Chrome OS in-depth: Cloud-centric simplicity, evolved

Google Chrome OS

Using Chrome OS is an interesting experience: In a strange way, it's both new and completely familiar at the same time.

Chrome OS, after all, is an operating system built around Google's Chrome browser. Most of the apps you use are cloud-based services -- things like Gmail and Google Docs. But taken out of the typical operating system context, all those elements take on a whole new feel.

I've been using Chrome OS for the bulk of my computing needs these past several days. It's part of my two-week Chrome OS experiment; with the launch of Google's new Chromebook and Chromebox, I wanted to go beyond the traditional review and really get to know what it's like to live in Google's evolved cloud environment.

And evolved it certainly is. Chrome OS has come a long way since its launch 17 months ago, transforming from a series of locked-down browser windows into a full-fledged operating system. With its latest Chrome OS refresh -- along with the vastly improved new Chrome OS hardware -- Google has finally realized its vision for a cloud-based computing platform. The potential we saw in the beginning has been transformed into something far more polished and complete.

Ladies and gentlemen, Chrome OS has arrived.

Getting to know Google's Chrome OS

The beauty of Chrome OS lies in its simplicity: You power up your Chromebook or Chromebox, and within seconds, you're ready to roll. Once you've typed in your Google credentials, all of your bookmarks, Chrome extensions, and Chrome settings are in front of you -- even your most recent open tabs from your PC or Android device are there -- just like they appear on any other system you use. There's no complicated setup, no messy drivers to deal with, and no hassles to keep you from getting online and getting down to business.

The cloud-centric approach comes with some other nice benefits: You never have to worry about updates, as Google regularly pushes fresh software onto the system in a seamless manner (much like it does with its desktop Chrome browser). You don't have to mess with antivirus software, as the nature of the Chrome OS system makes infections very improbable. Even if your system did somehow become compromised, it could be reset in a heartbeat; remember, all your stuff is stored in the cloud, including your apps and settings.

Chrome OS systems also don't get bogged down and progressively slower over time, like most traditional computers tend to do. And you never have to deal with involved installations or program upgrades; with Chrome OS, it's all streamlined and simple.

Chrome OS, as I mentioned, revolves around the browser -- but as of this latest incarnation, the browser actually isn't the entire operating system. Google has built a desktop-like OS around Chrome, allowing you to position multiple windows on-screen simultaneously. You can maximize, minimize, and resize windows, set a desktop background, and quickly switch between windows or load new programs using a launcher bar at the bottom of the screen.

Chrome OS Desktop

The launcher bar shows icons for all of your currently loaded windows and programs. You can also pin any app there to create a quick-launch shortcut; you can opt to have the app open in a regular tab or in a full-size program-like window. The right corner of the launcher bar shows the current time along with your battery and data-connection status; you can click that area to access settings and more detailed system information.

Chrome OS Menu

This revised setup makes the Chrome OS experience far more welcoming than it's been in the past. In its early incarnations, Chrome OS felt a bit restrictive; the entire environment was nothing but a full-screen browser window, and while that offered some practical advantages, it was somewhat jarring to use. With the newly expanded environment, Chrome OS has come into its own and found its way as a platform.

Chrome OS and life in the cloud

When you talk about Chrome OS, words like "app" and "program" are all relative. Nearly every app opens in a browser window and is based in the cloud.

Two years ago, the idea of abandoning traditional local programs would have struck me as ludicrous. Today, I'm a lot closer to the cloud-centric way of life Google envisions: I use Gmail for my email, Google Calendar for schedule management, and Google Docs for document storage. (I tend to use Microsoft Word while at my normal Windows 7 workstation, but I keep all my documents synced with Google Docs/Drive for easy on-the-go access.)

The multidevice lifestyle -- using a laptop in my office, an Android tablet in the house, and an Android phone pretty much everywhere -- has moved my focal point away from the stationary desktop. Sure, I have stuff stored locally, but it's all synced to the cloud in one place or another. My computing life has become more and more mobile over the past few years, so it only makes sense for my data to follow that same trend, too.

In that regard, Chrome OS makes more and more sense to me, particularly with the recently introduced improvements. Aside from the new desktop, Google has given Chrome OS a full-fledged file manager: You can actually store some data locally, if you want, which is helpful when dealing with images, attachments, and the likes. Plus, when you plug in a memory card or USB storage device, Chrome OS automatically pops up a window with its contents, allowing you to open or work with the files.

Chrome OS File Manager

Google says its Google Drive cloud storage service will be fully integrated into Chrome OS within the next several weeks as well. You can use Drive -- or any other cloud storage service, for that matter -- right now, but the added system integration should make it even easier to manage cloud-based files and upload or share local files as part of the core environment.

