Preview: Google CR-48

Curious about Chrome OS? Shut down every app on your PC except Google Chrome (the browser), and maximize that window. Voilà! It looks like Chrome OS. Add a few apps from the Chrome App Store, and you'll have an exact replica.

NameLaptop with Chrome OS: Google CR-48
At a glance:Proof-of-concept: you won't find the CR-48 on sale,Essentially a PC running nothing but Google's Chrome browser,Requires ubiquitous wireless internet connectivity,Chrome OS machines are unlikely to appear in New Zealand any time soon

Curious about Chrome OS? Shut down every app on your PC except Google Chrome (the browser), and maximize that window. Voilà! It looks like Chrome OS. Add a few apps from the Chrome App Store, and you’ll have an exact replica.

Google’s CR-48, the company’s proof-of-concept Chrome OS laptop, is essentially Google Chrome in a flat black box—no desktop, a rudimentary file system that you can’t access directly, and virtually nothing else that can’t run in a browser.

But if Chrome OS is just a stripped-down version of Linux that’s designed to run a browser, why are commercial laptops capable of using it lagging two years behind Google’s OS announcement?

App or Bookmark?

Many Chrome Apps are no more than smart bookmarks. Our CR-48 came with nine apps already installed: a get-started tour of the notebook; a pair of games; links to the Chrome Web Store, Gmail, Google Maps, Google Talk, and YouTube; and Scratchpad, a basic note-taking app that actually stores files on the CR-48 itself. (The laptop carries a solid-state drive, but Google has not revealed how big it is.) You can type short notes in Scratchpad, and the app will automatically store them locally and, in theory, sync them to your Google Docs account. But my notes never showed up in my Google Docs account.

The CR-48 has no equivalent of Windows Explorer for viewing and managing files. You can find Scratchpad files, for instance, only through the app itself.

The only way to alter your system is through the Settings menu in the Chrome browser, where you monitor your Internet access, change network settings, manage user accounts, and the like.

Internet or Bust

If you’re not connected to the internet on this laptop, you’re dead in the water. I wrote this article in Google Docs on the CR-48 while commuting, with a MiFi card for connectivity. But in midcommute, Chrome reported that it couldn’t reach Google Docs. On any other laptop, I could have copied my text into Word and kept working there. But on the CR-48, I had to paste my changes into an Evernote note and rely on my connection to that service.

On the plus side, the CR-48 goes from switched off to the log-in screen in just 15 seconds. And once you log in, you’re ready to work seconds later. That’s because a Chrome OS system has only one program to load after log-in: the Chrome browser.

Though Google doesn’t plan to sell the CR-48, the unit has some quirks. In lieu of a Caps Lock key, it offers a dedicated button for opening a new tab in Chrome. If you prefer, you can restore the Caps Lock key and use <Ctrl>-T to open new tabs.

The top row of the keyboard has buttons dedicated to web browsing: forward and back arrows for moving between pages, a key for page reloading, and a button for toggling full-screen view on and off. A button that is supposed to jump you from one browser tab to another didn’t work on my system.

The CR-48 has a VGA port, a USB port, and an SD Card slot. But I couldn’t access any files on the USB drive I inserted in the port. I could access files via SD Card, but only by going to a site like Picnik where I could see the files in the file upload box.

When cloud apps gain a little more polish and wireless net access becomes reliable everywhere, a Chrome OS machine may work well for lots of people. But based on my experience with the CR-48, I don’t expect using the Chrome OS to be a revolutionary experience. Instead, it feels a bit like working with one hand tied to your side: possible, but awkward.

The hardware

If the experience of using the Chrome OS is so straightforward, why is it taking its time with the hardware?

It’s worth drawing the distinction here between Chromium OS and Chrome OS: Chromium is a version of Chrome OS that will run on any hardware, whereas Chrome OS will run only on hardware built by Google’s partners. Those partner companies include Acer, ASUS, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, and Toshiba among others.

Making machines boot solely into Chrome OS without any access to the hardware

takes a couple of little tricks. Alongside that lack of access to local file storage is

the integrated cloud backup and the ability to reset the laptop in full, if something goes wrong, from a local source. These aspects mean that the firmware and bootloader need to be created just for Chrome OS laptops. The firmware doesn’t probe for hardware that doesn’t exist on Chrome OS laptops, but it does verify each step in the boot process, triggering recovery if something goes irreparably wrong, and the Linux kernel incorporated into Chrome OS has been trimmed to the minimalist essentials, in order to speed boot time.

New Zealand odds

Google has a policy of “eating its own dogfood”, meaning that Google tests out on its own staffers anything they expect users to use, to iron out the bugs and refine the featureset. Chrome OS has passed this initial dogfood testing and in the US, Chrome OS laptops will next be sent out to users as part of a pilot program. Through Verizon, users will get 100MB of free 3G data per month, if they buy a Chrome OS laptop – or are part of the pilot program – as well as Wi-Fi.

Our cousins across the Tasman – who have a Google office responsible for building such apps as Maps – got the Google Nexus One and the Google Nexus S phones, and seem a likely first candidate for Chrome OS laptops as part of a future international rollout.

Here in New Zealand, we’re unlikely to see Google phones or the Chrome OS laptop any time soon. Partly that’s about our data costs – 3G here is still, relatively speaking, prohibitively expensive, making a cloud laptop impractical. Once the 4G spectrum goes up for auction later this year, we’ll have a much clearer idea of when such cloud-centric gadgets as the CR-48 will be viable in New Zealand. Until then, we just have to observe.

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Edward N. Albro & Zara Baxter

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