Samsung Series 5 Chromebook: Full Review

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- I'm typing this review on the most important laptop to hit the market in at least 20 years -- perhaps ever: the first commercially available laptop based on Google's ( GOOG) Chrome OS operating system, which is the reason it's called a Chromebook.

Sundar Pichai, VP of Product Management for Google, talks about notebooks running on Chrome OS at the Google IO Developers Conference in San Francisco, May 11, 2011.

Get used to the name "Chromebook" just like you got used to anything starting with an "i" in 2007, because you will be hearing it a lot. In short, with the one exception of the fact that you can't run the traditional iTunes software on this laptop, it is the ideal laptop for probably at least 80% of anyone in the market for a 12.1 inch light/thin laptop.

On Monday, Steve Jobs talked about a cloud-centric world that's not dependent on any particular PC, and his changes to iTunes and the introduction of iCloud take some steps in that direction starting this Fall. The Chromebook, however, is already there.

The time from when you're un-boxing the Chromebook until you're fully up and running is approximately one minute. Compare that with any PC that's typically a weekend project to set up -- and even then you're not really sure whether you have migrated to your new PC properly.

The initial set-up, however, is only the beginning of the unfavorable comparison to any traditional laptop when compared to the Chromebook.

Remember the very first time you booted up that brand new Mac or Windows laptop? It felt so fast... compared to that old clunker you just replaced -- 30 seconds, 45 seconds, whatever.

By the time that first marathon set-up weekend finished, however, and you had installed all of your programs, your boot-up time had at least doubled. A few weeks or months into your traditional PC ownership, you're clocking two minutes and running.

Not so with the Chromebook. It was 10 seconds to get it up on the first date, and it will remain 10 seconds years thereafter. Google's and Samsung's tag-line for the Chromebook should be "Viagra built-in" instead of "Intel inside."

The Chromebook is the one and only device that doesn't slow down with the years. The keyboard may turn gray after a long life of heavy use, but it will accelerate zero-to-typing in 10 seconds well after it has outlived Hugh Hefner.

And that's just the software.

From a hardware perspective, think of the Samsung Chromebook as a slightly larger plastic Apple ( AAPL) MacBook Air, 11.6-inch laptop. The Samsung is 12.1 inches and slightly thicker and slightly heavier than the smallest MacBook Air, but it's also got a better battery life. The keyboard and trackpad are shamelessly similar.

Aside from the fact that the Samsung Chromebook boots faster, and generally feels faster than the MacBook Air despite a much weaker processor, you know what else isn't similar? The price. With 3G from Verizon included -- and you want that -- the Samsung Chromebook costs $500, or half the MacBook Air's $1,000.

But wait, there is more! Seeing as the Chromebook can't contract any software problem that would require tech support, you don't need to buy that $250 tech support package from Apple that's $250. Therefore, the fair comparison is $500 for the Samsung Chromebook vs. $1,250 for the Apple MacBook Air 11.6-inch model. If you buy a Lenovo, Dell ( DELL) or HP ( HPQ), you would also have to add $250 or so for the best three-year warranty available. Not with a Chromebook!

Verizon gives you 100 meg per month for two years included in the $500 price for the Chromebook. This is obviously not a lot, but it can serve as a lifeline from time to time, when you are not depending on your smartphone, MiFi, or other kind of WiFi hotspot for connectivity.

You can buy more data at the same prices Verizon offers for all of its other mobile data devices, and this is on a pay-as-you-go basis, so no contract of any kind. Add 1 gig, 3 gig, 5 gig, 10 gig, one day, one week or one month any time you want. It's the ideal kind of pricing plan I would like for all of my smartphones and tablets as well.

What's the downside of the Samsung Chromebook? For the vast majority of users, I can only think of one: no iTunes. At least until iTunes goes completely "cloud" as with Google services, many people will be reluctant to give up their ability to run a full local iTunes software. This will limit the sale potential of the Chromebook for now, but here are three other categories where the Chromebook can quickly come to dominate the PC market:

1. As second, third, or fourth PC in a household where you only need one (old) PC to run iTunes. Many people will fit into this category, indeed probably a majority of U.S. households.

2. In the enterprise. No iTunes needed here. All you want as a CFO is to reduce your IT expenses by 99%. The Chromebook may not cut 99% of your IT expense, but I'll settle for 90% or even 80%. All the problems surrounding upgrading PCs, installing software, managing files and anti-virus now go out the door. Users can spend their time doing productive things, instead of managing PCs or waiting for them to reboot. Folks, from an all-in lifecycle IT cost perspective, including time and labor, this isn't a remotely close call, when compared to a traditional PC. 3. As a gift to a child or elderly relative. This is the ideal PC for someone who should not be trusted to properly manage a PC, or where you don't have the time to be their personal IT support person. Give this to a child or your parents, and you will never again spend Thanksgiving -- and for that matter, an hour every day -- fixing their PCs.

For many people, this will secure peace and harmony in the American family. Not a bad achievement from a PC operating system we simply call "cloud."

Early indication of the battery life suggests a life of at least approximately nine hours. Especially for such a thin and light laptop, this is either class-leading or close thereto. The Chromebook idles very gracefully.

I imagine that Chromebooks will be sold in vending machines, airports and hotels. You don't need anything except one minute worth of free time to set one up, so this is the one PC you can actually buy while on the road rushing from one meeting to the next.

I remember the skepticism surrounding Apple's iPad in the days and weeks following Steve Jobs' January 2010 announcement, before it went on sale in April 2010. I was not in doubt, as I wrote in an article.

This time around, I see the Chromebook being at least as transformative and impactful to the existing PC business as the iPad came to be almost immediately after its April 2010 availability. The PC business is a 400 million per year unit market that's been proven for close to 30 years. Cromebooks of various shapes and sizes stand to take over perhaps as much as 80% of this market over the next few short years. In the next three to five years, Google stands to ship -- through OEMs such as Samsung and probably many others -- up to 300 million Chrome OS units per year, in the traditional PC form factors alone. Add tablets and smartphones starting in the next couple of years, and the volume could be closer to one billion units per year.

With the superior user experience in combination with the dramatically lower total lifecycle cost of ownership, the Chromebook poses the gravest of danger for a large portion of Microsoft's ( MSFT) business. If Dr. Kevorkian were still alive and got to spend even a short time with the Chromebook, he would be getting into his van, driving to Seattle, while on the phone engaging Chapter 7 bankruptcy lawyers.

Once you have spent any amount of time with the Chromebook, you have to ask yourself: What on earth will Microsoft have to do in order to stay afloat?

But it doesn't stop with Microsoft. The fundamental Chrome OS architecture poses some extremely troubling questions for positively every other computing entity in the market, ranging from Apple to AMD to Intel to HP to RIM and others. All Google now needs to do in order to achieve world domination is to allocate sufficient resources so as to make Chrome OS the OS of choice also for tablets and smartphones, cannibalizing its own Android OS. Seriously, it's that serious.

At the time of submitting this article, the author was long AAPL, GOOG and RIMM.
This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

Anton Wahlman was a sell-side equity research analyst covering the communications technology industries from 1996 to 2008: UBS 1996-2002, Needham & Company 2002-2006, and ThinkEquity 2006-2008.