Chrome OS revisited: 2 months later

Article copyright 2011 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

We've been focused for a while now on Google's Android Honeycomb release -- but there's another Google-made operating system also nearing its debut.

Google Chrome OS Notebook

I'm talking, of course, about Google's Chrome OS. It was just a couple of months ago that Google officially introduced the lightweight platform and sent test notebooks out to users around the world.

I wrote about my first impressions with the Chrome OS notebook, in fact, two months ago to the day. At that point, I found plenty of things intriguing about the no-frills, Web-based concept -- and several things rather irksome as well.

It's impossible, however, to get a true feel for any new kind of product with only a few hours (or even a few days) of casual use. I've been using Chrome OS and Google's Cr-48 notebook increasingly over the past two months, and I thought it'd be worth revisiting the topic to see how my impressions have evolved.


Chrome OS Revisited: The Good

Looking back at my first analysis of Chrome OS, I'd say I was feeling a sense of guarded enthusiasm. I noted that there was "plenty to be excited about from my first few hours with Google's Cr-48 Chrome OS notebook," adding:

It's light, it's fast, and it's innovative. The simple cloud-synced nature of the system would make it great as a secondary computer for travel and on-the-go work.

Using Chrome OS, as I said then, wasn't all roses; there were a few bugs and glitches, especially in those early days, and the system's utter simplicity could feel like a handicap at times. (Chrome OS, if you aren't familiar with it, is completely browser-based; the browser is your desktop and pretty much the entire operating system.)

The glitches seem to have evaporated over time -- the Cr-48, after all, is meant to be a test system, and Google is using it to find and squash bugs before the product goes on sale -- and the limitations, while still present as a core part of the platform's nature, are hardly noticeable to me anymore.

The reason: I've figured out where a computer like the Chrome OS notebook fits into my life. And in that respect, I've really come to appreciate it.

Chrome OS, for me, is a supplementary system. I still have my primary PC, and it's what I use for the bulk of my day-to-day work. But Chrome OS has become my go-to tool for quick tasks and on-the-road uses -- areas where I'd previously use either my smartphone or laptop, generally with a lot of grumbling.

Chrome OS

Let me give you a few examples. I recently took a cross-country trip for work. I carried with me my laptop (which currently doubles as my aforementioned primary PC) and my Cr-48 Chrome OS notebook. The Cr-48 is small and light, so it barely added any bulk or weight to my bag.

While on a layover in an airport, I needed to send a few e-mails and start working on a story. I whipped out the Cr-48 and, within about 30 seconds of opening its lid, was at my browser window and ready to roll. I used the built-in 3G connection to get online, get into Gmail and Google Docs, and get my stuff done. (Chrome OS, at least in its current incarnation, comes with 100MB of free data usage per month for two years; you can buy additional bandwidth on a day-to-day or gigabyte-based basis.)

Could I have done the same thing without the Cr-48? Sure -- but it would have been a far greater hassle. I'd have been forced to contend with the bulk and relatively pokey load time of my laptop (not to mention its lack of built-in connectivity), or the small screen and less typing-friendly interface of my Droid (it's fine for quick things, but lengthy e-mails and 2000-word documents aren't exactly a smartphone's strength). The Chrome OS notebook made it simple and easy.

Later in the trip, I found myself on a 45-minute cab ride with a heap of work waiting to be done. I pulled the Cr-48 out of my bag again and -- while the driver wove through city traffic and shouted into his phone in Punjabi -- got online, polished up a story I'd started, and published it on the Web.

Even at home, Chrome OS has become a valued part of my gadget arsenal. I frequently find myself reaching for the Cr-48 when I need to quickly jump online in the evening. And my girlfriend, who has a love/hate relationship with technology, has found herself smitten with the simple interface and automatic syncing (to her own Chrome preferences, bookmarks, and so forth) that the OS provides.

Chrome OS Revisited: The Bad

Chrome OS Files

For all the things I've come to like about Chrome OS, there's still one area that needs serious improvement: file management. The whole concept of Chrome OS is that it's completely cloud-based, and as such, very little data is stored locally on the system. But that doesn't mean dealing with files has to be a daunting challenge. Even when you're using services like Gmail and Google Docs, situations arise where you need to deal directly with files. And in the current Chrome OS landscape, it frequently isn't easy to figure out how.

The solution here is simple enough: Google Docs has improved and expanded its file storage capabilities over the past months. If Chrome OS featured tighter integration with Google Docs -- where you could browse and manipulate your cloud-stored files natively throughout the system -- the Chrome OS user experience would be dramatically improved. As it stands now, trying to open an image, edit it, and then upload it to a social network or content management system feels a bit like trying to perform brain surgery. When I need to do something that involves heavy use of files, I usually end up going to a full PC; it's just too much trouble on Chrome right now, and there's no reason it has to be like that.

Capturing and saving screenshots is also still anything but intuitive. A more user-friendly file management system would go a long way in improving this flaw as well.

Chrome OS: The Future

Tweaks aside, I think the real deciding factor for Chrome OS and its potential for success comes down to cost. The core concept of a simple, cloud-based system means the hardware is not going to be very high-end -- which is fine, given the software's modest requirements -- but you also aren't going to get people to shell out serious cash for such a limited-use machine.

The best way Google could get Chrome OS to catch on would be to make the notebooks dirt-cheap. It isn't without the realm of reason; as we all know, Google's real benefit comes not from sales of hardware or software but from the information it gains as a result of a product's adoption. If the Chrome OS team can keep costs low, these notebooks just might be able to find a place in the increasingly crowded computing market.

Android Power Twitter

As for the commonly raised question of whether Chrome OS can coexist with Android, I see no reason why not. A Chrome OS notebook serves a very different need and provides a very different experience from an Android tablet. Some people might gravitate more toward one or the other; some people might have a use for both. Computing these days is all about choice, and Chrome OS is one more unique option to diversify the mix.

Having spent two months with it now, it's an option I would happily consider if the price were right.

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 2011 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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