Samsung launches its chromebook
Berlin - Google took two years to work out the concept for its Chrome operating system. Now the first Chromebook - from Samsung - is out. It's fast and secure, but it doesn't offer all the functions of today's laptops - and it can do next to nothing without internet access.
But there are bright spots too. For instance: Boot-up time. A Windows laptop can take two or three minutes until it's ready to run. It's a whole different story with the Samsung Chromebook: it takes nine seconds from pressing the start button until the login window pops up. Only two more seconds elapse after the password is entered.
It takes about the same amount of time for the netbook to make a Wi-Fi internet connection, pulling up the web-based user interface.
Things go even faster - a total of three seconds - when it's time for the Chromebook to wake up from standby and re-establish its Wi-Fi connection. That's a feat so far only mastered by laptops like the MacBook Air, which has an SSD hard drive. But those SSD-enabled laptops usually cost twice the €400 asked for the Samsung device.
The operating system is key to the speed. Most laptops using either a Windows or Mac OS system open multiple layers of the system, as well as components and programmes during start up, creating the impression that the process takes an eternity.
Meanwhile, the Chromebook, at its core, is just a Linux operating system and the Chrome browser. Programmes like e-mail clients, word processors, spreadsheets, games or photo processing programmes are not stored on the computer, but accessed via the browser as web services.
For working while online, Google has made available its reliable suite of web applications, including Gmail, Calendar and a series of apps like Google Docs. But users are not limited to Google programmes. There's also access to competitors like Yahoo and Microsoft.
And, if the laptop is operated in guest mode, a Google login isn't even necessary, meaning the user leaves no data trail on the Chromebook.
Dead when offline
A Web Store has about 5 000 applications available. But a lot of applications that laptop users have come to expect on their machines -video editing software or Skype for internet calls - aren't there, even if Google does offer its own voice-over-internet-protocol service.
But the biggest drawback isn't selection of programmes - which is always growing - but the need to rely on a stable internet connection. The Chromebook is capable of almost nothing when offline.
Thus, the Chromebook, for now, is only of interest to people who can spend their entire day in a networked environment, like students on a campus or people with reliable internet connections in their home or office.
Of course, one can ensure a full time connection with a €450 UMTS version that accesses the internet via mobile services. But that still means you're offline if you wander into an area without service or get onto an airplane.
Chrome developer Sundar Pichai told the German Press Agency dpa that, in the near future, key applications like Gmail and Google Docs would work when offline.
"Those already work on my personal Chromebook. We'll free up this function for everyone soon, after we've cleared up a few small problems." But he didn't give a date.
Another advantage of the Chromebook is that updates are automatically uploaded in the background. "Whereas as a standard laptop will generally get slower in the course of time, Chromebooks will always get better," promised Pichai.
One area where Google could expand its offerings is in the selection of multimedia formats for recording and playback. Right now that's limited to MP3 and AAC files or pictures in the JPEG and PNG format. Quicktime films and data in the popular MKV format cannot be viewed.
Users, however, don't have to worry about regular updates of anti virus software. That's because the Google system's architecture cannot be attacked by Trojans and other malware.
Also, the Chromebook checks the integrity of the system at every start up.
If the check finds damaged or dangerous code the computer starts a second version of the system software from a protected backup.
In theory, one can work all day long with the Chromebook. Of course, if you spend all your time watching high-definition videos on YouTube, you'll drain your battery in six hours, since the Dual Core Atom N570 Intel processor requires a lot of energy.
The display offers a comfortably high resolution (1 280 X 800 pixels) and is matte, meaning there are no problems with reflections, as is the case with the screens of most of today's laptops. But the image quality does drop off significantly if the screen is viewed from a sideways angle.
But these pros and cons are secondary issues when it comes to the Chromebook. Whether you want to be online or offline is the key question.
"Because of the small hard drive, everything has to go into the cloud," said Christian Woelbert, an editor with the German computer magazine c't. For most private users, the Google machine will probably only be a backup device.
Matthias Kremp of Spiegel magazine's website is critical of the complete reliance on web access. "Only when Google and the manufacturers of Chrome web apps can fix this problem, can netbooks become a true alternative to today's laptops that can be taken seriously."