Stable Chrome OS still limited by Internet access

If you like living your digital life in the browser, then Chrome OS could be a clarion call that's hard to resist. It's fast, it's geared for an Internet tether yet able to function on its own, and it's a bold step into the future of how operating systems

The bottom line: If you like living your digital life in the browser, then Chrome OS could be a clarion call that's hard to resist. It's fast, it's geared for an Internet tether yet able to function on its own, and it's a bold step into the future of how operating systems work. However, it's untested on a large scale, and concerns about its effectiveness and utility are not without merit.

Review:
Welcome to the Chrome channel. Available on laptops from Samsung and Acer, Google's new operating system is all Chrome, all the time. If you absolutely loathe the Chrome browser, it's highly unlikely that you'll enjoy this operating system, because it's basically Chrome on performance-enhancing drugs. 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 then Chrome for dessert.

When the limited-edition Cr-48 laptop and beta version of Chrome OS were released in December 2010, the best things about the operating system were telegraphed by the browser, and Chrome OS beta's shortcomings were more related to anemic hardware than anything else. The operating system did have definite problems back then, most notably a missing local file-browsing tool. As you'll see in the review, most of the operating system gaps have been fixed with varying results.

It's also important to note that, like Chrome-the-browser, Chrome-the-OS has an open-source sibling available, 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.

Google unleashes Chrome OS beta

Please note that because of the similarities between the Chrome 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, Google asks you to take a photo of yourself with the built-in Webcam. It's not clear if this new avatar will eventually replace your existing Google account avatar, although for now it doesn't. It's also not clear why Chrome OS doesn't just use your existing avatar. It'd be interesting if Google introduced facial recognition technology as a log-in option, currently available in programs like Luxand Blink. Either way, if taking the Webcam photo annoys you, you can skip the procedure at the bottom of the window.

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
The interface remains the least changed aspect of Chrome OS. The menu placement is the same, and the tab look and layout are the same. Chrome OS does have traditional laptop status indicators in the upper-right corner. Also shown are a clock, a Wi-Fi status indicator, and a battery meter. Clicking on each one reveals more options, including toggling 24-hour mode, Wi-Fi, and cellular service.

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. Although some may not like the tabs on top, we find it to be aesthetically preferable because it leaves more room below for the Web site we're looking at.

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. Google has spent much of the past six months moving menus from separate windows into their own tabs, and has included a settings search box for easily finding settings.

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. There is no "developer's" version of Chrome OS as there is for the browser, but changes there--like the option to permanently hide the location bar--are likely to find their way into the operating system sooner rather than later.

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. This version of Chrome OS doesn't support sidebars, either, although other Chromium-based browsers (such as Flock 3) do offer the feature.

The Chrome New Tab page on the Chrome OS, showing both apps and recently visited sites.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Even with its limitations, the interface design has remained a contemporary exemplar of how to minimize the browser's screen footprint while remaining easy to use and versatile.

Features
The word "reliant" doesn't even begin to cover Chrome OS' relationship to the Internet. 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.

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 a Chrome laptop 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 an incredible feat.

It's an important one, too, as Chrome OS has become less buggy since its beta launched. Many Chrome-safe extensions that wouldn't install on the Chrome OS beta, but would on the browser, now work in Chrome OS. The Chrome OS does still have tab ripping disabled, although it's one of the more intuitive features of the browser. Instead of copying a link, opening a new window, and pasting it, you can click and drag the tab off the tab bar and it creates its own new window. Apparently, this is only for Chrome the browser. In the OS you can open a new window by hitting Control-N.

The Chrome OS now 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. Again, for people who've been tracking Chrome OS' development, this is a marked improvement over the beta version that debuted at the end of 2010.

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.

The default settings for the hot keys are one of 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. This isn't the case in other areas: while logging out is fine, waiting for the new log-in screen sometimes took as long as 15 seconds to appear on the Cr-48.

This is important to note for two reasons. One is that the same test on the Cr-48 in December took up to 30 seconds, indicating that just through OS upgrades alone, Google was able to improve boot time by about 50 percent. The second is that compared with most current Windows or Mac computers, this is outrageously fast.

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. 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.

Another feature baked right into Chrome is the new speech-to-text HTML5 API. There's not a lot it can do yet, but look for it to have major implications for the operating system's ability to convert spoken word into browser commands.

Also expected to grow is the Chrome Web Store, where the Web Apps are hosted. Right now, most are glorified bookmarks, although some have begun to break out of their shells. The apps become essential quick links from your New Tab window to your e-mail, productivity suite, notepad, instant messaging, video and voice calling, and other programs that most people are used to being separate from the browser. The Chrome Web Store link gets you access to more.

Already mentioned a little bit, the biggest OS hang-up in the operating system is offline support. Chrome OS will support the core Google apps of Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs offline when the Chromebooks go public next week. At the time of writing, though, that feature has yet to be implemented. Some Web Store apps say they will work offline, although we have not yet tested them.

There have been numerous complaints in regard to the smooth streaming of video and audio on sites like YouTube or Hulu. For us, YouTube streamed smoothly, but Hulu didn't. Netflix, which requires Microsoft Silverlight, won't play because Silverlight isn't included as part of Chrome the way that Flash is.

You can print with Google's cloud-printing feature, 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.

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. We have noticed significant speed improvements in the version available in early June, and will update the results below as soon as possible for both the limited edition Cr-48 and the publicly available Samsung Chromebook.

Chrome OS beta cold-boot benchmarks.

Chrome OS beta cold-boot benchmarks.

(Credit: 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.

(Credit: 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.

(Credit: 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.

(Credit: 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
Google's solution to the question of how to build a computer that more enthusiastically embraces the Web is brilliant in its simplicity. Although the achievement is astonishing in its implications, the real problem with Chrome OS is that wireless networks, both Wi-Fi and those provided by phone companies, are not yet ready to support an always-on device. There's an equal chance of the Chrome OS shaking up the market or remaining an intriguing curiosity for the next few years.

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