by: Seth Rosenblatt on December 10, 2010
The bottom line: If you like living your digital life in the browser, then Chrome OS will be a siren that's hard to resist. It's fast, geared for an Internet tether yet able function on its own, and it's a bold step into the future of how operating systems work.
It's the Chrome channel. Google's new operating system, currently available to readers only in beta and only on Google's specially designed, limited-edition prototype notebook called the Cr-48, is all Chrome, all the time. If you absolutely loathe the Chrome browser, it's highly unlikely that you'll enjoy this operating system. 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 Chrome for dessert.
What we mean is that the best things about the operating system have been long-telegraphed by the browser, and its shortcomings appear to be related more to hardware issues than anything else.
Google unleashes Chrome OS beta
Chrome OS is not available to the general public at the time of writing, with an anticipated release date sometime in the middle of 2011. Adventurous types can download and install Chrome OS' open-source parent, Chromium OS, on some laptops or desktops. However, it's important to note that Google created the Cr-48 laptop, named after the unstable chromium isotope that has a half-life of 21 hours, with some important alterations that differentiate it from other laptops and tie directly into Chrome OS. We'll address those specifics in this review.
Although it's not germane to the review, Google has gone to great lengths to make the Chrome OS appealing to both developers and to those who want a dedicated Web machine. Besides giving away thousands of laptops, the company has included a "jailbreak" switch. Remove the battery and behind a piece of tape next to the battery contacts reveals a switch to toggle. Flip it, and you can then load on a different operating system. Flip it back to restore the default Chrome OS. It's a minor thing, but an important nod to the open-source community that helped develop Chromium and Chromium OS.
Note that because of the similarities between the browser Chrome and the Chrome OS, parts of the Chrome review have been reproduced here where applicable.
At least on the Cr-48, installation is not an issue for the Chrome OS since it comes preinstalled. There is a simple setup procedure, however. When you start up, it's recommended that you sign in using a Google account. You're not required to, and if you'd like, you can opt for the guest mode.
Guest mode in Chrome OS cleverly uses the Chrome browser's trackless browsing mode, called Incognito. It will prevent 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. All subsequent uses and users will not see it. Next up, Google asks users to take a photo of themselves 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 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.
The interface remains the least-changed aspect of Chrome OS. The menu placement is the same, and the tab look and layout is the same. Chrome OS does have traditional laptop status indicators in the upper-right corner. There's a clock, which at least for now can't be changed to a 24-hour clock, a Wi-Fi status indicator, and a battery meter. Clicking on each one reveals more options, including toggling 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 only problem with the Chrome OS interface is that it mirrors the Chrome browser's, so the faults of one are reflected in the other. A Page menu was recently folded into the Wrench menu, and the single, unified menu remains a bit cluttered. Note that some controls, such as page zoom, are readily available. Others, such as the extension manager, are hidden away under a Tools submenu. Hiding essentials away like that remains an odd design choice to make.
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 limits 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.
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.
The word "reliant" doesn't even begin to cover Chrome OS' relationship to the Internet. This is a device, 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 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 on 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 it's clear at this time that Chrome OS is plenty buggy. Many Chrome-safe extensions won't install on the Chrome OS, although we've had luck installing them on a Windows 7 installation of Chrome, then syncing them over to the Cr-48's Chrome OS. The Chrome OS also has tab ripping disabled, one of the more intuitive features in 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.
The Chrome OS lacks a usable file-browsing system, a major oversight. You can enable an option in about:flags to activate the Advanced File System, but it doesn't seem to have any effect right now so users are reliant on Web integration. When you take a screenshot using the Ctrl+Next Window button, it saves it somewhere locally, but there's no simple local file browser like Windows Explorer to find it. The best workaround we found was to open your main Google Docs window and go to Upload in the upper left corner. From there, choose Select Files and you can navigate your screenshots folder.
One issue that could be hardware or operating system-related is that the VGA-out jack on the left side of the Cr-48 doesn't work. There have been quite a few hardware changes that affect how you'll interact with the operating system. 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.
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. That's outrageously fast; 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 30 seconds to appear.
Two other low-profile but well-executed features in Chrome include auto-updating 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.
Right now, most Chrome Web Apps 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, your 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.
Chrome OS does support its apps working offline. Although you won't be able to sync any data until you go back online again, the operating system will let you work in offline mode, the same as you can now with your Gmail or Google calendar. Not many apps are included by default, including many of the essential Google ones. When you start, Google only provides two games, Gmail, YouTube, Scratchpad, Google Talk, a guide to help you get started, and a link to the Chrome Web Store.
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 baked in. Support for Silverlight aside, it's likely that these are more Cr-48 hardware problems than related to the operating system.
There's also a problem with Google's cloud-printing feature: it doesn't work, although hitting Control + P will bring you to the cloud-printing instructions. Expect this and other software bugs, such as a lack of notifications from windows that are open in the background, to be fixed before the operating system becomes widely available.
Google is basing most of its claim 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.
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.
These tests are admittedly not a direct apples-to-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 the browser. Both laptops were running nearly identical versions of the Chrome browser. The Cr-48 was running Chrome v8.0.552.341, whereas the Lenovo was running Chrome v8.0.552.215.
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 on all three tests tells us that what hardware future computer makers choose to support Chrome OS will almost definitely change how well the public receives it.
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.
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.
Google's solution to the question of how to build a computer that more enthusiastically embraces the Web is brilliant in its simplicity, even if the hardware specifications of Chrome OS' first home don't impress. The Chrome OS is not quite yet fully baked, and the key feature of video playback must be perfected before this can be a viable, Web-focused operating system for the average user. Nevertheless, this is an astonishing achievement, and you can expect the Chrome OS to shake up the operating system market when it becomes widely available.
Chrome notebooks are built and optimized for the web, where you already spend most of your computing time. So you get a faster, simpler and more secure experience without all the headaches of ordinary computers.