Why Google’s Chrome OS finally feels like an operating system


This product image shows the newly released Chromebook laptop computer from Samsung. The release of the next-generation Chromebooks will give Google and Samsung another opportunity to persuade consumers and businesses to buy an unconventional computer instead of machines running on familiar software by industry pioneers Microsoft and Apple. (Uncredited/AP)
May 30, 2012

2012 is the year of Chrome OS — or so we’re told. When we spoke with Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Chrome, he told us that this is the culmination of “a long, slow march” for Google’s cloud-based operating system. One iteration was about getting people to understand what Chrome OS is; another was about seeding it to developers and OEMs. Now, Pichai said, Google’s trying to take Chrome OS mainstream.

The company’s diving in with two new devices, both running a brand-new version of Chrome OS that’s been changed in a lot of important ways. There’s the Chromebook, the latest version of Samsung’s Series 5 laptop, and the Chromebox, a Series 3 desktop also from Samsung. Both feature the best specs we’ve seen yet from Chrome OS devices, though neither is particularly high-powered. Google’s also released the best version of Chrome OS yet, codenamed Aura — it feels more like a desktop operating system now, and Google promises huge improvements in speed, stability, and functionality. The company’s also launched Google Drive, which adds a key new feature — storage — to the Chrome OS equation.

Google and Chrome OS still face two huge questions. One, are we really ready for a computer that’s entirely on the internet? And two, can Google build an operating system with the right features and performance to get us there? We’ll try to answer both below, so read on.

Joshua Topolsky contributed to this review.

Chrome OS

The greatest compliment I can pay the latest revision of Chrome OS is that it finally feels like an operating system. Previous versions always felt like a lot of Chrome and not a lot of OS, as if the Chromebook was just a browser with a built-in keyboard. Everything’s still browser-based, but Google has clearly realized that people want an interface that feels more like Windows or Mac OS X, even if the Chrome OS vision is for something different.

Setting up your Chromebook or Chromebox is dead simple: turn the device on, log in with your Google account. That’s it. If you’ve enabled Chrome Sync, your bookmarks and apps will automatically be loaded onto your device, and either way you’ll be logged into all the Google services using the credentials you supplied at the beginning.

Of course, everything in Chrome OS still happens in a Chrome window, so the basic idea hasn’t changed much. But window management has been totally redone, and you can now manage Chrome apps and windows just as you would Windows or Mac apps. Tabs and windows can be moved around and re-sized, and there’s an Aero Snap-like feature that lets you drag a window over to the right or left edge and have it automatically resize to fill half the screen. Dragging a tab out to form its own window is simple, and setting up a dual-window, side-by-side workflow (which I use almost all the time) is a cinch.

Apps open in one of four ways: as a regular tab in the current window, as a pinned tab, as a full-screen chromeless window, or as a normal-sized chromeless window. The latter two are the important new additions: they let you open web apps that feel like native apps, with no address bar or browser toolbars. On my Mac, I typically run anywhere from four to ten Fluid instances at once — so I can quickly switch to my Gmail without thumbing through a dozen tabs, for instance. With Chrome OS, I can just right-click on the app’s icon and select “open as window” to achieve the exact same effect.

You move between windows using Alt-Tab, or using the function key with three overlapping squares on it. It’s a quick way to move between a couple of windows, but it breaks down if you have a lot of them open — you can only scroll forward or backward, so if you have 13 windows open you’ll have to flip through all of them in order to find the one you want. A feature like Expose, which lets you see all your windows at once, would be hugely helpful here.

The Chromebook also doesn’t seem to know it has a windowing system yet. The taskbar is a nice system and a clever way to access apps, but if you click on the Gmail icon when you already have a Gmail window open, it just launches another Gmail window rather than taking you to the already-open instance.

I was constantly reminded that Chrome OS “apps” are really still bookmarks, without some of the intelligence required for them to really run as native apps. When I have Rdio playing and want to watch a YouTube video, normally I just press the Play / Pause button and my Mac will pause Rdio. With Chrome OS I have to flip through my windows until I find the one with the Rdio tab open, click over to the right tab, pause Rdio, then go back to YouTube and play the video. Then, I have to go back to Rdio when the video’s done and start my music playing again. If you’re listening to local music files, there’s a small persistent player in the bottom right corner, but isn’t the whole point of the OS that you’ll do things like listen to music online?

