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Chrome OS and the CR-48

posted Mar 6, 2011, 6:12 AM by Chris Temples
I've had the CR-48 since December last year.  I finally think I've had it enough to write a real review of it.  The short version is I love it.  The speed of which it boots up the minimal interface is very nice.
To start I will talk about the hardware.  Yes I know that it's only there to show off the OS, but I feel that the hardware will have a effect on how the OS works.  The overall feel of the system is amazing.  I love the black color, and the shape of the laptop.  The feel of the laptop is very nice as well a soft touch plastic, it is very similar to the DSi.  The keyboard is OK. While it is a full size keyboard, I have never had any problems with smaller keyboards, so that doesn't really matter to me.  They keys seem to be your standard laptop keys.  As everyone knows they removed the caps lock key and the function keys, yay?  I never used either so not having them has no effect on me.  What they replaced them with are as follows:  a forward and backward key, reload, full screen, alt+tab, brightness up and down, mute, and volume up and down.  For a laptop especially one based on chrome these new keys make a lot of sense.   They also removed the home, end, page up and down and delete key.  Thankfully they replaced them with shortcuts.  The other nice choice on Google's part was to make the left ctrl and alt keys extra large.  This makes them very easy to hit.  They also made the right side ctrl and alt keys a lot smaller, but as I never use those it's not a big loss.  The arrow keys are in a odd arrangement as well.  The left and right are extra large but the up and down are very small and stacked in between the up and down keys.  Both the up and down keys combined are the same size as one of the left or right keys.  Not sure why this arrangement was chosen but other then a random up instead of a down, the layout hasn't caused a lot of issues.  Moving on to the mouse, I never had as many issues as all the other users seems to have had.  My problems revolved around right clicking, and the cursor randomly moving to a new location when typing.  The right clicking could usually be resolved by taping with my fingers spread farther apart.  I have yet to figure out why the cursor jumps around sometimes. I figure it's the gremlins.  The one USB port has only ever gotten use as a way to tether it to my Droid.  As the SD card or USB aren't officially supported yet I hiave yet to test that out.  I have gotten a chance to test the VGA port however.  It was a interesting experience.  There wasn't any configuration or options, just plug it in and now you are cloning the display.  I plugged it into a 21" Dell and it worked reasonably well giving the video card is a integrated one.  As far as the speakers go they are situated on the left and right front corners.  This creates a stereo effect where moving your head slightly to one side causes the sound to change.  The speakers are what would be expected on a low end netbook. The speed and power of the CR-48 was never an issue for me until I tried to watch streaming video.  It is slow, laggy and just plain bad.  Now this could be due to flash not being optimized or just a crappy CPU.  Either way it needs to be fixed before Chrome OS makes it to market.  The webcam and mic are pretty standard and work reasonably well.  The last thing about the hardware is the battery life.  The battery life can be summed up as Amazing!  Charge it once in the morning use it all day and there is even some juice left the next day.  I am easily getting a full days worth of use on a single charge.  Overall I really like the hardware, there are areas that need work but that's pretty standard on anything. 
Moving on to the real review, the actual OS.  As an avid Chrome user I felt right at home.  It really is just chrome on a computer.  There isn't any start menu or program list, just tabs.  There are the same settings as on Chrome to control the search engines, new tap page etc.  The only main change is the addition to adjust the time and control how users log in.  One neat feature is the ability to add a guest account.  This is just a incognito tab that allows anyone to use the system without messing with any of the other users data.  Since it's an incognito tab  once they log out the owner can't look at what they were on either.  While you can have multiple users registered with the system you can only have one logged in at a time.  This can create issues if one user has some tabs open and another user wants to log in.  Chrome OS will recover the tabs but it would have been nicer to not have to worry about losing work.  One nice this is multiple windows can be opened.  This makes it really easy to organize whatever is being worked on.  The annoying part is your never know what other windows are open since only the main one can be see at a time.  It's easy enough to hit atl+tab or the shortcut key to cycle though them, but still would be nice to see what is open without having to do guess and check method. One of the nice hidden gems is if ctrl+atl+/ is hit a on screen keyboard will pop up and shows all the possible shortcut options.  This is very useful especially since they pulled the home, end an delete keys, as mentioned above.  As mentioned above unless I am watching video the browsing experience is very nice.  The pages load fast enough for me and are responsive enough.  I have heard people complaining about the loading speed and responsiveness of pages.  While it doesn't bother me I can understand why it might bother other people.  Since there isn't a task bar ChromeOS's answer is something called panels.  These are little windows that sit on the bottom of the screen, can can be popped up and interacted with.  GTalk is a good example, since chat would be something the user would want to access regardless of what tab they were on making it a panel is a great idea.  The panels stay at the bottom of the screen no matter what window is open at the time.  To make them pop up just mouse over them.  The only problem is right now it's very hard to know if a panel has a new message or not.  If I missed the instant message sound then the only way I would know there is a new message would be to manually check.  This defeats the purpose of the panels.  Media playback is a hit or miss experience.  There is the doc media player and a flag to enable a media player, but I found the best way was to either use a streaming service like Slacker or Grooveshark, or set up a home PC and put Audiogalaxy or Orb and stream it that way.  I haven't tried to do a lot of movie watching but might have to just to see how bad of an experience it is.  One other annoyance is how ChromeOS handles downloads.  Since there isn't a real file manger files just get dumped somewhere on the system.  I have no real idea where it is located, but since this is really web only device not a lost by this.  Another example of the clash between cloud and local is when trying to view a document.  Sometimes ChromeOS will be nice an try and open the doc with Google Docs other times I have to save it to my hdd and then upload it docs before I can read it.  This is annoying and will confuse the average user.  PDFs are a little easier since Chrome has a built in PDF reader but depending on how the site is set up more issues can arise.  Blackboard is a good example of this, when I try to view a document on Blackbaord ChromeOS will try and open it in Docs but since my docs account isn't my Blackboard account, Docs can't open it since it doesn't have permission.  This forces me to try and convince Blackboard to open the file up in a new tab, so I can save it and upload it to Docs.  It took me a good 30 mins to figure out how to get around this problem.  This will cause problems for the average consumer, but I am not sure what the fix is either.  Most likely it will require ChromeOS to change how it handles documents.  One other major lacking of ChromeOS is the lack of Java.  Yes Javascript is sported but without Java there are a lot of sites that simply don't work. The Android App inventor and for example. This brings up the bigger issue of plug-ins.  Unless ChromeOS makes it easy to support these there will be some sites that won't work and this will derail some of Google's plans.

A few notes
One thing about ChromeOS is right now no internet means your CR-48 is useless.  There aren't really any "apps" offline this includes the Google Suite, of docs, gmail, and calendar.  If Google wants this to be a mainstream OS it needs to have some sort of offline capability.  Yes wifi is all over the place, but there are some places where wifi won't be, my work for example.  I know this will be fixed in the future I just hope it's sooner rather then later.  As far as traveling goes traveling with the CR-48 is a very pleasant experience, as long as there is wifi present.  The battery life is great and the CR-48 is light and portable.  Since all the data is in the cloud there isn't any worry about not having the right file etc.  I am looking forward to taking my CR-48 to Google I/O this year to see how well it really does on travel.  
ChromeOS has some oddities but that is to be expected in a radically new OS.  The OS isn't quite ready for the average user but it is getting close.  Once the video playback and file issues are resolved I do think that ChromeOS could easily be people's primary PC. Until then it will have to be the relegated to the same spot as netbooks.