Google's Chrome OS netbook: The good, the bad and its prospects

Google's Chrome OS netbook: The good, the bad and its prospects

Summary: Google's Chrome OS is off to a rough start and the prototype Cr-48 netbook has been greeted with mixed reviews. But don't write-off Chrome just yet.

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Google's Chrome OS is off to rough start. It arrives just as growth of netbooks seems to be cooling off--and just as Android smartphones and tablets are taking off. A former Googler predicted it would be dead within a year. Free software advocate Richard Stallman described Chrome OS as part of plan "to push people into careless computing." And ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley wonders just "who the real Chromebook user is supposed to be?"

To make matters worse, Chrome is running late. When Google announced it a year ago, the company promised the first netbooks would be available in time for the holidays. But building an operating system is no easy task, and with lots of bugs left to stamp out, the first Chrome netbooks from the likes of Acer and Samsung won't appear until mid-2011.

In the meantime Google has released a prototype netbook, the Cr-48, to get Chrome into the hands of application developers and reviewers. It is a move that has worked well with Android. The Nexus One wasn't a commercial success, but it did push handset makers and carriers to launch more powerful smartphones at a faster pace. (With the Nexus S, which is available starting tomorrow, Google is doing it once again.) Chrome is a different beast, though. The browser-based OS is very different from Windows 7 or Mac OS X, and the Cr-48 has raised as many questions as it has answered. (TechCrunch, covering its bases, called it "both insanely awesome and shockingly awful.")

The Cr-48, as nearly every reviewer has noted, looks very similar to the old black MacBooks right down to the chiclet keyboard and the large, button-less ClickPad. But it is really more of a large netbook with a 12-inch display, an Intel Atom single-core processor and, according to published teardowns, a 16GB SanDisk SSD (there's no hard drive). The rubberized black-plastic case is less than an inch thick and the Cr-48 weighs 3.6 pounds--about the size and weight of a typical 12-inch ultraportable.

Since the hardware is just a prototype, the final Chrome netbooks are likely to look different (though the basic specs probably won't change all that much). It's more interesting to read reviewers' impressions of the Chrome OS since it offers a very different user experience. Several themes--both positive and negative--have popped up in reviews:

The good:

Quick setup When you first boot the Cr-48, you enter your Google credentials (the netbook snaps a picture for your profile) and you're good to go. All of your bookmarks, extensions and applications (Gmail, Calendar, Docs) are up-to-date and in sync with your PC(s) and other devices. If you've ever used an Android smartphone, you know this is a great feature, especially if you are a heavy user of Google services.

Short boot time The Cr-48 boots in 15 seconds and wakes instantly from standby. That is certainly faster than Windows laptops, but it is about the same as the MacBook Air. Moreover, as Laptopmag.com points out, when you include the time to enter your Google credentials--required at start-up--it really takes more like 25 seconds to get up and running. Still that's a big improvement over my Windows laptop.

Long battery life Google claims the Cr-48 will last for 8 hours and can remain in standby for up to 8 days. It's tough to test this because there's no apparent way to turn off the power settings that automatically dim the display after a few minutes. But most reviewers have found that the Cr-48 seems to last a full day--and perhaps even more with the 3G radio turned off--which sounds great.

Wireless built-in The Cr-48 has both WiFi and a 3G modem for wireless broadband, and it is designed to be always connected. In this sense, it is similar to what Qualcomm, Nokia and others used to call smartbooks (though an Atom-based netbook won't have the same standby time as an ARM-based smartbook or tablet running Android or iOS). Google has cut a deal with Verizon to offer 100MB of 3G data per month for free. The other monthly plans include 1GB for $20, 3GB for $35, and 5GB for $50. You can also purchase an unlimited day-pass for $9.99. Integrated wireless WAN isn't a new feature in laptops, but with deployment of faster 3G and 4G networks and the introduction of wireless broadband in other devices such as e-readers and tablets, more users will want it.

