Posted on 25 March 2011.
We first glimpsed the CR-48 prototype Google Chrome OS netbook at CES in January and they’ve finally appeared in the UK courtesy of the Big G.
Our Chrome OS netbook has arrived in the office today, so we’ve ignored the big hot sun to bring you more in-depth thoughts on Google’s Windows basher than we were able to put together in a few minutes on a baking show floor at CES.
First thing’s first, this is still very early kit. Some of the creases we’ll explain here will be ironed out by the time Chrome OS gets into your hands in hardware from many of the usual netbook vendors.
Second thing’s second, Google Chrome OS looks like Chrome the browser because, essentially, that’s exactly what it is. Here’s a few of the different bits. That’s what it is. It’s a browser. There is no desktop. And that in itself takes an awful lot of getting used to. We won’t lie – we’ve been spoilt with fully-fledged operating systems.
Chrome OS does attempt to make up for the limitations of this in many of the ways that phone OSes fail to – there is a (very basic) file browser so you can transfer files between somewhere like Dropbox and Google Docs. Or where you might save an image from the web to upload as your Facebook profile pic.
Chrome OS also comes with the Scratchpad note-taking tool. Of course, you don’t need Chrome OS for this, but it’s a handy tool and can sync with Google Docs.
You sign in using your Google Account, though you’ll need to be connected to the internet (or the integral cellular) to sign in – so you can have multiple people signing in on your Chrome OS netbook. Guest access does exist, but you can disable this.
If you already sync your Chrome browser to the cloud like us, your Extensions and other details download automatically. You’re offered to take a webcam pic for your account picture when you first sign in….
…while there are also options for logging onto Wi-Fi and cellular networks, even before the point of login should you not already be connected…
…and there’s also the ability to set the time and date. Otherwise, pretty much everything is handled inside the standard Chrome interface including all the settings.
There are some usability flaws. Our main criticism is that, well, things are a bit slow. We know how fast the Chrome browser is (answer: fast) and strangely that speed just isn’t replicated here.
Admittedly, we have a fair amount of Extensions installed – could that be a factor? – but it doesn’t seem a problem for the versions we’ve used on Windows or Mac OS X.
Also fonts in the browser seem really rather patchy in terms of the way they render – as do some other elements. Despite us having the new Google bar on all our other machines, it isn’t replicated on Chrome OS. As we said, it’s early days.
And then there’s the issue of connectivity. The key issue of connectivity. Chrome OS is currently a bit rubbish without the internet. Google Docs will again support offline use in due course but until this happens and becomes reliable,
We mentioned the cellular data support of the CR-48 – the SIM slots in inside the battery compartment. This is essential to the success of Chrome OS as a system.
Hardware-wise, the CR-48 prototype is surprisingly tidy in appearance and very usable. The keyboard is pleasant, the matt finish smart and the matt screen excellent for usability. There’s a webcam, mic and a VGA connector. Here we’re using the webcam through Google Talk, which pops up at the base of the browser.
So what else is there to shout about hardware-wise? Well it seems pretty well-prepared – the sole USB port accepted our Logitech cordless mouse without issue, for example.
There’s also a VGA adapter. Like the decals? They were included in our Chrome OS box.
The function keys atop the keyboard for maximising and minimising Chrome OS, changing brightness, switching tabs and the like work well.
Indeed, the marriage between hardware and software isn’t too shabby and many Windows netbooks could take a look at the simplicity on show here. Leave it on and it will sleep. Any key will wake it. Close the lid, it will sleep. Resume is instant.
The Caps Lock key has been replaced with a search key that brings up a new tab for us. If you really want Caps Lock back, you can get it though.
So although Chrome OS is quite usable for basic web use when you have connectivity, it’s those moments offline that Google really needs to think about.
Naturally, the real battle will be price. How cheap can Chrome OS netbooks be? They’ll have to be sub-£300 to be a serious alternative to Windows netbooks for starters.