Tech Industry

Life in the Chromeosphere

The hardware isn't ready and the OS is still beta, but Chrome OS notebooks look poised to steal the Netbook market from Microsoft.

The shipping versions of Chrome OS notebooks should be faster than the poky Cr-48 test bed. Rafe Needleman/CNET

I really wanted to love the Cr-48 Chrome OS notebook. In theory, it's bang-on perfect for a content worker like me who already relies on the Internet to store the majority of his work, and who needs to take a computer with him everywhere to write and take notes. The iPad, as much as I like it (which is a lot more than I expected to), has failed me as a productivity machine, simply because I can't really touch-type on the on-screen keyboard. The Cr-48 has a great keyboard. But I still don't love this device, at least not today.

The Cr-48 is a test-bed or reference platform for the Chrome OS that's baked into it. You can't buy it. If you're one of about 60,000 people, though, you can get one free (good luck) and play around with it. I got one, and have been working on it for about a day. Here's how it's turned out.

First, even though it's not buyable hardware, a word on the flat-black reference notebook, the Cr-48: Its minimalist aesthetic is very nice. The matte, grippy finish, the lack of extraneous badges, scoops, and bumps, the Thinkpad-solid keyboard--it all works. It also offers great battery life (you really don't have to worry about running out of juice if you charge it overnight), and it's silent. There's no mechanical hard drive, and even when the fan comes on (when playing video), it's nearly inaudible.

The hardware and the software feel like they belong together. The keyboard layout (including the arrogant Search key, which lives where the Caps Lock key is on most machines--you won't miss it) is nonstandard but works for the OS. The gray-on-black keyboard labeling, though, makes using the keyboard in a dark room diffuclt; there's no keyboard backlighting. And there is no Ethernet port, which is a big annoyance, especially in offices like mine, where the Wi-Fi is slow and overprotected, but cabled connectivity is everywhere.

In real-world use, the Atom-powered Cr-48 test bed is slow, and the operating system feels beta (which it is). With some Web pages and apps, keystrokes take a few milliseconds to register. The trackpad sometimes doesn't register two-finger gestures like scroll or right-click at all; other times it's overeager and jumpy. Switching tabs takes a tenth of a second longer than you expect. Videos don't play well in full-screen mode (but at least they do play, since Flash is built in to Chrome). Even the marquee New York Times app stutters. This is an underpowered machine, although it is far too early to tell if the actual shipping Chrome notebooks, combined with a further-developed OS, will erase these issues. I suspect they'll be fine.

A few developers have created versions of their online apps for the Chrome OS. This is the New York Times reader. It looks great, but it's sluggish on the Cr-48.

Working it
While working on the Web using a Cr-48 feels like trudging through mud, the experience is extremely promising for the future. Getting started and productive on the Cr-48 takes very little time, compared with setting up a new Windows or Mac computer. When you open the machine for the first time, you log in with your Google account credentials, which gives you immediate access to your Gmail and your Google Docs files, as well as any bookmarks you have in Chrome on other machines. To this I added the Chrome Lastpass extension, so I could log in to other services without manually entering passwords (I'm already a user of Lastpass), and the Chrome app for multiplatform chat (which has better notifications than Meebo). That's really all it took to reach a workable level of productivity and connectedness for me.

Nonetheless, the Web-centric nature of the Chrome OS notebooks can feel claustrophobic. The lack of a user interface to the file system (it's there, just buried) means there's no easy way to manage pictures or downloads. If you want to, say, take a picture with a digital camera, upload it to your Chrome notebook, and then post it to Twitter or Facebook, well, good luck. Using local resources for storage seems to be only grudgingly supported in the Chrome OS experience. Managing photos and screenshots is painful.

Then there are the apps that you may like to use that aren't available in Chrome versions. Many apps today have Web-based alternatives, but in a lot of cases they're just not good enough to replace a real app yet. My personal test case is Evernote. There's a Web version to compliment the Windows, OS X, iOS, and Android apps, but it's nowhere near as fast to use as the apps are. (Evernote CEO Phil Libin told me that there will eventually be an updated Web client that's more app-like.)

There's also no native Skype app for this platform yet, nor, as far as I can tell, a working third-party Skype client (the Imo Web client didn't work for me when it came to making Skype calls). If you rely on Skype, this is not the machine for you, yet. But it should be, since it's got all the hardware you'd need to run Skype, including a Webcam.

As a Web browsing platform, Chrome OS is mostly great. The OS supports Flash, so it runs video and game content just fine (just not Netflix, which requires Silverlight). Web pages load fast enough, and having a real keyboard makes all the difference when you want to surf from site to site. As Web reading platform, the Chrome OS notebook vanishes. You just stop thinking about it.

Come back tomorrow
I can't use Chrome OS as a daily work platform yet, but in the bigger scheme of things, Chrome OS could cut into Windows' share, especially for low-end machines like Netbooks. Instead of feeling like a force-fit, as Windows does on a low-powered computer, Chrome OS feels right, just a bit slow. The common argument that Windows represents a "sunk cost" for consumers will not hold water. Economically, the apps on Chrome OS will be free and ad-supported, or cheap, as they are on mobile phone app stores. And as far as the sunk cost of training, users already know how to use Chrome OS--it's just a big Web browser.

This Chrome notebook is not a fun computer, like the iPad. It would make a terrible gift--although I suspect Chrome notebooks will be far more affordable. But it is an important new platform that's going to be easier for users to get into and straightforward to develop for. The first Chrome "apps" are not much more than bookmarks, but we're likely to see these apps revised quickly and evolve into more app-like sites, including features like offline and file-system access on Chrome OS machines.

After a day of using the Cr-48, I liked it less than I expected I would. The speed isn't there, and the apps don't exist yet. But for people who spend most of their computing time online and in Google apps, it's a great platform now, and I expect it will improve, not wither or be forgotten, Kin-like. Chrome OS seems to be a solid development target for application and site builders. If Chrome OS notebooks are priced right, this platform could reignite the Netbook market.

More Chrome OS and Cr-48 coverage:

  • Chrome OS official review
  • Gallery: Introducing the Cr-48
  • Reporters' Roundtable podcast: Chrome OS and the future of operating systems