Wednesday, March 06, 2013

 

My Chromebook Review

(photo taken with an Olympus E-PL1, with 25mm/1.4 cctv lens with adapter)

Initial Review of the Samsung Google Chromebook

Today I received a Samsung Chromebook, the Series 3 model, with Samsung ARM Exynos 5 Dual ARM SoC 1.7Ghz CPU, 2GB RAM, 16GB storage, 11.6” screen, USB2, USB3, and SD card slot. It came packaged securely, with a nice box, and the only accessories were the power supply, and a getting started manual.

I opened it up immediately, plugged the charger in, and without typing anything, but just by opening the lid, it started up, prompting me to sign in with my google login info. and connect to the wireless network. I entered this info. and started using it. I later noticed that it had been shipped with at about 60-70% of full battery capacity, and reached it’s full charge within an hour, all the time while I was using it.

The overall look, chicklet keyboard, and big trackpad is similar to that of an 11” Macbook Air. But upon holding it, you can tell it is built with more plastic, and less metal. My first impressions of the keyboard was that it was was noticeably more cramped than the 2006 dell 640m notebook I’ve been using, as well as my full-size desktop keyboards, but similar to the keyboard on the 2010 13” Macbook Air, but with a smaller screen size.

The screen size is a bit too small for my preferences but is probably the largest they can inexpensively fit on the 11.6” display. I’ve never liked 1376x768 pixel screens, and that is the main reason I got the 13” Macbook Air with 1440x900 pixels over the 11” version back in 2010.
1376x768 on a small < 12" screen is probably great if you use your computer to watch videos, or to use just one window at a time, but it is just too small to have two windows up side by side, whether two browser windows, or a browser window and a word processing or spreadsheet window. When you click on a new browser or app window in the chrome os lower left corner, by default, you get a new tab in your existing browser window, which makes sense. If you definitely want a new window, you can hit ctrl - alt - n to open your browser or google doc in a new window.


The screen size, and pixel density is just enough to easily do one thing at a time in one window, while with 1440x900 or greater, on either a desktop, an old 2006 era Dell, or a 13” Macbook Air allows putting up two or more windows side by side, and being able to easily read and work in both windows with default fonts. After using the 11.6” Chromebook for half an hour, I began wondering if I would eventually need reading glasses if I were to use this as a main computer, but I think it’s strength is in being a second computer dedicated to browsing and using single google apps, definitely nicer than a tablet when you want to type a lot, with it’s near full size keyboard, and functional trackpad.

While typing this review, I’ve had a few instances of my palms hitting the trackpad causing the cursor to jump up. I read up on some threads on this issue and tried turning off the “tap to click” default setting, but then tapping to click is disabled, and requires a hard long press on the pad to click, so I turned “tap to click” back on, reduced the sensitivity speed of the trackpad, and am trying to consciously keep my palms from touching the pad. It behaves similarly to the Macbook Air, in that you eventually learn to type while keeping your palms off the large trackpad. It’s unfortunate that there is not a setting, as is on say the Dell, where when typing, the touchpad can be completely disabled, but automatically re-enabled when not typing. After a bit of conscious, light palm typing, I’m touch typing at about 40wpm without errors from the touch pad, similar to what I can do on the 13” Macbook Air. [edit - after a couple of hours, trackpad is disabled, and am using it with a wireless USB mouse]

The unit came about 75% charged, and in the half hour I’ve had it plugged in, it has gone up to about 85%, and indicates that in about 20 minutes, it will reach full charge. Not bad, since I am using it, with wireless on, and the screen is at it’s default brightness (full max setting, I later brought it down a couple of notches). It ended up fully charging the battery in about an hour from plugging it in, and during this time, I was actively using it.

There are 4 tiny holes above the screen, the 3rd from the left is the largest, and is the camera. I think the other 3 are for speakers and a microphone. The camera looks exactly like the one on the Nexus 7 tablet. I haven’t tried it, but have read that it is a basic .3MP low res web cam.

The charger block is about 4” x 2” x 1”, smaller than most notebook adapters, but the plug in jack is mini sized, about the same size as some older cell phones. I wonder if the unit could have used a high power 1900mah USB plug like the ipads, and kindle fire?

The charger plugs into the back of the unit, right at the base, so while it is a circular jack, if your chromebook is on a table or flat surface, it can only rotate 180 degrees. I can see where this will can some breakages or bending if one isn’t careful, as you can't just set the corded Chromebook down flat, you should hold the power supply adapter up, so it doesn't break by hitting the table or surface before the Chromebook does.