Chrome OS now has a pop-up media player, too -- you can play songs and videos from a memory card, external drive, or the local drive while working on other tasks -- and a limited image-editing tool with commands for cropping, rotating, and adjusting brightness.

Chrome OS Image Editor

Making Chrome OS do more

All of Chrome OS's functions can be supplemented and expanded with services from the cloud -- using, for example, Google Music or Pandora to stream songs or a more robust image editor like Aviary (free in the Chrome Web Store) to manipulate photos. Aviary isn't as robust as Photoshop or Illustrator; if your computing needs regularly require those types of heavy-duty local programs, Chrome OS may not be the answer for you. But for the majority of day-to-day computer use, the cloud-centric setup is surprisingly easy to embrace.

And if you do need to get to traditional desktop programs from time to time, Google actually has a tool to make it happen. Chrome Remote Desktop, a free app, allows you to gain remote access to any Windows, Mac, or Linux system; all you have to do is install the extension on the computer's Chrome browser, set up a PIN and enable remote access, and you're good to go. Once you establish a connection, you have the remote computer's desktop in a live window on your Chrome OS system; you can run programs, open files, and input text as if you were sitting right there.

Chrome OS Remote Desktop

I used the Remote Desktop app to connect to my Windows 7 laptop from a Chromebook, and I found the experience to be quite good: With a solid data connection on each end, lag was minimal and it basically felt like I was using the Windows 7 system. The setup is still in beta and consequently has some limitations -- you can't currently see secondary monitors on a remote system, for example, and you can't hear audio remotely -- but all in all, it was very smooth and impressive.

Chrome OS has built-in support for VPN connections, too, and advanced users can find third-party apps for things like terminal emulation and SSH connectivity.

The Chrome OS caveats

For all its positives, Chrome OS isn't without its drawbacks. First and foremost, if you aren't comfortable living in the cloud, Chrome OS isn't going to be for you. By its very nature, Chrome OS revolves around cloud-based applications and data; if you're set on the idea of running programs locally and storing your information on a hard drive in your home, you're going to find Chrome OS frustrating.

Then there's the issue of offline access. Despite the fact that Chrome OS is focused on the Web, Google has made massive progress in making the system more suitable for use without an active Internet connection. There are, however, still some limitations. In the next chapter of my Chrome OS experiment, I'll take a close look at the realities of using Chrome OS offline.

Offline access aside, some of the Chrome OS apps simply aren't up to par with their desktop-based equivalents. Go sign into Google Docs (technically now part of Google Drive) and you'll see what I mean. Using Docs isn't a terrible experience, by any means, but it's generally not as good or as complete of an experience as what you get by using a traditional desktop office suite. Depending on your needs and priorities, this may or may not be a problem for you. Personally, I tend to live in my word processor during the day; I'm still more comfortable in Word, with its fuller functionality and familiar shortcuts, but for most tasks, I'm finding it increasingly easy to work in Docs as I get more accustomed to it.

Similarly, I work faster in Photoshop -- where I manipulate images and create graphics for stories -- and have more options and tools there than I do in any Chrome OS-based application. If I'm working on something complex, it's still easier for me to jump into Photoshop than to try to get it done in a Chrome OS application.

Finally, while Chrome OS offers support for multiple monitors (and both the new Samsung Chromebook and Chromebox have the ports to make it happen), the software currently only allows you to duplicate your desktop on the second monitor. I'm used to working in an extended-desktop scenario, so losing that capability is a bit of a downer for me. Google tells me extended-desktop functionality is in the works for Chrome OS, but it's not there now -- and at this point, there's no firm timeline for when it'll arrive.

All in all, it's a tradeoff: Chrome OS gives you fast, simple, hassle-free computing that's fully portable and not tied to any single machine. It gives you seamless ongoing system improvements and lets you say so long to many of the annoyances that accompany regular computer use. But it also lacks some of the functionality and power you find in a traditional computing environment. The question is ultimately whether the tradeoff makes sense for you.

Android Power Twitter

I'll explore the issue more in the final few chapters of my Chrome OS experiment. Later this week, I'll take that deep-dive into the Chrome OS offline experience. After that, I'll share my impressions of Samsung's Chromebox desktop computer and will then bring it all together with some final thoughts and conclusions.

In the meantime, if you've missed any of the previous chapters, you can find them (along with the rest of the series) in the box below.    

The Chrome OS Experiment: The Complete Series

The experiment begins: 2 weeks with Google's new Chrome computers

Getting to know Samsung's new Chromebook

Samsung Chromebox: Chrome OS meets the desktop

Chrome OS in-depth: Cloud-centric simplicity, evolved

Chrome OS offline: Using a Chromebook without the cloud

Chrome OS reviewed: The final verdict on Google's cloud platform

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

Article copyright 2012 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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