On The Road With Cr-48: The Chrome Notebook Is Both Shiny And Tarnished

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Maybe There is Hope for Silicon Valley (and the World) After All

Every piece of technology has both good and bad attributes. Nothing is perfect. Not even the iPhone. (Well, at least not until that AT&T exclusivity ends.) But until three days ago, I had never used a product with attributes that are both insanely awesome and shockingly awful at the same time. Welcome into the world, Cr-48.

Now, Google has made it very clear that they don’t intend to release this product as it stands. As such, they’ve more or less asked those they’ve sent it to not to review it as a completed product. But it’s pretty much impossible to avoid talking about the hardware here because for most of us, it is the first and only gateway we’ve had into Chrome OS. Plus, there’s a lot of interest in this particular device among our readers, so I’m going to talk about it.

Simply put: the hardware is pretty bad. Actually, maybe not so much bad, as annoying as all hell. But the only reason it’s so annoying is because Chrome OS, even in its very early, fairly rough stage, is that good. Well, potentially that good.

While Jason wrote up his initial thoughts after a day with the device, I’ve been using it as my primary machine for just about three days now. Also, I likely have a different perspective as I’m currently traveling — something which a Chrome notebook should be perfect for.

The Design

Initially, when I took it out of the box, I sort of wanted to laugh at the Cr-48. Jason compared its look to that of one of the old 12-inch PowerBook G4s. But actually, I think it’s closer to a combination of an old 12-inch iBook and one of the previous generation MacBooks — the one that came in black. In fact, when you open it up and start typing on it, it feels very similar to that MacBook.

Of course, that MacBook is also a few years old already. And when compared to the new MacBook Air, this thing looks like a bloated dog. One covered in some kind of rubber blanket. The fact that it has a VGA port, an ugly side grill for the fan, and yet only one USB port, doesn’t help.

But again, this is a prototype device. So we have to cut Google some slack here. As far as I know, they haven’t said which of their manufacturing partners made this thing, but let’s hope it was the cheapest device possible for them to produce and that’s why it exists as it does.

I really do hope that’s the case.

The Setup

Okay, so I took it out of the box and laughed. But then I opened the lid. Immediately, the thing booted up. No need to press the power button. 15 seconds later, it was walking me through a very easy-to-understand tutorial on how to use Chrome OS. After a few minutes reading it, I was asked to take a picture of myself (for my profile picture) with the built-in camera (above the screen), then I was all ready to go. That’s it.

I signed in with my Google account, and the browser launched. My bookmarks, extensions, and web apps were all automatically synced. I was ready to go pretty much instantly.

Now I was impressed. Very impressed. This is absolutely the future of computer set-ups.

The Trackpad

But the love affair quickly turned sour when I started using the Cr-48 trackpad. Jason called it a “turd”, but I think that’s being too kind. It’s maybe the worst excuse for a piece of technology that anyone has created in the past five years. It’s so much worse than any other trackpad I’ve ever used in recent memory, it’s almost unbelievable. Those bug reports from a few weeks ago make sense now.

And it also makes sense why Google isn’t selling the Cr-48 at all, despite the high demand. If they sold this product with this trackpad, Google may not be allowed to ever attempt to make another branded product ever again. If you think I’m exaggerating, use one.

Every time I point at something and click down, the cursor moves below or above where I had originally pointed. I’ve now taught myself to aim slightly higher or lower than where I want to click. But I have to guess which it will be. It’s a crapshoot.

Trying to double click with two fingers is even worse. If you’re used to casually doing it with ease on a MacBook, this will be your hell. To get it to work, you essentially have to lift two fingers about a foot in the air, then bring them down in a perfectly straight line at a rapid speed while making sure that they both hit the pad at the exact same time. Okay, I may be exaggerating a bit there, but it’s really bad.

Two finger scrolling? It’s perfect if you like randomly jumping to various parts of webpages for no reason.

Okay, I’ve made my point. This trackpad is a disgrace. It’s an abomination. I don’t know if it’s hardware or software or both (likely), but it’s just terrible. I’m tempted to do the unthinkable: buy a mouse.

The Keyboard

Moving on. So, the trackpad quickly soured my Chrome OS experience. But after I figured out little tricks to better maneuver (mainly using the excellent keyboard and its shortcuts), I was back on track. After a day, I was frustrated. But after two days, I was really, really liking Chrome OS. And even certain things about the Cr-48 specifically.

For example, every computer should absolutely have a search button in place of caps lock. I can’t remember the last time I’ve used caps lock. And yet, there it is, right there in a vital place on the keyboard. On the Cr-48, I think the search button rivals the spacebar for my most-often-hit key. You click it and it launches a new tab reach to search away in the omnibox. It’s fantastic.

