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.
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.