One of the most charming parts of the Chromebook story over the years has been the ability to go and snag a sub-$300 laptop that can actually get some things done. Though low-end Chromebooks are generally not great at most parts of the laptop experience, they are usually passable. Decent. OK. The one part of that equation they’ve always failed at in my opinion, however, is in the performance category.
When you have a device that clearly cuts corners on build quality, screen quality, internal storage, available RAM, and input methods (like a nice keyboard or trackpad), it feels especially painful when that same device struggles to do the computing tasks you bought it for. After all, people can forgive a crummy screen or a mediocre keyboard as long as the task at hand can be readily accomplished with some modicom of speed. Sadly, the past few generations of low-end Chromebooks have failed at this as well and made for devices that were hard to recommend to anyone, regardless of price.
This current crop of Chromebooks and their Intel Celeron N4000 Gemini Lake processors change this perception for me, however, and present an offering in budget Chromebooks that rounds out the affordable laptop experience. It is similar in many ways to the Apple iPhone SE philosophy in that the sacrifices made to drive down price are largely superficial instead of internal. The iPhone SE uses old, outdated parts (screen, body, bezels), yet retains the speedy internals of the latest-gen iPhones. Sacrifice the build components, not the performance, and people still love the overall experience.
In a similar fashion, these N4000-powered Chromebooks are surprisingly agile at everyday, web-based tasks and it makes the sting of the cost-cutting hardware far less abrasive when in use. This trend is only continuing as we see other low-end Chromebooks shipping with the even-more-capable N4020 and the wave of upcoming Jasper Lake-powered Chromebooks to follow. Budget Intel chips are getting really good at being perfect fits for budget Chromebooks, and that’s an exciting path for Chrome OS to be on. With that in mind, let’s get into the details that make the Samsung Chromebook 4+ good enough to be worth your money.
Taking everything I said above, it should be no surprise that the build quality here is questionable at best, bad at worst. There’s an all-aluminum lid on top and, when closed, this gives the Samsung Chromebook 4+ a feeling of solidity and rigidity. Unfortunately, as that lid is lifted to use the device, the truth sneaks out that the bottom half is made of plastic. Not the solid, firm, acceptable plastics we see on other devices, but a flimsy, light, altogether cheap-feeling plastic that is both confusing and unfortunate.
The whole bottom half of this Chromebook flexes unlike any other Chromebook I’ve recently held and it reinforces the fact that you are using a budget device. If Samsung had at least put in an inner frame to sturdy things up, it likely wouldn’t have been such an issue. As is, however, this build quality is about as bad as it gets.
The flimsiness only gets worse once you open the lid past 90-degrees as the bottom portion of the screen gently lifts the keyboard deck off the desk. In this position, the flex is worsened and only makes me wonder why in the world Samsung chose to put in a hinge lift with a device this flimsy. It fares far better when the base is solidified by the desk underneath it. Coming in at a hefty 3.8 pounds and 16.5mm in thickness, there’s just nothing inspired about the build quality on this one, so don’t let those squared-off edges and decent aesthetic fool you. This Chromebook looks the part until you pick it up.
Keyboard and Trackpad
I’m going to head on to the input methods here, because they are so closely tied to the build quality of this Chromebook. With the chassis laid flat against the table, the flex doesn’t affect things too much. However, as we’ll get to in the screen portion below, using this Chromebook in that posture isn’t really an option due to the severely limited viewing angles. You need the screen tilted back a bit and this only introduces a lot more flex under your fingertips and adds an unfortunate amount of mush to both the keyboard and trackpad.
The keyboard on its own is actually pretty good. The keys are nice and quiet, the click and travel feel nice, and I had little issue pumping out articles while using it. The additional flex in the chassis didn’t hamper my efforts too much as I’m a generally light typist. For those a bit more heavy-handed, the flex may get to you a bit and make this keyboard less usable.
Moving on to the trackpad, it is large, spacious, clicky and I generally thought it was OK to use. Being unsurprisingly plastic, it does a poor job at rejecting oils and gets a bit tacky without much use, so long work periods are better served with an external mouse. It also gets affected by the flimsy body more than the keyboard, so sometimes the click mechanism can feel a tad rubbery when the screen is wide open. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s not great. Just good enough.