Also awesome are the window-switching and full screen mode buttons on the Cr-48. OS X, with Spaces, essentially allows you to do this type of window-switching, but I’d argue that it’s better on Chrome OS because everything is simplified. If you want to open a new window (as opposed to a new tab), it will reside on another screen. That said, it is a little tricky to navigate if you have more than two windows open — hitting the button will cycle through them in order.

Full screen mode has existed on Chrome for some time, but the keyboard shortcut makes it more accessible than ever before. And on smaller screens (like the 12-inch on on the Cr-48), it’s very nice.

The Speed

Speed is the other major weakness of the Cr-48. It’s running an Intel Atom chip which is apparently clocked at 1.66 GHz. That may seem like it would be fast enough to run a web browser, but it’s not. Well, not if you’re doing anything with Flash turned on.

When we initially reported on the Flash issues that Cr-48 users were having, many of our favorite commenters (who may or may not make a living developing for Flash) were quick with the typical “bias!” nonsense. Of course, a few hours later, none other than Adobe themselves admitted the performance of Flash on the Cr-48 was unacceptable, and said they were working on it.

Good, because beyond watching a small YouTube clip with no other tabs open, Flash is basically unusable on the Cr-48. And that’s annoying because Google has decided to bake Flash into not only Chrome, but Chrome OS as well. So extensions like Flash Block are your friend here — or go to about:plugins and disable Flash directly until Adobe gets the mess sorted out.

But even beyond Flash, the Cr-48 just feels very slow when compared to any other modern computer. Typing, for example, often lags on sites such as WordPress (which I’m using right now). And opening new tabs and windows takes a few seconds longer than it would on a normal machine.

All of this is would seem to be because Google included only 2 GB of RAM in the Cr-48. But I have a MacBook Air with only 2 GB of RAM and it flies. Google really needs to work with their OEM partners to get this lag sorted out before these Chrome notebooks start shipping. And I have to believe they will.

Beyond Prototype

In fact, in many ways, the Cr-48 reminds me a lot of the G1, the first Android phone Google shipped (with HTC) a couple years ago. They both were clearly step one of a platform that would quickly evolve. And the Cr-48 even sort of feels like the G1 to the touch.

I still have a G1. Looking at it now compared to the newer Android phones is pretty humorous. The platform has clearly come a long way. And that gives me a lot of hope for Chrome notebooks as well.

As it stands now, two things about this the Cr-48 currently standout: the boot-up time and the battery life. Both are excellent.

The Cr-48 goes from being off to the log-in screen in 15 seconds. That’s slightly above Google’s stated 10 second mark, but it’s still very, very good. When you log-in, it takes another 15 seconds or so to load all your profile information and Chrome preferences from the web. So you’re looking at a total time from zero to working in 30 seconds.

For comparison, the new MacBook Air, with its new solid state drives, goes from zero to working in about 18 seconds. But that’s without booting up Chrome (or your web browser of choice on OS X) and waiting for it to load a page. That adds another 5 seconds or so. So they’re very close in terms of startup speed between the two systems. And again, that’s on Google’s prototype machine.

But as I indicated above, the Air runs circles around the Cr-48 in just about everything else when it comes to performance.

The one area where the Cr-48 does seem to have the MacBook Air beat is battery life. Google claims 8 hours, but I think it actually may be more. Because I’m in Europe, I turned off the cellular antenna (since Verizon connectivity obviously won’t work here) and I’m seeing closer to 10 hours of battery life on a full charge when connected to WiFi. The MacBook Air has fantastic battery life as well, but Cr-48 is definitely better.

And again, just imagine what that will mean when someone actually creates a Chrome notebook that they intend to sell. The Cr-48 is a little bit bulky, but if they trim it down to around Air size, I bet they could still get at least a solid 7 or more hours out of the system. This seems to be one huge benefit of only running a browser.

Chrome OS

And let’s finally talk about that browser. Quite a few people were shocked when Chrome OS was revealed to be little more than Chrome — and that’s it. But that simplicity is the OS’s strength. It removes several layers of junk that most people these days never use on a computer.

I know that personally, roughly 95 percent of what I do on a computer these days is in the web browser. Of the other 5 percent, 4 percent of it could probably be done in the browser too (light image editing, taking notes, etc). The other one percent is more difficult but those are mainly things (iTunes media management, Photoshop) that I only need to do some of the time and can use a desktop machine for.

That’s the thing: Chrome OS isn’t going to fully replace anyone’s desktop anytime soon. But it could become a very viable on-the-go computing solution.

