Since the Chromebooks are coming, and they look SUPER cool, I thought it was about time I spent some serious time playing with a Chromebook. While I didn’t get into the beta, a buddy of mine at work did, and has been keeping his Cr-48 at work; he was kind enough to loan it to me, and thus I bring you this post. The Chromebook, sporting 3G, combined with my DSL being out for the day (as part of my transition to Sonic.net) made for a perfect storm of real world testing. So as is my style, I bring you my review of the device, typed up on the device.
Normally I’d talk a lot about the hardware, but since the Cr-48 isn’t something you’re gonna buy (slash you can’t buy), why bother? I’m mostly going to focus on the ChromeOS and other Chromebook features that I think will carry over. The entire concept of the Chromebook, to the best of my understanding, is to take the hardware and the operating system out of the picture. Hopefully, you can pick up any Chromebook and use it just like any other (baring a few possible extra features, like 3G and GPS).
For a while now, I’ve been using Chrome (and/or Chromium) as my primary browser, so I’m very familiar with how it works. I keep on the bleeding (beta) edge of it, so I can play with all the new toys like browser sync (which I LOVE) and Cloud Print (a concept that holds promise, but we’ll see). More importantly, I’ve got all my favorites, auto-fills, apps, etc all ready to go and sync. I switch computers like Gleeks switch ringtones, so on every platform and every device I’m installing Chrome and syncing. The Chromebook “setup” was no different. All I did was login as my normal user and a few minutes later (I’ve got a LOT of material to sync) my extensions starting popping up, as did my bookmarks and apps. Configuration required: Zero.
One of my favorite cloud services as of late is Amazon’s Cloud Player. Why bother trying to keep my Cellphone, Xoom, and desktop in sync, when I can just stream the music (yes, even over 3G)? If you launch the Cloud Player chrome app on a regular machine it opens in a new window and I was curious to see how this behavior would be interpreted on the Cr-48. Well it turns out that if you launch it on the Chromebook, it becomes an “overlay” (that’s the best word I can use to describe it) stuck to the bottom of your screen. You can click the title bar and it will hide itself to the bottom, only showing enough pixels to have something to click; the behavior works well. This “overlay” behavior is the same that the Google Talk app uses for the chat windows. It looks very similar to how Google Talk “overlays” GMail on a regular machine, but in the Chromebook it stays open over every tab. It’s a little strange at first, but quickly starts to makes sense.
The built in “operating system” functionality is very light. In fact, the only real OS-ish pieces you’ll notice are the few items in the top right-hand corner. They are the Date/Time, Network Connection, Battery Status, and Switcher Icon (think Alt+Tab). There isn’t a lot behind these buttons, for example the Date/Time lets you change the timezone settings and that’s it; I’m presuming it sets based on NTP and/or 3G Network time. The one cool thing about the Network area is that it will tell you your current IP Address AND how much data you have left on your 3G service – a super cool feature if I do say so myself.
While we’re talking about the OS, I did enable the developer mode and kicked into the terminal. It’s Linux 188.8.131.52 (at time of writing). There aren’t a lot of utilities, but the basics are there (like ls, df, cd) and you get qemacs to edit text files with (though I found instructions on getting nano). I don’t see any real need to kick around the shell. The two things I’d typically use the shell for would be A) simple network diagnostic – which you can do in a regular (non-developer mode) terminal and B) ssh – which you can also do in the regular terminal.
Overall, the Chromebook is a slick device. The speeds are very impressive for such a lower powered machine (Atom N455 @ 1.66Ghz) when it comes to flipping about and even booting. When re-opening the lid on the machine, it’s generally awake by the time I’ve got the screen up and in position. It’s also the smoothness with which it moves about, like when you Alt+Tab to the terminal, the screens “slide” in an extremely pleasing manner that I think out “nices” my regular laptop running Windows 7 & Aero.
The truly defining factor for this new platform will be App availability. There are already a number of really cool, on web, applications – heck, they’ve even got Angry Birds. I can already edit my Google Apps, check my email, listen to my music, soon I should be able to work with my pictures (though that’s more of a power use), and can even control my servers. What more do I need? Well, truly good offline support will be important. Supposedly, many of the Web Apps in the Chrome Store already do offline, but I’ve never found that functionality fully working in my tests.
Even still, I’m looking forward to having a Chromebook. Will I still have a regular computer/laptop? You bet. Will I use the Chromebook a lot? You bet. Will my Xoom get a run for it’s money? Most likely. In my view, the Chromebook and the Xoom are basically the same market space – a low powered, portable extension of my computing. While I do love my Xoom (And Android in general), the idea of having a built in keyboard that I can do real, honest-to-god typing on is extremely appealing. I’ve already got a Cellphone and a Kindle… I’ve only got one device slot remaining… what will it be?