Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Samsung Chromebook Pro - Early Review

This is a review of the Samsung Chromebook Pro.  I'm not a professional reviewer - I'm a user.  I do have a pretty extensive background in IT - computing, programming and networking.  This is not my first Chromebook.  Some factors about me and about my purchase of this device that will no doubt color my review:

  • I already had a Chromebook.  I have a positive view of Chromebooks in general and what they do, how they're meant to be used, etc.  
  • My old Chromebook worked great as a Chromebook, doing all the stuff Chromebooks do...with one or two minor caveats - a couple of web sites in particular were pretty poor performers (oddly enough Google sites like G+ and Inbox, and the CNN site is horrible)
  • A few things I never expected a Chromebook to do all that well, including rendering 3D in the browser, were sub-par on the old Chromebook.
  • From strictly a nerdist point of view, I was interested in the idea of running Android apps on a Chromebook.  Understand, I didn't need to run them but I thought it would be cool to try out.  Originally it could only be done using an emulator; now Google is slowly rolling out the capability for select Chromebooks, but my old one can't run them yet and probably won't run them well when and if it is supported
  • The old Chromebook was the late 2014 model Toshiba Chromebook 2 with the BayTrail Celeron processor. 
I began hearing about the Samsung Chromebook Pro late last year.  It was one of a pair of new Chromebooks from Samsung (the other being the Chromebook Plus) designed in partnership with Google to run Android apps alongside the main Chrome browser and browser-based apps.  The two models are virtually identical except for the color (silver for the Plus and black for the Pro), the processor (an ARM processor in the Plus and an Intel core m3 in the Pro) and the price - about $450 for the Plus and $550 for the Pro.  For a variety of reasons, the Plus went on sale about 5 months earlier than the Pro - there were persistent rumors of problems with the Pro, everything from heat-related issues to reported difficulties getting the Intel processor to run Android apps acceptably.  Note that in theory, the Pro is supposed to be the faster device - as fast or faster than the Plus for Android, and a LOT faster doing the browser-based work Chromebooks are known for.  That's why it cost $100 more.  

The Samsung Chromebook Pro hit the market a couple weeks ago, and I got mine within a few days of the first units hitting the street.  Having had a few weeks with it, how does it stack up.  That's what I'm going to write about here, but let me give you a hint - I just sold my Toshiba Chromebook 2 on Ebay.

Basic Description

The Samsung Chromebook Pro (I'm going to use the abbreviation SCP after this) is a laptop with a Intel core m3 processor (a "mobile" processor which nevertheless is a good bit more powerful than some of Intel's previous mobile CPUs), a 12.3 inch IPS display with a top resolution of 2400x1600, 4 gigs of RAM, and 32 gigs of SSD storage.  It has a micro-SD slot and two USB-C ports.  As this device is intended to run Android apps, it has a touch-screen, the screen folds all the way back around so the device can be used as a tablet, and it has a pen similar to what Samsung provides with their Galaxy Note smartphones and tablets.

As a piece of hardware, this is a really nice laptop.  It is an all-metal housing, and the black looks sweet.  The screen is gorgeous - bright and sharp.  One of my only "complaints" is that at 12.3 inches it's really not big enough to run at the top resolution (2400x1600) because none of the UI elements scale, and even though you can scale up the content of web pages, you typically don't have that kind of control for Android apps yet.  In other words unless you have super vision, you're probably going to run this at a slightly lower resolution.

If you haven't noticed, this thing isn't using the widescreen aspect ratio that has become so common in recent years - it has gone back to the sort of 3x2 shape we used to have on most monitors.  This works better for web browsing and running web apps - and since this is (after all) a Chromebook that works very well, giving you more vertical screen space.  

However in order to keep the size down, Samsung has a very narrow margin on either side of the keyboard and has shrunk and rearrange a couple of keys.  The one everyone notices - and which I am still getting used to - is the backspace key, which is now smaller than any normal key on the keyboard.  It is super easy to hit the "=" key by mistake.  Otherwise the keyboard works well enough and feels pretty good.

The USB situation is not ideal although I presume this is where things are headed - two USB-C ports.  No regular USB 2.0 or 3.0 ports.  By the way, you have to charge the device through one of those two ports as well.  I bought a hub that passes power through a USB-C connector into the laptop, gives me HDMI and VGA outputs, a wired gigabit ethernet port, and 3 USB 3.0 ports.  That helps.

Back to the screen - the touch screen is responsive.  The device goes into tablet mode when you flip the screen around past a certain point.  The pen works on the screen at any time as a pointer/selector, but can also be used for input in writing and drawing apps, and can also be used as a magnifier for a portion of the screen.  When not in use the pen tucks away in a spring-loaded slot on the device.

What I Like

I like the size, and the form factor.  The extra vertical space on screen gives a bit more content room for web pages, and web-work is still the #1 use for a Chromebook.  The web on this device is really snappy - including some things that used to bog down my old Chromebook, like the Google Inbox email site, Google Plus (G+), etc.  CNN is still kind of sucky - I tend to go to the main page and open a whole bunch of article links in new tabs, and there's so much multi-media crap, Flash, and other junk on CNN that it gets nasty fast.  But everything else has been very smooth, including things that render in 3D in the browser, like the 3D imagery on Google Maps.

The keyboard feels nice.  I listed my one complaint already and I'll mention it again later but overall the keys have a nice feel, and I can type on here for long periods.  The trackpad is awesome, too - I loved the one on my Toshiba but this one blows it away, it's like butter.

I like that the micro-SD is recessed behind a little cover. 

I love the screen, it's beautiful.  The touch aspect is unexpectedly nice - being able to pinch zoom any time, even on regular web pages, is awesome.  The hinges on the screen are stiff enough that I can rotate the screen pretty much any angle all the way until it's flat against the back of the keyboard, and it stays where I put it.  

I like the pen - although I am not, at present, using it much as intended.  Handwriting and drawing on screen is something I have not really "taken to" - I had a Samsung Galaxy Note phone for a long time and almost never used the pen there either.  But this pen can be used like an onscreen finger for anything, which is neat for precision pointing or just flicking around; and it can be put in magnifying glass mode which is sometimes neat for a person with poor eyes like mine.  I do have several drawing and note-taking programs I'm playing with to see if I will use it much for writing.  I've been a long-time user of Google Keep but so far using the pen in Keep doesn't feel very natural.

One of the biggest pleasant surprises has been running Android apps.  I had heard so much FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) about how an Intel processor would handle apps that I guess I had very low expectations.  Let me just say, so far I'm very impressed with what Google and Samsung have done here.  I can access the Play Store, pick an app, and install it, and run it - and apps are smooth and work well.  I have games, including some that do a lot of 3D like Vainglory; I have the full Android version of Instagram which is superior to looking at the Instagram web interface; I have got Snapseed on here which is fun for doing certain kinds of image edits.  I found a nice diagramming tool (for basic network diagrams).  There is just SO much available now that this becomes a much more full-featured device.  

In fact, for those of us that have enjoyed Chromebooks for what they are, adding Android apps feels like it's taking things in the wrong direction...but they're cool to have.

What I Don't Like

To beat the dead horse, I don't like the tiny backspace key.  For someone that does a lot of typing, it's damned inconvenient to reach for backspace and end up typing ====== all over the place.

No USB 3.0 ports is a pain in the butt, having to buy a dongle to turn one of my USB-C ports into USB 3.0 ports is bad, having to use a USB-C port to get my drift here.

Right now Android apps either operate by default in phone size/orientation, or they open full screen if you have the Chromebook Pro screen rotated back in tablet mode.  There's not much in between.  And the phone size/orientation can leave the app running in a tiny window if you're using a higher resolution.  There is a dev-mode option you can enable to run an app maximized by default and in portrait mode, and that works better for me.  With the dev mode options you can even turn on resizing for some apps.  However until Android O (and new versions of the apps) appears, we will not the capability very widespread.

A little worse is that Android app content doesn't scale (most of the time) - text is super small and controls can be as well.  It's usually better in full screen games which tend to scale as you would expect.

Battery life is rated at about 10 hours.  I have no idea who came up with that number, but I can tell you that if you turn on Bluetooth, or attach a wireless mouse dongle, and especially if you do streaming video, the battery life is heavily and quickly impacted.  I keep this plugged into the charger at all times unless I'm going to be out and about, and then I leave the mouse home.  I used to use Bluetooth so my phone could auto-unlock my screen, but I have disabled this for the time being.

Two Widely Discussed Issues

Almost since Google and Samsung announced a pair of new Chromebooks, one with an ARM processor and one with an Intel x86, there has been a lot written about how the Intel device might struggle with running Android apps.  Some have suggested they should be just fine, since Android apps are (theoretically) pure Java.  Others have rightly pointed out that many Android apps are written with custom, ARM-specific optimizations (since most phones and tablets use those kinds of CPUs).  Of course, Intel-based Chromebooks have had the advantage running Chrome OS and the full version of the Chrome browser.  It seemed that there was a basic tradeoff being offered - buy the Plus with the ARM processor if you mostly wanted Android apps and not so much Chrome, and buy the Pro with the Intel processor to maximize Chrome capability and expect some issues (poor, buggy performance) with Android apps.

I've already addressed this but to be perfectly clear - the Pro runs Android apps like a champ.  I have run fairly complex ones, too - they work, and work really well (given the caveats above about resizing and such, which affect the ARM-based Chromebook Plus equally).  There is a guy who runs a pro-ARM web site and appears writing all kinds of nasty comments about Intel and Intel-based devices who has been spreading a lot of unfounded crap around the comment sections of Chrome and IT web sites, and simply put, he's just wrong.  

The second issue has to do with "The Verge" tech web site.  It seems the Chromebook Pro may have a bit of a bug, probably in software, that causes the device to occasionally freeze.  I've seen it myself.  Not often mind you, and only when performing certain kinds of activities, but it does happen.  It seems to me almost certain that this will be fixed quickly - it doesn't look like it will be hard to nail down.  But The Verge is recommending people "do not buy" the device.  And I think that stinks - it's a really good device which pushes a bunch of new boundaries, and works remarkably well.  I do not believe the "do not buy" recommendation to be warranted.

Update: I have not had a freeze episode for several weeks.  I have no idea why; ChromeOS has not been updated since the initial release.