Now, back up to that screen: it’s not great, either. We’re dealing with a 15.6-inch 1080p 16:9 TN screen that feels like a spot where Samsung could have cut a bit less off of at least one corner on this Chromebook. Acer ships some reasonably-priced Chromebooks with decent 15.6-inch IPS panels, so I know it is possible. I’m not saying they should have slapped a 400 nit OLED display in here, but a small step up in the screen portion would have gone a LONG way towards making this Chromebook hardware not feel as much like an afterthought.
As it is, the colors are muted, the screen is washed out, and the viewing angles are atrocious. TN panels are notorious for this and, frankly, outside of a sub-$200 Chromebook, I don’t think they should be shipped any longer. Again, I’m not expecting perfect color accuracy or eye-searing brightness, but reasonable viewing angles and decent color are not high-dollar additions in 2020. I really wish this is a cost-cutting measure Chromebook makers would simply stop taking. For what it is worth, the screen is large and the 1080p resolution means you can fit plenty across the canvas, so there is that factor. Again, this part of the hardware equation isn’t great, but it is good enough.
Ports & Speakers
It’s been rough so far, I know. Thankfully, it gets better from here and with the ports on this Chromebook, Samsung didn’t take any normal, expected items away. You get a USB Type C on both sides that can do all the things you expect like charging, display output, and data transfer along with a USB Type A, headphone/mic jack, and microSD card slot. This is standard fare for Chromebooks in the past couple years, so it’s nice to at least see the Chromebook 4+ deliver on those expectations.
One big surprise was the quality of the speakers in this one. While not the loudest I’ve ever heard, they are among the roundest, fullest speakers I’ve heard on a Chromebook. I do wish the volume could come up a few notches more, but the experience of watching videos on this device was definitely improved by the audio quality of these speakers. I was very surprised to say the least.
Internals, Performance & Battery
As I alluded to in the opening, this is where we swing back upwards and get to talk about some surprisingly good things the Samsung Chromebook 4+ delivers on. With the Intel Celeron N4000 processor, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of eMMC storage (there are 32GB and 128GB models out there, too), this Chromebook is pretty standard when we start talking about affordable Chromebooks in 2020. The thing is, beyond a few tests here and there, I’ve not really forced myself to work on one of these Chromebooks very often.
What surprised me most is how capable the N4000 is for everyday tasks, even with my 3440×1440 external monitor attached. I treated the Samsung Chromebook 4+ in the same way I’d treat any other high-end Chromebook because I wanted to see what it was capable of. Though the performance wasn’t 100% on-par with something like my Acer Chromebook Spin 713, I can confidently tell you that the drop-off in speed wasn’t proportionate with the drop in price. From a performance/productivity standpoint, you’d never know the Samsung Chromebook 4+ was less than half the price of my Spin 713. Sure, there are times where things would lag a bit, but nothing ever ground to a halt and I never had an issue where I couldn’t accomplish the task at hand. And the 10+ hours of battery didn’t hurt things, either.
And that’s where the rubber meets the road on this Chromebook and others like it. Back when an affordable Chromebook meant cheap hardware paired with painfully-slow processors, it was so very difficult to recommend anyone go buy them. Schools did so and I’m certain that older, cheaper Chromebooks have done some damage to the perceptions of what it is like to use a Chromebook at this point in 2020. But as we’re now getting low-cost processors that are capable of real work without falling all over themselves, it feels like the ideal, affordable Chromebook experience is finally coming into focus. We’re not fully there, yet, but we’re coming around.
The Samsung Chromebook 4+ is a perfect example of this. If it was slow to use, the added trade-offs of a poor screen and cheap build quality would combine to make an experience that would be off-putting to nearly all users. Instead, we get some pretty crummy outer parts paired with a processor that can still get the job done and it makes for an experience that reflects the title of this review. It’s good enough. And at the roughly $300 asking price, I’d say that’s exactly what most people are after right now.