Reviews

Samsung Chromebook Plus, it has apps!

Chromebooks have been filling a fairly specific roll over the past few years. They’re cheap and they’re simple, both very good things, but not massively functional like a laptop, and not really tempting as a companion device like a tablet. They’re perfect for students who need a browser and a way to write papers, they’re great for personal computing (who needs to install legacy apps to check email and keep track of finances?), and they can work well for work if what you do is mostly/all web based. A Chromebook won’t replace a Windows laptop or MacBook for power users, and it doesn’t impede too seriously on the tablet space because it lacks the friendly apps we’re used to and the ‘cuddle’ factor (common, it’s much more comfy to curl up with a tablet for reading/watching your shows than it is with a laptop).  Google has a mind to change this though.

The Samsung Chromebook Plus pushes the Chromebook category both ways, it offers additional functionality with the stylus (still not going to replace a desktop OS, but it’s worth something) and it promises a very exciting Google Play Services and apps experience which could all but remove your desire for a tablet. This is one of the very first devices to hit the market that could truly replace your laptop and your tablet. The Surface has tried but Windows doesn’t have apps so it fails as a tablet. The iPad pro aspires to this too, but its functionality is severely limited by the lack of a full browser so it fails the productivity test (for most of us). I love what the Chromebook Plus is after, device minimalism is my dream, but despite my optimism I have to admit it’s not quite there yet.

First, some notes on the hardware.

For a device priced at $449 (or often a little lower here), this thing is beautiful. Fully aluminum, kind of a soft touch, more grippy than the smooth aluminum on the new Macbook Pros.

The screen is gorgeous, high res, very clear, it looks vibrant. The aspect ratio (basically how wide and tall it is) is 3:2, which means that it’s 3 parts wide, 2 parts tall. That’s taller than a typical laptop (which is 16:9) and it’s really nice. The screen size is only 12.3 inches diagonal, but the aspect ratio means that there is more screen real estate, more square inches of screen, than on a 12.3 diagonal screen at a normal 16:9 aspect ratio. You’ll notice right away when you open up a window on this screen, it just feels like you’ve got more space to work with. It’s also a touchscreen, which is great. It’s very responsive and smooth, it often tops the trackpad as an input method (more on that in a minute).

The keyboard is great. I can’t say that keyboards are something that really get me going, but a bad keyboard is noticeable. This is not a bad keyboard. On a 12.3 inch device the size and spacing of the keys can sometimes be too tight but the Plus gets it just right. The keys are spaced well, they have a nice bit of travel, it’s just comfortable. I can fly on this thing. I typically use a MacBook Retina (2016) with the chiclet keyboard, but I like this keyboard better.

The trackpad is another story. It’s downright frustrating to use. I don’t like the severe pressure it takes to get it to click, if it’s not on a table I literally have to keep my thumb under the bottom lip in order to get enough leverage to press it. You can use tap to click here, but I like my trackpads to click, and this one doesn’t make it easy. Because it’s too hard to click and the surface area is relatively small, dragging and dropping is also tough, not to say infuriating. Instead of selecting and deleting, I ended up just using the curser and hitting backspace a million times, it’s unfortunately less frustrating than trying to make a selection. Continuing on this theme, basic trackpad interaction is also bad. It registers touches inconsistently and non touches regularly so the pointer is constantly jumping around and scrolling is a borderline nightmare. It’s not completely unusable, but it’s definitely frustrating to use. I’m optimistic that it will be fixed with some software tweaks, but for now it’s pretty rough. On the plus (pun!) side, interaction with the touch screen is wonderful. Who needs a trackpad anyways!

I’m totally in on the digital pen as an input device. Something about physically writing things down seems to cement them in my memory better than tapping keys. Most of us aren’t artists so we’re not interested in using a computer or tablet to draw pictures, but the added functionality of pen input can still be compelling. Note taking, form filling, signing documents, the simple fact that you don’t need to print things off to interact with them are all available with this pen on the Plus. It works well especially with Keep (one of the best app experiences on the Plus) for taking notes, though there is a little bit of noticeable lag. The pen experience on the Plus is not quite on par with the Surface or the iPad Pro at this point, for whatever reason it’s just a little slower and less smooth, but I’ll take it over a penless device any day. It also stows in the side of the keyboard in its own little port which is so much better than Microsoft’s and Apple’s “store it where ever you want, good luck not losing it!” approach.

