In 2009, Google announced the development of Chrome OS, a web-centric operation system that is specially designed for running web apps. The principle behind this project is “speed, simplicity and security“, as Google told us in a blog post. Google claimed that the system will start up in seconds, present itself in a clean interface and be protected against virus, malware and security issues.
About one year later, Google began to distribute Cr-48, a prototype Chromebook running a beta version of Chrome OS, to some lucky applicants for testing. I’m a lucky and proud owner of this Cr-48. In this article, I will make a complete summary of my thoughts about the Chrome OS after using it in a daily basis for months. All my views are written based on using the beta version of this system on a Cr-48.
The First Look
Chrome OS doesn’t not look like other operation systems in ANY sense. Once you logged in, what appears in front of you is not a desktop with icons and folders. Nor could you see a Dock like that in Mac OS. The only thing you could find is a browser, Chrome browser.
Google’s intention is clear. If most computer users nowadays spend most of the time on web services like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Gmail, why bother to bring the users to a desktop before they surf the internet? Why couldn’t they go straightly to the browser?
And I appreciate it. Using Chrome OS is so easy, it’s exactly the same as using Chrome browser. All web apps installed are listed on the start page. Bookmarks, frequently visited sites and recently closed tabs are also shown on the same page, so that for most of the time I don’t have to type in the URL.
In Chrome OS, applications are not a set of executable files + dynamic libraries + drivers. They are simply web pages. You discover web apps from Google Search or the dedicated Chrome Web Store and “install”. Unlike traditional operation systems, “installation” of apps does not put lots of files in your hard drive. Nor your system registry be affected. Your apps and user settings thereof are all stored online, leaving no trace in your computer. New users may need time to get used to it, but on the other hand it helps to bring what Google called the “same experience everywhere”, since wherever you open a Chrome browser the same apps and settings are there.
How about system settings? Where is the “Control Panel” or “System Preferences” windows that we could find in Windows and Mac OS? Well Chrome OS is designed for simplicity. You won’t be able to adjust the system cache size or personal firewall. You can, however, modify a limited number of settings like theme, font size and homepage, which basically are the same settings as in Chrome browser.
For file storage, the Cr-48 has a rather small 16GB SSD. Again, since this operation system is cloud-based (a.k.a. web-centric), you are expected to store your files online in Google Docs, Dropbox, SugarSync or the like. Same for music (e.g. Google Music, Grooveshark), video (e.g. YouTube, Hulu) and photos (e.g. Picasa, Flickr).
Though Chrome OS did not shut the door for local storage. There is a file manager where you can perform common file management actions like renaming and deleting files and creating folders.
Google states in the official home page of Chromebooks (i.e. notebooks running Chrome OS) that these notebooks boot in merely 8 seconds. My experience with the Cr-48 is roughly the same after discounting the password input time. Don’t forget that the Cr-48 is a notebook with low-end specifications only (Intel Atom N455 1.66GHz CPU with 512K Cache and 2GB RAM). Turning on the same computer with Windows probably takes 1 minute or more.
Running web apps on the Cr-48 is a bit sluggish, though. Usually things go quite well if you have one to two tabs opened. When the number of working tabs grows, the system becomes slow and a bit sluggish. This is particularly obvious if demanding web apps like YouTube is opened, or when a number of extensions are enabled.
Speaking of YouTube, 360p or below videos could be played smoothly. 480p is quite acceptable. Don’t try anything with higher resolution. I also tested the HTML5 version of YouTube, things are slightly better but no significant improvement was observed.
Netflix is a bit different. It uses Microsoft’s Silverlight technology. Currently it is not supported by Chrome OS but Google said that Netflix will finally come to Chromebooks when they officially launch on 15 June.
Google has three channels to release the Chrome OS, developer, beta and stable. The developer channel is where you find the latest version with features still being built, therefore it may be unstable. I have been following the beta channel since I got the Cr-48, and had rarely found stability issues.
The browser in Chrome OS is always updated soon after a new version of Chrome browser is released. So if there’s a problem with Chrome browser, you can find it in Chrome OS. There are occasional crashes when loading pages but NO there’s no blue screen or forced restart as far as I could see.
