Faster Chromebooks to leapfrog today's slowpokes

Even for those who buy into cloud computing, the first-generation Chromebook can be painfully pokey. But faster next-gen models are on the way, Google tells CNET.

Sundar Pichai, SVP of Chrome
Sundar Pichai, SVP of Chrome Stephen Shankland/CNET

Because I've got cloud-computing religion, you'd think that Google convincing me to like a Chromebook would be as easy as preaching to the choir.

It's not.

After a few months using Samsung's 3G-equipped Series 5 Chromebook, I can firmly say the first-generation Chromebooks are not for me, for one big reason: sluggish performance.

But there's some good news here for people like me: There are new, faster Chromebooks on the way, Google revealed to me.

"We remain very excited about Chromebooks. We got a lot of positive feedback, and we are really looking forward to the next generation of Chromebooks," said Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Chrome, in an interview yesterday. "We will improve on the dimensions of speed, simplicity, and security."

And there's one other thing. Google makes a big fuss about how Chrome OS, the Chromebook's underlying browser-based operating system, gets steadily better as Google updates Chrome every six weeks. This Chromebook isn't where it needs to be, but it's appreciably better better than when it first arrived.

Activation energy
Whenever I'm using computing devices, which is a lot, a user-interface analog of activation energy is in the forefront of my subconscious thoughts: how low is the barrier to getting things moving? A part of my brain pays attention to the obstacles that stand in my way--the lag before that new browser tab appears, that app launches, that document loads, that machine wakes from sleep--and steers me sharply away from pokey technology.

I'm surrounded by too many choices for electronics. Right now, besides the Chromebook, I use two Macs, two Windows machines, three Android phones, one Android tablet, and an iPad. Over and over, I end up reaching for the anything but the Chromebook unless I consciously decide I need to be trying it. And when I set it aside, I feel inward relief.

The Chromebook is simply underpowered for my overall needs. Google Docs documents grind open. Scrolling can be an excruciatingly laggy affair. My son, trying to play the Flash-based Crush the Castle 2 game, cried out in exasperation when trying to construct his medieval defenses. Keyboard repeat rates aren't adjustable to let me set them fast enough with only a brief delay before kicking in. When I have more than 15 or 20 tabs open, it seems that old tabs must be reloaded from the server when I switch back to them.

Samsung's Series 5 Chromebook
Samsung's Series 5 Chromebook

Google had to start somewhere with Chrome OS, and opting for low power consumption, long battery life, and low prices means that there was really no way to fit the speed-freak needs of somebody like myself.

But without high performance, Google is alienating an important set of techno-savvy people such as developers who help to set the tech agenda.

How the Chromebook works
Chromebooks are one of any number of technologies Google hopes will disrupt the technological status quo. They're lower-end laptops that run Chrome OS, Google's browser-based operating system. That means that applications run on the browser, not the version of Linux that's hidden away beneath for chores such as checking for gestures on the trackpad or spinning up the cooling fan.

Applications themselves run on Chrome, and they're launched either by pointing the browser at a Web site or by installing them from Google's Chrome Web Store.

Google and other browser makers are steadily improving the sophistication and power of Web programming, but the platform itself falls short of what traditional operating systems offer to native software. Google is cooperating with other browser makers and standards groups to improve Web apps, but its impatience shows when it releases projects such as Dart language to improve on JavaScript and its Native Client foundation for running adapted C and C++ programs fast within the browser

Chromebooks are a big bet on cloud computing, in which a server at the other end of the Net is the boss even when your local machine is running a lot of JavaScript and caching data.

I do a lot of work in Google Apps and Web-based e-mail, so Chromebooks are well suited to the bulk of what I do. Instant messaging works over the Web, too. Offline access to Google Docs is still somewhere between broken and primitive, though, so a network connection--that bugaboo of cloud computing--remains essential for me. That means working on trains and subways is impractical for me.

But the direction is clear: cloud computing is tremendously important, even when it exists in some hybrid state such as Dropbox's file-sync service that also marries online services with local computing.

Bugs and missing pieces
I've suffered any number of bugs, too--problems with Gmail not displaying correctly; persistent Google Docs error messages telling me I was using an unsupported zoom setting; crashing tabs; problems on restart with the Chromebook trying to figure out if my personal Gmail account or my work Google Apps account had priority.

Some of those are probably real, but I give Google a big free pass here since I've mostly been running the developer channel of Chrome, which isn't as tested as the beta or stable varieties.

I'm less forgiving of the trackpad. It was a top complaint about the Cr-48 pilot machine, and Google said that it addressed many shortcomings with the official Chromebooks. But it's still actively annoying to me. Worst is that that inadvertent thumb brushes move my cursor where I don't want it.

The biggest missing feature for me is photo and video editing. There are some rudimentary online apps for people who don't need much, but I'm spoiled by the precision and power Lightroom, Photoshop, and such. On top of that, Google's nixed Picnik and I had trouble getting files from the Chromebook to online editor Aviary.

I also miss Spotify, though Google Music works.

Web programming will gradually fill in some of these holes. Native Client may not have many allies outside Google, but it's enough to attract a version of Bastion for Chrome. Multitouch interfaces, background processing, camera control, and other lower-level changes are also becoming a reality.

Native app abilities will advance, too, of course, though the majority of that innovation seems to be taking place in the mobile realm with iOS, Android, and Windows Phone.

Power users steer clear
The upshot here is that people like me should steer away from Chromebooks for now. If you have a basic set of online social tasks, a Chromebook is appropriate. If you're a photographer, videogamer, or audiophile, look elsewhere.

The $64,000 question is how fast Chromebooks will expand in utility. There are lots of reasons people want the flexibility of a conventional personal computer, but I spend ever more time in a browser.

Even today, I can see situations where Chromebooks are workable. For consumers, it could be an OK second machine lying around the house that's better suited than an iPad for typing e-mail and Facebook posts. I'd certainly be more inclined to give my son a Chromebook than a low-end Netbook. The Chromebook wakes up quickly and has good battery life, so it's free of some of the activation energy pitfalls of many laptops (especially Windows laptops) that I've used, and it's liberating leaving antivirus software behind.

But the better fit to me seems organizations where the machine is performing a limited set of tasks--rather like a thin client. It's especially well suited to those who already use Google Apps, and the fact that Chromebooks are interchangeable cogs makes administration easier when it comes time for upgrades, repairs, theft, or provisioning for new employees.

The first-generation Chromebooks were generally panned--indeed, my own complaints here sound moderate compared to some reviews I've read. But it's important to separate the Chrome OS vision from its manifestation in first-generation Chromebooks. Reviewers, like me, are used to doing lots with high-end hardware. Today's Chromebooks are for a very different audience.

Google isn't marketing the machines or pushing them through retail, but letting people who think they might like them discover them on their own. That's probably why the Chromebook reviews on Amazon are generally fairly favorable.

Two things stand in the way of broader Chromebook adoption. First are the shortcomings of cloud computing, some of which can be addressed with more sophisticated Web programming.

Second are the shortcomings of the Chromebooks themselves--and that's much more easily addressed. I look forward the next incarnation of Chrome OS.

 

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