If you have multiple windows open (with ctrl - alt - n) Alt-Tab will cycle through multiple windows that are open, as in other OS’s. The bottom left of the desktop ChromeOS has icons for the Chrome browser, Gmail, Google search, YouTube, Google drive, and Apps. But these are all just links in the ChromeOS Chrome browser. If you bring up new windows with n, they will show up here as well. You can auto hide the launcher, and recover a bit more vertical space if you like, but there is a minute lag time for the launcher to pop back up. The launch bar is not transparent.

On the lower right of the desktop launch bar are the time in (hh:mm) format, wifi bars with strength indication (0-4 rings), a battery indicator, and the a small thumbnail of the logged in user’s image that they selected when logging in. When you click on your customized image, you can see settings for wifi, bluetooth, volume settings, and charge state.

Scrolling on the large touchpad is almost like the Macbook Air, but not quite as glassy a feel, more plasticky, but functions well.

The SunSpider 0.9.1 JavaScript browser benchmark resulted in 688ms, which is about 25% slower than my 1.6Ghz 2006 Dell notebook with Intel Core Duo T2050 @ 1.60 Ghz, and over 3 times slower than my desktop pc running Chrome (AMD x2 3.2Ghz CPU), with similar scores from the Google Octane browser benchmark. However, I just noticed on the Google Chrome blog, that they recently increased Chrome performance by as much as 25%, so I’ll have to re-visit these benchmarks, once all the systems have newer chrome versions. (htttp://chrome.blogspot.com/2013/03/faster-browsing-for-your-smaller-screens.html)
For non browser specific benchmark tests, I checked out the Phoronix testsuite under linux to compare my old Dell with the Samsung ARM Chromebook. There is a database of test scores at openbenchmarking.org, which is currently populated with a few dozen tests results from other Samsung Chromebook Series 3 ARM users under various developer mode linux distros.

Comparing the same test suite as used on the above site on Samsung ARM Chromebooks on my 2006 Dell shows several cpu functions (mainly stream and GPU functions) in the Chromebook to be faster than my old Dell, which is running Linux Mint 14, but a lower overall score on the Chromebook for the test suite of 13 benchmarks.


In actual browsing usage, the Chromebook speed feels close to that of the old Dell on linux, but a tad sluggish compared to the AMD desktop. Overall, the near close browsing speed and responsiveness makes up for the larger, and bulkier size of my old Dell, and as long as I just use one window at a time, like right now, with google docs up, and a couple of idle background tabs, it runs fine, and quiet, with no fan, even quieter than the Macbook Air, whose fan, while quiet, is still noticeable in a quiet room.

I’ve noticed that in Google docs (online) every few seconds, it says “Saving” and then “All changes saved in Drive” which is reassuring, as I feel I can safely just close the lid, and my last words typed will be saved.

At the upper right of the Chromebook OS windows, are two semi-transparent icons, on the far right, an x, which closes the browser or app, and exits to the desktop wallpaper, the 2nd to right icon is a square, which behaves uniquely on the Chromebook, in that it you just click it, it reduces your full-screen browser to about a 3:2 sized window on the desktop, but it’s not just a toggle, as when you hover over it, there are 3 options below, one is to window the screen in a 3:2 sized window to the left, the middle lower option is to center it in the middle of the screen, and the right lower option will window your full screen browser/app to the right side of the screen.

As with Chrome on Windows/Mac/Linux, you can resize the browser window to your specific preferences by adjusting the window size at the borders or corners. Clicking on the desktop launcher lower left Chrome icon does not bring up your app in a new browser window, but in a new tab in the current browser window. To have multiple browser windows open, you have to type n.

The syncing of google user account info worked seamlessly after the initial login to the Chromebook. Bookmarks, and previously installed browser apps worked fine. I have the Evernote web clipping widget, and a send to Kindle widget on my chrome browser and both of these work fine on the Chromebook.

[edit] Amazon Prime Instant videos display great. Full screen mode means no black bars for most shows, audio and video quality are very good.
Once I spend a bit of time using the default Chrome OS, I plan to try using the Chromebook as a lightweight linux server. We currently have a small, low power ARM based server running in the house 24x7. The device is a Pogo goflex device with 1.2Ghz ARM processor running arch linux arm. We use it for C and C++ programming, as well as a samba file server, web server with nginix, php, and mysql. I usually ssh into it regularly throughout the day, to backup files or retrieve files with samba, or to test something, but having looked at the power consumption of this more powerful Chromebook, at ~10-20 watts power consumption, it might be a more suitable home server, although that wasn’t the purpose of the chromebook design, so I’m looking forward to finding a terminal on it [found one, ctrl - alt - t brings up a simple “crosh” terminal, with ssh client support!]

