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

Google has also leveraged its successes in other departments to benefit the Chrome OS. Google+ Hangouts, for example, come as a preinstalled app so you have video conferencing as an option right off the bat. Google's notorious for not always having good integration between its services, so this -- and solid Google Play integration for Books, Movies, and Music -- are welcome improvements.

Also welcome is Google's decision to expand everybody's Google Drive to 100GB when it detects a Chromebook associated with your account. The $250 price for the latest Samsung Chromebooks is nearly worth it for that upgrade alone.

The Chrome OS has a usable file-browsing system, accessible via Control-M or under the Tools submenu of the Options wrench. When you take a screenshot using the Ctrl-Next Window button, for example, you'll find it saved locally via the File Browser. It now supports a wide range of popular file formats, including PDF, PPT, DOC, ZIP, XLS and RAR, and the newer Microsoft proprietary versions of those formats like PPTX.

Famously, Google has killed the Caps Lock key and replaced it with a dedicated Search key. Tap it and a new tab will open, with the cursor ready in the location bar. What's less well-known is that you can remap the Search key to Caps Lock, and that Google makes it easy to do through the Settings menu under System, then Modifier keys. Here you can modify the bindings of the Control and Alt keys as well. But also missing is a dedicated Delete key to remove characters to the right of the cursor.

The default settings for the hot keys are among the best things about the Chrome OS. Hold down Ctrl and Alt with the question mark key to bring up a color-coded map of combinations that you can use. The map and colors change depending on which key -- Shift, Control, or Alt -- you're pressing.

Google is to be commended for building an operating system that goes from sleep to fully functional in what feels like a second. There's simply no lag time, and the updates have fixed previous lagginess in logging in and out. Your Chromebook or Chromebox may just be the fastest PC you've used when it comes to booting, shutting down, and logging in and out.

Two other low-profile but well-executed features in Chrome are autoupdating and translation. Chrome automatically updates when a new version comes out. This makes it harder to revert back to an older version, but it's highly unlikely that you'll want to downgrade this build of Chrome since this is the stable build and not the beta or developer's version. You can toggle the build among the three under About Chrome. The second feature, automatic translation of Web pages, is available to other browsers as a Google add-on, but because it comes from Google, it's baked directly into Chrome.

Google Plus hangouts now come as a default app in Chrome OS so you have video conferencing pre-enabled. The company doesn't always have good integration between services, so this is a welcome improvement.
Google+ Hangouts now come as a default app in Chrome OS so you have video conferencing pre-enabled. The company doesn't always have good integration between services, so this is a welcome improvement. Google

Already mentioned a little bit, the biggest OS hang-up in the operating system is offline support despite the improvements. Chrome OS will support the core Google apps of Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs offline, but for most of your other apps, you'll be left in the dark. That might not be an issue on the Chromebox, Google's answer to the Mac Mini, but for the portable Chromebooks, prepare for a severely hamstrung experience. Anyone outside of the cloud crowd likely won't be comfortable with it.

You can print with Google Cloud Print, accessible via the common printing hot-key combo of Control-P. Google has anticipated the problems that still plague cloud printing, and so it offers instructions on how to do it. Still, most people will probably find the process way too fiddly because what's simple to print off a basic Windows 7 Netbook will take effort to set up properly from a Chromebook. Cloud Print does now come with access to FedEx stores in the United States, which is a nice improvement for remote printing.

Google says that security will not be a big concern in Chrome OS and that it's the most secure operating system ever shipped. There are some toggles via about:flags and the Settings menu that will allow you to restrict content that requires plug-ins. Cookies, image management, JavaScript, plug-ins, pop-ups, location information, and notifications can be adjusted from the Content Settings button. This includes toggling specific plug-ins, such as the built-in Adobe Flash plug-in and the Chrome PDF reader.

Google is basing most of its claim of a secure operating system on a new feature in Chrome OS called "verified boot." Chrome OS will check its own integrity when booting, and if it detects any changes, it will allow you to restore a last-known good configuration.

Performance
The following benchmarks are of the original version of the Chrome OS that shipped on the Cr-48. There have been significant improvements since then, and CNET will update the results below as soon as possible.

Chrome OS beta cold-boot benchmarks.
Chrome OS beta cold-boot benchmarks. Chart by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Benchmarking the first beta of the Chrome OS proved to be a bit tricky. It's hard to measure the impact of various essential programs, such as a productivity suite or media player, on the operating system because they exist largely in the cloud. However, because the operating system is also the browser, we were able to run browser benchmark tests against it and compare them against the same version of Google Chrome, but running on a Windows 7 laptop.

Average of three cold runs of Chrome v8 on the WebKit SunSpider v0.9.1 test. Chart by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

These tests are admittedly not a direct apples-with-apples comparison. Google has not yet released the specifications of the Cr-48, saying only that it's running an Intel Atom processor. The Windows 7 x86 laptop we used is a high-powered Lenovo T400 laptop, running on an Intel Core 2 Duo T9400 at 2.53GHz, with 3GB of RAM. However, they do provide a snapshot of what the Cr-48 with Chrome OS is capable of at this time, and we can expect these numbers to improve as Google continues to upgrade both the Chrome OS and Chrome browser. The two laptops were running nearly identical versions of the Chrome browser. Tested in December 2010, the Cr-48 was running Chrome v8.0.552.341, whereas the Lenovo was running Chrome v8.0.552.215. (By comparison, the version of Chrome OS available in early June 2012 is 12.0.742.77.)

Average of three cold runs of Chrome v8 on the Mozilla Kraken test. Chart by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

What we can see from these tests is that the hardware will have a massive impact on the performance of both the browser and the operating system. This isn't news, but the fact that the Cr-48's version of the Chrome browser was so dramatically affected in all three tests tells us that what hardware future computer makers choose to support Chrome OS on will almost definitely change how well the public receives it.

Average of three cold runs of Chrome v8 on the FutureMark Peacemaker test. Chart by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

We were also a bit surprised that the full cold-boot and log-on procedure, not counting the time it took to type in the log-on password, averaged to nearly 30 seconds. Some Windows 7 computers have, anecdotally, been found to boot up cold in similar times. As mentioned earlier, this time had been cut in half by early June 2011.

Of course, the real time-saving feature of the Chrome OS is the resume from wake, which is practically instantaneous. As long as the computer isn't shut down, it will wake extremely quickly.

Conclusion
Although Chrome OS does update regularly, the current iteration is more usable than where the operating system was even six months ago. The quirkiness of a PC without the traditional touches of a PC desktop have been replaced by something recognizable and usable. As long as Google continues to support the project, Chrome OS will keep improving. One day, and perhaps sooner rather than later, it might even be ready for all.

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