A laptop with a premium price that doesn't offer a premium experience

When it comes to making Chromebooks, Samsung was there from the very beginning. Following in the Google CR-48's footsteps, Samsung entered the market in mid-2011 with the first Chromebook from a third-party manufacturer, the Series 5. This 12-inch laptop weighed over three pounds, had a woefully under-powered Atom processor and cost far too much for anyone's consideration at the time. Samsung kept at it, following up with a revamped Series 5 and all-new ARM-powered Series 3 a few months apart in 2012, making clearer value propositions as Google's Chrome OS came into its own. And that was it, Samsung didn't make another Chromebook again for well over a year.

Coming out of nowhere, really, Samsung announced two brand new Chromebook models — simply dubbed "Samsung Chromebook 2" — in February of this year. The laptops are nearly identical to one another but come in 11-inch and 13-inch (which we have here) varieties, showing no physical similarities to past Samsung Chromebooks, instead borrowing design elements from its recent Windows laptops and the faux leather from the Galaxy Note 3. They sport higher-resolution screens, large trackpads and all-new Exynos octa-core ARM processors under the hood.

Those changes also bring bumped up prices, too, with the 13-inch model coming in at $399 — a price that tops all available Chromebooks aside from the Pixel. Samsung's definitely going at the "premium" Chromebook market in a real way this time around, but can it succeed with its first device in well over a year? We dive into that question with our full review of the Samsung Chromebook 2 (13-inch).

About this review

This is the 13-inch model of the Chromebook 2, which has 4GB of RAM and 16GB of storage. Though there is also an 11-inch model of this laptop, the differences between the two are slim. The smaller version has a slightly lower screen resolution, slower processor clock speed and smaller battery. For all intents and purposes, performance between the two should be the same.

Hardware and internals

Samsung Chromebook 2 (13-inch)

One glance at the spec sheet for the Chromebook 2 tells you that this is a big departure from the lower-end components found in Samsung's previous Chromebook efforts. The 13-inch model of the laptop has a 1920x1080 LED display, 4GB of DDR3L RAM, 16GB of storage and a top-of-its-line Exynos 5800 octa-core processor running at 2.0GHz (a step above what you find in Samsung's latest Tab S tablets). It also has USB 3.0, a MicroSD card reader, HDMI out, a full-sized keyboard and trackpad, stereo speakers, 802.11ac Wifi, Bluetooth 4.0 and just about every other spec sheet entry you could wish for (aside from more storage, possibly).

Category Features
Display 13.3-inch 1920x1080, 165 ppi, LED
Processor Exynos 5800 octa-core at 2.0GHz
Memory 4GB DDR3L
Storage 16GB internal, MicroSD expandable
Connectivity 802.11ac/n/g/b/a Wifi, Bluetooth 4.0
Ports 1x USB 2.0, 1x USB 3.0, HDMI, headphone/mic
Battery 4700mAh / 35Wh Lithium-Polymer
Dimensions 12.72 x 8.80 x 0.65-inches
Weight 3.06 lb

Moving from internal to external attributes, the Chromebook 2 is a very good looking device. Samsung employed the same curvature to its chassis as many of its latest Windows laptops, which brings the front of the laptop down to a narrow point and puts a nice curve to a thicker base at the back of the machine where the ports are. You'll find a MicroSD card slot, full-sized HDMI port, USB port and power plug on the left edge, with the headphone jack, another USB port and a security lock slot on the right. The use of a MicroSD card slot is clever, as it goes under a flap in the side and can be used as semi-permanent storage without fear of it being pulled out accidentally. There's also a distinct lack of any vents or fans around the machine due to its ARM processor, which is a bonus in terms of looks and rigidity.

It's a whole lot of matte gray plastic, but it looks good.

This model is the "Luminous Titan" color — which is just a fancy way to say "gray" — that's exclusive to the larger model, and if you want basic white or black you'll have to step down to the 11.6-inch variant. The matte gray plastic extends from the bottom of the laptop up to the front, around the screen and even into the trackpad, which is surrounded by a rim of shiny chrome plastic to distinguish it a bit. The keyboard contrasts with the whole look with a matte black color for the keys.

The lid, as you may have noticed by now, is adorned with the same gray plastic stamped out in a faux leather pattern, complete with fake stitching around the edges. I don't like the look any more here than I do on Samsung's phones or tablets (which is not very much), and I actually think it makes the laptop look cheap and chintzy. But what can be said for the texture is that it doesn't pick up smudges or dirt and is easy to grab onto when you're carrying the laptop without a bag or case. I call that a wash, really — though I still wish it didn't look like an animal was harmed in the creation of my laptop lid.

