Google, one of the biggest web companies, is dreaming about making the computing world to its own image. “The future is on the web”…”in a browser”, Google says. If you talk to Google’s Chrome team, you would sense a genuine belief about how cloud computing should (or will) dominate in the long term. Obviously, there’s also nothing strange in the fact that Google wants to bring the OS (operating system) fight, on its turf. This is basic strategy… which is extremely hard to execute. As early as last week, Eric Schmidt (Google’s CEO) was saying that the time for a Web OS is “now” – but is it? Now that we’ve got the Cr-48, (Google’s first Chrome OS laptop prototype) we have tested this vision of the future for you, and we’ll tell you what it can do for you – today.
First, if you don’t know what Google Chrome OS is, watch this video. That’s Google’s own pitch, but it’s better than flying in the dark.
Because the Google Cr-48 laptop is “just” a prototype (although a very cool one), that could, or not, represent real-life user experience, I found it more interesting to focus on the user experience instead of on the hardware itself. I’ll do a quick hardware summary because there are a few hardware requirements that need to be met by computer makers.
I looked at using this computer from a work, and casual usage perspective. With the multi-user feature, I also lent it to geeks and regular folks to get their feedback.
Google has a few hardware requirement that makes this PC a (tiny) bit different from other hardware out there. The only true unique hardware feature is the read-only memory where the core OS files are located This means that the core system is very hard to corrupt via software (malware, virus). This is essential to Google’s security strategy, you’ve got to know that the inner-ring is safe and expand the security bubble from there. Also, Google requires a cellular wireless data connection from OEMs.
- Processor: Atom N455, 1.66GHz, 512K Cache
- Chipset: Intel CG82NM10 PCH
- Ram: 2GB DDR3
- Read Only Memory: ITE IT8500E Flash ROM
- SSD Drive: 16GB SATA
- Wireless Wan: Qualcomm Gobi2000 PCI Express Mini Card
- 3G Adapter: AzureWave 802.11 a/b/g/n PCI-E Half MiniCard
- Bluetooth: Atheros AR5BBU12 Bluetooth V2.1 EDR
- One USB port
Fast Startup / Wake up / Shut down
The Linux kernel that sits below the Chrome Browser can boot in about 10 seconds. This is similar -or better- than many “mini Linux” distributions that are used as “instant boot” system (the usage of “instant” is pretty interesting) on the market. Google did make some real efforts here. After the boot sequence, you can log-in and it takes another second or two to get to the point where you can type a URL an browse the web. It’s fast, but tablets based on cellphone hardware can do that even faster.
When you re-open a sleepy computer, it will wake up fast
If you close the screen, and open it a bit later, the computer comes back to life in about 1 second or less, which is very fast for a laptop. The Macbook Air under Mac OS would be the closest thing to it, and it shows that legacy OS can do it too.
Overall, the web experience is very good and its quality simply depends on the computer’s performance.
Let’s start with the very basic stuff: this is a web computer, so how’s the web browsing? Well, it is actually very good. The browsing is (a bit) faster than on most Netbooks, but it is noticeably slower than on desktop computers equipped with faster processors. That’s the downside of choosing an Atom processor. Hopefully, the upside will turn out to be a low price and an extended battery life… With 5-6 browsing tabs on websites with Flash ads etc, the browser can hold its own and not crawl down to a halt. Open too many tabs and you might find yourself running out of memory.
The Cr-48 hardware is simply too slow to accomodate more than 480p
On YouTube, I can’t get anything other than 480p (low-definition) video, which is a bit of a bummer. You can forget about 720p, the hardware just isn’t fast enough. That said, the low-resolution videos played fine over WiFi.
Hulu, even in 360p or 480p was too slow. Ouch
On Hulu, my luck has ran out. The 360p videos there were not as smooth as on YouTube and while it wasn’t “terrible”, it the frame rate was low enough to be annoying. (15fps?)
For some bizarre reason, Netflix refused to log-me in although I was using the proper login/password that work on all the other computers. I don’t know if that’s just me, I’ll have to ask around to folks who are also testing this computer. Others have reported that Netflix doesn’t work for them, and I suspect that Silverlight-based video sites won’t work either (Silverlight is Microsoft’s equivalent of Flash).
