Although the official release of its cloud-based Chrome OS is months away, Google has begun a massive pilot program, offering specially-chosen end users, Google employees, and journalists their own prototype Chrome netbooks. Known as the Cr-48 (for the element Chromium 48), these particular 12.1-inch laptops will never be sold commercially, but they offer a very detailed preview of what we can expect from the first Chrome systems when they launch by mid-2011.
Google CR-48 Netbook Specifications at a look:
- Vibrant 12.1-inch screen
- Full-size keyboard
- Oversized clickpad
- Qualcomm Gobi 3G chip for Verizon data in the US, unlocked internationally
- 802.11n dual-band WiFi
- 8+ hours of active use
- 8+ days of standby
- Flash storage
Design of Cr-48
The Cr-48 won’t be available to consumers and Google has already stated the systems its partners launch in mid-2011 will not use this exact design or hardware. However, there are several things about this test system we found interesting, because they may inspire the final products.
The chassis is rounded and shaped like a last-generation plastic MacBook, its keyboard has the same size, shape, and nearly identical layout to a MacBook’s, and even the hinge, which sites in the middle of the chassis, takes its cues from a MacBook. We love the black, soft-touch rubberized material that is used throughout the chassis and wish more products were made out of it. Laying your wrists on the soft touch palmrest is a pleasant experience. At 11.8 x 8.6 x 0.9 inches the Cr-48 is a very comfortable size for your bag or holding on your lap, but its 3.8-pound weight seems a bit heavy for a system this size.
A keyboard tour. Yes, there are no function buttons. There are hard buttons to do things like go forward or backwards, refresh, full screen mode, change windows, brightness up, brightness down, mute, audio up, audio down, and power on/off. Yes, the CAPS LOCK button has been replaced with a Search button. Because Google says it wants to discourage all-caps typing. And yes, while Google is the default, you can change this in settings to Yahoo or Bing. There are numerous keyboard shortcuts which match those you would find in the Windows version of Chrome. These include such as CTRL + H to see the history, CTRL + W to close a tab, and CTRL +/- to zoom in and out. You can see a complete list of these by hitting CTRL + ALT + ?.
The touchpad does not have built-in buttons, but like many notebooks these days, is itself a button. In our experience most clickpad designs, apart from the MacBooks, are unpleasant to use particularly if you like to navigate with one finger and click with another. The Cr-48’s clickpad alternated between making our cursor jump and stopping it mid-movement.
Screen and Ports
The 12.1-inch screen has a 1280 x 800 resolution, which is extremely rare on notebooks these days but a welcome improvement over the nearly-ubiquitous 1366 x 768 panels we see every day, because it allows plenty of vertical screen real estate for viewing web pages. The screen’s matte surface allowed it to provide really strong viewing angles to the left and right.
There are very few ports on the device. On the right side is an SD card reader, an audio-out jack, and a USB port. On the left is a VGA port. As stated above, storage devices and memory cards work for uploading files to the cloud, but do nothing else. We were able to attach both a wired and a wireless mouse to the USB port and both worked pretty well.
Boot Up and Set Up
Google promised that its operating system would boot very quickly and our tests indicate that, while it is quick to start up, the Cr-48 isn’t the fastest we’ve seen. From hitting the power button to reaching the login prompt was about 15 seconds. However, then you must select your user account (it shows you a list of profiles) and enter your password or click guest and wait a few more seconds for everything to appear. All told, with typing and clicking, this process takes about another 10 seconds for a total of 25 seconds. The latest MacBook Airs let you start working in 15 seconds.
Taking the device out of the box, it’s a sparse bit of treasure. All that was included was the netbook, a power adapter and 2 sheets of paper that gave a walk through and basic instructions for the device. Setup was supremely simple. Connection to WiFi was painless and fast.
After you power on the Cr-48 for the first time, you’re asked to configure your Internet connection by selecting a Wi-Fi network, then you’re asked to agree to the Google EULA, and finally asked to login with a Google account and given the option to take your picture with the webcam so the picture can accompany your login. When it came to logging in, we noticed two interesting flaws. First, the system did not recognize any Google account we used with a username that did not end in @gmail.com. When we tried to login with our laptopmag.com address, which is a registered Google Apps user account, or with another Yahoo address that’s registered with Google, the system said our account could not be located.
If you don’t have a valid Gmail account already, you hit a bit of a wall at the login prompt, because there’s no way to create one during setup. If you don’t already have a valid Google account, your best bet is to walk over to your nearest non-Chrome OS device, visit Google.com, and create your account there before continuing.