Not as light as it looks, but at just over 3 lbs you can't complain much.

The Chromebook 2 is quite solid and well built, with tight seams to the plastic and minimal flex in the chassis. It is a bit on the heavy side at 3.06 lbs, especially considering that high-end 13-inch laptops out there today are made of metal and glass with full fan systems and often weigh less. It is lighter than the Toshiba and HP 14 Chromebooks, I'll give you that, but maybe I'm just spoiled by the 11-inch models out there that are closer to 2.5 than 3 lbs.

Display quality

Samsung Chromebook 2 (13-inch) display

This is only Chromebook you can buy right now with a 1080p display. It's a welcomed departure from the 1366x768 panels you see in other Chromebooks right now, but sadly this isn't the nicest display we've seen by a long shot. While the resolution is more than sufficient, giving you crisp image quality and absolutely no grain in images, because it's a TN (Twisted Nematic) panel its vertical viewing angles are quite poor.

Colors and brightness distort heavily with the smallest movement, making it tough to use on irregular surfaces.

Tilting the screen just barely too far back or forward causes colors and brightness to distort heavily, often making it tough to find just the right spot for it — particularly if you're working with the laptop on your lap or in a moving train, bus or car. Horizontal viewing angles are quite good, thankfully, but we'd still prefer if Samsung would've stepped up to an IPS display considering the Chromebook 2's price.

In terms of colors and brightness, these are a couple more positive marks for the Chromebook 2. Colors are accurate and crisp, again so long as you're viewing it at a proper angle. The brightness is rated at 250 nits by Samsung, which is a notch below the 300 nits offered by other Chromebooks, but is adequate for all situations aside from outdoor work in bright sunlight.

Doesn't matter who's to blame, the interface is just far too small on the Chromebook 2.

Coming back to the resolution, while 1080p sounds great it introduces an interesting problem on this particular Chromebook. At 13.3-inches the resolution of 1920x1080 produces notably small interface elements within Chrome OS — the system tray, buttons, interface chrome and tabs are all dramatically smaller than on lower-resolution devices. Unlike Windows and OS X, Chrome OS has no built-in adjustable interface scaling that lets you natively manage how big the interface is, either, giving you few options to remedy this issue. You can manually set the resolution lower, which looks horrible, or set web pages to automatically zoom in to 110 or 125 percent, but that only somewhat fixes web pages and not the rest of the interface.

I can put some of the blame on Samsung for choosing a high resolution that isn't well supported in Chrome OS, and the rest of the blame on Google for not providing native interface scaling. But in the end it doesn't really matter where the blame lands — the combination doesn't produce a good experience, even for someone like me with above-average vision.

Keyboard, trackpad and speakers

Samsung Chromebook 2 (13-inch) keyboard

Chrome OS keyboards all have the same web-centric layout, with the only differentiators between models being the spacing, materials and key travel. The Chromebook 2 has an adequate keyboard, with keys that are plenty springy but a tad shallow, though I had no problem typing just as fast on this keyboard as I do on any other. The keyboard also isn't backlit, which again is a bit of a shame considering the price of this machine that comes in a good $100 more (a lot when you're talking about ~$299 computers) than its competitors.

The keyboard and trackpad are on the shallow side, but are more than acceptable.

You'll find a larger-than-average trackpad underneath the keyboard, which is smooth and responsive to multi-finger gestures but just like the keyboard is a bit shallower in its clicking than I'd like. There are cases when you have the laptop propped up on your lap or on a small table and the minuscule flex of the chassis is enough to make the trackpad button less responsive due to a lack of travel. The shallowness in the keys and trackpad make it seem as though Samsung shot to shave thickness on the Chromebook 2 without seeing how it affected usability.

You'll find stereo speakers under the front corners of the Chromebook 2, which put sound out through a pair of rather large speaker grilles that get nicely elevated off of tables by the rubber feet on the bottom of the laptop. The speakers have a pretty good range of sound that's particularly better than what you find on laptops with internal speakers (no matter their size), though you won't get much bass out of these small units. Not adequate for dance parties, but plenty good for some leisurely music listening when you don't have headphones handy.