Apps

The Chrome Web Store never really made sense to me in a desktop environment, but it’s incredibly important to the usefulness of Chrome OS. I mostly downloaded apps-as-bookmarks, which provide quick access to Rdio, or Gmail, or Evernote; those apps are the easiest way to get the Fluid-like apps installed. A handful of shortcuts to Google services come preinstalled, like Docs and YouTube, but there’s an app for almost any website you’d want to visit.

Then there are apps like Google Mail Checker, which add key functionality (in this case, desktop email notifications) to Chrome OS. There are a lot of these utilities, which add little bits of usefulness to the browser or help you do more without constantly switching windows, but they can be really hard to find. The signal to noise ratio in the Chrome Web Store skews heavily toward noise, and it’s often hard to figure out what an app does or whether or not it’s any good.

Printing is possible thanks to the Google Cloud Print Utility, though you’ll need one of a handful of “Cloud Ready” printers to make it work. Anyway, I can’t really imagine that you have significant printing needs if you’re willing to spend all your time in a browser window.

Offline files

Chrome OS is designed to be a totally online operating system, but Google does make a few concessions to the notion that you still have some files stored locally. There’s a stripped-down file manager and media player; both work well without much in the way of frills. Downloaded files are stored in a “Downloads” folder, and every drive you plug in shows up as its own folder. You can manage files pretty easily, though I’d rather just search — it’s a shame that there’s no way to search through a local drive, but apparently that’s just one more inducement to upload everything to Google Drive.

Speaking of Drive, Google’s working on implementing it into Chrome OS in a big way. The next version of Chrome OS, coming in just a few weeks, will have full Drive integration into the file manager so you’ll be able to manage everything from one spot no matter what drive it lives on. The feature is actually available in the Dev channel of Chrome OS, and it works impressively well — though are there some definite bugs with the new version. The biggest advantage of Drive integration is that everything’s in one place — your online files, local documents, and external drives are all accessible in the File Manager. You can also quickly copy things from local storage to Google Drive, which is handy.

There’s not much you can do with your Drive files offline except look at them, at least for now. The Docs team is also in the final stages of a seamless offline mode for Google Docs, which would be huge: offline support is currently the Achilles’ heel of the Chromebook, since there’s really not much you can get done without an internet connection. Offline Docs support and Drive integration would make the Chromebook a much more useful work companion.

A few apps currently work offline — signified by a lightning bolt underneath their listing in the Chrome Web Store — but they’re mostly games or Google apps. Performance didn’t seem to change whether I was online or off, though, which was a nice surprise.

Typekit

One of the most surprising things I noticed using Chrome OS was how many websites use font supplier Typekit to provide beautiful typography. We use it heavily here at The Verge, and a huge number of the sites I visit every day use it too. I know this because Chrome OS didn’t support Typekit, and a lot of sites I visit looked, well, terrible because of it. We told Google reps about the problem, and the company quickly whitelisted the OS for Typekit, so if you’re reading this on a Chromebook it should look as good as it does everywhere else. The fix requires publishers to republish Typekit onto their site, so the typographical experience is still a little hit-or-miss, but the internet should be beautiful again soon.

Life in a browser

The success of Chrome OS hinges on whether or not you can live and work inside a browser. Personally, I learned fairly definitively that I can’t — at least not yet. There are apps that I use every day, like Skype, that simply don’t exist in the world of the Chromebook. Other apps like Twitter, IRC, and Google Talk have web-based counterparts, but they’re far below the quality of native desktop apps.

I also do a lot of photo editing and uploading, which Chrome OS just isn’t suited for; there’s a photo editor, but if you want to do more than crop or rotate a photo, you’ll need a separate app. There are online photo editors — I used Aviary a lot while using the Chromebook — but they’re neither as powerful nor as usable as iPhoto or Lightroom.

I suspect I’m in the minority, though, and for most people Chrome OS would be totally sufficient. For email, document editing, and web browsing, the Chrome OS experience is at least as good as any desktop operating system — I’d rather use Gmail on the Chromebook than in Chrome on my Macbook Air. Once Google solves the offline problem —which it’s been promising to do since Chrome OS first debuted — Chrome OS could really be a compelling option for people who want a computer that’s not hard to figure out and doesn’t overwhelm you with options or apps.

Here I should also mention Chrome Remote Desktop Beta, Google’s way of comforting you with access to local apps while simultaneously weaning you off them. It’s basically a VNC client, letting you access another computer through a Chrome window. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to test the service, but VNC’s a pretty mature system and it should be a nice way to access a Windows or Mac computer if you feel the urge.

