Google Chrome OS

Google's cloud-centric operating system has had a revamp and is now available on Chromebooks, through a subscription service in the US for students and others... but is it any good?

NameOperating system: Google Chrome OS
At a glance:Can only obtain via roundabout methods, until ChromeBooks arrive,Not much over and above Chrome browser, as yet,Minimalist, clean design,Needs more tab grouping options
Summary:Cloud-centric operating systems may be the future, but they have a little way to go to make us wow right now.
Rating:3/5
Contact:google.com

Chrome OS isn’t an operating system as we generally think of operating systems. Instead, if you imagine a browser is the OS, you’re getting pretty close. Initial versions (see our review of the Chrome CR-48, PC World March), lacked even the ability to save files to your local hardware and ditched the ideas of folders and installed software, making Chrome OS a totally cloud-based experience. The new version has altered this completely-cloud paradigm, allowing file management, but if ChromeOS is basically just a browser floating in the cloud, what use is it for most of us?

We’ll outline the ins and outs of ChromeOS below, and let you judge whether it might be useful for you. But we can say without doubt that if you don’t have always-on internet and substantial bandwidth, it’s probably not the best OS for you.

Installing Chrome OS

Google’s naming system needs a little work, given that the browser (Chrome) is a different beast than the OS (Chrome OS) – though they look superficially similar. To add to the confusion, Chromium is the open-source project behind both, allowing developers to tinker around and try code changes. The idea, according to Google, is that users will only be able to use Chrome OS if they buy hardware built for it, such as the Acer and Samsung Chromebooks announced at Google I/O on May 10.

But there are ways around that. For starters, Parallels 6 has a build of Chrome OS that you can try out as a Virtual Machine (VM). It’s dated from 2009, so it’s not a new or updated build. For that, you head to a site called hexxeh.net. Hexxeh offers daily builds of the “official” Chrome OS and more experimental Chromium OS builds with additional hardware support, that it dubs “vanilla” and “flow”, respectively. You can get the build as a VirtualBox VM, a VMWare VM and as a USB boot install that runs via a Linux GRUB loader (meaning you need Linux installed to try it).

We obtained the latest Vanilla Chrome OS and installed the VMWare build onto Mac OS X using VirtualBox (having tried to load it in Parallels first, and after having tried the VirtualBox version unsuccessfully. Nobody said this was easy!)

Running Chrome OS

Fortunately, once the OS is installed, everything becomes much simpler. You select a language, then log in using your Google account – for most people this is your Gmail address and password – or create one, and add a picture from your webcam.

Then, you use Chrome OS as you would use the Chrome browser, essentially. You can open web pages in tabs, run apps in tabs, and view your downloads, bookmarks and history just as you would in a desktop Chrome browser. Bookmarking is as simple as it is in Chrome – just press the star on the right hand side, and bingo.

But it’s the things beyond the basic browsing experience that will make or break Chrome OS.

Because this is primarily an OS designed for netbooks, there’s a battery percentage remaining displayed in the top right corner, and next to it, an internet connection status indicator.

In the latest versions you can run and access Google Docs, Google Calendar and Gmail, offline. This used to be handled by Google Gears, but in Chrome OS, it’s not entirely clear where the data is stored while you’re offline, except that it gets synched back to the cloud as soon as you find yourself connected to the internet again.

It’s not clear whether other online services will be able to tap into this offline capability – imagine if you could also work with Evernote in offline mode, for example.

Also new is the file manager – when you download a file, it gets stored by Chrome OS. The file manager is simplified, but superficially similar to the file management systems in Windows or Mac, based on a folder system with files contained within. A preview pane on the right provides options beneath it depending on the file type – so a document can be transferred between online file storage via the file manager.

Settings and options

By default Chrome is minimalistic, but you can adjust a number of things in the settings.

For example, you can opt to always reopen the last tabs you had open, or open Chrome each time with a specific set of pages. You can also select which search engine you use. In Personal Stuff, you can select whether to sync everything with your Google account via the cloud, such as extensions, bookmarks and apps, or just some components. It’s a simple matter to add themes to Chrome OS, as you would to your Chrome browser, for a little personalisation.

There are few privacy options, but you can at least decide how to handle cookies, location-tracking and plug-ins; you can also add a passphrase over and above your Google account password for synching, and lock the OS so that only your Google account has access.

Beyond the settings are a range of ‘Tools’. these include: Extensions management, File Manager and Task Manager, and the ability to quickly clear browsing data. You can also install apps from the Chrome app store. You can opt, with apps, whether to open them in a pinned tab, a regular tab, a window or in full-screen mode, which is a nice touch, particularly for games.

We would have liked the ability to miniaturise tabs for commonly used apps and services. As it is, you can’t readily access the apps you’ve installed, and it would have been great to consume less real estate with email, calendar and similar by minimising the tabs and tucking them to one side.

This was a feature in earlier versions of Chrome OS, so we’re not clear why it’s no longer available. Google does still consider Chrome OS a work in progress, though, and like Chrome the browser, it will see regular updates seamlessly applied.

Minor drawbacks aside, the File Manager and growing selection of apps mean that Chrome OS will feel less like a browser and more like an OS as time goes by, but we can’t help but think it’s still a seriously niche product.

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Tags GooglechromeChrome OSchromebook

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Zara Baxter

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