Wherein I play with Chrome OS
By sheer coincidence, I happened to be off work today, and I also happened to get a surprise package from Google containing a free Cr-48, a Chrome OS netbook intended for beta testing.
For those unfamiliar, Chrome OS is a new operating system from Google, but it’s not intended to be general-purpose; it’s intended to do little other than get you on the web as quickly as possible. Consequently, its UI is basically nothing but the Google Chrome browser, a time display, and wireless and battery icons. It’s questionable whether it can function as someone’s primary laptop (Google even has a handy quiz to help you decide); it turns out I don’t do much off the web, besides playing some games and writing code, and both of those things are better served by a more powerful and less mobile machine.
The Cr-48 Experience
So what’s Chrome OS’s web experience like? Well, just like any other machine’s, really; you probably won’t find any surprises. Flash is built in; we don’t get Silverlight (it’s built on a stripped-down Linux kernel, and when has Microsoft ever offered anything for Linux?), so there’s no Netflix streaming, but pretty much everything else works, including Youtube with HTML5 video, Flash games and toys on Newgrounds, Google Docs/Gmail/Maps/Voice–everything.
The problem is, the Cr-48 just isn’t very fast. Opening multiple links at a time can easily bring the machine to a halt for a few seconds, and it has quite a bit of trouble keeping up a decent framerate on Youtube videos (though it does appear to fare somewhat better with Youtube’s HTML5 mode). Even Chrome’s new tab page takes maybe a second to load all of its contents. Since I’m used to more or less instantaneous response times in Chrome on my work machine and laptop (both of which run Ubuntu with all the crazy graphical effects, the latter of which being a three-year-old Dell XPS), it’s hard to justify using the Cr-48 as a primary work machine. Still, I don’t blame Chrome OS for this; the Cr-48 is a beta product (with far from the best internals; they’re shipping a whole lot of these out for free), and I’m assuming that the upcoming stable Chrome OS machines will be quite a bit faster.
What you don’t get is access to the machine’s internals. I haven’t yet found any file manager, besides a list of downloads (EDIT: and a file selection box that showed the entire filesystem I got by accident that I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to see); there’s no text editor, and I haven’t yet figured out how to use the media player (which is mentioned in a menu as “experimental”). The most you get is a list of technical files and logs that Linux users might recognize at
chrome://system, such as process lists (which mainly lists a bunch of Chrome browser processes), CPU info, memory stats, etc.
There is a terminal, accessible by pressing Ctrl-Alt-T. It’s not like any shell I’ve ever seen before though; its prompt calls it “
crosh” (presumably “ChROme SHell”?) and all it seems to allow is a few specialized commands for network and hardware troubleshooting–none of the standard file system tools (not even
pwd). One boon that they did include, however, was (stripped-down) SSH. This allows me to easily remotely control any server I might want to (as long as I don’t need public key authentication), and I can see how this would be an amazing tool for sysadmins. Clearly this machine was designed by geeks.
All in all, this machine’s customizability is at about iPad level. Not that I expected more; it’s designed for nothing more than getting on the web quickly, and it certainly accomplishes that, and really, if all the machine is designed for is the web, SSH is frankly more than I expected (though quite welcome). But it’d be nice to be able to swap out the
crosh thing for something I can use.
Google has tweaked the standard keyboard layout in ways that might surprise the average user:
For one thing, there’s no capslock key. In its place is a “search” key, with an icon reminiscent of Android’s search button, which really just opens a new tab (and lets you do a search by just typing your query into the URL bar, like in Chrome on any other platform). This is a delightfully welcome change, since I was never using capslock anyway (having, y’know, finished puberty years ago), and I’ve already become dependent on its replacement as of this writing. (Google even jokes in the setup notes that if you really want to, you can set it to function as a capslock key “so you can post an INSIGHTFUL COMMENT ON YOUTUBE.”)
The other notable change is the function key row. Since those don’t really have any use when the entire interface is a browser, Google has replaced them with a set of function-specific keys. In order, they are: Back, Forward, Reload, Fullscreen (all for web browsing, and welcome additions), Switch Window (for multiple browser tab sets), Brightness Down/Up, Volume Mute/Down/Up and Power. I just wish it had keys for switching tabs, since the keyboard shortcut for it is Ctrl-Tab, which is somewhat cumbersome.
Speaking of mice, the Cr-48′s ports are fairly sparse. We have a standard headphone jack, one USB port, a VGA port for a second monitor, a power jack and an SD card slot. There’s no Ethernet (somewhat surprising, but then, I guess everyone has wifi these days), and I’m not really sure what the SD card slot is for since I don’t have any SD cards to test it with. Google shows again here that there’s a lot of cruft worth trimming on the hardware that we normally buy; nowhere here do we see the common perplexing set of colorful audio ports.
Chrome OS represents a radical take on the web. It’s clear from feeling perfectly at home on it after a day of use that I sufficiently “live on the web” (at least for recreation). There’s no denying it has kinks to iron out, most notably the touchpad (it remains to be seen whether the hardware or the software is the issue) and its speed (probably the hardware). I also have nothing but praise for Google regarding this beta program–not least because I got a free notebook out of it–but also because it handles the issues Google tends to have with UIs, by aggressively putting the paper cuts on display for users to point out, criticize and work through before release.
I’ll keep using this machine and submit plenty of feedback like Google requested, starting with this post. As for the ethical issues surrounding it, those will have to wait for another one. Also, if you think you’d enjoy living on the web, you should sign up for the pilot program yourself–it’s open until Dec. 21, and who knows, you might be as lucky as I was.