Faster Chromebooks unshackle Chrome OS: Hands-on

For the cloud crowd, Samsung's new $449 Chromebook and $329 Chromebox give a much-needed performance boost to Google's browser-based OS. They're still not for most computer users, though.

Samsung's Series 3 Chromebox is reminiscent of Apple's Mac Mini.
Samsung's Series 3 Chromebox is reminiscent of Apple's Mac Mini. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google's Chrome OS just got vastly more useful, with two new Chrome OS devices announced today -- a Chromebook laptop and Chromebox desktop from Samsung that clear up performance problems that sullied last year's debut of the browser-based operating system.

I found the first-generation Chromebooks usable but painfully slow . Unshackled from slow hardware, though, Chrome OS now can stand on its own merits.

So how does it stand up? After a week of testing Samsung's new $329 Series 3 Chromebox and $449 Series 5 550 Chromebook , which go on sale today, I think the new Chrome OS systems are workable for people like me, who spend a lot of time on Google's cloud. Chrome OS devices now can be a useful way to get to services such as Gmail, Google Drive, YouTube, Google Docs, and Google Play, and the new hardware really helps.

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"With this generation, we're addressing speed seriously," said Sundar Pichai, the senior vice president in charge of Chrome and Google Apps.

But for most people -- those who need iTunes, Spotify, Skype, Photoshop, Portal 2, or other software that runs locally on Windows or OS X -- Chrome OS isn't yet up to scratch, no matter how fast the hardware. And the new machines still aren't as fast as modern PCs, despite an upgrade from last-generation Intel Atom chips to more powerful Intel Core chips this time around.

For further opinions, be sure to check out CNET's review of the Chromebox 3 , the Chromebook Series 5 550 , and overhauled Chrome OS.

Before you write off Chrome OS as a science fair project, remember two points. First, the Web is becoming more powerful as a foundation for apps, those apps are taking advantage of the new power, and Chrome OS draws on that broad and deep movement. Second, although Google unceremoniously dumps some dud projects, Chrome OS looks to me like one of the ones in which Google is investing for the long haul.

Preaching to the choir -- but the choir's getting bigger
Before I detail some of my impressions, it's important to point out what I call Google's preaching-to-the-choir strategy for Chrome OS. It's not trying to argue Chromebooks and Chromeboxes are for everyone, aiming instead at the niche that appreciates their advantages. But with the new systems, Google evidently believes that niche is bigger.

Google was quiet about the first-gen Chromebooks from Acer and Samsung, letting customers who might want them find the systems on their own through online retailers. Google will begin promoting the new systems, including through "Chrome zone" ministores in Best Buy, where people can try them out.

"Last year, we seeded the market and didn't put marketing behind it," Pichai said. Now, though, "we will be louder. We want more people to be aware of it."

Expect Google to get yet louder later in the year, too.

The Samsung Series 5 550 Chromebook is all about running Web apps and using Web sites. The 1280x800 screen is workable but unspectacular, but font rendering technology is coarse.
The Samsung Series 5 550 Chromebook is all about running Web apps and using Web sites. The 1280x800 screen is workable but unspectacular, but font rendering technology is coarse. Stephen Shankland/CNET

"As we look toward the holiday season, you will see us launch more SKUs [models] with more partners," Pichai said.

One of the intriguing possibilities here is touch-screen devices such as tablets. Google has built a touch-screen keyboard for Chrome OS , and icons and other user-interface widgets are getting a strong resemblance to those in Android 4.0, aka Ice Cream Sandwich.

"We are deeply incorporating touch so if people want to ship something with a touch screen, we can do that as well," Pichai said. "If you're an Android phone or tablet user, a Chromebook will work much better than a Windows or Mac machine for you."

Don't expect Chrome OS tablets anytime soon. But with Chrome itself available for Ice Cream Sandwich and Chrome OS getting a touch-screen interface, expect to see convergence.

The new Samsung systems are nice. They've got a refined exterior, most of the necessary ports (though no USB 3), and a generally solid build. The Chromebook's 1280x800 screen is middling but workable, and the keyboard worked well for me, aside from the fact that Samsung seems to have been infected by one of Apple's worst design ideas, the omission of the right-delete key.

And they really are faster. One of the most frustrating bottlenecks, editing large Google Docs word-processing documents, was awful on the first-gen Samsung Chromebook. Smaller files were OK, but bigger ones such as an 18,000-word document I'm wrestling with right now really dragged. Now they open faster, and the app mostly keeps up with my typing.

The Chromebook is likely to have more appeal since it fits in with the general shift toward mobile computing. But the Chromebox could be useful for corporate environments such as call centers, schools, and libraries, where people don't need full-fledged PCs and where Chrome OS's management benefits stand out. For those customers, Google dropped its subscription pricing plan and now charges the retail price plus $150, which gets customers the administration tools, hardware warranty, and lifetime support including 24-hour phone support.

Rebuilt Chrome OS
The new Chromebooks take advantage of Chrome OS 19.x and its many changes. Among those are an interface with windows that can be resized and hardware-accelerated graphics in many situations such as scrolling.

Where the first versions of Chrome OS looked like a browser that you couldn't minimize or slide to one side of the screen, Chrome OS now looks like a personal computer. Since everything you're doing is in a browser window, and the Chromebook screen wasn't terribly big, the old approach wasn't the end of the world.

