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.
Google Chrome OS Promises Computing Without Pain
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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.