Google's Chrome OS notebook: Trials and tribulations

While my first experience with Google's Cr-48 Chrome OS netbook provided plenty of reason for excitement, it also gave me some concerns. Some of my issues can likely be written off to the developmental nature of the product, but others are just challenges that come with adopting a new kind of operating system that's so drastically different from what I know.

Put simply, getting around Chrome OS takes some getting used to. There's no desktop, per se; instead, your default screen is a blank browser window. You can't minimize, you can't close it -- it is the home screen, so to speak, of the operating system.

Chrome OS Desktop

Using Google's new , you install Web applications that appear as icons in your blank browser tab, just as they do in the regular Chrome browser. You can "pin" tabs to the lefthand side of the page, giving you an easy way to create permanent spots for things like Gmail, Google Docs, and other commonly accessed destinations. It isn't a bad system, by any means, but it's quite a different type of computing environment, and it initially feels very foreign.

(The redesigned keyboard I mentioned on the previous page presents its own set of challenges, too, by the way: Instead of pressing Ctrl-F4 to close a tab, for example, in Chrome OS, you press Ctrl-W. A big deal? Of course not. But an adjustment? You'd better believe it.)

The hardest thing about Chrome OS for me to get used to so far has been its file management -- or, to be more accurate, the lack thereof. The whole point of Chrome OS is that you work completely in the cloud. And for someone who's used to working in Windows -- even with a relatively strong reliance on cloud-based applications and storage -- this is a slightly strange concept.

Case in point: When I first started capturing screenshots on the Chrome OS notebook, I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to find them. There's no system folder or file manager -- so where are they?

Most data, as you've probably heard by now, isn't stored locally on a Chrome OS system. But things like saved screenshots and downloaded files are -- it just takes a while to figure out where.

Long story short, Chrome OS has a Downloads utility that gives you access to this sort of data. Well, most of it, anyway: My screenshots stubbornly refused to show up in the utility's file list. I'm not sure if this is by design or if it's an oversight; remember, this is a test system and Google is still working out the kinks.

Screenshots aside, when you open Chrome's Downloads utility, there's no way to manipulate the files that are there. You can left-click 'em, right-click 'em, even scream at 'em -- you still won't get an option to upload or e-mail the things.

After some exploration (and frustration), I eventually discovered that the problem was that I was stuck in a Windows mentality. Chrome OS isn't about files; it's about the cloud. Rather than trying to seek out and take action on a file, I needed to turn to a Web app and let it perform the action for me. I opened Google Docs and used its "Upload" function to put the files online, where I could grab them and use them as I needed.

Chrome OS Upload Files

Suffice it to say, this wasn't exactly easy or intuitive. Even after figuring out how to upload the files, I had to transfer them one at a time, which was a bit cumbersome; the Docs Web app doesn't currently support batch file transfers. So yes, there's definitely room for improvement in this area. It may very well arrive by the time Chrome OS hits the market; a Google spokesperson tells me the company is working on making it so that all downloaded files will be automatically synced to the cloud on their own. In terms of pure usability, that'd be a huge step forward from the current setup.

A few other random bugs popped up during my initial explorations. Certain extensions, for example, don't play well with Chrome OS at the moment. LastPass wouldn't install at all on my Cr-48 notebook, nor would a simple screen-grabbing utility I use that's actually built by Google itself. After the extension failed to show up during my sync, I tried to manually install it and got an odd error telling me "extensions cannot install plugins on Chrome OS."

Chrome OS Extension Failure

The initial sync to my Google account also didn't happen properly upon my first sign-in to the system; despite the fact that Chrome OS showed me as being logged in and having the sync option activated, none of my bookmarks or preferences showed up. I logged out and back in and that seemed to fix it; within a minute or two of my second sign-in, my stuff started to appear.

All together, Chrome OS is certainly still a work in progress, and that's to be expected. Its positives, however, shine brightly, and it shows plenty of potential. I'll be curious to see if I'm able to get used to its nuances -- and then used to switching back and forth between it and a full-featured Windows PC. Taking on a new operating system requires a decent amount of patience and adaptation. The question is whether it's all worth it in the end.

I'll keep you posted.

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on Facebook, on Twitter, or at eSarcasm, his geek-humor getaway.

Article copyright 2010 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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