good that I barely noticed. (Of course, 4K screens are notorious for decimating battery life, and this one is no exception. More on that in a bit.)

The Chromebook also uses Google’s Ambient Colors feature to adjust the display’s color temperature to suit the environment around you. It made the screen easier on my eyes, especially at night.

But my favorite feature of this Chromebook is the included stylus. It looks similar to the S-Pen that comes with Galaxy Notes, and it’s quite satisfying to pop in and out of its silo on the side. More to the point, it glides very smoothly across the screen. I found myself using it instead of the touchpad in all kinds of situations, from Buzzfeed quizzes to scrolling through Slack to moving sentences around in Docs. It was just more fun.

It can do some cute tricks as well and — unlike with some S-Pen tricks — they all have obvious, practical use cases. You can use it as a laser pointer during presentations. You can use it to outline a region, screenshot that region, and immediately annotate the picture. It can function as a magnifying glass that you can drag all over the display. And the Google Play Store has a list of stylus-specific apps, including various drawing, signing, and note-taking programs.

Open this thing up and its specs measure up to other respected Windows laptops. It’s got a 10th Gen Core i5 10210U, 8GB of RAM (LPDDR3), and 256GB of storage. I’m surprised to see Samsung using DDR3 rather than DDR4, but doubt most people will notice the difference on a Chromebook.

Samsung originally said there might be additional configurations up to 16GB of RAM and 1TB of storage, but those seem to be on ice (for now, at least).

The good news is that the i5 can handle a heavy browsing load. The machine never froze, and nothing randomly crashed. I loaded it up with 20 Chrome tabs and seven Android apps (a mix of Slack, Twitter, Gmail, Spotify, Facebook, Reddit, and the various Drive things) and everything ran smoothly. Google Assistant also worked well: it understood all of my voice commands perfectly and was a pleasant conversational companion.

The bad news is that to maintain this user experience, the Galaxy Chromebook has to heat up. There’s no fan in this thing, and its passive cooling system was inconsistent during my testing. The chassis’s temperature seemed to be, at best, loosely correlated with the stress the CPU was under. There were times when it was quite cool running 17 tabs, or three apps and 15 tabs, and times when it sweltered running just six tabs, or three tabs and Slack. When I say hot, I mean that the keyboard was slightly uncomfortable to type on and the deck was beginning to fry my legs. I could usually cool everything down by closing a few things, but that didn’t always last.

The heat, while unpleasant, may not be a deal-breaker for everyone. What is a deal-breaker, though, is the battery life.

Yeah, you didn’t think that 4K screens’ 8 million pixels powered themselves, did you? Samsung claimed eight hours of battery life; I got four hours and 20 minutes on a charge, swapping between several apps and several Chrome tabs at 50 percent brightness. It also doesn’t juice back up particularly fast. an hour of charging via one of its USB-C ports, the Chromebook’s battery was only at 50 percent.

Four hours and 20 minutes is flatly terrible. For perspective, you’re getting about two hours of juice for every hour of charge; this thing will spend a third of its life plugged in. To put it bluntly: that’s unacceptable on a $999 Chromebook. Four hours and 20 minutes isn’t just low for that price; I’d be unimpressed with that on a $400 device. Samsung clearly thinks that battery life is a worthwhile trade-off for the fancy display, and maybe that’s true for you if you never intend to take this thing anywhere. But then, why are you paying a premium for a product that’s small and light?

Finally, let’s talk about the state of Chrome OS. If you stick to web apps, you’ll find you get a speedy, elegant experience — even tablet mode is improved these days. Google hasn’t made huge changes that might appeal to consumers, but support for Linux has improved quite a bit.

Then there are the Android apps. When the Pixelbook launched in 2017, Android apps for Chromebook were just out of beta, and many of them weren’t on quite the same page as the operating system.

Some of the worst kinks have been ironed out (flipping the screen in and out of tablet mode no longer scatters your apps to the wind and no longer turns programs like Spotify into a phone-sized window floating in a black void), but Android is still a mess on Chrome OS three years later.

Some of the issues are small. Highlighting large sections of text is difficult in the Google Docs app, for example. Slack for Android is quite clunky compared to its Windows and Mac counterparts. gaming also wasn’t : Rest in Pieces was stutter-y (with nothing running in the background) and, of course, blurry and pixelated since it was blown up to fit a Chromebook. Call of Duty: Mobile still couldn’t get past the first loading screen without crashing.

Facebook Messenger, in particular, is a disaster. Whenever I got a Messenger notification while working in Chrome, the browser would immediately freeze and stop loading all webpages. I’d need to sign in and out of my Google account to get it running again.

I think these issues are a shame because there are clearly benefits to Google’s system. I prefer the simpler app interfaces of LastPass and Google Maps to their browser versions, and certain Android apps, such as 1Weather, Podcast Addict, and Solid Explorer, work great on the Galaxy Chromebook and don’t have browser equivalents at all.

But at the end of the day, it’s Samsung’s and Google’s responsibility to put out a product that plays nicely with the services people use the most, especially if they’re charging $999 for it. Yes, you can just do all these things in Chrome if you want to, but part of the appeal of Chrome OS is supposed to be that you can use your favorite Android apps. (And yes, I know you can do more things with Linux, but the average user doesn’t).

I doubt that my primary criticisms of this device will come as a surprise to Samsung and Google. I’m sure the companies are aware that they aren’t shipping a device with impressive cooling or a hefty battery. In releasing the product in this state, they’ve decided those are acceptable sacrifices to ask of Chrome OS users in exchange for an AMOLED screen and an eye-catching build. I disagree. The 4K display looks great. But laptops with a killer feature still need to be laptops everywhere else.

I have to give Samsung credit where it’s due: this is the nicest-looking Chromebook I’ve ever seen. It looks and feels gorgeous. The pen and the keyboard camera show that Samsung has put a lot of thought into designing a unique device.

But when you price a Chromebook at $999, you’re putting it in the big leagues — not just among Chromebooks, but among all laptops. Microsoft’s Surface Pro X, Surface Laptop 3, and Apple’s MacBook Air all start at $999. I’m not saying the Galaxy Chromebook is directly competing with those models — I’m aware that Samsung and Microsoft are largely targeting different consumers.

What I am saying is that at that price point, we should expect laptops to do everything pretty well. Some have a standout feature or two, but all should have the basics nailed; we expect a good screen, reliable performance, and acceptable battery life. Samsung delivers on the first and mostly on the second, but at the complete detriment of the third. That very well might be a combination some people are willing to pay for — but they probably shouldn’t pay $1,000.

Photography by Monica Chin

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