It has been about one year since Google released new Chromebooks, which are laptops running on Google’s Chrome OS, a Linux-based Operating system that revolves around one thing: the Chrome web browser. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, the idea is that every application that you run with Chrome OS is web-based (a website) and runs in the Chrome browser. Google fundamentally believes that this is a great alternative and a more secure way of computing because everything is inherently isolated, so there’s less chances that your computer may be compromised.
But this post is about the new hardware, the Samsung Series 5 550, a 12.1″ (1280×800) Chromebook that weighs 3.3lbs (1.48kg) and is powered by an Intel Core processor with 4GB of RAM. Obviously it as WIFI and Ethernet to connect to the Internet, and 3G is an option – one that you should truly consider as this is definitely a computer meant to be connected. At $449, this computer lands can’t be categorized as “cheap” as there are many options that offer a full classic computing based on Windows, which can itself run the Chrome Browser. But the first question is: how is it to use Chrome OS, one year later.
To give you some context, we found that the first generation of Chromebooks was not sufficiently fast. It felt like browsing the web on a Netbook, and the promise of good web browsing, which was at the center of just about everything was not fulfilled.
Fortunately, this second generation of Chromebooks performs much better, and web browsing is fast and comparable in every way to more expensive computers that we have in the office, like the Samsung Series 9 13″, or the Macbook Pro 11″ Gen 1. The promise of a good web experience is now fulfilled in a reasonable way.
Better user interface
Google has also updated the user interface, which looks more like a desktop environment, where “Apps” are sites or browser extensions. If you set the terminology aside, users are basically going to their favorite web destinations, and shortcuts are really more or less like bookmarks. It’s not new, but this provides an easy and familiar interface that most people should settle into fairly quickly.
The settings have been redesigned to look like the Android Tablet interface, with a dialog at the lower-right of the screen, which shows the most frequently accessed features like brightness, volume and WIFI (yes, this is a computer built to roam from one hotspot to another). If you want to tweak more advanced settings, a shortcut sends you into the Chrome browser settings and overall everything is simple, if not limited in choice. There are very few things to tweak.
I suspect that most people will use Google Docs for basic productivity tasks like spreadsheets or word processing. However, there are a number of alternatives, including Zoho. If you are a Microsoft Office user, you should know that the Office package for Windows does not have an equivalent in Google Chrome OS.
However, there is hope. I recommend you to look at the Word Web App on SkyDrive, this is like a free and (limited) online version of Word, and although it works very well and is much better than Google Docs for text formatting — except that no-one around me knows that it even exists, and that’s probably because Microsoft does such a horrible job at promoting it. The fact that the Office Division pulls about 30% of Microsoft’s revenues may have something to do with it… hum…
Also, if you need to simply open and read documents, Google has made things better by supporting more file formats. I lost track of what was supported last year, but popular files like .PDF .ZIP .RAR and many more are now supported and can be copied to and from via an SD card or a USB key. At the moment, a simple drag&drop copy option doesn’t exist if you want to copy files to/from Google Drive and a USB key. That’s a bummer, and hopefully Google will find a solution in the future. This may be for security reasons, but it’s a legitimate thing to do.
Because this is a web computer, you typically don’t connect a standard printer and install drivers as you would usually do. Instead, you have to use Google Cloud Print, but the catch is that you need 1/An Internet connection 2/ a printer compatible with Google Cloud Print. The situation will get better as newer printers come out, but chances are that your current printer may not be compatible with this service. Plus, some people can be annoyed by the fact that their documents has to go through the web, and back to the printer next to them. On the bright side, you can print to a third-party printer like a Fedex location for example.
While a web version of Skype is still at the rumor stage, Google does provide this functionality with Google Hang Out, a feature of the Google+ social network. Hang Outs offer very good video calls and screen sharing capabilities, in addition of free multi-party video calls, a paid feature on Skype. Obviously if you network is already signed up with Skype, it may be hard to convince them to go yet to another service, but chances are that they already have a Google account for GMail, so the jump may not be too hard. Honestly, we still use Skype, mostly because everyone is on it.
One doesn’t really think of these computers as “Entertainment” devices, but these days, they are capable of playing HD video without a problem (I tried a 1080p video from YouTube). Music should evidently not be a problem, except that you will have to host your library online. There are plenty of options from Google, Amazon and others. This should be easy.
As for games, I don’t consider that any web games would be the equivalent of Battlefield 3, but there are tons of casual games that are fun to play, and are often free or low-cost. That said, even 2D web games like Castleville can easily challenge this type of hardware , so just because it’s on the web, don’t assume that it is “light” computing.
For the few files that may be stored locally on the Chromebook, it is possible to copy them to Google Drive. The service is still in beta, and how to mount the Google Drive wasn’t very obvious, but this is an option if you want to dig into that.
It is fair to say that Google has vastly improved the Chromebook user experience. From a web standpoint, I find this new version to be much more usable and fast. It does fell like a “normal”, “decent” computer, and not like a cheap Netbook.
The web services and “apps” that Chrome OS rely on have evolved nicely as well. While I still find Google Cloud Print to be inconvenient, I think that Google Drive is a great storage option. I would like to see more third parties build a Chrome extension for their own web services. Google+ also plugs a few holes that can effectively make the absence of Skype livable. It’s not perfect, but that’s a real and efficient solution to audio and video chat for personal and professional activities.
Those improvements are very encouraging, but ultimately the question remains the same for now: can your computing activities reside only on the web? For some, the answer is “yes”, they live the “cloud life” and their data is already on the network, so that’s not a problem. For others, it’s “not yet” as they still want to install apps for Windows, Linux or Mac that they are familiar with or that they need. They also want to have fast access to massive amounts of storage.
What about you? Are the Chromebook bringing what you expect from the next-generation laptop and web services? Can you live without a lot of local storage? Tell the world by leaving a comment below.