User Interface and Chrome OS
If you’re familiar with Chrome and if you’ve been using Chrome apps or extensions, then everything about operating like this will make sense to you. The browsing experience itself is absolutely not different, you just have to bear in mind that you’re working entirely online and so there are not locally-hosted applications that you might normally use.
The first thing you’ll notice when you enter Chrome OS is that there’s no desktop, no Start Menu or dock, and no task bar. All you see is the Chrome browser, which opens with a list of your installed web apps and Chrome extensions and two menus that list Most visited and Recently closed sites. By default, the preloaded apps are Get Started (a set of instructions), Entanglement (a puzzle game), Poppit ( a casual game where you pop balloons), Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps, Google Talk, YouTube, and Web Store, which allows you to install more apps.
None of these apps actually lives on the PC; they’re all either bookmarks to URLs you could just visit by typing into the address bar or extensions that also live on the web. You can get thousands more apps by going to Google’s web store, though there’s no way to simply add your own custom shortcuts to the empty tab page. However, if you have bookmarks, you’ll see a few in a bar above the apps. In the upper right corner of the screen sit the system clock, wireless bars, and a battery indicator. If you have your Cr-48 configured to allow multiple languages, a menu for choosing the input language appears between the clock and the wireless bar status.
You can’t do a lot to customize the look and feel of the OS, but you can download Chrome themes from Google’s web store, which will change both the color of the tabs and address bar area and the background that appears in new tabs.
As there’s no desktop behind it, you can’t minimize, maximize, or resize the browser window, nor can you view two browser windows next to each other. You can drag tabs around and, should you hit Ctrl + N or click a link that spawns a new window, you’ll be transported to another screen where that window will also take up the full area. There’s no compelling need to create new windows rather than tabs, but should you wish to work with multiple windows, you can switch back and forth between them by either hitting ALT + Tab or the change windows button on the keyboard.
While you are in one browser window there is no indicator to let you know that other windows exist. Even when you change windows, you are simply shuffled off to the next window, rather than given a menu that shows you how many windows are open and what they contain.
We were pleasantly surprised to find out that you can work in WordPress within the platform. The iPad, in all of its glory, still has no way to store files locally and then upload them into WordPress. That’s been a sore spot for us since day one. The Chrome OS, while it does have limited space on this machine, still does allow you some areas of the storage in which you can save files and then upload them to WordPress.
The Internet settings tab allows you to configure your Wi-Fi settings. The Basics tab lets you set your default home page for new tabs and, interestingly enough, you can also change your default search engine here from Google to Yahoo or Bing! The Personal Stuff menu lets you change your password and gives you a menu for getting themes. Under the hood lets you change privacy and network settings; it also has a Content button that allows you to control notifications, pop-ups, plug-ins, and alerts. The Users tab allows you to turn on or off guest access and restrict which user accounts can log into the system.
There are some settings to the Chrome OS that are different than what you’ve seen in the browser itself. Located in the same place, under the familiar wrench on the right hand side, you’ll have a new menu system that opens in a page of its own instead of in a popup window:
Beyond this screen, there is another for your “Personal Stuff” that can address any sharing or synchronization issues you might want to adjust. There’s also a dedicated “Internet” menu where you can adjust your WiFi or 3G settings. The rest of the menu? It’s almost exactly what you’ve seen in Chrome, just in a different format.
One of the most frustrating things about the Chrome OS is the way it deliberately hides the file system from users. There’s no equivalent to the Windows Explorer or Mac Finder in Chrome OS, so there’s no way to browse the folders on the local storage or move files around. Even when you attach a USB storage drive or pop an SD Card reader into the card slot no dialog box appears to let you do something with the content on those devices. There’s also no way to surf the local storage drive by typing local folder paths into the address bar; it just doesn’t work
One thing you can do with local files, if they are images, is view them in the browser by double clicking on them. Of course, you can delete files by clicking the arrow that appears next to each and selecting Delete (the only option). The other thing you can do with local files is upload them, provided you’re using a web app or visiting a site that has an upload button. Depending on which site you visit or extension you use, you will get a different type of upload dialog box. On Google services, such as Google Docs and Gmail, this box is a very stripped down white box that looks like the downloads box and just shows your files and folders from Downloads. In this box, you can’t hit CTRL + A to select all files for a batch upload, but you can SHIFT + click to select multiple files.
