I sat down with my new Cr-48 with one goal in mind…use it until I couldn’t. That is, try to see how much of my normal computing life I could handle just in a browser, just in the cloud. The answer, in the beginning was just not that much. That wasn’t a fault of the Cr-48, or of ChromeOS, but of my own predispositions and expectations about computing. As I mentioned in my Overview section, the metaphor of “just a browser” really took me some time to wrap my head around. Once I reworked my assumptions about how this computer-shaped-object was supposed to work, it became much easier to just Do Work on it.
And overall, I was able to get quite a lot done. I’m definitely on the early-adopter side of moving to the cloud: both of my books, all of my articles and blog posts (including this one), and pretty much every other piece of text I create lives in Google Docs until it has to go somewhere else. I sync my Outlook calendar to Google Calendar, and I use Gmail for my primary email address. So the move was much less difficult for me than for someone not already used to working in the cloud….for someone still tied to saving files locally, organizing folders, or use a lot of non–web based programs, this would be a very difficult computer to begin using.
The final grade for Google’s first attempt at a ChromeOS machine is quite a mixed bag. Here’s my breakdown:
Ridiculously fast resume
Rethinking my computing experience
There is a lot of potential here, both for users and for Google. If ChromeOS becomes widely adopted, the benefits for users are huge: always having your computing environment with you, automagical syncing of all your data, better security, faster web experience. For libraries, if you aren’t providing a lot of customized software for your patrons, and the majority of their use is of the web browser, ChromeOS could solve a lot of your IT headaches. Even if you do need non-browser software, Google is working with Citrix to provide SaaS over the web in a variety of ways, and the potential for doing something with virtual machines over the web for those use-cases is becoming a reality. Google is betting big here, and as this technology matures, I’m not sure I’d bet against them. We’ll see what the next year brings, but ChromeOS is definitely something that libraries should be watching.
The Cr-48 itself is a capable computing platform. The highlights of the performance are definitely in startup and resuming from sleep. Since it’s operating a very lightweight operating system, and using solid-state storage to do so, you can go from Off to working in about 12-15 seconds. If you simply close the lid and put the Cr-48 to sleep, resuming is as instantaneous as the backlight of the LCD coming on. The browser itself is quick, although I have had some startup delays as it tries to negotiate a network connection.
Loading and dealing with websites doesn’t seem to phase the processor, although as you start cranking up the resolution on videos, you can see things start to stutter. Moving to HD video on YouTube, for instance, really gave the hardware some trouble…standard definition video wasn’t any problem, though. While I can imagine there are obscure plugins that aren’t supported in ChomeOS, there is one massively popular site that simply doesn’t work with the Cr-48: Netflix. Netflix streaming works with Microsoft’s Silverlight plugin, which isn’t available for Linux, and the ChromeOS browser has no way to handle this limitation. I’m sure that Google is talking with Netflix about this, but until they move to some form of HTML5 video streaming, it’s just off the table. Hulu has some problems as well, but this is due mainly to the poor Flash support for Linux.
Dealing with more pedestrian web fare, creating documents, even editing photos in Aviary was no problem. There’s a ton of things that ChromeOS handles just fine, and I was able to do quite a bit of work on it. The hardware performance while working was average. I love the keyboard, as it is reminiscent of the chiclet-style of the current Macbooks, but the trackpad needs some firmware love quick. It’s just very quirky, and had trouble recognizing two-finger taps much more often than I’d like. I’d give the keyboard an A grade, while the trackpad gets a D…overall, it’s like that kid in class that gets average grades, but could be really good if they just put in a little more time.
Let’s talk about the actual hardware of the Cr-48. One of the most interesting things about the Cr-48 is its very mysteriousness…Google won’t reveal who built it (other than a note in the box saying that’s it’s using an Intel chipset). It has no logos, badges, or other identifying marks on it at all. It’s just a black obelisk of a laptop. Google also made it very clear that this isn’t the sort of hardware that will eventually go on sale with ChromeOS installed, and that we should see actual for-sale hardware with ChromeOS sometime next year. But if this is what they are using as a rough reference for Chrome-capable hardware, well…there really isn’t much there. It’s got 2gigs of RAM, and a 16 gig Solid-state memory hard drive, 12 inch LCD screen, and much-discussed redesigned keyboard. There’s exactly one USB port, an audio jack, an SD card slot, and a VGA port…that’s the extent of it.
