One week with the Google Cr-48 Chrome OS notebook

I’ve been using Google’s Chrome OS based Cr-48 notebook for one week now, and while I consider myself lucky to have a tester unit, I have mixed feelings about the experience. I’ve tried to use the pilot program prototype as my primary computer, as I agreed to when applying for my own free netbook. I’ve found that the Cr-48 is great for leisure surfing, quick communication, and other regular low resource daily tasks, so it has been my primary device for free time computing. I’ve used it frequently for simple email composition, browsing Reddit, and catching up on news. However, it turns out to be ill-suited for my work, which requires a full-fledged laptop with local apps.

The Cr-48 is cool and useful for a number of reasons. It wakes from sleep and boots faster than any other computer I’ve ever owned. Because it runs a GNU/Linux OS with the Chrome browser essentially functioning as a UI, it’s ridiculously quick and easy to be up and running with a host of preferred tools loaded and ready to go (via Chrome’s “pinned tabs,” explained below) within 20 or 30 seconds of the time I hit that power button. The hardware is light, portable, and might represent what will be a very affordable product. In addition, because the Cr-48 stores all of your data in the cloud, this is about as close as we’ve come to a disposable computer. If not disposable, expendable. If a Chrome OS notebook gets crushed or stolen, you’re out a bit of money but haven’t lost anything of personal value. Google demonstrates:

On the other hand, the Cr-48 isn’t up to snuff for my daily work day, thanks to a subpar trackpad that delivers jumpy, imprecise control, a keyboard that’s impossible to see in the dark, and the inability to run smoothly with 25 tabs open. That last bit is an unfair demand; we’re talking about a 1.66GHz single-core processor and 2GB of RAM, not a top-of-the-line powerhouse. (See the full list of Cr-48 specs.) But because I start the work day watching videos and reading loads of news, the Cr-48 doesn’t cut it for me in the office. Needless to say that I can’t use it for editing videos, at least not with my current set up. Editing photos is possible thanks to web apps and dedicated sites, but those can’t replace my favorite free editor, The GIMP (those who already keep photos in the cloud–I don’t–will have a better experience). And the Cr-48 blogging experience simply can’t compare with bouncing around the WordPress Dashboard via the luxurious glass trackpad of my Mac.

Those are my daily demands, and they likely differ from yours. I’m also comparing two key interface elements–the keyboard and trackpad–to the gold standard for notebooks: the MacBook Pro. As I’ve mentioned before, the two machines are in different classes and the first Chrome OS note/netbooks we see on shelves (if we see them on shelves) should run a small fraction of the price of a new MBP. Still, it’s worth pointing out why the Cr-48 is a leisure/commuter machine in my book and not a workhorse, though economic enterprise applications are apparently a focus for Google.

With all of the disclaimers about what the Cr-48 is not out of the way, let’s take a look at what it is: a heck of a fun way to take care of non-mission critical tasks. The Cr-48 is basically there to run the Chrome browser. It has no installed apps and relies on the web apps and extensions found in the Chrome Web Store. You can get an accurate idea of what Chrome OS is like by downloading the Chrome browser and installing a few of these items, which are represented by icons–in the Chrome browser and in Chrome OS–any time you open a new tab:

Aside from this smorgasbord and any buttons you add to your toolbar via extensions, you’ve got two primary areas of control: the bug submission button (Chrome OS only), and the settings button, which has a little wrench on it. Up there, in the right hand corner. The actual settings panel shows up in the browser:

To open a web app, click on the icon and it will open in a new tab. Extensions provide a wide variety of features. Some enable functionality across a family of participating sites, like ex.fm, a cloud music player with a pop-up control panel:

Others provide that tiny app experience that you’re used to running Windows, Mac, or some other flavor of GNU/Linux. Here you can see my downloads window and a pop-up notepad window, always lurking at the bottom of my screen, ready to spring into action:

My favorite feature of Chrome OS can be had in the Chrome browser as well: pinned tabs. Without local apps, you might wonder how one prepares the Cr-48 for daily use. The answer? Turn it on. Chrome browser allows you to right click (two finger click) on tabs and pin them, meaning they will remain locked in position and auto-load the next time you fire up the machine. As soon as Chrome OS springs to life, it begins loading my pinned tabs: Gmail, Google Calendar, the weather, and a few other essential tools. New apps are turning up every day, and the Chrome OS experience gets more robust with each release.

After getting my pinned tabs set up, I realized that Chrome OS could satisfy most of my casual computing needs. But without a user interface to tweak, I found myself itching for some customization options. I like the dark, subdued look of the Cr-48′s body, and prefer my software tweaked to match. So, I installed an extension called Stylish and got to work hunting down user scripts over at UserStyles.org. Here’s a bit of what I see each time I log in to Google’s Chrome OS:

Google Reader:

Weather Forecast:

Remember the Milk (notice the spotlight over the fourth tab from the left, indicating an update):

Google Calendar:

Gmail:

And you can customize your entire Chrome experience as well, using themes from the web store or the smaller Chrome Themes Gallery.

Some of you might be wondering: if I can get this in the Chrome browser, why do I need a Chrome OS notebook? The most obvious answer is cost and connectivity. The Cr-48 may or may not represent an estimation of an actual Google Chrome OS notebook. But if all goes well for Chrome OS, we will likely see it turning up in low cost netbooks with 3G or 4G data. The pilot device is portable with great battery life at about eight hours of actual use, and is a great alternative to hauling around a much more expensive and fragile computer full of a decade’s worth of family photos.

Touting the benefits of this (presumably) budget machine, Google’s Cr-48 info page says, “What did we leave out? Spinning disks, caps-lock key, function keys, and lap burns.” This is true, and who can complain about a free SSD? But the Cr-48 is missing a few upgrades that I would consider essential for my adoption of the gadget for full-time use. Remember, the Cr-48 is a pilot program designed to troubleshoot and demonstrate the capabilities of Chrome OS. If Google likes the feedback they get, and OEMs like the pitch, we just might see Google’s new operating system running on several different notebooks within a year. Then again, the Cr-48 might be a one-off oddity in Google’s long list of experiments.

Any Chromebook (seems like an appropriate name) with a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding will need to be priced under $250 with a much better trackpad than we see on the Cr-48 and a backlit keyboard would be a major improvement. GPS wouldn’t be a bad idea either, though it would certainly affect battery life. Of course, the best tactic for getting Chrome OS into the hands of regular consumers would be carrier subsidies that bring the entry cost close to or at zero. The Cr-48 comes with Verizon CDMA 3G, and the first time you try to access anything without your established Wi-Fi connection intact you’re greeted by a VZW account setup page.

Verizon offers 100MB a month for free for the first 24 months. To go beyond this trickle, the user has the following, contract-free options:

$9.99 for unlimited daily use
$20.00 per month for 1GB
$35.00 per month for 3GB
$50.00 per month for 5GB

Without video and music, one can get a lot of work done for $20.00, and the hand off between Wi-Fi networks and 3G has been smooth for me thus far.

This is one of a few posts I’ll be writing on my thoughts about Chrome OS and the Cr-48. There will not be a complete review because the hardware is simply there to show off the OS and the OS is far from finished. I will be shooting some videos to demonstrate different features and functionality of the device as it is now, so be sure to leave a comment below with any request you may have. Also follow me on Twitter for links to impromptu UStream sessions where I answer your questions live via the Cr-48′s built-in cam. The video below was shot with 10 tabs open, some of which contained flash:

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