Google Chromebook lacks luster -- and purpose

Samsung Chromebook Series 5 3G brings ho-hum hardware to the half-baked Chrome OS

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Similarly, printing is handled via Google Cloud Print -- which, for all its lofty branding, simply means you must have a PC on your network running the Chrome browser to act as a spooler for local printers. You can't plug a printer into the Chromebook, and Cloud Print offers only minimal controls (nothing driver-specific, for example).

None of this may be a turnoff to folks who are already sold on the browser-based computing model. Bear in mind, however, that doing anything on a Chromebook requires network access. At present, there is no way to use any applications while offline. Double-clicking the Google Docs icon from the home screen with networking disabled, for example, simply displays the message, "The app is currently unreachable." Forget about using a Chromebook on most airplanes.

Fortunately, using the Series 5 on the ground is not difficult. In addition to the expected 802.11b/g/n, the model I tested came with bundled 3G data connectivity from Verizon Wireless. Better still, the first 100MB of 3G data each month is included free of charge for the first two years. That's not enough for full-time use, but as a means to access your apps on the rare occasions that you're out of Wi-Fi range, it's generous. You can purchase additional 3G data if you run out.

Chromebook: The business case
So is a Chromebook for you? For a home user weighing a laptop purchase, Chrome OS's capabilities will prove extremely limited. But for business users, Google makes the case that those limitations can also be strengths, in terms of how much time and money Chrome OS can save IT departments.

With Chromebooks, there are never any applications to install and no drive images to manage. Even Chrome OS updates are all taken care of, delivered automatically over the Internet.

Security is also a factor. The Chrome browser was designed from the ground up to have an airtight security model. While that hasn't kept it totally free of vulnerabilities, Chrome OS adds another layer of protection. Because Chrome OS doesn't run any traditional software, it's nearly impervious to rootkits, adware, or keyloggers. Thus, even when a Chrome vulnerability exists, it can seldom be exploited on a Chromebook. 

The Samsung Chromebook Series 5 currently retails for $500 with 3G connectivity or $430 without. But Google also offers a business package on a subscription basis for $33 or $30 per month, per Chromebook. This rate includes the hardware and full support from Google. In addition, IT administrators gain access to a Web-based console that allows them to centrally manage browser options, including installed extensions, proxy settings, authentication policies, site and application blacklists, and more.

On the other hand, you can set up the desktop Chrome installer to preconfigure the browser in similar ways. A Linux-based netbook running Chrome would be less expensive than a Chromebook and just as impervious to malware. And installing Chrome by itself on a traditional OS isn't really much more of a hassle than walking the laptop over to the user's desk, with the advantage that a traditional OS offers much greater versatility than Chrome OS.

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