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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: