Samsung Chromebook Series 3 (XE303C12) review

The Samsung Chromebook Series 3 (XE303C12) laptop delivers what we wanted from Google all along—a cheap, portable way to get online, with nothing getting in the way.
Photo of Samsung Chromebook Series 3 (XE303C12)

The Samsung Chromebook Series 3 (XE303C12) may be the Chromebook that really takes off. With a price low enough to entice the curious and the parts needed to zip through Web browsing, the new Chromebook is what we’ve wanted Google to deliver all along, an affordable and portable way to hop online. Earlier models have cost upwards of $400, leaving a lot of users feeling ripped off at the limitations of Chrome OS. At $250 for the Wi-Fi connected model, the price is right, and the new Chromebook is even cheaper than our current Editors’ Choice Budget Laptop, the Acer Aspire 5349-2635 . It’s also a good deal cheaper than both the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook 550 (XE550C22-H01) and the Samsung Chromebook Series 5 , making this the closest any Chromebook has come to meeting Google’s initial goal of selling the Chromebook for $200.

If you can come to grips with using cloud-based tools like Google Docs and Google Drive instead of regular software and local storage, the Chromebook becomes extremely enticing, especially for writers and students, who may not require much more than Word processing and Web access. The Chromebook is also tempting when compared with more expensive tablets, which don’t offer the same level of productive capability or a physical keyboard. The Chromebook has always been a niche product, but at this price, there are plenty of little spaces to fill.

Design
The Chromebook Series 3 may be inexpensive, but it doesn’t feel cheap. The lightweight plastic construction may not be luxurious, but the Chromebook is sturdy, and the plain silver styling owes a lot to the Apple MacBook Air 11-inch (Mid 2012) . The 11.6-inch display has the same 1366-by-768 resolution seen on both the MacBook Air and the Microsoft Surface with Windows RT . You may have to limit your side-by-side multitasking, but Chrome has always favored tabs anyway.

This thing is ultrabook thin—0.69 inches—but it’s more like a netbook in terms of hardware, packing a new ARM processor (more on that below). The reality is that it doesn’t quite fit into either of these categories comfortably, but still finds a place among other inexpensive and portable laptops. Weighing only 2.5 pounds, the Chromebook Series 3 is extremely portable, while still offering a large enough screen and keyboard to use without feeling hemmed in. Despite the slim build and complete lack of cooling fans, the system never got particularly warm during testing.

The Chromebook Series 3 doesn’t have a standard keyboard. It’s still a full-size QWERTY keyboard, but the layout has been tweaked by Google to optimize the Web-based Chrome experience. The Caps Lock key is replaced with a dedicated search button (you can still Caps Lock by pressing Alt-Search), and F1-F12 have been replaced with Chrome-specific function/hotkeys (Across from left to right: Escape, Back, Forward, Reload, Full Screen, Next Window, Brightness Down/Up, Volume Mute/Down/Up, Power). The Delete key has also disappeared, with the Backspace key pulling double duty (to delete, just press Alt-Backspace). There is no equivalent to the Windows or Apple key, just wider Ctrl and Alt keys, which will actually get plenty of use, as the Chrome OS offers a lot of keyboard shortcuts. After a few days of using the Chromebook, I found that Chrome’s keyboard navigation was both fast and intuitive, more so than I have found on various Windows machines. If you’re a Chrome user on a Mac or Windows PC, you’ll find that many of the same shortcuts and key combos are the same.

The trackpad on the Chromebook Series 3 is a single-piece, blank-faced clickpad, without the usual right- and left-click buttons, just one touchable clickable touchpad. Google has also tweaked it for faster navigation in Chrome, with one- and two-finger gestures, like tapping with a single finger for a standard mouse click, and tapping with two for right-click functions. Two-finger scrolling is a breeze, and click-and-drag functions work easily.

Features
The defining feature of the Chromebook Series 3 is not its hardware, its price tag, or even its unique keyboard; it’s Chrome OS. Google’s Web-centric operating system is little more than the Chrome Web-browser, with web-apps built-in, and some added offline functionality.

Dedicated icons in the lower left corner of the screen pull up Gmail, Google Search, Google Drive, and YouTube. A selection of apps offers even more Chrome Apps, like Chrome Web Store, Google Calendar, Google+, a calculator, camera (which uses the Chromebook’s webcam), and Chrome Remote Desktop, which lets you access other PCs remotely through the browser. It’s a workable (albeit slow) solution to Chrome users who want to either access their primary computer and software, or who need to do some remote troubleshooting for a relative. In an effort to expand the usefulness of these apps, Google has also added offline capability to Google Drive and Gmail, letting you access at least some of your stuff when Wi-Fi isn’t available. Further apps and extensions can be found in the Chrome Web Store, with thousands of offerings, many for free.