Ease of Use
Chrome OS is well designed to make using it a pain-free experience. Still, you’ve got to adjust your habits a little bit. The familiar function keys (F1 to F??) are replaced by page navigation and sound and brightness controls. Fine, many notebook brands have already assigned these controls to the function keys (i.e. they co-exist). Google just gone further. A more shocking design is the replacement of caps lock with search. When you press the search key a new tab opens for typing in the words to search. I feel comfortable with this but if you don’t, you can go to Settings to restore caps lock.
Chrome OS v.s. Other Operation Systems
I have used Windows for more than 20 years (began with Windows 3.0). Although since 5 years ago I replaced all computers at home with Macs (except a Linux netbook), it’s still the only system I use in the office (thanks to my boss). I’m also a frequent Linux user, the major one being Ubuntu.
I can assure “common Internet users” you’ll love this OS since it’s the simplest system I’ve ever seen that brings you to the Internet. It’s far better than all other systems I just mentioned above. But if you use computer for more than Internet, please read through my sharing below before buying your very first Chromebook (and regret).
One advantage of Chrome OS that outshines all other systems is its speed. Chrome OS is really fast. None of Mac, Linux or Windows could compete with Chrome OS in this respect. I have had the experience of using the latest generation of Macbook Air which runs the Mac OS on SSD. Booting it was as fast as 30 seconds, but still cannot compare with Chrome OS’s 8 second. The lightning speed of Chrome OS makes it a perfect tool for performing a quick google search or checking emails.
Another feature I like about Chrome OS is the built-in protection against system faults. In traditional systems, if you screw up the system settings you could stuck yourself in deadly rebooting cycles with lots of error messages (remember the safe mode of Windows or the 4-language system error of Mac OS?) Chrome OS is different. The apps you install and settings you make do not affect the core of the system. There is no way you could mess up the system. And since the system automatically updates itself everytime it starts, bugs are fixed as soon as possible.
The third advantage of Chrome OS is that user data and settings are stored online and accessible anywhere. Once you made any changes (e.g. installed a new webapp through Chrome Web Store, changed default font size, added a new bookmark, etc.), they are synchronized with Google’s server. Next time when you switch on your Chromebook or any Chrome browser that you enabled synchronization, the same apps and settings are there. Other traditional operation systems do not have the same function out of the box.
Chrome OS is basically a web browser. The user interface is intuitive, there’s not much to learn. Everyone who are familiar with surfing the web (who don’t?) can handle it, even your grandmum.
And with web apps, you don’t have to worry about available disk space, drivers and settings. Installation of apps means a few clicks in Chrome Web Store only.
There are thousands of web apps in the Web Store. Thanks to HTML5, possibly the simplest coding language in the world, crafting a web app is easy. I can foresee a rapid growth of web apps this year when Chromebooks are officially in the market and in the years to come as well.
Variety of Apps
The dependence of web apps could be, however, Chrome OS’s key to success as well as failure. This brings us to the first disadvantage of Chrome OS that I want to share with you. Despite the large collection of web apps, still there are corners that the web cannot reach.
I’m a project manager in the architecture industry. For so long I couldn’t easily read CAD drawings via the web until Autodesk released AutoCAD WS last year. But not everyone is as lucky as me. For example, PC or smartphone apps programmers can code online with text editors but there’s no way to test run their masterpieces. Graphics designers would find their hands tied because all available image processing web apps are simply “too primitive”.
Now you understand why I warned non-common computer users earlier in this article. If you are one of those people who rely on particular apps in your PCs for some particular jobs, make sure you check whether there’s a web alternative.
Software and Hardware Compatibility
A good news is Chrome OS comes with Flash support out of the box (time to throw your iPad away?). Most online video channels are watchable (good for video addicts), most Flash games are playable (good for game players) and most Flash-based ads are viewable (not so good for most users…)
Unlike Flash, Java is not supported by Chrome OS. There were a few times when I wanted to upload files, since those (old-fashioned) web sites use Java uploaders, I had to switch from my Cr-48 to my Macbook. On this point Google is as stubborn as Apple, just like Flash being banned on all iDevices, Java does not find its place in Chrome OS. Looks like Google has no plan to change the status quo. I can imagine Google answers possible Java enquiries in this way: “Hey, we have HTML5. It’s the most reliable technology we could get, why Java?”
For web apps, as long as they are built on HTML5 standard, Chrome OS could handle them. Unfortunately, there are web sites that only work in Internet Explorer. In Mac or Linux you can use IEs4Linux or IEs4OSX to install IE, but with Chrome as the proprietary browser, Chrome OS won’t let IE in.