So far on the keyboard, I miss PgUp/PgDn keys, but will be searching for equivalents, or getting used to scrolling. After writing the above few paragraphs, I have accidently rested my palms heavily a couple of times on the touchpad, causing the cursor to move up, but I still think the tradeoff to turn off the tap to click feature is too strong, and will keep trying to adjust my typing, keeping my inner palms light.

I’ve only used the Chromebook for a couple of hours, so this is definitely not a thorough review, but my initial impressions are that it is a great 2nd computer, or travel computer, being extremely small, keeping all/most data on the cloud (or removable USB/SD media) or both.

Summary:

The raw performance is not equal to a standard business notebook, even an older one, but the speed of the Chrome browser, and apps run in the browser, while measurably are a bit slower, are not as noticeable due to the optimizations of the Chrome OS on the new ARM SoC platform, and also the optimizations in, and coming, for future upgrades of the Chrome browser, and Google apps.

Also, more importantly, the size, and power consumption of the ARM based CPU system is about 10 times less than typical desktop systems, and half or one-third that of my older notebook, with monitor on, so the Chromebook has a huge advantage for being power efficient, portable, fanless, and cool notebook, and potential mini-home-linux-server.

Although the primary purpose of the Chromebook is to be used for web use and google apps, when connected to wifi (I haven’t tried offline app usage yet), I’m looking forward to seeing how useful it can be as a mini linux server. There are a handful of ARM based systems with linux support available, but they come with no display, case, or power supply, and cost almost as much as this Chromebook, and most come with older CPUs and less memory and storage, so I think there may be a small niche of folks who end up using these as stand alone home or mini linux servers, whether for file sharing or programming, or for streaming video. There are many environments where a quiet fanless, low power server that is on 24x7 can be very handy.

Considering this Chromebook with it’s designed purpose, to be small, light, quiet, energy efficient, fanless, and inexpensive, and where there is always online access, it is a great value. It costs less than many tablets, but in most situations can function as well as a standard notebook. The new Chromebook Pixel sounds like it has a great display, but it is priced high, (and has a fan...).
Something in the middle, like a next generation version with a 1440x900, 1600x900, or FHD display, while retaining no moving parts like fans or hard drives, would be a great in-between  product between the Samsung and Pixel Chromebooks.
What remains to be seen is if the Samsung can be hacked into a great power efficient mini server with say Arch Linux Arm, or perhaps an Ubuntu release running off of media attached by USB, or an SD card.
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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

 

slate yawning

Nex 5 with Hexanon AR 57/1.4 lens.
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Saturday, June 09, 2012

 

coffee stuff

On the left is a TruBru pour over station used mostly with Hario and Clever drippers. In the middle is a Baratza Preciso grinder, and the espresso machine is the Crossland CC1.

Photo was taken with a NEX-5 with 18-55 kit zoom (@ ~35mm equiv. fl.), 1/40th, f4, ISO 800. Converted to b/w in Picasa.
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Slate sleeping on his yellow pillow

Slate sleeping on his yellow pillow. Taken with a Fuji F50fd at 1/4 second, f2.8, ISO 800, 37mm equiv. fl.
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Chris in Science Bowl t-shirt

Chris wearing the Science Bowl t-shirt that he and mommy designed for their school team.
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Sunday, August 21, 2011

 

Tom Sawyer Country Coffee

This is a photo I took of Tom Sawyer, a local coffee roaster with a shop in Hangman Valley called Tom Sawyer Country Coffee. Tom has been involved in the coffee and roasting business for over fifty years, and has a complete roasting facility in the rooms behind his coffee bar.

Tom was kind enough to give Chris and I a tour of his roasting facilities, and walk us through the history and process that results in a variety of high quality coffees.

He also poured me about 6 shots, from various fresh roasts, and I also tried his cold Toddy coffee which was excellent, and was recently written up in a Spokesman Review article. We left with some supplies and a couple pounds of his Baker's blend, which we've been very pleased with. I'm looking forward to meeting up with Tom again soon, and trying out some of his other coffees.

The photo was taken with a Bessa R, with Leica 50/2.8 Elmar, and Portra 160 VC film.
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