Samsung Series 5 Chromebook

Hardware/Design

The look and feel of the new Series 5 Chromebook isn’t changed much from the previous version. At 0.87 inches thick and 3.3 pounds it’s no ultrabook, but it’s certainly portable enough to go in a backpack, and at 11.4 x 8.4 inches it’s about the same size as last year’s Chromebook. Available only in a silvery plastic with a brushed-metal look, it’s very simple without being quite as sleek as the all-black Cr-48. The rounded lid has Samsung and Chrome logos, and there’s an “Intel Inside” logo on the right side of the touchpad. The chassis is much more oleophobic than the previous Series 5, and it doesn’t really pick up any fingerprints.

My only real complaint is that the color inconsistencies are so slight: the palmrest is a slightly different shade of silver from the rest of the front-facing body, and the back panel is yet another color. It occupies an odd middle ground between looking like a unibody laptop and having starkly contrasting colors, both of which I would have preferred to the shades-of-gray design. The Chromebook is well-made and fairly sturdy, though it doesn’t feel at all high-end because its parts are so clearly plastic.

The biggest change in the new Chromebook is the addition of some much-needed ports. Samsung added a second USB 2.0 port on the right side, and replaced the VGA connector on the left with a more versatile DisplayPort — the latter means you can connect the Chromebook to a display via HDMI, which is nice. There’s also a new full-size Gigabit ethernet port half-hidden underneath a cover on the left side that flips down to give you access. The 3.5mm headphone jack is on the left side, and there’s a full-size SD card slot on the right. At this point, the only unfortunate omission is a USB 3.0 port, but that’s a lot easier to do without than an Ethernet adapter.

There’s an HD webcam above the display, flanked by two LED status lights. The webcam looks good enough to be usable, but it reminds me of a phone’s front-facing camera: it’s exactly good enough for your face to be viewable for a video chat (or a Hangout, natch), and no better.

Display and speakers

Let me put this simply: matte displays are the best. I’d never even dream of taking my MacBook Air outside on a sunny day, because trying to see the glossy screen is an exercise in futility. The Chromebook, on the other hand, has a 12.1-inch, 1280 x 800 matte display that is completely usable outdoors. It’s a decent display, with accurate colors and impressive maximum brightness. The tradeoff with a matte display, of course, is that colors don’t look nearly as vivid as on a glossy display, and indeed everything on the Chromebook looks slightly muted. Horizontal viewing angles are fantastic, but vertically they’re pretty awful — tilt the screen at a slightly wrong angle, and you’re left with colors so washed out that it’s hard to look at.

Samsung moved the Series 5’s stereo speakers from the sides of the laptop to underneath the palmrest, where they sit slightly raised by the device’s feet, blasting sound downward. If the laptop is on a desk or table, sound diffuses nicely and at least gets loud enough to power your personal listening — there’s no bass to speak of, but sound is clean and fairly clear. If the laptop is on your lap or a soft surface like a bed, though, sound gets muffled to the point you can barely hear it. I’d definitely recommend a good set of headphones, no matter how you’re using the Chromebook.

Keyboard and touchpad

The Chrome OS keyboard hasn’t changed much from generation to generation, and the chiclet-style keyboard is as good as ever, with well-spaced square keys that offer good feedback and travel. The black keys themselves feel a little cheap, but they work well and I was used to using it in no time. Unfortunately, the keyboard still isn’t backlit, which led to a couple of serious tests of my touch-typing ability in dark rooms.

The keyboard layout is what’s really useful here, though. The 26 letter keys and 10 number keys are the same as ever, but everything else has been re-considered and many keys have been changed. There’s no function row — instead the keys are Chrome OS functions, like forward and back in the browser or to toggle full screen. Some of the icons are a bit inscrutable, but they’re really handy and the chosen functions were picked well. Caps Lock has been replaced with Search, which just opens a new tab and puts the cursor in the address bar. (You can re-map it back to Caps Lock, though, if you ever need to yell at someone on the internet.) The left-side Control and Alt buttons are enormous, which is again smart since those two are required for almost every typical Chrome shortcut, all of which work here as well.

