Samsung's Chromebook Series 5 and the Acer AC700 Chromebook are the first of the upcoming Chromebooks to hit the market, and one of a new breed of netbooks that run on a more-limited operating system designed to be online all the time. Google's ChromeOS offers limited support for any kind of local storage or peripherals, instead working via sites and apps online to do everything from editing documents to saving and printing files. As we blogged about earlier, when word about these netbooks first hit, the concept drew wildly different opinions on whether it was a great idea, or one that was half-baked. So, then, now that the hardware is finally here, have attitudes changed? Not so much, as we found out when we prepared our just updated report on netbooks.
Chromebooks draw cheers and jeers
There were no middle-of-the-road reviews for the Samsung Series 5; reviewers either loved or hated it, and sometimes both, depending almost entirely on their feelings about the nature of the ChromeOS operating system. Still, those reviews led us to select it as our best web-based netbook in our update. (The AcerAC700 hadn't been out long enough to garner significant numbers of reviews.)
Many reviewers seemed almost schizophrenic when it came to their reports on the Samsung Series 5: they praised the hardware, the way it looked, the way it ran ... and then heaped abuse upon the limited nature of the operating system and its umbilical tie to the Internet.
David Pogue of The New York Times is one example. In his column, entitled "A Laptop, Its Head in the Cloud," he calls the Series 5 "gorgeous, sleek" and "a sexy idea." Pogue adds that, "The simplicity and purity of this laptop is refreshing and unthreatening; it's like an iPad with a keyboard."
And then he gets down to the operating system: "With very few exceptions, when the Chromebook isn't online, it's a 3.3-pound paperweight," he snarls. Forgive him; virtually every review reads the same way, with either an apologetic take on the Chrome operating system's limitations (from those who award good scores overall) or an almost angry litany of complaints (from those who like the hardware but give the overall experience a lower rating).
Chromebooks have had this effect since the beginning. Pundits dismissively predicted their failure: PC World's Tony Bradley sneered, in a column posted May 15 entitled "Chromebooks Are Doomed to Fail," that the ChromeOS experiment "is going to fizzle." The reasons: culture, functionality and price.
The only problem: it didn't. Melanie Pinola at PC World notes that, despite Bradley's predictions, the Chromebook Series 5 topped the Computers and Accessories bestsellers list at Amazon at the start of July, and remained solidly in the top 20 that month. Its various models and the AC700 are still drifting in and out of the top 20 notebooks in mid-August. Even with their high prices. Even with their paperweight status offline.
That's despite the fact that owners seem to be just as divided about the Chromebook experience as their professional counterparts. User reviews of the Chromebooks at Amazon.com caution, repeatedly, that these are not desktop or laptop replacements. It just doesn't seem to stop people from buying them.