Innovative keyboard The changes that Google has made to the keyboard are controversial--some reviewers like them, others find them self-serving and confusing. Google replaced the Caps Lock with a Search key (which automatically opens a new tab in Chrome), eliminated the Function keys and Windows Command key, and added keys for browser commands such as Forward, Back and Refresh. These changes might take a little getting used to, but on balance they make a lot of sense given how much time we all spend in a browser, and it would be nice to see similar experimentation on Windows PCs and Macs.

The not-so-good:

Nothing but browser The Chrome browser basically is the OS--or at least its interface. This keeps things simple, but it is also very limiting. You can't minimize or re-size Chrome windows because there's no graphical user interface behind it. You can open multiple tabs or multiple browser windows and cycle through them, but that's about it (there are one or two applets such as Google Talk that remain visible on top of open windows). The file system is rudimentary. There is no equivalent to Windows Explorer so you can't view folders (except for the Downloads folder) or copy files from one location to another. Similarly when you insert an SD card or USB drive, you can upload files to an online service but you can't save them to local storage.

Limited settings The System Settings menu has a series of tabs for modifying basic options such as the date and time, language, home page and default search provider. You can also change the look and feel of Chrome by downloading and installing new themes. But Chrome is missing many of the settings you'd find in the Control Panel or other parts of Windows. For example, you can't view basic system specs (processor type or amount of memory), change the power settings or check how much free storage space is remaining.

Few apps The Cr-48 comes with a handful of pre-loaded applications including Get Started, Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps, Google Talk and two games. You can install additional apps and extensions from the Chrome Web Store (chrome.google.com/webstore). Some major apps such as Skype and Evernote are not available, but the selection will surely increase over time. Chrome runs only Web apps, meaning that they are really interactive Web sites and not applications that you download and run locally. Some Web apps, including new ones using HTML5, should work offline, but this is still an emerging standard. You can watch videos or play games that use Adobe Flash, but you can't use Netflix's streaming service because Chrome does not have a Microsoft Silverlight extension.

Slow performance Every reviewer has had issues with the performance, even in comparison with smaller netbooks using an Atom processor. Basic services such as Google Talk and Pandora seem to slow down the system. Adobe Flash is one of the big culprits here. The performance on sites such as YouTube and Hulu is sluggish, and in some cases the Flash plug-in fails to work at all. Adobe admits that Flash Player 10.1 support on Chrome notebooks is a "work in progress" and promises that fixing it is a top priority.

The hardware needs work Like most netbooks, the Cr-48 has only a handful of ports including VGA, one USB connector, a headphone jack and an SD card slot. There's no HDMI, no DisplayPort, and no powered USB/eSATA. Apple got beat up for leaving Ethernet off the MacBook Air, so it is only fair to note that Google has done the same with the Cr-48. Driver support is a challenge even for Microsoft (remember the Vista launch?), so it isn't surprising that this is a work in progress on Chrome. Some USB peripherals may work and many others will not. The ClickPad also seems to be crying out for better drivers: several reviewers said it veered back and forth between non-responsive and overly-sensitive. Finally, the keyboard isn't backlit and there is no keyboard light.

Printing is problematic Speaking of drivers, you can't print directly from a Chrome netbook. Instead you use Google Cloud Print service, which is currently in beta, to send the print jobs to a Windows PC connected to a printer. Of course, this implies that you already have a Windows PC and aren't relying on a Chrome netbook as your primary PC. There's another catch: Cloud Print won't work with your Windows PC if it is using the latest version of Chrome 8. Instead you have to install a developer build of Chrome 9, which is less stable than the beta or "stable" versions. (ZDNet's Larry Dignan sorted it all out here.) Despite these hassles, Cloud Print seems to work as advertised and it is a reasonable workaround for those using a Chrome netbook as a companion device.

That's a long list of issues, but I wouldn't write off Chrome just yet. True, the user experience is very different from a typical laptop, and Chrome OS doesn't have many of the features in Windows 7 or Mac OS X. Furthermore tablets will almost certainly continue to grow at the expense of netbooks running all operating systems. But the Chrome netbook is a niche product specifically designed for users who want a device with a keyboard, but are happy to live entirely in the cloud. As carriers launch faster 4G networks and developers release more HTML5 applications, that niche should grow.