Although a bit slow, web browsing should work fairly well (as well as on a Netbook), except that the sheer computing power at hand didn’t allow us to enjoy some web video sites. To be fair, this is not a “Chrome OS problem”, but if the Atom is part of the required specifications, then the low performance is part of the package.
Connectivity & Data Pricing
You have a couple of options to be connected. The obvious one is WiFi. Whether it is on your home network, at work or in a cafe, WiFi is the fastest way to connect to the internet using the Cr-48 laptop. (There’s no Ethernet port)
The second option is 3G. Google has included support for a 3G modem and it has worked out a pay as you go plan with Verizon that includes 100MB of monthly free bandwidth and you can buy additional bandwidth for $20 (1GB), $35 (3GB), $50 (5GB) or pay for unlimited data for $9.99 – per 24hours. It’s not “cheap” by any means -it’s even quite expensive- but for occasional users it’s cheaper than getting on a 2-year plan. Some users might even jump in for the first time.
There’s also Bluetooth, but I would rather use it to plug my wireless mouse to make
up for the single (sigh) USB port.
Read emails: if you use web-based email (yahoo.com, gmail, etc…), there’s no change at all. However, if you are used to an email client such as Outlook, Outlook Express and others – you will have to radically change your habits. Microsoft Exchange users usually have a webmail option, however people who download their emails on their computers (and delete them from the server) won’t be able to access (or sync) their email archives, which is located on their home computer. If you want to live on the cloud* with Chrome OS, you have to commit all the way.
*What the heck is the cloud? It’s the idea that your apps and data are on a remote server, always up to date and always backed-up (supposedly, at least). Your computer is just a terminal that accesses the information and is therefore expandable.
Just like email, if you use an online application like Google Docs (duh) to edit your documents, you’re in pretty good shape. Competitors include Zoho and others. Again if you are very accustomed to offline apps like Microsoft Word and other productivity suites that don’t exist online, the situation might become difficult. I was hoping that Microsoft’s Live Office would work on Chrome, but it relies heavily on Silverlight (Microsoft’s web run-time, which is a competitor for Flash), and workspace.office.live.com shows that Chrome isn’t supported.Too bad.
Open MS Office documents
That’s a question that I got from almost all the people who tried my Cr-48. I let them check emails and do some work… and at some point, they need to view a Word document or a Spreadsheet form a co-worker. Fair enough. If they are using GMail, there is a built-in converter that will open those documents in Google Docs (that’s a really great way to market G. Docs). However, if you’re on another mail service, you might be left in the cold. I tried using my Exchange Webmail to look at a Word documents, and although Chrome will download it, I can’t open the file because there’s no viewer.
If you want to print documents, you’ll have to have a computer with a Chrome Browser that supports Google Cloud Print (right now, it’s a developer version). Next, you can sign into Google Cloud Print. From there, Google should be able to relay data from any machine where you are logged-in with your Google account back to the Chrome Browser that is connected to the printer. If in beta form at the moment, but still, this is a step that 1/ most people don’t get 2/ requires yet another computer. The idea of going through the web and using a printer connected to another computer seems twisted when compared to plugging a USB cable and installing some drivers.
Web Store & Web Apps
Google knows that users want to use all kinds of applications, and it’s clear that websites can’t answer to all the needs. However, applications -not websites- running in the web browser “can” do a lot of things that users might want. Google even says that the browser “can” technically run host the same type of apps that we know today on Windows. It can, but does it? Not yet. First, there is a need for a place to find those apps, and that’s what the Web Store is about.
The Web Store looks a lot like Apple’s App store and you can browse per category – or search for an app. App Discovery is still a major choke point when it comes to apps, and you can be sure that Web Store developers will get pretty much the same issues they currently have on the Apple App Store. But this is a good starting point, so let’s take a look at a couple of apps.
SlideRocket in all its glory. Well designed, but it is so slow on this machine
SlideRocket: Slide Rocket is a very good looking presentation app that aims to be a PowerPoint replacement. It’s free (hard to criticize this) and has an excellent graphic design. it’s easy to use and quite good overall. However, the user interface is slow to react – it’s like having a very slow PC. True, the Cr-48 isn’t actually very fast, but I think that PowerPoint would still run faster than this. The good news is that processing speed will become good enough, one day. The bad news is that this is definitely not today – at least not on the Cr-48’s processor (SlideRocket works great on a 4-core 3.2GHz machine…). Oh, and SlideRocket crashed Flash when I left the computer unattended overnight.
HTML5 apps tend to be faster than Web Apps
If you want to see the same Web Store presentation we’ve seen, here it is:
One of the great things about Google Chrome OS is that the setup is extremely easy. We can’t take that away from Google. Because of its web nature and its relative simplicity, there’s not much to be done other than enter your Google account login and setup WiFi. Bizarrely, you can’t create a Google account during the Chrome OS setup phase.
It is also possible to log in with several accounts, each of which contains its own web history etc… There’s also a guest mode if you need to loan your computer to a friend so that he/she can check emails (this also exists on other OS, btw).
Google Chrome OS has been built with security in mind: the Read-only memory that contains the core system files cannot be tempered by a virus or malware. Someone would need to physically access your device to mess it up. This is an interesting foundation, but we wonder how long the core itself can remain without updates.
Google has built things so that code from apps have only access to a very limited set of resources. I’ll keep this short because it’s really geeky, but the idea is to restrict code execution outside of the normal context of an app to limit “holes” in the system when code is executed for malicious purposes. Often, this also helps to avoid even legitimate apps from crashing the whole system.
Updates (100% automated)
Often Windows system are attacked on known vulnerabilities because the computers have not had the latest updates installed (users often choose to skip updates by fear that they will screw things up). “Hackers don
‘t even have to work hard” Google says, “they just need to wait for the possible exploits to be found and attack machine that don’t have the update”. It’s true and it works. Google’s strategy is an mandatory update for all.
This works particularely well because Google Chrome doesn’t have the extensive hardware (and drivers) diversity that Windows has. However it is clear that Microsoft will eventually have to find a better way.
7+hrs in idle mode: idle mode with the screen ON, the Cr-48 can stay up for about 7hrs, this is kind of a best case hypothetical scenario, so treat it as a baseline.
0.6% battery/hr in sleep mode: that’s about the rate of battery depletion that we have experienced when we closed the lid of the laptop. It’s a rate that we have measured overnight, and while we can’t be 100% sure without measuring it, battery depletion is often linear so that’s about 1-week of sleep mode.
20% battery/hr Web video: we watched 480p movies in YouTube (no higher resolution was selectable), and for each our of video watched, the battery dropped by about 20%. This gives a theoretical (almost) 5hrs of web video.
Again, the Cr-48 is a prototype, and although Google could ask its partners to stick to these specifications, this might not represent all Chrome OS computers.
Google Chrome OS and the Cr-48 are very interesting to play with and to learn from (Microsoft should learn a thing or two as well), but the real question is: will they give you a meaningful computing experience? It’s either a hit or miss, and to be honest, it will be a miss for most people.
There’s no doubt that “the cloud”* brings a big set of benefits: it requires little storage on the client, all your devices are always looking at the latest data, there’s only one repository for your files, it’s backed up for you, etc etc…
However, the cloud is not convenient to manipulate large files (big photos, video files) and Chrome OS itself lacks a lot of features that most people take for granted: plug a USB key and nothing happens. Plug a camera and nothing happens. Plug a webcam nothing happens. There’s no Skype or Google video chat… (update: Although Gchat didn’t work for me, it did work for others) You get it: right now, a lot of things that are deemed “basic” by practically all users, are missing.
Of course, we are currently testing a “beta” product (beta = still in development), but there is a gamut of things that users, who don’t know (or don’t care) about what “the cloud” is, expect. Only time will tell how well Google will address these concerns, and if they can do it without making Chrome like Linux, Windows or Mac OS.
Fortunately, if you don’t know whether or not Chrome OS would be a good fit, there’s an easy way to find out: try living for a couple of weeks using no other applications than the Chrome browser, and web apps. Do it and you’ll find out if you’re ready to jump on the cloud or not. I haven’t met anyone who was ready. but drop a comment if you are, and tell us your story.
Ultimately, it’s simply hard (right now) to convince users to buy a computer that doesn’t have the option of running legacy software, or the option to connect accessories (like… printers). On the other hand, Windows, Mac and Linux machines with a Chrome browser can run anything Chrome-only computers can.
Chrome OS has some real benefits, wakes up faster etc… but let me ask: can’t we get it as a dual-boot option? It seems that -today- if it came down to a zero-sum game, Google would lose. The market will decide soon enough.
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