However, if you are on another site or app, you will get a much richer file dialog box that has two panes, one on the right that shows the contents of the current folder and one on the left that shows a list of “Places” allows you to see any external media (SD card, USB drive) you have connected and has an icon for recently used files. Above the two panes is a a series of buttons corresponding to your location in the file tree so you can easily go back up a folder. However, this dialog box is confusing because it starts you in the root of the file system, not in your Downloads folder. You can drag files and folders from the main pane to the Places pane, but you cannot drag them to another drive, which means you can’t copy files from one device to another. The only real purpose of this dialog box is to allow you to upload files. The good news here is that you can rename files and you can select all files by hitting CTRL + A.
To be honest, the test unit feels a bit underpowered. With 4 or 5 tabs open, the input starts to get a bit leggy. With a single tab, however, everything works just fine. It’s worth noting, though, that I do have TweetDeck open and it tends to be a bit of a resource hog with all of the columns that I use.
Flash on the Cr-48 is…workable. It’s not great. It’s not even really good. But it is workable. Adobe did just issue a statement noting that it is still a “work in progress”. Watching videos in Flash on YouTube gives a passable experience, but not one that I’d want to have for my daily use machine. Again, this might be due to system resources. Bear in mind, this is not the computer that you will have running Chrome OS, it’s just the one that we have.
Though you can’t have multiple full browser windows on the screen at the same time, small mini-windows can appear on top of the main one. The best example of a mini window like this is Google Talk, which can float around the bottom of the screen while you visit other web sites in the main window. Another example we encountered is the player window from Napster.com, which must remain open in order to play music while you work.
Interestingly, you can’t drag these mini windows up on the screen but you can slide them around horizontally or drag them down until they sink below the bottom of the screen, so only a tiny non-descript gray line sits at the bottom of your display to remind you there’s a window buried there somewhere. Google needs to do a much better job of handling these mini windows as it updates Chrome OS.
Want to watch Netflix? You’re pretty much out of luck in Chrome OS. At least for now. Chrome OS is open-source, based on Linux. As such, Netflix doesn’t support the platform, though there has been talk in the past of making it happen.
Did Google just give us a glimpse at what cloud computing is supposed to be like? Our knee-jerk reaction is yes. If you’re like us, working primarily on the Internet via cloud-based operations, then the Chrome OS is a dream. Low overhead, high function and massive battery life are a must for Cloud-based computers and even our test platform handles this like a dream.
Though we have no way of benchmarking the Cr-48, our experience shows that performance was adequate for surfing the web and switch tabs, but weak when doing anything that involved a little bit more power, like playing video. the webcam video was choppy and audio degraded a great deal just from putting the chat window in a background tab.
Though we don’t know exactly what Atom CPU is inside the Cr-48, we can’t blame the hardware. No Atom-based netbook has ever played video this poorly. We have heard that Adobe is coming out with a new version of Flash for Chrome OS that is designed to improve performance.
In our use, Battery of the netbook lasted a very long time on a charge. We used the system for about 6 hours, with a few minutes here and there of letting it sleep, and watched the battery percentage drop from about 90 percent to 28 percent. So we have every reason to believe Google’s estimated endurance of 8 hours.
Overall, it’s important to understand that this isn’t a finished consumer product. There are no Google or manufacturer labels on it, at all. As I said, you can’t buy Chrome notebooks right now and won’t be able to until sometimes next year. By that point, I’d expect there to be more device support.
That also means there’s not much sense worrying about the physical feel. The computer feels kind of rubbery. The keyboard is kind of chunky. There’s no backlighting. The battery doesn’t seat fully flush with the base. None of that really matters, because the final machines will likely be much different.
However, we have no doubt that obvious problems like the sluggish Flash performance, the inability to create a Google account from the sign-in screen, and the odd way it handles minimized windows will probably be resolved by launch. What we are left to wonder is whether Google will relent at all in its attempts to hide the file system and other inner workings of the computer from the user.
After using Chrome OS for several hours, we’re struck by how many things we simply cannot do in it right now. We can’t do anything offline, even edit Google docs. We can’t place two windows next to each other to compare their contents. We can’t copy files to or from external devices; we can’t use Skype.
It’s worth repeating, because I want to make this clear: This is not the notebook that you’ll be using. It might be similar, but smart manufacturers will beef them up a bit from where this one sits. It’s a tiny bit underpowered, but hugely functional. Bundling the Verizon Wireless 3G is a genius move and the price points are relatively easy to swallow. Keeping track of your use will be paramount, but Verizon has notoriously simple tools for doing that via its website.
All of that said, Chrome OS netbooks have the potential to be good content consumption devices, provided you’re comfortable with all your content living in the cloud. Google’s vision is to replace all local software with web apps, but they have a long way to go before the world is ready, if ever, to do anything and everything in a giant browser.