When I got home last night there was an unmarked box waiting for me. Uncertain of whether it was a gift for me, or a gift I bought for my family, I opened it carefully. I didn’t recognize the interior box, so I asked my wife to open it for me. Ten minutes later, she was still puzzling over what it was. So I came over and let out a yelp – It was a CR-48 – the Chrome OS reference notebook by Google.
I hurriedly unboxed it, and it’s understand why my partner was confused. This notebook is completely unmarked. There is not a single logo, lettering, or marking with the exception of the plain indications on the keyboard. The matte black body makes it look and feel like something out of an early William Gibson novel.
It took about two minutes to get the battery inserted, power cord plugged in, and about ten minutes to clear enough kids’ stuff away to find a space to put it down and play with it.
If you watched the Chrome OS press event last week, the startup and login experience is exactly as shown. It takes a second for the notebook to start up. On my particular model, the top quarter inch of the display flickers for about 15 seconds. I’m not sure if this is a screen warmup issue, or something else.
Using my typical web apps, such as Gmail, iGoogle, and Facebook, the notebook is speedy, and delivers an experience similar to Chrome on the Mac or Windows. The fonts are somewhat different, but pleasant. They seem to be optimize for good screen readability and compactness.
The experience slowed down a bit when I tried to use YouTube and Pandora. Pandora definitely worked, but it slowed down the machine. The flash player crashed a few times. (How about a native HTML5 app Pandora?)
The trackpad, as mentioned elsewhere, is a little wonky. Regular left clicks work fine, and tracking is pretty good most of the time. Right clicks and scrolling, both two fingered gestures, are hard to get to work. I find it works better if I separate my fingers slightly – whereas the Mac doesn’t need that. I find I use alt-click when I need to right-click.
The browser has crashed a half dozen times so far – it’s never happened during use of an existing tab, but it’s happened when opening new tabs.
The hardware itself has been admired by everyone who has seen it, even though the idea of the Chrome OS itself has been puzzling to about half the people who have seen it. “What advantage does this have over running Chrome on a regular PC?” is a question I’ve heard a few times.
I think the answer is that you don’t have the headaches of a regular PC. No OS updates to manage, no security holes, no complicated settings. Whether the long battery life (supposedly 8+ hours) is a function of the hardware or of efficiencies gained from doing away with a traditional OS, I don’t know.
Part of the deal with Google was promising to use this as my main computer. The biggest challenge is figuring out a web based replacement for Scrivener so I can continue working on my novel. I’ve used Google docs before, and it’s almost there. The main shortcoming is the difficulty of organizing the chapters and scenes. I almost imagine that this could be done as a layer on top of Google Docs, since individual documents could be used for each scene. Then I would need the ability to search across scenes, and compile the set of documents into a single .doc or .pdf for sharing.
Ultimately, this is the biggest challenge for Chrome OS: not whether the OS is stable enough or fast enough. Google can do that. The biggest challenge is whether browser apps can become good enough replacements for desktop apps. Microsoft Word has 15+ years of development behind it, and Google Docs has a couple of years. That’s a big different to make up.
Mobile apps have had the benefit that they’ve been focused on small, simple tasks. Useful mobile apps can be written in a weekend. Nobody expects to edit a novel on their phone, but they do expect to edit a novel on their computer. Can useful browser apps be written for the kinds of heavy duty tasks that people want to do?
I hope so, because I’m enjoying the CR-48 so far, and it’d be awesome to be able to make it work as my primary machine.