Tech Break: Google Cr-48 with Chrome OS

I am typing two of my three articles this week via web-based word processors not from Google. The reason? To test how well Google’s Chrome OS works as an alternative to desktop computing. The test was brought about by a package that showed up on my doorstep Tuesday; Google decided that I was worthy enough to be given the Cr-48, a test platform for their browser-based OS, Chrome OS.

Google’s Linux-based operating system is nothing if not simple. Customizations to the functionality of the system are limited; users cannot turn off-the rather finicky auto-adjustment of screen brightness, nor can they modify the timers after which the notebook turns off its screen or goes to sleep when idle. The positive side of this lack of customization is that a user can sit down at a Chrome OS machine – any Chrome OS machine – and know exactly what to expect. The other plus? Things generally “just work.”

Out of the box, the Cr-48 took several minutes to set up, mostly because it wanted to update its operating system before proceeding. Honestly, the machine took about the same amount of time to set up as a standard PC, as long as the user does not count the updates that the user needs to apply once a non-cloud-based computer is up and running. If the user does, Chrome OS wins, hands down. As an added benefit, updates after the initial ones are downloaded silently in the background and applied either when requested or when the system is restarted. Just like the Chrome browser, updates are indicated by a badge applied to the wrench icon in the upper right hand corner, which is a good balance between staying out of the way and letting people know that an important update is available.

One thing that is very easy on Chrome OS is adding users. Just select the Add User item on the login screen, enter the appropriate Google username and password, and hit OK. Ten seconds or so later, the new user will be browsing the web with his or her settings and accounts fully set up. Alternately, sign in as a guest to do some off-the-books web browsing.

One area where Chrome OS differs from the Chrome browser is what is in the area normally reserved for minimize, maximize, and close buttons. Chrome browser windows have the always fun full-screen, though multiple windows (and tabs) can be used to keep things organized. “Web Worker” mini-apps line up at the bottom of the screen along with system and web notifications so users can, for example, chat via Google Talk or take notes while viewing a web page other than Google Talk or Google Docs.

Getting back to the upper-right hand corner of the screen, users will find a clock, an Internet signal meter (WiFi, Verizon Wireless 3G, or 2G/3G of a non-Verizon carrier if you are willing to put in the effort), and a battery status meter. On the topic of 3G, the Cr-48 comes with 100MB of 3G access per month free for 24 months, with usage beyond that available for between $10 and $20 per gigabyte, with no contract, depending on how much is bought. In the battery life arena, the Cr-48 will survive for between six and eight hours as long as users are not trying to play HD videos with the system, with eight hours being more likely than six. This is thanks to Google, since they included a normal-sized battery (56 Watt-Hours) in a low-powered system.

This brings up the question of performance. The Cr-48 runs on an Intel Atom N455, coupled with 2GB of DDR3 memory and a rather zippy 16GB solid state drive. However, that only brings 1.66 GHz of single-core, netbook-class performance to bear. Nonetheless, the Cr-48 powers through most web browsing tasks with little in the way of hiccups, unlike many netbooks. It probably helps that the web browser is pretty much the only thing taking up the machine’s RAM. Boot-up and shutdown are particularly snappy; fourteen seconds brings the user from completely dark to at the login screen and from there, a few seconds gets the user to the browser. Waking from sleep is practically instantaneous, though WiFi and 3G take a few more seconds to reconnect. Shutdown happens in just a couple of seconds.

On the other hand, loading 12-megapixel photos from an SD card (the Cr-48 has an SD reader built in) is an exercise in exasperation, and Flash based websites, particularly video, tend to bog the system down. Watching standard-definition YouTube videos will be all right, but going much beyond that is not a good idea at this point. Hopefully, an upcoming upgrade to a dual-core Atom N550, plus software enhancements, can bring the Cr-48 up to the level of a well-oiled, high-powered Windows-based system. Realistically, it is great compared to Windows-based netbooks, especially those with users who insist on running Internet Explorer. One thing to be warned of, though, is that the touchpad on the system is a bit on the jumpy side at this point. An impending software fix seems likely.

Going beyond performance, the Cr-48 is distinctive. A computer covered in matte black soft-touch material is not common. That is not a bad thing, though; the system will not scratch like straight-plastic notebooks, and it appears to be built well enough. The Cr-48 is not small by any stretch; it is about the same size as a MacBook, if the MacBook had a 12.1-inch screen (which, incidentally, is an excellent size for a web browsing centric machine). However, the size allows for a decently-sized screen and a full-sized, albeit shallow, keyboard, and the machine’s weight is reasonable at 3.8 pounds. It is no MacBook Air, but it’s not $1000 either; a system like this would probably run in the $500-$600 range, with lower price points available without built-in 3G.
Lest people should think that the “web-book” has no external connectivity, I am typing this article on an external monitor with an external keyboard, navigating via an external mouse daisy-chained via the USB ports on my keyboard. All three peripherals worked perfectly with the Cr-48; no configuration or driver installation wait time was required. One caveat is that the Cr-48’s wired I/O consists of one USB port, an audio out jack, an SD card slot, and a VGA output, and that is it. On the wireless side, there is dual-band 802.11n, Bluetooth, and a multi-provider 3G module, so things sort of balance out.

In conclusion, the Cr-48 is by no means a fully-baked product – touchpad and brightness sensor issues confirm that. However, it is an excellent way to find out just how much can be done with just a web browser (and, actually, a very, very limited terminal that includes an SSH client). In that role, the Cr-48 excels. Viruses, premature low-battery warnings, lack of connectivity due to no WiFi, and hand cramps due to undersized keyboards just do not happen here. If that is the future of mobile computing – systems like this should arrive at retail within the year – count me in.

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