Exploring the Samsung ARM Chromebook 3G
Back in late 2010, Google announced a "Chromebook"—a low-cost, entry-level netbook that would run Google's own operating system, ChromeOS. Google's vision of ChromeOS, although based on Linux, basically would be a giant Web browser, with all the apps on the machine running in the browser. ChromeOS would be a nearly stateless computer, with all the user's apps based in Google's cloud, running the Google Apps suite.
Google's first stab at this was the CR-48: an Intel Atom-powered netbook with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of Flash. The CR-48 wasn't a powerhouse by any means, but it had a couple cool things going for it. First, it came with 100MB of free 3G service a month. Second, it had a "developer mode" that allowed users to break free of the strict Chrome-based browser jail and expose the chewy Linux center. A CR-48 in developer mode became a usable machine for a lot of people, because the machine pretty much became a small Linux laptop.
Today—the Samsung ARM Chromebook
Fast-forward a couple years, and the first real Chromebook products are hitting the market. Quite a few Chromebooks exist today, but all of them are Intel-based (either Atom or Celeron). In late 2012, however, Samsung released an ARM-based Chromebook. This little guy is different in lots of ways—primarily, it beats its bigger brothers in size and battery life, without compromising much on performance. Speaking of performance, let's go over the specifications of the XE303—the first non-Intel powered Chromebook:
Dual-Core, Samsung Exynos 5 ARM CPU (Cortex A15, 1.7GHz).
2GB of RAM (not upgradable, soldered to the mainboard).
16GB SSD/Flash-based disk (also not upgradable, soldered to the mainboard).
ARM Mali T-604 Quad-Core GPU.
Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n).
Bluetooth 3.0 (sadly, no Bluetooth 4.0 here).
11" LCD screen at 1366x768 resolution.
One USB 2.0 port, one USB 3.0 port, one HDMI-out port and one SD card slot.
Optional 3G modem (CDMA, on the Verizon network in the US, equipped on this model).
6.5 hours of (rated) battery life.
Dimensions: 2.4 lbs (1.10 kg), 11.4" x 8.2" x 0.68" (289.6 x 208.5 x 17.5mm).
Bonus: 100GB of Google Drive included for two years.
Bonus: 100MB/month of Verizon 3G service included for two years (3G model only).
Figure 1. The Samsung ARM Chromebook, atop an iPad for Scale
Looking at the specifications individually, they aren't mind-blowing. However, when you put them together in a $329 computer ($249 if you get the non-3G version), that's something different altogether. This is a functioning computer—with a keyboard—that is playing in the tablet price-point and space. The keyboard is actually quite good for a machine of this size. Compared to other netbook-class machines I've owned, this keyboard is far and away the best I've used amongst low-end hardware. The display isn't outstanding, but it's serviceable and does the job. The build quality is quite good, although the unit is built from plastic—there's no metal in it—keeping the price point down where it needs to be. The unit doesn't creak, pop or feel cheap, despite the fact that it's one of the least expensive computers I've owned.
Figure 2. The Chromebook in Use, iPad Provided for Scale
Surprisingly enough, the little dual-core ARM CPU does a great job of keeping things running—and running silently, as there's no hard disk or fans to make noise in this little guy. The Chromebook had no problems playing 720p video streams from Netflix (where the Google and Netflix wizards have HTML5 streaming running for the Chromebook without needing anything but the Chrome browser). The Chromebook also performed just fine while watching H264-encoded video streaming via Apache off a machine on my local network, and it did it while maintaining its advertised battery life of 6.5 hours. But, it's running something that's not a "real OS"—ChromeOS. Is ChromeOS usable?
Bill Childers is the Virtual Editor for Linux Journal. No one really knows what that means.
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