Last thing on the hardware, and we’re nitpicking at this point, but the lid is too hard to pry open. A good rule of thumb for a laptop lid is that you should be able to open it with one hand while it sits on a desk/table. The Plus isn’t there, it’s impossible to open without using two hands.

Overall the build of this thing is fantastic, especially considering the price tag. There are not many laptops or tablets which pair a touchscreen, full keyboard, trackpad, and digital pen with a beautiful aluminum casing, let alone for $449.

 

Now, on to software.

This is the exciting part, or at least it was supposed to be. We’ve been waiting for a real app experience on a hybrid device for years, and it finally seems like Google is taking up the mantle. Full disclosure on Google’s part, Google Play Services (the whole app experience) is in beta. That’s a wise move on Google’s part because it all feels very betaish. I’ll sum it all up in one sentence: the potential is amazing, as good as I hoped it would be, but the execution is not there yet.

For clarity purposes, you can get android apps on the Plus, almost any app you want. However, whether or not you’ll want to use them, or even be able to use them, that’s a separate question. Using the Plus has been an effective emotional rollercoaster (I can download my favorite weather app! – wow, it’s so buggy it’s almost useless! There’s my favorite game! – wait, it won’t open?!) Most of the apps that you use every day are available (although some are not compatible), which is incredibly exciting to say about a machine with a full desktop browser, unfortunately the experience is sub par at this point.

Games: I downloaded Clash Royal (how cool to play a smartphone game on this huge screen!), but when I attempt to open it, the screen flashed white until I shut it down. I tried multiple times to no avail, the game simply doesn’t work. Turns out this is true for many games in the Play Store (although Crossy Road works!).

Productivityish apps: I downloaded a few Google apps (calendar, Gmail, Maps), Kindle, some weather apps, and a miscellaneous assortment of others. They all work okay, at least most of them open, but I can’t find a compelling reason to use any of them over their website counterparts. They have less function and more glitch. One of the major issues, aside from the mediocre performance, is the fact that their windows are not scalable! They come in two sizes, a small window or full screen. For some apps this is fine, but for most apps the small window is too small to do much with and full screen is pixely and exclusive (how are you going to multitask with one window open?). Google appears to be planning to remove the ‘beta’ disclaimer for Google Services on the Plus this spring, I’m optimistic there will be some significant improvements over these next few months, including scalable app windows.

A big winner in all of this is Google Keep. It’s one of the very few apps I tried that actually is scalable, which confirmed both that scalability a big plus (pun!) and that Google has the ability to give apps that capability. It also showcases the multitude of functions that Google has been consistently building into its note taking app. Keep is no longer only a super simple place to jot down a few thoughts, it includes reminders, collaboration, a nifty organization-by-tags tool, integration with Google Docs and Google Drive, and recently, text recognition so you can still search your notes if you’re writing by hand using the handy stylus. Even with all of these improvements and additions, Keep has remained the super intuitive note taking app that initially drew many of its fans. Again, the writing experience isn’t quite what it is on a Surface with OneNote, or on an iPad Pro with Apple Notes, but it’s still good.

Aside from the app experience the Chromebook Plus performs really well. It uses an ARM based processor which is interesting because ARM processors are often noticeably underpowered. That doesn’t ring true here. Google, to its credit, has been extending it’s reach into different aspects of hardware design this past year. The Chromebook Plus’s ARM chip has a special OP designation which means that Google has specifically approved it for use in Chromebooks. The amount of tampering or correcting Google has actually done is up for debate, but it can’t be a bad thing to have a special Google designation, can it?

So it’s pretty clear that the Android experience on the Plus isn’t quite where anyone would like yet. Yet is the key word here. Google seems very invested in making this grand experiment an awesome solution to the device quandary we (it’s not just me right?) so often find ourselves in. Instead of deciding on the laptop or the tablet, why not have one that is both! This will be a big year for Android apps on Chromebooks one way or another. In a few months we’ll have much better idea of which way it’s heading.

App experience aside, the Plus, as a Chromebook, is awesome. I spent a lot of time on the app stuff because it’s new and exciting, but if you’re in the market for a good, beautiful, affordable Chromebook without the need for apps, the Plus has my recommendation. It’s really a nice piece of hardware and it runs Chrome OS very well. Plus (pun!) it’s got so much potential!

