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Google Drive comes to Chrome OS

Chromebook previously suffered from storage systems that were small and isolated from the cloud. But now the browser-based operating system is integrated with Google's online file sync service.

Google Drive has come to Chrome OS, the browser-based operating system that arguably needs it more than the average PC.
Google Drive has come to Chrome OS, the browser-based operating system that arguably needs it more than the average PC.
screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google Drive is handy for mobile devices and conventional computers, but it's just arrived on another class of devices where it's potentially a lot more transformative: Chrome OS.

Google built Google Drive into the latest developer release of Chrome OS version 20.0.1116.0, said Chrome team member Danielle Drew in a blog post today.

Google Drive synchronizes files across multiple devices and with Google's own servers; a file copied or saved into the folder on a personal computer or uploaded to the Google Drive Web site is then accessible on other devices. It's tightly integrated with Google Docs, Google's online service for word processing, presentations, and spreadsheets.

On personal computers, Google Drive or competing services such as Dropbox or SkyDrive can be useful. But on Chrome OS, Google's browser-based operating system, it's a big step up. That's because its file management interface is rudimentary, and when you use it to store files, they aren't available elsewhere unless you export them somehow -- uploading photos to Picasa or e-mailing PDFs to yourself, for example.

With Drive, though, files stored with this supposedly cloud-computing operating system are actually integrated directly with the cloud. You could already get your Google Docs, of course, but now you can see all the other files you've stored much more easily. And services like Dropbox don't work easily on Chrome OS the way they do on Windows or Mac OS X.

"Think of it as your drive for Chrome OS," said Scott Johnston, the product manager in charge of Google Drive, in an earlier interview this week. "It's as if you have a local disk, but it happens to be stored in the cloud."

That's potentially important for another reason: unlike even low-end laptops, the Chrome OS laptops Google calls Chromebooks today have only 16GB. That'll change with later models, said Sundar Pichai, senior vice president for Chrome and Apps at Google.

But it seems unlikely that it'll ever match the much larger capacities needed for a less network-centric device, and Pichai said people will keep only what they most need on Chromebooks.

"People will have a way of choosing important files," Pichai said. "I think of Chromebook as a cache of important data and not all your stuff."

It's clearly an early version of Google Drive, though. For example, I couldn't drag and drop a file in Chrome OS's download folder into Google Drive, though copy and paste worked to move it. And as with Google Drive in general, I find it slower than Dropbox to synchronize new files across different devices. Reloading the page doesn't actually fetch updated data, but for me going back to a parent folder then reopening the one I wanted refreshed it.

Google Drive icon

There were some resizing issues, with thumbnails flowing awkwardly as I shrank the window. And for whatever reason, the thumbnail images were bigger and at least for me more useful using the Web interface rather than the Chrome OS file manager interface.

Those who want to try it out will have to use the developer channel of Chrome OS, which can be choppy going sometimes since it's got newer features that haven't been tested as well. To use the file manager interface on Chrome OS, type Ctrl-M.

Chromebooks so far haven't made much of an impression on an industry fixated more with tablets, mobile phones, and ever-slimmer Mac laptops. Google is beavering away on the project, though, most recently adding a new, more traditional interface to Chrome OS. That initially was available only for the Acer- and Samsung-built Chromebooks, but now it's available on Google's Cr-48 Chromebook prototypes, too.

Google also has said faster Chromebooks are on the way.