The Chromebook; the computer for everyone (if you disregard the outrageously priced Pixel) has had a bit of a rough life as a series of products. For the longest time they weren’t all that fast, and they were made with bottom of the barrel parts and honestly, ChromeOS wasn’t all that useful back then. Web Apps were seriously lacking and most people would still need a “traditional” windows or Mac PC to get most of their work done.
Today I’m reviewing the Chromebook 2 from Toshiba, specifically the CB30-B-103, the 2GB TN 1366×768 model that retails for around £189 from PC World. I tested it on the ChromeOS stable channel on build 43.0.2357.130 for two weeks.
So we’ll start with Hardware, a rather important part of a physical device, and the Chromebook 2 delivers… mostly. The design is simple, if a tad bland. To quote Chris Ziegler from the Verge when reviewing the Samsung Chromebook back in 2012 :
[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] “It’s $1,000 Worth of design made with $100 worth of materials” [/pullquote]
It feels just as apt and in place here. The Chromebook 2 from Toshiba at a distance looks like a Macbook Air 13, and it’s dimensions of 320x214x19.3mm compares quite well to the Air 13’s 325x227x17mm. But a Macbook this is not. Sand blasted aluminium is replaced with cheap silver plastic. The lid is adorned with a dotted pattern that is pleasing to touch, which is utterly useless as the only time you’re touching the outer lid of a laptop is when you’re handling it closed. But even with the lid closed, you’re going to feel like you should be a bit more careful, as if like me you grip the closed laptop at the base of the hinge, there is quite a bit of flexing between the lid and the body and it really makes me think whether or not i should change grip, and so far this is the only laptop to make me feel like that.
If we take a look at that lid again but open it we get to see the 13.3” screen of the Toshiba Chromebook 2, and this is where things start to get confusing. On the model I’m reviewing, the CB30-B-103, the screen is a 13.3” 1366×768 TN (twisted nematic) with incredibly narrow viewing angles, washed out colours and low peak brightness. The other model of the Toshiba Chromebook 2, the CB30-B-104 has none of those things, apart from a 13.3” size, it’s an IPS (In-Plane-Switching) Screen with really great viewing angles, lovely colours and a respectable 1920x1080p resolution, and I’m not sure whether the brightness is higher, or just that the better colour reproduction and the fact it’s a glossy display versus the matte screen of the TN model, but the IPS model looks brighter to my eyes. Whilst I’m okay with 1366×768 on a 13” screen, in 2015 TN screens need to go. Yes they are cheaper than IPS panels, but the experience is far inferior, moving the screen back a few degrees can start the colour shift forcing you to either deal with off-colours, or move yourself in order to get in the notoriously small “sweet spot” for TN screens. Resolution matters little to me on this machine. As stated earlier 1366×768 doesn’t bother me all that much as I have pretty poor eyes, and ChromeOS doesn’t seem to handle scaling all that well. The 1080p version of this Chromebook, the Samsung Chromebook 2, or the Acer Chromebook 13 with 1080p screen all suffer a bit because everything’s a tad small, and whilst I wouldn’t mind if I had better eyes, maybe a 1440×900 or 1600×900 screen would have suited them better.
Of course another comodity item that all laptops these days have is a Webcam and microphone, the one on the CB30-B-103 is an HD snapper with a dual-mic aray, allowing to record in stereo audio. It’s passable and will get you through in a pinch, Hangouts video conferences will be workable, as will Skype once microsoft opens up the Skype Web beta to allow chromebooks to do more than chat. Samples of the photos can be seen below.
What the screen uses to attach to the rest of the laptop is of course a hinge, and it’s something so simple, but it’s something that many laptop makers get wrong. With the weighting of the hinge, and even though Toshiba doesn’t get it perfect, they’ve come closer than any OEM that isn’t Apple. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, the “perfectly weighted hinge” is an elusive piece of design that enables you to lift you laptop screen with only one finger. You don’t hold the base down and lift it etc, if the lid is closed. Instead you place the tip of your finger under the tip of the lid and just lift. Apple has been able to get this right for years, and every other laptop I’ve used has not even tried to get it right. The Chromebook 2 from Toshiba gets about ¾ of the way before the base lifts up, requiring me to hold it down to continue opening. So close, but not quite there.