 

 

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Reviews

MacBook Pro (2016) from a Windows Perspective

Let me start by saying this, I really love my MacBook Pro (2016). The vibe I get from the reading I’ve done and even from people I’ve talked to makes me think I’m in the minority. It seems a defense is in order.

Before we dive in, I have a confession to make. Contrary to the incredible majority of tech writers, or just writers in general, I had never owned a MacBook Pro before 2016. Over the last 10 years I’ve used a plethora of different Widows laptops and convertibles to varying levels of satisfaction, though never enough satisfaction to keep one for more than about a year. Probably partly because of my tech fetish, and partly because of their shortcomings, I hopped around a lot. Point is, the perspective here is from Windowsland, not the glory days of the MacBook Pro.

MacBooks set the standard in design early in the millennia and most Windows laptop manufacturers have followed suit. However, no windows device that I’ve tried has quite met the standard, even Windows itself. They’re good, sure; better, definitely, but it’s impossible to miss some deficiencies. For instance, if you look at a Surface screen under light you can’t help but notice that the panel is not perfectly flat, it bends and waves. I’ve read that the reason could have to do with a technology that makes it better for touch but I don’t care, it’s supposed to be flat and it’s not. Other manufacturers have problems like hinges that loosen up over time, lids with either too much resistance or not enough, straight up bad touch pads, weird bezels (huge on the bottom), plastic all over the place, and the list goes on.

In my mind, you still can’t beat the design of the MacBook Pro in today’s market. It’s thin, it’s svelte, it’s all aluminum, it’s solid, and it looks amazing. MacBooks also tend to last forever, they’re expertly built without giving up any aesthetics. I love the look and feel of the MacBook Pro.

In the realm of UI, Windows and Mac OS do 95% of the same things, which one you choose is going to be largely subjective, or based on simple necessity (if you work in an office, chances are you’ll be tied in to Windows). My loyalties lie with Mac OS (for now).

Windows 10 has done a nice job with Windows 10 simplifying the options menus and trying to cut down on confusing parts, but it still feels like a thinly veiled beast which, as soon as you hit one too many buttons, will toss you into an endless sea of 1s and 0s. That’s an exaggeration, but it’s the feel I get. It tends to favor function over usability, options over simplicity. Mac OS is much closer to a mobile operating system in terms of ease of use. It’s still got all the raw power and functionality that a laptop should, but it’s guts are brilliantly shielded by a friendly OS which is more fun and more productive.

As far as function goes, I’ve spent an exorbitant amount on time on my Windows laptops trying to ‘fix’ things like weird scaling issues and other little glitches. It always feels like something isn’t quite right and it takes some sort of deep reprogramming job to get the machine to cooperate. Those are things I simply never have to deal with on my MacBook.

Windows has also made progress on the look of the OS, it’s far superior to what it has been in the past, but it steels feels disjointed. In its attempt to become more user friendly it has basically become two separate operating systems, the old confusing and ugly Windows vs the new sleek and usable Windows. The new menus and home screens look similar to each other, but the old look is still right below the surface, and you’re going to necessarily end up working there before you get too far. I’m out on the new design standard anyways. Too many sharp angels, weird gray menu, gaudy colors, constant moving tiles, adds, etc. Mac OS is beautiful. It has smooth graphics when opening and closing windows, its windows have rounded edges, the whole OS feels like a unified whole. It doesn’t matter which app or program you’re in, it will look like it belongs and it will look beautiful. That’s probably more important to me than it should be, but still true.

The apps might not be important to you, I mean, it’s a laptop. But I love the row of apps on my Mac menu bar. To be fair, Windows offers a few apps as well, just not nearly as many and they’re not nearly as useful. Honestly, Mac doesn’t have a ton of apps either, but I’ve found most of the basic apps I use on my iPhone available on my MacBook. The big winner here is iMessage. I can’t even tell you how great it is to have instant perfect syncing between iMessage on the iPhone and on my MacBook. I’m constantly texting people from this thing. It’s so addictively handy that iMessage alone is enough to keep me from moving to a different platform (for now). The apps are just one more thing that makes the MacBook a better laptop experience.

Overall the MacBook is a beautiful picture of simplicity. As someone who has the privilege of choosing between a MacBook or a Windows PC, the simple subjective fact that I love how the MacBook looks and feels compared to its Windows counterparts matters just as much as its functionality and productivity. For me, for now, this MacBook is as close to perfect as I can get.