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TECH LAB

A wonderful machine, a little too late

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Columnist / June 16, 2011

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Internet search titan Google Inc. has now given us the world’s best netbook computer. But why?

We don’t really need netbook computers any more. Maybe a few years ago, when small, inexpensive netbooks were ultra-portable, refreshing alternatives to bulky, overpriced laptops. But full-featured laptops are cheaper these days. And if it’s simplicity you want, there’s Apple Inc.’s brilliant iPad 2 tablet computer.

But while the new Google Chromebook laptop from Samsung Corp. is an elegant, well-engineered gadget, I doubt I’ll get to test a Chromebook 2. This device seems like a dead end, a solution to a problem we no longer have.

It seemed like a much better idea two years ago, when Google first announced its plan to build an Internet-centric computer based on a new Web browser and operating system, both named Chrome. The idea was to create a true netbook, a personal computer that would use Internet servers to handle nearly every important task. The Chromebook would be little more than a screen, a keyboard, a little bit of data storage capacity, and a Web browser. That, plus a high-speed Internet link, was all you’d need.

Instead of buying the costly, bulky Microsoft Office software suite, you’d create documents online with Google Docs. Upload photos to Google’s Picasa website and your favorite tunes to Google Music, and look or listen on the Chromebook whenever you please. It’s an old idea; indeed, a similar device appeared last year, a Boston-bred netbook called Litl. It was nice, too. But for the same price, you could get a full-powered laptop that would do all the Googley online stuff and a good deal more.

The Chromebook has stumbled into the same trap. Too bad. It’s a lovely device. Samsung makes nice hardware, and the sleek 3-pound Chromebook is a pleasure to handle. Its brilliant 12-inch screen is about as good as you’ll find, and the full-size keyboard is comfy and responsive.

There’s a large mousepad below the keyboard which replaces the standard pushbuttons with a giant clickable surface, and multitouch controls that should make users of Macintosh laptops feel right at home.

And it’s fast where it counts, especially during bootup. Just flipping the lid open switches the Chromebook on, and it’s fully booted in about 10 seconds. Onscreen, you just see a Chrome browser. Get used to it; that’s where everything happens.

The $429 model is Wi-Fi-only and not much good unless you’re in range. For $499, you can get a built-in 3G cellular modem; mine was set up to work with Verizon Wireless, and the first 100 megabytes were free. In a couple of hours I’d run through half my allotment. Crawled, actually; 3G is dead slow for serious Internet computing. The Chromebook badly needs a 4G upgrade.

Switch to Wi-Fi, and the Chromebook becomes a snappy Web surfer, with good multimedia performance. It’s quick and easy to set up access to your Wi-Fi hotspot. The built-in audio system is surprisingly good and it does a decent job of running online videos, including videos created in Adobe Systems Inc.’s popular Flash software — the kind that famously don’t run on the iPad. The Chromebook is also a satisfactory tool for Web-based work. Google Docs worked exactly as it does on any standard computer.

But when the network goes down, or is out of range, your shiny new Chromebook becomes little more than a placemat. Only a handful of its functions are usable when the Chromebook is offline — the personal organizer program Springpad, for instance, or the ever-popular game Angry Birds. But you can’t edit your documents or review old e-mails without a connection. Google says it will add those capabilities sometime this summer.

You can store vital files in the Chromebook’s 16-gigabytes of flash memory, or plug them in using USB thumb drives or SD memory cards. But the Chromebook’s primitive file management system makes transferring and organizing your stuff far harder than it ought to be. You can’t even drag and drop files between directories, a trivial process on other laptops. But the Chromebook was designed for a world where you don’t need thumb drives, where all digital data is lodged in the cloud, and is instantly accessible over fast wireless networks. In other words, the Chromebook was designed by and for people who spend 16 hours a day working at Google. For them, it’s brilliant. For the rest of us, not so much.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.