I’ve come to expect terrible touchpads on non-Apple laptops — almost no one else has figured out how to make a good one — so I was pleasantly surprised by the Chromebook’s. The matte touchpad / clickpad is smooth and responsive, and since the whole pad clicks you’ll never be hunting for a mouse button. You right-click by tapping with two fingers, which I had to explain to everyone who used the Chromebook but works quite well once you know to do it. You also scroll by dragging two fingers up or down — similar explanation required, similarly useful feature. Scrolling’s still a bit stuttery and slow in Chrome itself, but that’s more of a software issue than a touchpad problem. By default, the trackpad’s a little slow, but fortunately you can change it to be extremely fast if you want.

If you don’t like the keyboard or mouse, you can always plug in an external device, but you’ll lose a lot of the function keys (that’s one of the unfortunate things about the Chromebox, that it doesn’t have a Chrome OS-friendly keyboard). There’s also no Bluetooth in the Chromebook, so an external mouse or keyboard will take up one of your precious USB ports.

Performance and battery life

General performance killed the appeal of the last Chromebook — it just couldn’t hold up under a heavy workload. The new Series 5 is powered by a 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Celeron 867 processor and 4GB of RAM, and though those aren’t exactly bleeding-edge specs they’re more than up to the task of powering Chrome OS. I frequently had Rdio playing in the background, three or four windows open totaling 20 or so tabs, and a handful of site-specific apps running, and the Chromebook never once slowed down. I never even had a tab crash, and I’m all too used to seeing the “this page crashed” frowny face on desktop browsers. The device is also really quiet — there’s a fan inside, but I only heard it if I put my ear right up to the computer.

I did eventually get the Chromebook to slow down and stutter a bit, but it required playing Angry Birds and Cargo Bridge simultaneously while streaming three YouTube videos and some Rdio music and having two dozen tabs open in the background. That’s not exactly a “real-world” scenario, and for anything like regular use, you shouldn’t run into any issue at all. Flash never crashed inside the browser, even on heavy sites like We Choose the Moon — Flash crashes constantly in Chrome on my Mac, and it’s almost strange how much better it is in Chrome OS.

Bastion is about as intensive a game as you’ll be able to play on Chrome OS, and it works perfectly. The game essentially populates as you go, and I never had a single stutter or skipped frame as I played the game. (Incidentally, I’m terrible at Bastion, but that’s not really Chrome OS’s fault.) Google told us over and over that the primary focus for this version of Chrome OS was speed, and boasts that the Chromebook is two to three times faster than the previous model. I have no trouble believing that. Unfortunately, a few games like From Dust aren’t playable at all thanks to the graphics card.

Likewise, the laptop played back local files, from music and 1080p movies to photos and documents, with nary a hiccup save for a frustrating “Send to Picasa” message that would override the play button every once in a while. That’s once again a credit to Chrome OS, which has come a long way in terms of power and stability — the Chromebook’s internals don’t scream “impressive!” but the devices runs seamlessly.

The most frustrating thing about the Chromebook’s performance is that it can’t power two screens at once — if you connect an external monitor, one screen will always be blank save for a “This screen intentionally left blank” message. I nearly always use two or more monitors, and while it’s nice that the Chromebook supports external displays, it’s disappointing that you can’t use more than one at a time.

Since the operating system is so light and the Chromebook runs on a 16GB SSD, boot and resume times are absolutely insane. The Chromebook goes from completely off to connected to Wi-Fi in about six seconds (plus the time it takes to enter your Google password), and will resume from sleep in two seconds flat. The latter continually amazed me: I’d open the computer up, and like magic my music would instantly start playing and my windows would be right there as if the computer had never gone to sleep.

A light OS also makes for long battery life, as does the Celeron processor, an ultra-low power Sandy Bridge chip. As I’ve mentioned before, I used the Chromebook heavily, and I consistently got about seven hours of use before the battery died. On the Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of websites and high-res images with the screen brightness at 65 percent, it lasted seven hours and 10 minutes; that’s a very good score, and given that the whole Chrome OS experience is about loading websites, it’s an excellent indication of real-world use. It’s not quite up to Google’s promises of all-day battery life, though.

The Chromebook starts at $449, but for $549 you can get a Verizon Wireless radio built into the device, plus 100MB of free data a month. You’ll burn through 100MB in a hurry, and it’s only a 3G connection, but it’s a pretty handy thing to have in a pinch. You connect to Verizon like you would any other Wi-Fi network; there’s a brief setup period the first time you connect, and you’re forced to set up an account, but every time after it’s pretty seamless. You’re prompted to get more data when you’re about to run out, and if you’re in need of a quick connection you can get 24 hours of unlimited data for $9.99, which is really handy in a pinch.

