Google Chrome OS CR-48 Notebook Reviewed

Google's Chrome OS preview netbook is beautiful and full of promise, but the company's vision for the cloud isn't enough.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

December 10, 2010

8 Min Read

Google Chrome OS Promises Computing Without Pain

Google Chrome OS Promises Computing Without Pain

(click image for larger view)
Slideshow: Google Chrome OS Promises Computing Without Pain

Google's Cr-48 Chrome OS netbook provides the first glimpse of a "third choice in desktop operating systems," as Google CEO Eric Schmidt puts it. It's all the things Google boasts: speedy, simple, and secure. But there are things it cannot do, only some of which won't matter in time.

Chrome OS is not really a third choice because it's not a desktop operating system. It doesn't support direct file manipulation. It's a browser-based operating system, and comparing Chrome OS to a desktop operating system like Windows or Mac OS is a bit like comparing a motorcycle to a pickup truck. Both work as transportation but if you're hauling drywall, you're not going to want a motorcycle.

Chrome OS will be succeed because, for many circumstances, the Web is enough and the price point will be compelling.

It's appealing because it's not a hassle. I never have to worry about updating Chrome OS. That happens automatically, without the interruption of dialog boxes. It took me less than a minute to start up, establish an account, take my own picture, connect to my WiFi network, and load my iGoogle homepage. All my Google Docs files were there waiting for me, in the cloud. All my bookmarks were there, thanks to Chrome's synchronization capabilities.

With a traditional laptop, transferring files and loading applications takes a lot more time.

Google Chrome OS Promises Computing Without Pain

Google Chrome OS Promises Computing Without Pain

(click image for larger view)
Slideshow: Google Chrome OS Promises Computing Without Pain

The Cr-48, which I obtained through Google's Chrome OS pilot program, is beautiful. It might even be mistaken for an Apple product, were it not so defiantly anonymous. It's hard to go wrong with basic black and there's just something appealing about the minimalist, logo-free design.

Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan compares the Cr-48 to an iPad with an attached keyboard. That's an apt summary except that the iPad is a touch-based device. The Cr-48 is a traditional keyboard-driven computer and, despite its aspirations as a mobile device, it really should be used with a mouse.

The ClickPad is hard to get used to, particularly coming from a MacBook Pro, where there are separate track pad areas for cursor movement and clicking. I found that the ClickPad led me to click at times when I didn't want to click and that Web page elements sometimes were slow to relinquish focus when I tried to click on other areas of a Web page.

The iPad has been criticized as being primarily a device for consumption. While there are exceptions, like apps for writing and drawing, the fact remains that you can't use an iPad to create apps for the iPad. You need as Mac notebook or desktop machine with Xcode and a variety of content creation applications like Photoshop.

The Cr-48 is similarly ill-suited for development and content creation, though it's better than the iPad (except when used with a wireless keyboard) for rapid text entry.

Google's Chrome OS netbook shares another problem with the iPad: lack of browser choice. Chrome is the best browser on the market at the moment, in my opinion, but that doesn't mean other browsers are unnecessary. InformationWeek's content management system, Interwoven TeamSite, doesn't work with Chrome (at least the version we're using). Lack of support for Firefox in Chrome OS makes the Cr-48 useless to me for filing news stories. And that's a shame because I'd far rather tote a Chrome OS netbook around than laptop that weighs twice as much.

I also use Safari because, at least for me, Chrome doesn't work well with iTunes Connect, the Web site Apple uses to provide iOS developers with metrics related to their apps.

I suspect future versions of Chrome OS will allow more browser choice. Microsoft already tried insisting that Internet Explorer was inseparable from Windows and that didn't work out so well.

Google Chrome OS Promises Computing Without Pain

Google Chrome OS Promises Computing Without Pain

(click image for larger view)
Slideshow: Google Chrome OS Promises Computing Without Pain

Chrome OS is remarkably stable for a preview release and is well served by Google's Chrome Web Store. Its ability to synchronize bookmarks and apps makes your window into the cloud the same, whether you log in from home, the office, or a public computer.

But it's strange to use. I kept wanting to move the cursor into the corner to hide the Chrome window and expose the Finder. Doubtless such habits will disappear in time. But at the moment, I remain unconvinced that "nothing but the Web," as Google has described Chrome OS, is enough for those who expect more.

I ran into one problem trying to get my Cr-48 to connect to InformationWeek's WiFi guest network: After authenticating though a login page, I was told to close the browser and relaunch it to connect. That's not possible with Chrome OS. Like Denny's, the Chrome browser is always open.

To my surprise, printing through Google Cloud Print worked, once I installed the recommended software on my Windows XP laptop.

Chrome OS has a long way to go in terms of working with external devices. Expect device connection issues to persist until products that can connect to the cloud become dominant in the market.

Chrome OS netbooks may be best suited to environments where controlled computing is called for: in schools, in businesses, and in government agencies. School and IT administrators are sure to appreciate Chrome OS devices because they get updated automatically.

This is huge. If you maintain only one PC, perhaps you don't mind a few update sessions now and then. But many people have multiple devices to maintain and that can be a chore.

In my household, we have a Mac Pro, a MacBook Pro, two iPhones and two iPod touches for the kids, not to mention a recently added iPad. When Apple releases Mac OS updates or iOS updates, I know I'm going to be spending a lot of time installing the latest software. Even if that only entails going into the office and clicking "Okay" and "I Agree" several times, leaving, and returning later, the process is a pain. And that's just Apple's software. Adobe's process is similar, as it is for other software makers.

That doesn't happen in Chrome OS.

School and IT administrators are also sure to appreciate the security advantages of Chrome OS. While Chrome OS won't be impervious to attack, it presents a much smaller attack surface than Mac OS or Windows, one that's fortified with sandboxing technology designed to limit attempts to exploit plugins. Chrome OS can't be compromised by users' actions as easily as other operating systems.

My favorite feature of the Cr-48 is that it comes with both WiFi support and 3G networking support, in conjunction with a no-contract Verizon data plan. You get 100 MB of data free every month for two years, with additional data available at fairly reasonable rates. You may be able to use 100 MB fairly quickly but it's great to know that you can get online if necessary without being forced to pay every month just to guard against lack of WiFi availability.

Final Thoughts

Chrome OS is impressive and promising software. I expect I will be using it regularly in the future, though not exclusively. Google's engineers should be proud of what they've accomplished.

At the same time, Google's vision for the cloud is lacking. The cloud may be where computing is headed, but that doesn't mean users should be disempowered. For Chrome OS to actually displace Mac OS or Windows devices, Google or some other entity will have to find a way to give users control over, and ownership of, their data in the cloud.

The ease with which a user can lose access to his or her data in the cloud is appalling. Residents of the cloud can be evicted pretty much at the discretion of their service providing landlords. As recent events with Wikileaks demonstrate, cloud service providers can cut users off without judicial process. This doesn't happen in the financial cloud: Banks can't simply decide freeze your funds without due process and organizations can't simply deny you access to your funds by filing a DMCA takedown notice. Authorities can't enter your home and seize your property without just cause. Yet the cloud lacks such protections.

Until property and privacy rights in the cloud match those in your home or place of business, surrendering completely to the cloud presents more risk than is necessary. To truly have control over your data, you must possess a local storage device that contains the data. You may want remote backups too, in the cloud or at some other location. But the cloud alone is not enough.

Chrome OS promises "nothing but the Web." Demand more than that.

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About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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