Developer Aspirations

YAPB - Yet Another Programming Blog



December 2010

Google CR48 and Chrome OS

by Colin Miller, on Chrome, Chrome OS, CR48, Musings

Things that I can't talk about are still going on, however I now have a new topic that I can comment on.

When I arrived home yesterday, I found a box waiting for me. That box looked like this:

[caption id="attachment_368" align="aligncenter" width="571" caption="It was quite surreal to find this box in the mail. I had only seen pictures of similar boxes before so I knew exactly what it was. Mischief was also intrigued."][/caption]

I had signed up for the Google Chrome notebook (CR48) online and was apparently chosen to test it out. I wrote in my application that I would use it as my primary computer and blog about the experience. I don't know if they read that part and if it had anything to do with being sent a CR48, but I figure that since they kept their part of the bargain, I should keep mine. In fact I'm writing this entry using the netbook.

The first thing that I noticed with the netbook is that it booted up very quickly. A login screen comes up that asks for a Google user name and password. Then the built-in web camera takes your picture and a chrome browser starts up with a lovely tutorial web page.

As far as the operating system goes, it's basically just the chrome web browser. All of my settings such as bookmarks, themes, and extensions synced with my Google account and came right up. Also, since I log onto the machine with my Google account, Google apps such as Gmail, Google Docs, and Gtalk automatically log in when you go to them. There is a specialized version of the GTalk app that works across browser tabs.

One of the pieces of apprehension I had over an OS that is just a web browser is the lack of external files. Using something like Pandora to play music is not as nice as being able to play your own MP3s. Also, doing something like saving a photo so that you can upload it to another site wouldn't be possible without some sort of file system. Luckily, Chrome comes with a file system. You can download files for viewing or uploading locally.

Another challenge that Google has overcome is that of printing. They have this great document site but if you can't print, some of that functionality is lost. They solve this through a system they call Cloud Print. Basically you need to install a dev version of Chrome on a Windows PC. You can then enable that machine to share its printers over Cloud Print. On the CR48 you can then print to any printer attached to that Windows PC. Not the best solution (it requires a second computer that has to run Windows), but manageable. It does mean though that you can't use CR48 and Chrome OS as your only computer if you plan on printing anything.

Hardware wise, it's actually not that bad. The keyboard is probably my favorite part. While many publications have noted replacing the CapLock button with a "Search" button (All it does is open a new tab, not really search), what I find most refreshing about the keyboard has nothing to do with that button. Since it's a piece of hardware designed to run a specific web-based OS, certain keys you would normally find make no sense and are therefor not found. For example, the "windows" key and the context (right click) key are missing. Instead the left ctrl and alt button are quite a bit larger than is standard, which makes them easier to press. Also gone is all of the function keys. Instead there are more relevant keys for a browser. There is a Back, Forward, Reload, Full Screen, Windows Switch, Brightness and Volume keys.

They keyboard uses a chicklet style keyboard that's actually quite nice to type on. As mentioned previously, turning it on is very quick. Also turning it off is extremely fast, around a second. You can basically press the power button to log out, and if you hold it down it will turn off. Coming back from sleep mode is also very quick, though only slightly more so than OS X which I've found to be pretty quick already. Even though it comes back online from sleep fast, it still takes a few seconds for the wireless to turn back on to be useful again.

The trackpad is probably the flakiest part of the system. Clicking and dragging (such as on google maps) is not always the most smooth of experiences, but it works well enough. Also since it's a fairly large trackpad you can accidentally click somewhere while you're typing, but honestly I haven't had too many problems with that. It's definitely not the best trackpad, but if you get used to it I don't think it's a deal breaker either.

The system comes with both WiFi and 3G. Google added the ability to connect to Verizon 3G for up to 100mb a month for 2 years for free. You can also buy day passes or other data packages, but I haven't even activated mine to look at it. In all honesty I'll probably just use wireless tethering with my phone if I'm not connected to wifi.

Since it is a portable netbook, battery life should be a top concern. I haven't tried running it down to see how long it will last, but the power icon right now is at 85% and it reports that it should last another 6 hours. Obviously doing something like watching flash videos will shorten the battery life, but considering the OS is only ever running a browser there is probably a lot of normal OS processes not present that can suck the battery out of a regular netbook.

The Chrome OS browser (or is it just the OS? The OS is the browser so I wonder if I should call it a browser or the OS?) is mostly the same as the regular Chrome browser on other platforms only with some additional settings such as user picture, usage of the search key, and the wireless options.

I've only been able to play with it for a few hours, but my first impressions are fairly positive. It's obviously not for a power user and you're drastically limited on what you can do with it to just those things found on the web. It makes the Chrome Web Store make more sense, even if those 'apps' really just turn out to be links to web pages. Still, one can do quite a bit of normal every day tasks using only a web browser. I'd say that as a second computer for a power user it can be pretty decent. It could also serve as the primary computer for a light user who mostly does email, web browsing, and documents with Google Docs. The speed of turning it on makes it a possible replacement for something like an iPad, though with less applications. I'll continue to use the CR48 and make some future posts on any additional features I discover or problems I run into.

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