We were lucky enough to receive a Cr-48 Chrome Notebook from Google as part of their pilot program because of our involvement with LockerPulse in the Chrome Web App Store. I’ve been using it quite a bit for several days now. My overall impression is that I’m pleasantly surprised with where they’re at and I see a lot of potential in Chrome OS as a whole. More specifically…
So supposedly Google doesn’t want anyone to critique the Cr-48 hardware. It’s simply just a shell to house Chrome OS, the real devices won’t necessarily be anything like it, they say. That would be fine if they just sent me a clunky 15.6″ laptop that weighed 8 lbs.
But they didn’t. The Cr-48 is light (only 3.8 lbs) and tiny (11.8″ x 8.6″ x .9″) with a 12.1″ screen (1200 x 800 resolution), full keyboard, very responsive trackpad (similar to the Macbook’s), and a sleek matte finish. There isn’t much else – a webcam, a mic, a USB port, a headphone jack, a memory card reader, and a VGA out. Under the hood, you’re looking at a 1.66 GHz Atom processor, 2 GB of RAM, and a 16 GB SSD. Here are the full specs if you’re interested in more.
Before I booted it up I was taken back by the form factor of the computer. It’s absolutely beautiful. The unbranded, unmarked, matte finish makes it the coolest looking computer I’ve ever used. From a size standpoint, it’s everything a netbook should be but fails at. It’s as light and tiny as possible without compromising usability. One can only hope that the manufacturers of the real Chrome OS devices take note.
Here’s a look at the size. As you can see it’s not much bigger than a magazine:
They keyboard is also pretty cool. Gone are the function keys, replaced with more useful keys, and gone is the caps lock key, replaced with a search key.
On to what I actually should be reviewing. Considering we probably won’t see any of these devices on the market until mid-2011, I was pretty impressed with how well the OS worked.
It boots up really fast, less than 10 seconds from being shut off and almost instantly out of sleep mode. The first time you flip the lid open it starts booting up. I though to myself “why don’t all computers do this?” I’ve found myself almost never shutting the system down – I simply close the lid whenever I’m done and then open it when I need it again. Whether you shut down or not, you resume your session exactly where you left off, which I love.
Once you’re in, it’s basically a Chrome browser, with a few exceptions. My favorite “feature” is how it handles new windows. They’re essentially the same as “workspaces” in Linux or Mac. The button above the number 6 key switches windows. I immediately set up one “personal” window with Google Reader, Twitter, and LockerPulse tabs, and then one “work” window with my Pure Adapt Google Apps Start Page. Right now I’m writing this in the “work” window, but it’s easy to slide over and check Twitter and then slide back to work. Remember, since your session never “expires” these two windows will always be set up like this for me. It’s very subtle but very important – I was expecting to just have a slew of tabs open.
“Panels” are pop-up windows that tuck away in the lower-right corner of your screen. They’re used by applications like scratchpad (basically notepad) and Google Talk, and to show you the “file system”, which is my main gripe with the OS at this point.
There is a file system that sort of works with the USB drive and memory card reader, but I couldn’t get it to function. Plug a USB mouse in and it works. Put anything else in the USB drive and nothing happens. Same with the memory card reader. Most of the time when you browse for a file you just get your downloads folder. Occasionally you’ll actually get a linux-like file menu that lets you browse everything, including attached devices. Unfortunately it never worked when I wanted it to and I had to upload the pictures in this post using my laptop and then go back to the Cr-48 to write the content. I’m assuming this is something that will be worked out in future OS releases prior to the commercial launch. A simple file panel when you plug in a USB device or put in a memory card would be perfect.
The other big issue is video playback. With 2 GB of RAM, this device should have no problem playing video, but it does. Hulu skips noticeably. NBA.com highlights were unwatchable. Now, in fairness to Chrome OS, I suspect that this is more of an issue with Adobe Flash for Linux than it is with anything else. Anyone who has used a linux OS in the past can attest to how poor Flash runs compared to it’s Windows and Mac versions. YouTube videos play great, so I suspect that this is something that they’ll be able to work out.
Battery life is fantastic. I’ve been using it on and off all day long today, probably for 3 hours total, and I still have 72% remaining, and I’ve been using the display on the maximum brightness. Official specs say up to 8 hours, which sounds about right. I’ve also noticed that no matter how long I keep it on my lap it doesn’t heat up and the fan never kicks on, something unlike any other laptop I’ve ever used.
