Google Chrome OS review: Chrome OS matures, but it's not a Jedi-level operating system yet

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CNET Editors' Rating

3 stars Good
  • Overall: 6.2
  • Installation and Setup: 9.0
  • Features and Support: 5.0
  • Interface: 7.0
  • Performance: 6.0
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good Chrome OS continues to mature, as regular updates bring rapid improvement to the browser-based operating system. New changes we like include Google Play integration and 100GB of Google Drive storage for free.

The Bad Chrome OS continues to be hamstrung by familiar limitations: popular cross-platform programs like Skype don't work, Chrome is terrible with large numbers of tabs, and non-Google sites can't be easily integrated as apps.

The Bottom Line Chrome OS struggles with the delineation between apps and Web sites, even though they are fast growing together. Great for students and casual home use, the day is coming when it'll be competitive, but it's not yet a replacement for a more mature OS.

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This review is based in part on previous Chrome OS reviews.

Welcome to the Chrome channel. Google's operating system started off in December 2010 as being little more than all Chrome, all the time. Updates made since then have given Chrome OS users better file format support, faster navigation, revised menus, dramatically improved offline abilities, and a traditional-looking desktop.

But if you loathe the Chrome browser, it's still highly unlikely that you'll enjoy this operating system. On the other hand, if you love Chrome, then Chrome OS is a big heaping helping of Chrome with some extra Chrome on the side and more Chrome for dessert.

Like Chrome the browser, Chrome-the-OS has a freely available open-source sibling, called Chromium OS. If you like coding and developing, this is likely going to be your best bet for exploring what makes Chrome OS tick.

Please note that because of the similarities between the Chrome-the-browser and the Chrome OS, parts of the Chrome review have been reproduced here where applicable.

Installation
Installation is not an issue for the Chrome OS since it comes preinstalled. There is a simple setup procedure, however. When you start up your system, it's recommended that you sign in using a Google account. You're not required to, and if you'd prefer, you can opt for the Guest mode.

Guest mode in Chrome OS cleverly uses the Chrome browser's trackless browsing mode, called Incognito. Incognito prevents guest users from leaving any traces of their session, as well as keeping them from making any changes to your apps and other settings.

After choosing your log-in method, you're asked to read through and accept the EULA. This will only appear for the initial log-in; it won't show up for subsequent uses and users. Next, you can take a photo of yourself with the Webcam, use a provided icon, or use your current Google account avatar. Gone from previous versions is the mandated Webcam photo. It took our avatar about 30 seconds to synchronize our existing account avatar from the cloud.

Chrome then takes anywhere from 30 to 60 seconds to synchronize your Google settings, if any, and then the computer is ready to be used. There's no doubt that the EULA is annoying, but we've never seen another new, unused operating system start so quickly.

Interface
Google has clearly spent some serious time developing the new interface. It looks and feels like a personal computer, finally, where before it was little more than a full-screen browser. There's an actual desktop that looks a bit cribbed from Windows 7, with Chrome-the-browser pinned to the far left of the Launcher, and other apps pinned right next to it.

While most of the desktop has been designed to feel like modern personal computers, the App List brings a more mobile flair to the new Chrome OS layout.
While most of the desktop has been designed to feel like modern personal computers, the App List brings a more mobile flair to the new Chrome OS layout. Google

The desktop itself shows only your background by default, but a Tic-Tac-Toe-style icon on the Launcher reveals all your installed apps over the desktop background. When you install an app, it'll appear here. The lower-right corner shows the time, Internet connection status, battery status, and shows your Google account avatar to indicate who's logged in. Click the avatar to show shutdown options and reveal more information and settings.

You can customize the background with one of several dozen options, or upload your own image. However, it must be either locally stored or in your Google Drive -- it won't pull in an image from a service like Facebook.

All the Settings have been moved to open in their own tabs, but you probably knew this from using Chrome-the-browser. Changes made in the browser tend to be reflected in Chrome OS about a month or so later.

The look of Chrome has changed remarkably little since its surprise debut in September 2008. Tabs are on top, the location bar -- which Google likes to call the Omnibar -- dominates the minimalist design, and the browser has few visible control buttons besides Back, Forward, and a combined Stop/Reload button.

On Chrome OS, the upper-right corner of the browser hosts a square icon and an X. The X is to close the browser window. Drag the box down to minimize the browser, drag it to the edges to "snap" it to the side and make it half the width of your screen, or click it to switch from windowed mode to full-screen mode. The window snap is another cue taken from Windows 7, but it's a clever and intuitive one, and works well in Chrome.

The interface's strongest point is also its weakness. What works well in the browser works well here, but the faults of one are reflected in the other, too. Some controls, such as page zoom, are readily available from the "wrench" options menu. Others, such as the extension manager, are hidden away under a Tools submenu. Hiding essentials like that remains an odd design choice to make. As is true about every aspect of this operating system, updates are much more likely to tweak the layout and design of the interface.

Chrome's extensions are fairly limited in how they can alter the browser's interface. Unlike Firefox, which gives add-on makers a lot of leeway to change the browser's look, Chrome mandates that extensions appear only as icons to the right of the location bar. The benefit maintains a uniform look in the browser, but it definitely restricts how much the browser can be customized.

Even with its limitations, the browser interface design has remained a contemporary exemplar of how to minimize the browser's screen footprint while remaining easy to use and versatile. The new desktop, on the other hand, finally brings to Chrome OS a sense of familiarity that is essential for any new PC experience.

Features
Chrome OS isn't quite as reliant on the Internet as it was before, but it's still reasonably crippled without it. This is a vehicle, first and foremost, for leading a Web-based existence. As such, what Chrome OS does is create a space where Web-based applications can function and thrive. The operating system itself doesn't do much -- it's a browser.

Chrome has made great strides in the past year bringing console-quality games to the browser via HTML5 and Native Client.
Chrome has made great strides in the past year bringing console-quality games to the browser via HTML5 and Native Client. Google

However, it's a heavily modded browser, and it achieves its main goal of getting you on the Web as fast as possible. This comes from both the solid-state drive (SSD) on your Chromebook or Chromebox, and the various optimizations that Google has been building into Chrome. This is where the second bit of genius in the Chrome OS comes in: because everything is Web-based, you can log in to any installation of the operating system and instantly have all of your apps, settings, and other personalizations at your fingertips. That's still an incredible feat.

It's an important one, too, as Chrome OS improves with each regular iteration of the operating system. In Chrome OS's first year, it updated eight times. Things that were buggy originally, such as touch pad support on the demo hardware Cr-48, started to work properly. Many Chrome-safe extensions that wouldn't install on the Chrome OS beta, but would on the browser, now work in Chrome OS. It's currently on a six-week update cycle.

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About The Author

Senior writer Seth Rosenblatt covers Google and security for CNET News, with occasional forays into tech and pop culture. Formerly a CNET Reviews senior editor for software, he has written about nearly every category of software and app available.