Noticeable for it’s absence is an Ethernet port…this is a machine that is, at least right now, completely and utterly unusable without an Internet connection, and yet there is no mechanism to hardwire it. The wireless is solid, and the fact that it has a built in 3G connectivity via Verizon is a huge bonus. Google has been able to broker really groundbreaking deals with Verizon for ChromeOS: 100Mb free every month for the first 2 years, $9.99 for unlimited bandwidth for a day at a time with no contract involved, or the ability to buy 1GB, 3GB, 5GB packages per month, again with no contract. Really interesting model, and I’m hoping that continues through the remainder of the ChromeOS hardware.
The screen is ok, but certainly not as high quality as those found in Macbooks or other high-end laptops these days, and looks to be 1280 x 800 resolution. The trackpad is perhaps the worst part of the physical experience of the thing, with an odd feel and performance that just feels off. It purports to handle two-finger scrolling and two-finger right clicking, but the recognition is quite bad, and it is in serious need of a firmware/software update. The thing that most reviews seem to be making a big deal of is the revision that Google has made to the standard keyboard layout, mainly in their removal of the Caps Lock key. In it’s place is now a “search” key. Other changes include doing away with the Function keys at the top of the keyboard.
ChromeOS is a huge departure from modern computing metaphors. In all current operating systems, the User Interface revolves around windows, and the ability to manipulate your various pieces of information in a layered, sliding-papers-around-the-desk sort of way. In ChromeOS, you have a browser…and that’s it. Just a browser window, and tabs to organize your different sites. You can have multiple windows, but each window is it’s own desktop, so that in effect you can have multiple browser windows open, but there’s no moving/layering or anything of the sort. You just have this full-screen browser, or that one, and you can flip between them.
Why would anyone be interested in a browser-only operating system? Google knows better than anyone that most of what people do these days on a computer revolves around the browser and interacting with the internet. They also know that the Web is an ever-increasingly capable platform, and that web applications are quickly becoming as capable as traditional desktop applications. Google is making a huge bet that moving forward, the distinction between online and offline computing will essentially disappear.
There’s a lot of potential in this new operating system for libraries and education in general. Google is placing a lot of their focus on ChromeOS on the issues of security and ease of use, two things that libraries everywhere are interested in. The operating system not only automatically patches itself and keeps itself updated completely in the background, but it also checks its own integrity, and if it notices any code changes, attempted hacks, or other issues, it fixes itself invisibly. It has a completely anonymous “guest” mode, where all browsing is untracked and wiped with every reboot.
On the other side of the coin, the standard operations of ChromeOS all revolve around being within the Google infosphere. You login with your Google credentials, and if you don’t have a Google account…well, you will if you want to use ChromeOS. That’s the only way to use the system (aside from the above-mentioned guest mode), and it’s tightly integrated (as you’d expect) with the entire Google set of webapps: Gmail, Google Docs, gCal, etc. If you have already integrated your life into the Google web, ChromeOS is nearly an invisible change. As a matter of fact, if you use the Chrome browser on your standard PC, and use Chrome Sync to sync your passwords and such, when you login to ChromeOS it automatically syncs all your information, including extensions and apps. It’s a seamless way to move from computer to computer, bringing your entire web experience with you.
On December 7th, 2010, Google held a press conference to talk about Chrome…both the browser and about the nascent operating system of the same name, ChromeOS. They originally talked about ChromeOS a year or so ago, and at the time it was aimed squarely at the then-burgeoning netbook market. In the intervening months, the netbook market has been cannibalized by the tablet computer (almost entirely driven by the iPad) and netbooks themselves have had their luster diminished a bit by Moore’s law, as the computing power of low-end laptops move down-market into the netbook space.
With their press conference, Google moved into the next stages of testing ChromeOS in the wild, by making a surprise announcement that they were going to be providing laptops running ChromeOS to the press and members of the public via an online signup process. The current number being thrown around online is that Google has around 60,000 of these laptops, codenamed Cr-48, to give away. This is the first hardware designed specifically to run ChromeOS, and can be thought of as a sort of reference platform for the new operating system.
I currently have a Cr-48, and have been putting it through a variety of tests over the last week. Here’s a video overview, and over the next few days I’ll be posting about my thoughts and a review of this new computing platform.