To put the new Chrome OS out in the hands of as many testers as possible, Google created the Cr-48 Chrome OS notebook. It'll never be packaged for retail sale, which is why it's completely devoid of logos.
Updated: January 1, 2011 10:52AM
A couple of days after Google announced Chrome OS (an OS and hardware spec for a new type of notebook computer that exists solely as a host organism for the Chrome web browser, and uses the Web to host all of its apps and data), a Cr-48 Chrome OS notebook arrived at my office.
I’m writing this column with it right now, via Google Docs. At first, I was surprised by how completely natural and familiar this radical new OS design is. Then, I was surprised that I was surprised. Of course it is, you moron: the whole point of a Chrome OS notebook is just to access the same websites and webapps that you run on every other machine you’ve ever owned.
The Cr-48 is just a unbranded, not-for-sale-anywhere model that Google put together for testing purposes. “Real” Chrome OS notebooks won’t arrive until next summer, which is when Acer and Samsung have pledged to ship the first wave. Also, today marks just the first full day that anybody outside of Google has used one of these things. It’d be a stretch to even call Chrome OS an actual beta product at this point. So it’s silly and unfair to “review” any of this; much will change in the next six months.
But Chrome OS and the minimalist Cr-48 notebook are unique and significant enough to justify writing up some first impressions after my first day.
Chrome OS has been streamlined down to just the bare minimums of what an OS needs to do in order to launch and support a browser. The payoffs from that philosophy come through immediately: from a cold start, the Cr-48 boots completely in about ten seconds, leaving the machine in exactly the same state it was in when I shut it down with the same apps and URLs open. If it’s merely asleep, its awake and ready to rock and roll by the time I’ve fully lifted the screen to a comfortable viewing angle.
Physically, the Cr-48 is the most familiar kind of computer in the world: it’s a bog-standard 12-inch notebook with a nice color screen, a full-sized keyboard, and a big trackpad. I think it’s this familiarity which makes the machine’s tiny differences just a little bit off-putting.
(Oh, besides the fact that this thing has absolutely no logos or manufacturer’s marks of any kind, I mean. The Cr-48 looks lke the kind of machine that the CIA issues to field operatives, accompanied by a warning that if you tap the “ESC” key nine times an igniter under the keyboard will start a magnesium fire and the whole computer will be reduced to a few ounces of white ash in less than six seconds.)
This thing has no Caps Lock key, for instance. Well, people shout too much on message boards, anyway. Instead, “that key above the left-side shift key” is marked with a “Search” icon. Tapping it opens up a new browser tab containing all of your webapps. It’s akin to accessing the Home screen on your smartphone.
The Home screen underscores the “natural and familiar” vibe of the whole experience. I have to keep reminding myself of the OS’ fundamental concept: a Chrome OS notebook is absolutely zero-percent different from any Windows, Mac OS, or Linux notebook running Google Chrome in fullscreen mode. If I were to go home to my desktop and opened my personalized Google page in Chrome, I’d be seeing exactly what’s in front of me right now. That’s part of the point: to decentralize your computing experience and make your physical device irrelevant to the world you’ve built in the cloud.
Fab: you never have to worry about syncing apps and files between multiple machines. But can a computer without any user-accessible local storage really be practical? During the big unveil briefing, Google parried the question of storing files on a Chrome OS notebook directly; I was left with plenty of doubts.
Well, there’s a sigh of relief there. Just like the real customer service representatives at a utility company, the Cr-48’s file system exists; they’re just hoping you never find out about it and that you never try to use it.
Witness the photos that accompany this piece. The Cr-48 has a standard SD slot. I took some photos, popped the camera card into the notebook, and I was able to upload them to Flickr. The Piknik online photo editor allowed me to crop and adjust them, and then I could (yes indeed) save them to the Cr-48’s local file system just by right-clicking on the photo and downloading it. Then I sent them to my editor by attaching them to a GMail message.
It’s a funny thing, though: there’s no user-accessible file browser or navigator, as far as I can tell. Chrome OS won’t show you the file system until the moment it absolutely needs to, like when you’re in a webmail app and click the button to attach a file. Then and only then will you encounter a fullscreen file picker.
I expect that this part of the Crome OS experience will be refined in future weeks. It’s a bare-bones file navigator. I had to upload the full dozen photos to Flickr just to associate specific filenames with specific images, and choose the ones I wanted to use with this column.
So that’s one fear dispelled (or at least set aside). The other big one: “what do I do with this thing if I don’t have Internet access?”
I think I have the answer to that one: nothing. Utterly nothing. Before sitting down here at Panera Bread, I was across the street at the Chipotle, attempting to connect to the Internet via my mobile hotspot device. I couldn’t get it to work (it wasn’t the Cr-48’s fault). The horror: there I was with a chicken burrito in front of me that needed to be eaten and with a desire to read comics strips and gossip blogs during lunch or at least write a few hundred words about Chrome OS. But without a connection to the Internet, this cutting-edge machine had become little more than a Notebook-Shaped Object. The six or seven open browser tabs in front of me were just ghosts of webapps that joined the choir invisible as soon as they lost contact with their servers.
If Chrome catches on, we’re certainly going to see a bunch of webapps that can elegantly shift to a useful offline mode. Failing that, a Chrome OS notebook user is definitely going have to rely heavily on its built-in 3G connection to the Verizon mobile network. The Cr-48 comes with 100 megs of free connectivity a month but I didn’t turn it on; it’s free, but you still need to plug in a credit-card number.
(Hmm. I can blow through 100 megs of data pretty quickly. Besides, how many companies have my credit card information already?)
All in all, it’s been an interesting and enlightening first day. Honestly, II was expecting a Chrome OS notebook to involve more sacrifice and annoyance than what I’m experiencing. I don’t think I’d call this an ideal way to get through an afternoon’s labors but facts are facts: whether writing a column, editing some photos, listening to streaming music, watching a YouTube video, or packaging everything together and sending it off to the Sun-Times, there was nothing I couldn’t do with the Cr-48 and Chrome OS. So far, I’ve been able to think of it as Just Another Notebook.
But again, these are just first impressions. I’ll be using this “black ops” Chrome OS notebook regularly in the coming months and by the time I need to write a real review, I’m sure the consumer hardware, OS, and the ecosystem of webapps will be much different.
I suppose that this “first flight” with Chrome OS was a bit like a military aviator’s attitude towards a mandatory periodical medical exam. For a pilot, the best possible news after an exam is just that they get to keep doing the job they were planning to do anyway. The only other outcome is that the doc will ground them.
Only two outcomes were possible today: either I’d come out of it regarding Chrome OS and this sample Chrome notebook as the kind of computer I’ve seen and used a million times, or I’d have such a bad time on this hardware that I’d remind myself “Google said they won’t be asking for this back, didn’t they?”
The next operational test would have been “Which is the right club to use when trying to loft a Chrome OS notebook out of rough grass: a #9 sand wedge choked up high on the grip, or an aluminum softball bat swung mostly straight downward?”
The Cr-48 lived to fly another day. Score it in the Win column for now.