Chromebox

The Chromebox was initially revealed at CES, and the device is now coming out as the desktop companion to the Chromebook. As soon as you take it out of the box, you’ll immediately think of the Mac Mini. A short, light square 7.6 inches wide and long 1.3 inches tall, and 1.8 pounds, it’s larger than Apple’s cheapest computer, but the $329 Chromebox can still slide unnoticed into a drawer, and there’s basically nothing to it but a bunch of ports and a power button. Inside, though, lives the same OS as on the Chromebook. You’ll need to supply a monitor, keyboard and mouse; I used a Logitech mouse and an Apple wireless keyboard, plus a 22-inch Samsung monitor. (Google says the Chromebox can power screens “up to 30 inches,” but I also tried it on a 60-inch Samsung HDTV and it worked just fine.)

“So many USB ports!” That was the first thing out of the mouth of nearly everyone I showed the Chromebox, and with good reason. The device has two USB ports on the front, and four more on the back. For that reason alone, the Chromebox makes for a solid home theater PC — just pop in all your hard drives, connect a mouse and keyboard, and play back anything and everything. Given that there’s only 16GB of internal storage on the device anyway, you’ll likely want to keep an extra drive handy.

There’s also a 3.5mm headphone jack on the front, and two DisplayPorts, a DVI port, and an ethernet port on the back (Wi-Fi is built in, too). That’s a lot of ports, but there’s no VGA or HDMI port, which is really odd; I had to buy a separate cable to connect the Chromebox to my TV’s HDMI inputs. There’s also a three-pronged power port, and the adapter (no brick necessary, fortunately) comes in the box.

Powered by a 1.9GHz Intel Celeron B840 processor and 4GB of RAM, the Chromebox performs remarkably well, though that’s something of a theme in the new round of Chromebooks — the hardware was previously unable to keep up and the OS itself had some issues, but things are much more fluid now. It boots in about six seconds, and you’ll be online in under ten; it took me a little longer than that, only because my Google password is long and complicated.

The Chromebox’s general performance mirrors the Chromebook. It’s very fast and very stable, and I never encountered a crash or slowdown except when I specifically engineered the situation to work a computer as hard as possible, in a use case you’ll likely never encounter. Flash sites work well, games are fluid, and I never once had a tab or window crash.

Since your mouse and keyboard are going to come from somewhere other than Google, you’re not going to get all the Chrome-friendly tricks and keys. Most are still mapped the same — you just have to remember that the Windows key opens a new tab, and F5 switches between open windows. The one that’s not mappable is Caps Lock — try as I might, I was never able to get Caps Lock to become the Search button, which adds a couple of steps to every query. Likewise, the shortcut to open the apps list never mapped itself, so I always had to click on the nine-squared icon. Where the Chromebook feels like a cohesive piece where software and hardware were made for one another, the Chromebox feels more hacked together.

Google or Samsung could of course fix this problem by releasing an external keyboard and mouse combo for the Chromebox, and the manual actually alludes to the existence of that combo, but the additional expense could be hard to justify when you probably have a mouse and keyboard lying around your house.

Wrap-up

The last version of the Chromebook simply didn’t feel finished. The hardware wasn’t able to keep up with any kind of heavy use, and the software didn’t feel optimized. This time around, Google has ironed out nearly every kink: there are virtually no performance or stability issues, and the only way to give the OS problems is to work really hard to do so.

The Chromebook’s hardware still feels a bit lackluster. The build quality and display are adequate without being anything special, and I prefer some of the design touches from the last-generation Chromebook. For the $449 price, though, you can get a pretty good Windows laptop, so you have to consider the tradeoffs. The Chromebook has great battery life, solid performance, and fantastic start-up time, but Windows still offers a world of apps and use cases that Chrome OS can’t match.

Google is closer than ever to convincing the world that we can live online, that we can do away with the old hard drives and local apps and spend our lives on the web. If you’re shopping for a dead-simple computer to use as a secondary machine or to give to someone with only basic computer needs, the latest Chrome OS machines are worth a long look.

But can it be your primary computer, your productivity workhouse and your entertainment machine? I’m not so sure. Not yet, anyway.

This article was originally published on theverge.com - New Samsung Chromebook & Chromebox review: Chrome OS grows up

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