Photo: Matt Rosoff
Google’s prototype Chrome OS notebook, the Cr-48, arrived on my doorstep yesterday afternoon, and I spent a couple hours last night putting it through its paces.My initial impressions: Chrome set out to solve some of the most annoying problems of Windows, like taking forever to start up and install applications. It solves those problems very well.
At the same time, I’m not sure that turning a Web browser into an entire operating system makes sense. There’s no desktop — just browser tabs. Applications are all Web apps, and run within their own browser tabs. And so on.
It’s jarring, to say the least. But is it any good?
As Google promised in its demo this week, setting up Chrome for the first time really took less than a minute. There was one gut-wrenching moment when it went out to the Internet to check for updates. I've seen this many times with Windows and Mac OS X, and it usually takes long enough for me to run and grab a sandwich. Or maybe to visit the DMV to register my car and get a new driver's licence.
With Chrome, it was over in less than 10 seconds.
Once I signed up, I rebooted the computer to test how fast it would start up. It took less than 15 seconds.
If you're old enough to remember when Windows XP came out, you might remember that privacy groups were scandalized when Microsoft tried to tie its Web sign-in system, Passport, to user accounts on the OS. The FTC intervened, and Microsoft backed down.
With Chrome OS, Google's doing what Microsoft tried: the only way to create a personalised user account is to sign in with a Google ID. You can surf the Web anonymously as a guest, but you won't get any of the synchronisation benefits, like the ability to use Chrome on multiple devices and have all your data and applications magically show up. How much this annoys you depends on how much you trust Google.
You can make Bing the default search engine if you want. It's nice of Google to throw Microsoft a bone. You can also choose Yahoo, which is more or less the same as choosing Bing.
This is a bigger deal than it might seem because search is accessible directly from the address bar, which is the main way to navigate through the OS. So, for example, if you're trying to figure out how to take a screenshot with Chrome and you type in 'screenshot chrome,' you'll get results from your default search engine.
The primary way to get new applications is through the Chrome App Store. Select an app and click the Install button, and it shows up on the dashboard of applications in seconds. It's the fastest app installation I've ever seen on any platform, including mobile phones.
Although Verizon and Google didn't offer details about all the data plans available for Chrome OS, the information is right there in the operating system -- all you have to do is select 'Activate Verizon Wireless' from the network icon in the upper-right hand corner.
The plans are pretty reasonable: 100MB a month for free, 1GB per month for $20, 3GB for $30, and 5GB for $50. No contract is ever required, and there's also a $9.99 one-day unlimited access plan.
The only drawback: even if you're only ever going to use the free plan, you have to give Verizon a credit card number. They say it's for identification purposes and that they won't charge it without authorization, but it's still an extra annoyance.
Also, all the plans are 3G at this point. I tried plugging my Verizon LTE 4G modem into the notebook. The blue light started blinking, indicating that it was ready to start receiving the high-speed signal. But there's no Verizon software for Chrome, so no way to turn it on--a problem that could easily be fixed in the future.
With Chrome, all files are synchronised automatically to the Web. To Google, this seems to mean that users should never have to delete anything. There's no delete key on the keyboard, and no Trash Can or Recycle Bin anywhere in the OS. (I'd say 'on the desktop' but there's no desktop--it's all browser tabs.)
This is nonsense. For example, I imported the wrong set of bookmarks from an external file and wanted to delete them. Figuring out how was ridiculously hard -- I had to select the folder I wanted to delete, then go to the organise menu and select Delete.
Use Unix much? If not, you'll never figure out what's going on in the file system on Chrome.
That's because you're not supposed to access the file system. Everything lives in the cloud, remember?
If you happen to be so naive as to download a file, never fear -- it will show up in the ever-expanding 'Downloads' menu. Want to change the name of a download as you put it into the file system so (for example) you're not stuck with a bunch of photos called photo(1) and photo(2)? Good luck.
In fact, I was only able to get to the file system when a third-party app, the Aviary image editor, asked me if I wanted to work on an existing file. I'm an old Windows guy and I like my carefully organised nested folders. I have enough trouble with the new Libraries system in Windows 7. Figuring out where files actually live in Chrome is much worse.
Of course, this being Google, there's a Search function in the file menu. Unfortunately, it didn't find the file that I had just downloaded--even though it was still showing up in the downloads menu.
Here, a devoted Mac user might ask 'can't you just drag and drop it from the downloads menu?' Nope, that doesn't work either.
The only way to print is over the Internet using Google's Cloud Print service. You can't attach a printer -- it won't work.
Digital camera? Won't work. iPhone? Won't work. Some of these problems may eventually be solved, but the gap today makes one appreciate all the effort Microsoft and Apple expended to get their OSs to recognise devices as soon as they're plugged in.
There is no keyboard command or tool for grabbing an image of the screen. Perhaps a third-party app will fill this basic gap. (Not a huge problem for normal people, but in my line of work, a pain.)
Results for Flash were decidedly mixed. YouTube videos played smoothly with no stutters, and performance on simple Flash games was great. But Hulu was slow, and when I went to a video chat site that wanted to use Flash to access the Web cam on the notebook, I got an obscure error message notifying me that the plug-in had crashed.
Google made very clear that the Cr-48 is just a prototype for testing out the OS. That's a good thing, as the hardware was full of annoyances. During the sign-up process, it asks you to take a headshot, but the camera's so slow and laggy that it took several times to get a decent one. And the trackpad is extremely flaky--it's hard to get the speed of the cursor right, and the two-finger tap (which is supposed to be like a right-click on Windows) didn't always work.
Even just looking at the software, though, Chrome leaves a lot to be desired. There are so many glaring gaps in what it can do, and so many unexpected annoyances for anybody who's used Windows or a Mac--or even a modern smartphone like the iPhone--it's hard to imagine anybody choosing a Chrome notebook as their main computer. Or even as a secondary on-the-go device.
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