One big question mark, though, is the price. If they are priced below their Windows counterparts (Verizon or other carriers might subsidize it, pushing the price down even further), Chrome netbooks could have a fighting chance.

Hands-on reviews of Google's Cr-48 Chrome netbook:

Topics: Hardware, Browser, Google, Mobility

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44 comments
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  • Very good points. One thing to note ChromeOS has native client, so, it will

    not exactly be "only a browser".
    DonnieBoy
    • RE: Google's Chrome OS netbook: The good, the bad and its prospects

      insta fail..... people are realizing netbooks are junk. everyone followed the pack now they arent sure why they did.
      bspurloc
      • RE: Google's Chrome OS netbook: The good, the bad and its prospects

        @bspurloc
        my friends and family using their netbooks more than their main computer right now and taking them everywhere dont think their junk. You should specify that "you" consider them yunk.
        madjr
    • Slow performance? Wow: Google just released

      their version of Vista!
      John Zern
      • RE: Google's Chrome OS netbook: The good, the bad and its prospects

        @John Zern

        Actually, the analogy would be Windows 3.1. They haven't really made a gui based OS before, and this is just something they run to support existing code. So, really this is like running 3.1 on top of DOS.
        tkejlboom
      • RE: Google's Chrome OS netbook: The good, the bad and its prospects

        @John Zern
        slow performance is because of the flash sandbox, which they are fixing right now.
        madjr
    • RE: Google's Chrome OS netbook: The good, the bad and its prospects

      @DonnieBoy

      Wow... Really this is classic... GFail takes Linux and writes it their way. They give you what they think you deserve which is pretty much nothing but a browser and everything running through them. Mind you I like Windows, Linux and OS X but putting all your eggs in one basket doesn't sound like a good idea. This looks like some playschool kids toy for babies that get excited by screen flashes when they press buttons. This is NOT A NOTEBOOK! This is a netbook with a lousy half arsed attempt at an OS. Someone said it was like Windows 3.11 but really it is not as you have no true terminal access nor drive structure access. Ubuntu is brilliant and lots of work was put into it and still is... ASUS and other manufactures have made simple OS's similar to this from Linux with no issues or trials like my original EEE PC 4G 7" netbook which came with something similar bug free though and back in 2007. Now here we are in 2010 and GFail is making so much hype over this crap when ASUS did pretty much the same thing way back and it went no where but back to Windows.

      The best option in my opinion if you wanted a cheap speedy awesome netbook would be look at Asus 1215N which is powerful enough to run Windows 7 and Starcraft II at 30 fps. It also is N525 Dual core with HT and 1MB cache at 1.8Ghz. It supports DDR3 memory as well has 250GB HDD which you can upgrade to SSD or just go cheap and easy with a 500GB 7200 RPM HD all in a similar shell as this one but with software and support which the world runs on. The other benefit is you can dual boot Win7 and Ubuntu 10.10 and have plenty of storage as well as use portable storage as well as cloud storage... Damn but who would want options? Seems like another GFail product forcing idiotic ads in your face.
      audidiablo
    • RE: Google's Chrome OS netbook: The good, the bad and its prospects

      @DonnieBoy

      Oh and lastly...

      I remember reading another article yesterday about how flash blows on this device... I wouldn't say it is all of Adobe's fault as in the Ubuntu Distros Flash seems to work just fine even on a lesser powered netbook without a hitch aside of some typical Linux bugs which usually can be worked out easily but with this you're stuck waiting for the people who half a$$ed this product to make it happen. If it already is being pushed back like it is now over something that should be so simple that ASUS accomplished years ago then if and when this hits mainstream there will be a lot of GHate going on. GFail does well pushing their crappy phones and should stick to that instead of making a big deal out of this pile of crap OS that everyone will get and then turn away from GFail.
      audidiablo
      • RE: Google's Chrome OS netbook: The good, the bad and its prospects

        @audidiablo
        You should note that with this move google is helping linux more than ever (specially in kernel support). They're bringing web 3.0 to the masses and making the web technologies / apps as powerful as traditional ones (even more).
        I wont be forced to use windows anymore if i dont want to. I will be able to access all my web apps in any OS (normal linux, mac and cOS).
        madjr
  • Limited Settings