Of course, I have to mention the Web App Store. All of a sudden, once you use Chrome OS, it makes total sense. It’s a great discovery tool. Let’s say I need a photo-editing web app. Why search Google for a website when I can find something in the app store that, at a minimum works well in Chrome, and potentially has deeper integration with the OS?
When I first booted up, I installed LockerPulse. Since I had previously connected my Google Account to my LockerPulse Account on my laptop, I was instantly logged in to LP and the first time I launched the app I was brought right to My News. That’s just one tiny integration. Over time as more developers utilize HTML5 and integrate their sites deeper with the OS, the App Store will become more and more valuable.
Right now, Chrome OS is useless without being connected to the web. There is a Settings tab where you can manage basic settings including your connections. I’ve only connected via wi-fi, but the computer comes with a 3G modem and bluetooth. As far as I know, there’s no way to connect with bluetooth yet, but you can connect via 3G using Verizon. The service plan is absolutely brilliant: 100 MB free per month for everyone, $9.99 unlimited day passes, and several other monthly plans starting at $20/month. I wouldn’t need it often, but I could totally see myself snagging a day pass a few times per year when traveling.
Most people think of this need for connectivity as a downside. I think that’s short-sighted. With HTML5 local storage, the majority of apps that can be used offline will be available to be used offline pretty soon. I’d imagine that all Google products will have this prior to the commercial launch, so you’ll be able to use Gmail and work on Google Docs without being connected to the web.
Right now this is immediately my #2 machine. I didn’t know what to expect when I heard I was getting one, but after using it I’m certain that I could work for a day or two using it if I had to. Despite what Google says, not everything can be done well in the browser, so for Skype and web development and photo editing to name a few, I need a fully-functional PC. It will likely be a long time before everything I do can be done inside of the browser.
That said, this is a perfect second computer. I didn’t have to do anything to set it up. It boots up quickly. It’s small and light. The OS updates itself so there’s no maintenance. I envision myself using it primarily as a consumption device, the computer I use to read LockerPulse, Twitter, and Google Reader while I’m sitting on the couch with the TV on. I also see myself using it to write blog posts and do some light work. I’ll probably also take it with me in situations where I might not take my laptop for fear of losing it or breaking it. The example that comes to mind is on the train to NYC, something I do a few times each year.
I can’t wait to see how the OS improves itself and how my Cr-48 gets better over time. I absolutely love using this thing.
I think there’s a market for these right now. There are a lot of jobs that only require email access, light document editing, and some web-based software. For those people, these are perfect devices. They’re secure, they update themselves, and they’re easily swappable or replaceable. It’s also the perfect devices for public places, like libraries, hotels, and coffee shops. It might even be an attractive option for schools.
I could see us buying a few of these for our employees. Someone like Charlie who manages our warehouse doesn’t need a full-fledged Windows computer. He only uses email, Google Docs, and our web based admin system. When we hired him we gave him Greg’s old laptop. I spent probably 8 hours wiping out the system, installing Windows 7, and installing and configuring software for him. I had to write it all down in our wiki so that next time I knew exactly what to do. Most of that could have been avoided if we just handed him one of these. This might not work for a programmer or designer, but it could work for Charlie or for a customer service employee, and for the rest of us it would be cool to have a few of these around for travel or as backups.
Long term, like 10+ years long term, this very well might be the OS that the majority of people use. It makes everything so damn simple. Give the web and Google time to catch up to desktop software, and factor in that most kids now a days don’t do much more than email, web browsing, and Facebook, and it’s not all that far-fetched. I applaud Google for trying. Worst case it ends up being a successful niche product. After using it I can’t see it falling flat all together.
The Bottom Line
Price. I haven’t mentioned it to this point, but that’s really what it comes down to. If these devices are $500 they won’t be very successful when you pit them up against comparably priced Windows computers, and Chrome OS may never get off the ground. I think $300 is the magic number for us to consider it for our employees, and I think if it’s less than that they’ll fly off the shelves. Schools, libraries, companies, grandmas all will see these as a “good enough” option for the price. If Google can get any sort of mass adoption, the whole thing – the devices, the OS, the Apps – could really start to take off.