Looking at the sides Toshiba has given us a nice set of ports. On the left side we are graced with a Barrel charging jack (more on that in a minute) a charging LED, USB 2.0 port and a full-sized SD card slot, a nice change to a trend we have been seeing lately, which is to provide MicroSD slots instead.
On the right side we have a Kensington lock slot, a full-sized HDMI out port, a USB 3.0port, and lastly a 3.5mm combo headphone/mic input jack.
On the front we have nothing and on the back we have nothing. On the top we have the dotted pattern, Toshiba logo in bottom left (if viewing text the correct way) and a Chrome logo in the upper left corner. Lastly on the bottom we have 4 rubber feet and regulatory stickers. What’s notably absent though, is vents, but not just from fans, but also for speakers. The Celeron N2840 that Toshiba put in here is a 2 core/2 thread chip with a TDP of just 7.5w allowing this to be fanless. It’s a 64bit chip made on Intel’s 22nm process. The other reason there are no ports is that the speakers are placed in an unconventional place; under the keyboard. This is usually something reserved for higher end devices like the Pixel, or the original HP Chromebook 11.
Going back to something I spoke about earlier, the Charger. This isn’t something I’d harp on often, but for some reason, the Charger on the Chromebook 2 CB30-B-103/104 is just bad. It’s a barrel charger like laptops of old, which is annoying in and of itself. That I can get over. What I can’t is just how loose this charger is and how it feels. Plugging it in feels loose and janky as if it’s never quite in, although not being able to go any further in. Trying to find a positive in this at least there is little friction coming out, so if someone accidentally kicks the table, the likelihood of your new Chromebook flying off of the table with it is very small.
Last in hardware is the Keyboard and trackpad, another area where inexpensive laptops tend to struggle, and whilst Toshiba has given the Chromebook 2 a decent Keyboard and trackpad, both could be better. After 2 weeks of continuous use, I still make a lot of typographical errors (or typos as the kids say). The keyboard is spaced out well, and has the classic ChromeOS layout but it feels mushy and without much travel. Even worse is the amount of flexing in the keyboard deck, noticeable when I start typing rather fast. It is the same story with the trackpad. Good ,but not great. It tracks really well, and multi-touch gestures such as 2 finger scrolling are decent, but not appreciably better than my XE303 from Samsung a laptop from 2012 with an ancient processor. Another thing that I have yet to get used to is the feel of the trackpad. Unlike my XE303 which has incredibly smooth plastic trackpad, there is some sort of texture here and it just feels…off. An issue which might just be a manufacturing defect with my unit is the trackpad itself seems to be misaligned. The bottom right corner seems to be closer to the frame than the left does, I shall try my hardest to capture what I mean in photos.
I wasn’t quite sure where to plop this in, so here seems like a good choice. Next we have synthetic benchmarks, there aren’t all that many for ChromeOS. You’re limited to browser-based benchmarks (unless you go into developer mode and boot Ubuntu of some sort). The three I have chosen to use are Sunspider, Kraken by Mozilla, and Octane by Google.
|Kraken(Lower is better)||Sunspider(Lower is better)||Octane V2(Lower is better)|
Do with those numbers what you wish, but although to me benchmarks mean nothing to me (I’m much more about the experience than number) i understand that some people like having comparative figures.
Software & Use
Next up is software, and this is often an easy part of the review to write, as OEMs can’t change ChromeOS, and they can’t add bloat (though Samsung tried with the Chromebook 2, offering free trials of apps like Airdroid premium). Though with the Chromebook 2 things have been slightly off with ChromeOS. Because I don’t feel it’s fair to test a product in beta software, I made sure the Chromebook 2 was running the stable channel builds of ChromeOS build 43.0.2357.130, unlike my personal Chromebook which are on the beta builds. My issues are that I have noticed far more issues on the stable build of ChromeOS than I have on the beta. The device locks up very often, more so than my XE303 does, but with its more beefy processor it free’s itself quicker. It’s also more prone to randomly rebooting than other ChromeOS devices I’ve tried. In the last 2 weeks I have had it freeze for around 30 seconds, only to reboot the system, this has happened upwards of 5 times in 2 weeks, not entirely stable for the Stable channel.
A little titbit I found interesting is the codename. Every ChromeOS device has a codename; the Samsung XE303 from Samsung was Snow, the Original CR-48 was “Mario” , the Pixels’ are Link (old) and Samus (2015). Something that made me giggle the moment I found it out is that the Chromebook 2 from Toshiba Identifies as “Swanky”.
The funny thing about Chromebooks, and ChromeOS is just how quickly I am able to get up and going. I received this device at 10am one day, was supposed to be at college at half 10, got it out of its box, put the charger and laptop in my laptop sleeve portion of my bag and went to college. When I arrived at class I hopped onto the college network, typed in my Google credentials and clicked through the setup, and before I had even left the room to find a tutor, it was on my desktop, had pulled in my wallpaper from my XE303 and was setting up my taskbar. I just wouldn’t be able to do that with another type of computer. The issue for many is whether they’ll actually be able to work on a Chromebook. I can, but my course isn’t overly picky. I just need to be able to write essays and research. I don’t need any specialised programs (I can export Google docs to a .docx file, or just use the online versions of Office). A Chromebook is not for the person that needs specialised programs that only run on Windows, but then again neither is a Macbook (unless you want to go through Bootcamping your mac and then having a wrong keyboard). In a pinch you can use Chrome Remote desktop, which I tried, and whilst okay, I really wouldn’t use it unless you absolutely have to. In my case I used it to access my PC in my home office to drag a newer version of an assignment I made in MS Word (exporting anything other than text from Google docs-.docx absolutely destroys formatting). So I remoted into my home office PC, moved the file into my Dropbox folder (Drive auto converts back into a drive format) and then waited for it to sync. I opened up the file manager on ChromeOS and used the Dropbox plugin to navigate to the Dropbox folder and voila, the file was there. It wasn’t an excruciating experience, but even on relatively fast networks I was feeling the latency.
This last bit is about real word experience with the device and how it performed in my daily routine etc. I’m happy to say that it did remarkably well. When it worked fine, it was faster than my XE303 although not so much that I crave the faster processor when i go back to my XE303, but something I will miss when going back is the battery life. Toshiba claims that the CB30-B-103 is good for 11.5 Hours, whilst the CB30-B-104 is good for 9 hours (the increased power draw coming from the Screen being a higher resolution). Although my usage didn’t quite match up to those numbers (and honestly I didn’t expect it to) I still got a respectable 8-9 hours out of it, which is far better than anything I’ve ever used before, and it’s going to be hard going back to the 2.5 hour-ish stamina my XE303 provides with its battered cells.
Now we come to the tough part of the review, should you buy it, and like my last review I feel like I have to say yes and no and I’m going to explain why. Firstly, no, you shouldn’t buy the laptop I’ve just reviewed. You shouldn’t buy the CB30-B-103. Not because it’s bad, because it isn’t. Even its screen is acceptable. You shouldn’t buy it because the better version, the much better version, is between £80 and £100 more. You shouldn’t buy the CB30-B-103, but you should buy the CB30-B-104. Is the extra RAM noticeable? Only if you hoard tabs like there is no tomorrow. Is the screen upgrade noticeable? I’m not sure there are words to describe just how much better the screen on the CB30-B-104 is. The only comparison I can make is upgrading from an iPhone 3GS to an iPhone 4. The incredible resolution, the insane colours, everything about it was just better, and that’s as close as I can get to telling you the difference between the CB30-B-103 and the CB30-B-104.