    If by Limited you mean there are not enough of them to be found, perhaps that is intentional and engineers are making by design a device which requires little or no configuration, yes?
    Dietrich T. Schmitz, ~ Your Linux Advocate
    • RE: Google's Chrome OS netbook: The good, the bad and its prospects

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate So it's okay when Google does it but when Apple does it they are called "Big Brother" at best... cue the double standards.
      athynz
    • RE: Google's Chrome OS netbook: The good, the bad and its prospects

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate
      i would suspect that as a test unit, they dont want people going crazy with the settings. It would only send them in more support requests and bug reports that they haven't planned on dealing with at the moment. Am sure those missing settings will come in time after the beta.
      madjr
  • This

    "Similarly when you insert an SD card or USB drive, you can upload files to an online service but you cant save them to local storage."<br><br>THere are so many words I have for this right now, I'll skip over, but needless to say. This is a HUUUUGE no-no. <br>You don't keep ANYTHING online you don't want there, but Google isn't giving people that option. It's all or nothing, and that my friends is the biggest reason why this OS will fail miserably. <br><br>Stallman is right on when he says people will loose control of their data. Google does not deserve my trust or my data. Period.
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • There is local storage, and there will be C/C++ programs through native

      client. So, just relax and realize that there will be exceptions to the rules. But, Google starts out with the most secure, and then you make exceptions one at a time. With Windows, you start out with the most insecure, letting every program do virtually everything.
      DonnieBoy
      • No one

        @DonnieBoy

        But you has shown anything that there will be local storage. I just quoted the article saying there wouldn't. Which do you think I'm going to believe more?


        Hint: Not you.
        The one and only, Cylon Centurion
      • What local storage? No one's ever mentioned that

        DonnieBoy. Have [i]all[/i] the reviewers skipped over that?
        Plus where is the info on c/c++ programs through native client? (I'm interested to read up on that.)

        And are you that worried already? its been out a couple of days and your best argument [b]for[/b] it, is digs [i]against[/i] Windows?

        You know it's doomed when thats all you can say about it.
        John Zern
      • RE: Google's Chrome OS netbook: The good, the bad and its prospects

        @DonnieBoy

        Wishing doesn't make it so Donnie ;-)

        Why anyone would buy a brain damaged notebook is beyond me. If you are that enamoured of Google just get a cheap Windows notebook or netbook and just run Chrome exclusively. That way you even get local storage and printing as well.

        How many fails is Google allowed? Has anything worked since search and Earth?
        tonymcs@...
      • RE: Google's Chrome OS netbook: The good, the bad and its prospects

        @DonnieBoy Yeah a whopping 16GB of local storage... to pull a quote from this article: <i>But it is really more of a large netbook with a 12-inch display, an Intel Atom single-core processor and, according to published teardowns,<b> a 16GB SanDisk SSD (<u>theres no hard drive</u>)</b>.</i> Emphasis mine to point out the relevant part of the article to DonnieBoy who somehow keeps missing this crucial bit of information.<br><br>I'm with Cylon Centurion on this one... There is more than one source saying there is no or very limited local storage and only you claiming that there is local storage and I'm going to believe the ones with direct hands on experience than believe you.
        athynz
      • RE: Google's Chrome OS netbook: The good, the bad and its prospects

        @Cylon Centurion, John Zern, tony etc.<br>Having recived my Cr-48 last night I can assure you all that there is local storage. The reason "most" reviewers haven't mentioned it is that in order to access it and utilize it you have to enable the flags the in the "about:Flags" settings. <br><br>I haven't put the storage through all its paces, but I have created a local "Music" folder and download some .mp3s to it. Once they were there, a little "play" arrow appeared next to them (thanks to the Media Player flag) and I could play songs from a small widget in the lower right corner of the screen.
        30otnix
    • RE: Google's Chrome OS netbook: The good, the bad and its prospects

      except most morons put personal info all over facebook etc and wont understand the dumbness of this. it is as inept as online backups for companies. nothing like total loss and having to download data for 24+ hours instead of offline hd's
      bspurloc