There’s also a basic file manager in Chrome OS, but the key word here is basic. Plug in a USB flash drive or SD card and it will pop up a list of the drive’s contents, with an interface that looks much like Gmail or Google Drive. Documents and PDF files are opened using Chrome’s in-browser document viewer, while photos are viewed and edited with Chrome’s light image editor. Music and video files are opened with Chrome’s media player, but Google expects most media to be streamed over Wi-Fi (using apps like Google Play Music), and for robust cloud-based editing tools (such as Aviary and Creative Kit in Google+) to be used for extensive media editing.

In terms of features, the selection is surprisingly robust. On the back of the laptop along the hinge are an HDMI out port, one USB 3.0 port, and a USB 2.0 port. On the left edge of the machine is a combination headphone and microphone jack, and a card reader that supports various SD formats (SD/SDHC/SDXC). Dongles are also available for Ethernet (via USB) and VGA output.

Because the Chromebook Series 3 is so dependent upon Internet connectivity, it has built in 802.11 a/b/g/n WLAN, and Bluetooth 3.0 for connecting to headsets, printers, or other peripherals. Also on the back of the laptop is a SIM card slot, which is only used in the 3G-equipped model, which is available for $329.99 (direct), with Verizon 3G. Verizon offers 100MB of free data per month, but you can also purchase extra data as needed.

Internal memory is sparse, with only 16GB of internal flash memory—file storage is expected to be in the cloud, primarily using Google Drive. To encourage this transition, new Chromebook owners are offered a free 100GB upgrade to their Google Drive capacity, good for two years. Samsung covers the Chromebook with a one-year warranty.

Performance
The Chromebook Series 3 ditches the Intel Atom and Celeron processors used in the previous Chromebooks in favor of Samsung’s Exynos 5 dual-core ARM processor (1.7GHz). Paired with 2GB of RAM, it makes the most of the feather-light operating system, zipping along quickly from page to page and document to document. It also boots pretty quickly, springing to life when you open the lid, and prompting you for a password within eight seconds. It’s not quite as fast as the two-second wake times offered by ultrabooks, but it’s a good deal faster than the usual Windows 7 PC.

While we aren’t able to test the Chromebook as we would a traditional Windows laptop, we still were able to test it’s overall speed using BrowserMark. While it may not top Windows PCs outfitted with Intel Core processors, it was significantly faster than Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet, making a strong case for the inexpensive laptop being a better web-browsing device than the Surface RT.

We tested battery life by streaming a 10-hour YouTube video over Wi-Fi, similar to the video rundown tests used on other systems, but leaning more heavily upon the Wi-Fi usage, as the Chromebook is hobbled without Internet access. The Chromebook Series 3 lasted 5 hours 25 minutes, which is in line with the 6.3 hours that Samsung estimates for regular usage.

The Samsung Chromebook Series 3 may not rival the latest ultrabooks in processing power, or offer the touch interfaces of tablets and smartphones, but it offers a reasonably priced laptop for those who can get by with web access and cloud-based storage and tools. For budget buyers that don’t need much more than a way to get online, the Chromebook is even more affordable than the Editors’ Choice Acer Aspire 5349-2635, and is a more palatable option than the more expensive Samsung Series 5 Chromebook 550 (XE550C22-H01). It’s also several hundred dollars cheaper than the Microsoft Surface RT tablet, which may have a slick design, but suffers from many of the same limitations. Whether you’re a writer pounding out verbiage at Starbucks or a college student researching a term paper, the Samsung Chromebook Series 3 may be all you need, at a price that’s hard to ignore.

COMPARISON TABLE
Compare the Samsung Chromebook Series 3 (XE303C12) with several other laptops side by side.

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Specifications
Processor Name Samsung Exynos 5
Operating System Google Chrome OS, Google Chrome OS
Weight 2.5 lb
Type Ultraportable, Value, Netbook
RAM 2 GB
Screen Size Type Standard
Networking Options 802.11n
Processor Speed 1.7 GHz
Primary Optical Drive External
Screen Size 11.6 inches
Storage Capacity (as Tested) 16 GB

Verdict
The Samsung Chromebook Series 3 (XE303C12) laptop delivers what we wanted from Google all along?a cheap, portable way to get online, with nothing getting in the way.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc