Lack of offline still hobbles Chrome OS

CNET reviewed the Samsung-built Chromebook hardware yesterday, and today we turn to the new operating system. Chrome OS has made great strides since it first hit beta, but it's not a Jedi-level operating system yet.

If you like living your digital life in the browser, then the Chrome OS (review) could be a clanging clarion 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. The Chrome OS will be available to the public on June 15, and Google and Samsung gave CNET an early look at the coming Samsung Chromebook.

Chrome OS's local file navigation in action. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

While only CNET's New York office received a review model early, the operating system constantly updates and so the San Francisco-based team was able to examine the latest version of Chrome OS on the original Chrome OS laptop, the Cr-48.

Basically, Chrome OS is a low-to-mid powered operating system that has the potential for mass appeal, much more so than what we saw back in December 2010 when the Cr-48 launched. Google has made some nifty improvements, all available on the Cr-48 because they're all enhancements to the operating system. There's a decent local file browser, for one thing, and the latest version of Chrome performs much better on the anemic Cr-48 hardware than the original version of Chrome OS did.

It's no mean feat that a company can improve performance simply by improving the software, and yet that appears to be what Google has accomplished. That means that older Chromebooks will still get better over time, despite their age. We also noticed that boot times improved, and of course browser speeds. When the Chrome OS launched, Chrome the browser was on version 8. It's now on version 12.

Yet the Chrome OS's strength in cloud-based flexibility is also its great weakness. If you don't have an Internet connection, you're in trouble. The promised offline support for Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs hasn't materialized at the time of writing, a mere week before the public launch of the Chromebooks. Wi-Fi and 3G connections are simply not prevalent enough at the moment to support constant connections from a smartphone, let alone a low-powered laptop. Without that tether to the Internet, and without offline support, the Chromebook is essentially a less-media friendly, less-touch friendly version of a tablet.

It's entirely possible this will change in the next week if Google pushes out updates to offline support. For now, though, the Chrome OS is an interesting concept idea that is at best before its time.