But it was different, and with Chromeboxes likely to plug into bigger monitors, windows are a welcome addition. There are some niceties I appreciate, like drop shadows that the active window casts on nearby background windows and windows that snap to right and left edges when you drag them to one side or the other, a la Windows 7.

Another major change was a new trackpad software driver that Google decided to write on its own. It's a vast improvement in my judgement, much less prone to teleporting your cursor to the wrong part of the screen with a stray swipes of a palm or thumb.

I'm actually using Chrome OS 20.x, available right now only on the developer channel and therefore more prone to bugs and other issues. It has two features I particularly appreciate: integration with the Google Drive cloud-based file sync service, and the ability to reverse the trackpad's two-finger scrolling direction to match OS X Lion's "natural" direction. A lot of people hate this, but I think it's the smart move given that someday we'll be using touch screens, not trackpads, and it's more intuitive to think of pushing window contents around than scrollbar thumbs.

One of the awkward aspects of Chrome OS 20.x is incomplete Google Drive integration. There are two ways to get at Google Drive files, and they behave differently. One is by pointing the browser to http://drive.google.com, and the other is opening the Chrome OS file manager by typing Ctrl-M. The former has the ability to hand off files to online photo editors such as Pixlr. But the latter shows photos in a nicer slideshow format and includes a basic image editor that can crop, rotate, and try to autofix photo tones.

Chrome OS is getting Google Drive integration -- but the pieces aren't yet all in place, for example with the OS's built-in editing tool. But Chrome OS gets updated every few weeks.
Chrome OS is getting Google Drive integration -- but the pieces aren't yet all in place, for example with the OS's built-in editing tool. But Chrome OS gets updated every few weeks. Stephen Shankland/CNET

I imagine Google will be sorting out these new features soon, though. Google really does improve Chrome OS at a fairly rapid pace, with new versions arriving about every six weeks. They appear silently, installing automatically if you restart the machine or manually if you notice an upgrade arrow showing in the status bar.

"With Windows Vista and Windows 7 and Windows 8, there are year-and-a-half changes," Pichai said. WIth Chromebooks, "all the improvements are there with you. It's not like you have to use a coupon or upgrade. It's a continual improvement model."

"I think people are underestimating where we can be a year from now," Pichai said.

Offline apps and other shortcomings
It's a good thing, because the Chrome OS systems are in need of some continual improvement.

Near the top of my wish list is better font rendering. There's some antialiasing going on, but the jaggies are still way too pronounced.

Another strong need is for better offline support for those moments away from Wi-Fi. Sure, you can get the $549 3G-cabable Chromebook (and pay data transfer fees), but even then you'll lose your network access on trains and planes.

Chrome OS can hand off file actions to associated Web apps to which you've granted sufficient privileges.
Chrome OS can hand off file actions to associated Web apps to which you've granted sufficient privileges. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

By virtue of Google's Native Client software, the Chrome OS devices now can view offline Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and PDF documents. Coming in the next Chrome OS rev will be the ability to edit Google Docs word-processing documents, Pichai said.

"We've taken our time to get there, but that was a big goal: making sure people can be productive offline," he said. "It's really, really fast. It has a local store, syncs data in the background, and works really well."

He wouldn't say when offline editing would arrive for other Google Docs formats such as spreadsheets and presentations. But he did add, "We care about you being productive offline across all file types."

It's just plain hard to write offline-capable Web apps, though; with Google Docs, functions that executed on Google servers must execute in the Web app instead, for example. When people succeed in building offline apps, though, Google will spotlight them with a lightning icon in the Chrome Web Store.

Chrome OS runs Web apps, which can be very limiting. But such software is getting rapidly more sophisticated. Here, the Pixlr tool is used to clone the Samsung logo to a different part of an image.
Chrome OS runs Web apps, which can be very limiting. But such software is getting rapidly more sophisticated. Here, the Pixlr tool is used to clone the Samsung logo to a different part of an image. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

One crutch for those who still need to use their old PC software is the Chrome Remote Desktop extension, which lets you tap into authorized computers over a network. It shows promise, but the beta version I tried wasn't reliable enough, and it doesn't deal gracefully with screen-size mismatches. With Google Drive, though, it shows potential: You could use Photoshop on a remote machine to edit a photo stored in Google Drive, then have it handy as soon as your Chrome OS machine synchronizes.

Google claims six hours of useful battery life, and that seemed to agree with my limited usage. The Chromebook warns you when its battery is getting low, and if you keep on using it regardless, it just goes blank. Happily, since your work is likely taking place in the cloud, picking up where you left off is a matter of reloading your tabs after restart.

The new systems start up very quickly -- at least when it comes to getting to the logon screen. Reloading your tabs, if you have two or four dozen like I usually do, can be a tedious affair. I'd have hoped caching could be used better here.

Another niggling issue for me is nonexistent keyboard repeat controls. I'd like to set a shorter delay before keys start repeating, and I'd like to fine-tune repeat rates, too. This bugs me over and over, dozens of times a day. Maybe I should learn to type without making mistakes.

Overall, though, I'm pleased with the improvements. The Chromebook and Chromebox mostly just got out of my way and let me work; I often forgot I was using them. There are many limits, but for the cloud crowd, Chrome OS is starting to show its potential.

The Chromebox is an artfully crafted sealed box that sports Google's Chrome logo.
The Chromebox is an artfully crafted sealed box that sports Google's Chrome logo. Stephen Shankland/CNET
 

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