48 hours with Chrome OS and the Cr-48

You’ve heard the rumors. Your social networking drug of choice has probably been filled with people you know getting them. You’ve probably read reviews of all shapes and sizes on a device you can’t even buy. Google has released 60,000 devices into the wild for every kind of person to test, break, and give feedback on, so they can build a bigger, stronger OS to go in the real devices mid 2011.

There are plenty of unanswered questions about how Chrome OS will work as a standalone system, and who would use it. A release like this is the best way to get those questions answered on a massive scale, and Google is one of the few with the resources to pull it off.

Like so many others, I have had the opportunity to use one of these Cr-48 computers. In order to make it a fair test, I opted to shut down all of my other machines for 48 hours, and see how well I was able to survive on just this computer.

Out of the Box

Removing the packaging, you get the device and a power cord. Aside from the graphic on the box and the paperwork inside, there’s nothing to indicate who the manufacturer is at all. The laptop itself is a flat black slab covered in matte black rubberized pastic with smooth rounded corners. The texture is extremely smooth, but collects any smudges from any oils you have on your fingers. The keyboard is almost identical to what you see on a MacBook, save for the custom buttons. The Search Bar occupy’s the CapsLock position, and the Eject key is now your power button. The “F” keys have been replaced with specific functions, including back and forward and switch window buttons. The screen, also in a matte finish, gives a nice display indoors, but fights to keep up with the glare outdoors.

Plugging the power cord in and lifting the lid starts the machine. In fact, every time you lift the computer it will boot, whether or not it was on when you closed it. The battery arrived with 50% charge, and had fully charged within two hours during use. Once the Chrome OS machine booted, it was time to play.

First thoughts on the OS

Having been a Chrome OS alpha tester, and a daily Chrome user, there was little that surprised me. Booting the machine prompts you within seconds to setup the device via connection to the Internet, snatching up the latest update, confirming Terms of Service, and then it’s a Gmail login away from being done. That’s the whole install procedure. Once you’ve logged in, provided you have sync setup in Chrome, it will bring over everything you have allowed in Chrome to the computer. Everything from this point on will sync in real time with your browser. Bookmarks, installed ChromeOS apps, anything that Chrome Sync will bring over. There’s a handful of ChromeOS web apps pre-installed, including Poppit from EA Games, which we saw during the presentation. Launching any app except Google Talk will occupy that tab, but Google Talk will actually float your friends list and any active conversations no matter what tab you are on. So I was signed in and had a full battery, it was time to try and break this thing.

Battery Life and Usage

At the presentation, Google claimed 8 hours of battery life. I was more than skeptical, since I have never (EVER) had a computer, phone, ebook reader, portable gaming system, bluetooth headset (you get where I am going with this?) give me the battery life the package claims. I unplugged the power cord at 12:45 and began to play. I put the laptop through 5 hours of Hulu videos, roughly an hour of streaming music, and intermittent browsing. Halfway through the day I discovered the the machine hibernates natively after about 3 minutes of inactivity, which made testing difficult. The netbook finally powered off on its own at around 9:30. I’ve never had a computer hold up like that, truth be told. It was a pleasant surprise. Google has clearly spent plenty of time at the OS level to make sure the battery gives you that “all day” experience, since the battery isn’t especially large.

Webchatting via Google Voice, TinyChat, and Vyew all provided a crisp image and decent audio. Google Video Talk actually opens a new tab and puts the other person talking in a full window, doing little to lower the quality.

Living in the Browser

It’s easy to say that you use the browser for 99% of everything, but it’s another to assume that the other 1% is insignificant. After all, it was the desire for a UI that brought us out of the DOS prompts and Terminals in the first place. What happens when limits are placed on that UI? The only issue I discovered was the lack of any kind of file management. If you download a file, it gets placed in the Downloads folder. Unfortunately the fastest way to get to that directory is to use a website or web app that prompts you to upload the file. If you plug in an SD card or a USB flash drive, that familiar prompt to open the folder or something doesn’t happen. The drive gets mounted, sure, but you don’t really have a way to do anything with it outside of an app or website. It’s somewhat jarring, and potentially something Google will fix in the future.

Keep in mind, Chrome OS is not even in a 1.0 state yet. Browser-only life is completely doable if your life doesn’t involve programming or graphic design, or anything else that you wouldn’t normally be doing on a netbook anyway.

Final Thoughts

Is Chrome OS fully baked? Of course not, that’s the point. This machine is Google’s way of massively crowd-sourcing their bug reporting and development in order to get the OS ready for prime time. It’s going to be quite a test, as time goes on and Chrome OS continues to develop.

The thing that is truly impressive about this experience is this demo hardware. This laptop that won’t ever hit shelves or get a price tag is one of the best all around machines I have ever had the pleasure to use. It blows away anything in the netbook category, and as far as battery life and overall comfort, gives Apple a run for their money.

If this is Google’s baseline, or requirement for the other manufacturers when Chrome OS devices hit the market, these machines will be better than most computers on the market today. The bottom line remains that there is not enough to go on to make any real decision, but I am more than happy with what I see here, and hope that this is a strong indicator of things to come.


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