There is a big question mark about Chrome OS’s hardware compatibility. The SD card slot works, whenever a SD card is inserted the file manager automatically pops up. There is a USB port on my Cr-48 where I can plug a mouse/keyboard in. But that’s all. I tried my Logitech web cam, it didn’t work. Want to back up your iPhone? Not until Apple releases iTunes for Chrome OS (I doubt it will ever happen, perhaps switching to Android phone is your better choice). Remember, Chrome OS is not an all-mighty system like Mac or Ubuntu. It’s for common internet users ONLY.
Internet connection to Chrome OS is like oxygen to human being. When I took the Cr-48 to Europe for two weeks earlier this year, I realized how useless Chrome OS is when internet is unavailable.
Currently only very small number of web apps has an offline mode. I’m glad that Read It Later, the content clipping service I frequently use, can show me my notes even if I’m in the middle of nowhere. But even if I wish, I cannot pre-download emails and read offline, edit my presentation slides when I’m on board a plane to Les Vegas, or listen to songs I stored in Google Music when I lay on bed in a remote village resort in Asia where telephone is regarded as new technology.
We love our gadgets, and we love them more if they are unique. That’s why people like covering their smartphones with cases and stickers.
You would be disappointed by how restricted you could customize your Chromebook’s wallpaper. On one hand, there are thousands of themes with different colours and wallpapers for Chrome. On the other hand, if none of these themes attracts you, you cannot load local image files as wallpaper. You have to do it indirectly, for example, by using a custom start page. The same applies to system sounds and icons. (You can use a custom photo as your avatar, though.)
Let’s Make Chrome OS Better…?
If I were asked to recommend on improvements to Chrome OS, here is a list of critical areas to work on:
- Better local functionality (i.e. less internet-dependent)
- More drivers and plug-ins (e.g. Netflix and Java support)
- Higher customizability
I’m confident that Google should be fully aware of these issues. There have been voices from various channels (blogs, discussion forums, google groups) calling for these expected functions. And Google has been responding quickly. In 2011 developer conference Google announced that Google Docs, Calendar and Mail would soon have offline functionality. There would be a working media player in Chrome OS. What’s more, Netflix and Hulu would be supported.
What I’m more concerned with is in what direction Chrome OS would go. Should Chrome OS become a power OS like Mac, Linux or Windows? Or should Chrome OS be a pure web-centric OS? At the beginning Google’s objective is crystal clear: to build a device specifically for the internet. The following tag line of xPud, a cloud-based operation system, perfectly fits Chrome OS: “the shortest path to the cloud”. In my opinion, Chrome OS is at its best serving as a direct and convenient web surfing tool, but nothing else.
As a user I certainly appreciate Google’s effort in improving Chrome OS. But if Chrome OS gradually becomes something similar to a traditional OS, will it lose its edge?
Ordinary computer users can get a nice netbook at $500. There are some even cheaper netbooks running on Linux. They give you full computer experience. Chrome OS shouldn’t compete with other systems. It has its own market.
Think about the e-reader market. iPad and Android tablets are great but there are people who merely want to read books. This is the market of Kindle and Nook (and they have been selling well).
Most people complain about Chrome OS’s inability to do what they expect it to do. We have seen a lot of discussions like “Google should enable ^*(*@#)()$ in Chrome” and “Windows can do *%$&)#@&*, why not CrOS” in discussion forums. I occasionally had similar questions too.
I have mixed feelings about Chrome OS. As a loyal fan of Google’s products, I have been advocating for a stronger Chrome OS more offline functions. But if Chrome OS is already a great “web terminal”, why bother to make it a fair “computer”?
Look at Cr-48. Google tabled a product that perfectly delivers “speed, simplicity and security” as it promised in 2009. Even in a beta version, the OS is quite enough for general internet use.
I’m quite happy with my Cr-48, it’s perfect for checking emails and reading news while sitting in the living room. Chrome OS at its current state isn’t good for replacing the Mac, Linux or Windows in your desktop or laptop computer.
So my final word to Google is, you guys need think thoroughly what Chrome OS should become. And my final word to consumers is, Chrome OS is great for surfing the web. If all you want is a convenient tool to surf the web, go and grab a Chromebook.
(This post originally appears in Chrome Story as a guest post. Slight modifications were made.)