Performance and real world use

Samsung Chromebook 2 (13-inch)

Samsung made the choice once again to go with its own ARM processor in the Chromebook 2, despite the general consensus surrounding its previous Chromebooks of being terribly underpowered. The Exynos 5800 octa-core (in the big.LITTLE configuration) running at 2.0GHz is generally powerful on its own, but just doesn't possess the power to be a laptop-class processing unit.

Samsung needs to stop putting ARM processors in Chromebooks until it figures out performance.

Just like every ARM-powered Chromebook before it, the Chromebook 2 offers subpar performance across the board no matter the activity. While basic scrolling, tab switching and interacting with pages is just mildly slower than your average Chromebook, the real issues set in when you're trying to multitask with multiple refreshing pages or any sort of background streaming processes.

Attempting to refresh one page while working in another makes your current tab grind to a crawl. If you want to refresh more than one tab — or launch your browser with several pinned tabs — you're going to be measuring that completion in minutes rather than seconds. Running streaming music from Google Play Music or Pandora drops even scrolling performance under acceptable levels. Something like Chromecasting a tab with a streaming video is only possible if it's the only thing the computer is doing.

If you only run a few tabs at once and don't stream music, you'll limit your frustration.

Just about the only situation in which you don't notice the ARM chip's sluggishness is while running two tabs and doing nothing more than scrolling through one of them. Anything more causes slow-downs to the point of frustration, and that goes directly against the idea of a hassle-free Chromebook. Having a fanless machine is nice, but being able to use your laptop without wondering why it's so slow is even better.

(My hope is that the 11.6-inch model fares slightly better considering it has a lower resolution display, but it also steps down to an Exynos 5420 at 1.9GHz. And considering how poorly the HP Chromebook 11 performed with an Exynos 5200 and the same resolution, I'm not holding my breath.)

Battery life

Samsung Chromebook 2 (13-inch) battery life

ARM is supposed to provide better battery life, but the Chromebook 2 is right on par with its Intel brethren.

The upside of power-sipping ARM processors is supposed to be battery life, but yet again the promise comes up short on the Chromebook 2. The purported battery life of "up to 8.5 hours" is a bit of a stretch, as I regularly experienced somewhere in the four to six hour range of mixed usage. With basic usage at 75 percent screen brightness with about a dozen tabs open (standard for me) the Chromebook 2 took roughly three hours to hit the 50 percent battery mark. Streaming some Google Play Music (or a World Cup match on watchespn.com) cut into that battery life pretty heavily, as did bumping up to full brightness on the screen.

You probably won't see the quoted 8.5 hours, but you can expect five or six.

These are pretty middle of the road battery life numbers, and considering the large 4700mAh battery in the Chromebook 2 we expected a bit more out of it. This is roughly the life I see from my Acer C720 Chromebook, though that does it with a 3950mAh battery, brighter display and a dramatically higher-powered Intel Celeron processor with no performance issues.

In order to see the advertised 8.5 hours of battery life out of the Samsung Chromebook 2, you'll likely have to keep the number of active tabs down to under five, limit streaming and keep the screen brightness below 75 percent. Not too much to ask depending on what your usual computer usage patterns are, but this is far from being an all-day computer without the assistance of a power outlet.

Bottom line

Samsung Chromebook 2 (13-inch)

Considering that Samsung is asking a relatively high $399 for the 13-inch version of the Chromebook 2, I'm struggling to see many reasons why it should be a first-choice Chromebook for many people. If you're absolutely stuck on getting a Chromebook that's larger than the hyper-portable 11-inch models, just about any model that's running an Intel processor — such as the aforementioned Toshiba and HP 14 models — will offer up better performance with similar battery life at prices over $100 less than the Chromebook 2. Of course those models are slightly heavier and don't offer 1080p displays, but as I covered previously the resolution ends up being more of a hassle than a nicety.

If you're stuck on the look and feel of the Chromebook 2 and aren't scared off by the potential issues introduced by an ARM processor in your laptop, I think that the 11.6-inch model will be a better choice all around. You're going to get battery life and performance that are on-par with this larger version, a screen resolution that is plenty good for the size that doesn't create usability issues, and it comes in at just $299 — a full $100 less than the 13-inch variant.

It doesn't seem to make much sense to charge a premium for a subpar experience, and that's what Samsung is doing with the Chromebook 2. A price tag of $399 is a lot to ask for a Chromebook nowadays as the market starts to see more and more entries from a variety of manufacturers, and Samsung's going to have to change its strategy a bit if it wants to create an all-around Chromebook that's a great choice for more than a few niche users.