Even in its current beta state, Chrome OS has definitely been a perfectly adequate travel companion these past three days (Cr-48 trackpad aside). And it’s only going to get better. And if Chrome’s (the browser) evolution is any indication, it’s going to get better very quickly.

Panels

As Jason hit on quite a bit in his post, one of the most interesting things about Chrome OS will be how developers support it. Right now, most Chrome Web Store apps are little more than mildly glorified extensions, or just links to web apps already in existence. Meanwhile, one of the coolest features of Chrome OS, panels, are barely used. Developers can and should change this quickly.

Prettification

Another thing that bugs me about the OS currently is that Google seems determined to maintain some of Windows awful aesthetics. More directly: fonts look like shit.

Chrome on Mac easily looks much better than Chrome OS does for this very reason. Hopefully Google will add some polish here as Chrome OS pushes forward.

Also, the look and feel of the top toolbar (the area to the right of the tabs) is pretty poor. Google could and should do a much better job here.

And while we’re on the subject, Chrome’s already dicey themes all look even worse with Chrome OS. Google should just stick to some simple color options and leave out all the BS. No, I don’t want my Chrome OS to look like an ice cream cake any more than I wanted Windows to look like a hot dog stand. But that, of course, is just my opinion.

Connectivity

The biggest factor holding up Chrome OS is mostly out of Google’s control: WiFi infrastructure. While WiFi is fairly widespread, it’s far from everywhere. And Chrome OS is worthless without connectivity. I mean, it’s completely and utterly useless.

That’s exactly why Google teamed up with Verizon to offer back-up 3G connectivity. But beyond the paltry 100 MB they give you for free each month, that type of connection can get expensive quickly just to be able to simply use your computer.

Further, many deals will have to be worked out in various different countries for that level of connectivity. That’s why my Cr-48 isn’t fully travel-ready here in Europe, for example (there is no Verizon here).

So what happens when you boot up your Chrome notebook without a connection? Well, you get an error — a very confusing one. This has happened to me a few times in the past few days. I boot up the computer, enter my password, and it says there’s a problem with my password. Only that’s not true. It’s just that I’m not connected to the network, so it can’t verify my password (Google really needs to change the wording there).

The problem here is that if you’re on a network with a password, you have to log-in to Chrome OS as a guest, connect to the network and entire the password, then log out and log back in to your Google account. A pain. And something that a lot of users are going to experience again and again.

The Connected Computer

So while Google CEO Eric Schmidt says the world is now ready for Chrome OS, I think we’re still at least a year — and maybe a few years — away from this type of system being viable for most average consumers. But I think it’s fantastic that Google is willing to go out on a limb now to help the transition along.

Of course, the payoff for them looks be huge if they lead this new era of computing. And the risk is fairly minimal. Even if Chrome OS takes a while to take off, Google has more than enough capital to keep the project going for a long time — just like they did with Android at first.

In many ways, smartphones have and will continue to help us with this transition. The assumption of always having a connection to the web is now built into most of our daily lives. What good is a smartphone when you’re not connected? Maybe just for playing some games. Computers will eventually be the same way. Until games are fully online as well — something which the Chrome Web Store is trying to make happen.

I don’t think anyone disagrees that computers that are always connected to the Internet are the future, it’s just that Google is taking it to the extreme right now with these machines. It’s Internet or nothing. It’s bold.

Price

While Google hasn’t yet stated how much they (and their OEM partners) intend to sell Chrome notebooks for, that price is going to be crucial. It obviously needs to be low. Very low.

If Google wants these to compete with Windows machines, sub-$500 should do the trick. And if they can bring them in with better hardware than the Cr-48 for something like $300, I think they’re going to sell a ton of them next by next holiday season.

And Google keeps reiterating that they intend Chrome OS to work on other platforms as well. You can imagine desktop machines running Chrome OS might be perfect for schools and libraries. And Google could of course bundle Google Apps with them. Hell, I could even see them subsidizing Chrome notebook costs to get them available to all students in certain school districts that commit to Google Apps.

Actually, a big competitor for the Chrome notebooks may end up being the new MacBook Airs. Both are now trying to redefine just what exactly portable computing is. There’s no denying that the Air is a much, much sexier device both in look and feel than the Cr-48. But it’s also likely to be several hundred dollars — and maybe even a thousand dollars more expensive in some cases.

Again, that’s why Google needs to nail the price points and nail the execution with their OEM partners on these. I have some doubts as to whether that will happen or not initially, but even a mediocre Chrome notebook should put quite a bit of pressure on low-end Windows machines, at the very least. As I wrote a year ago, it would be the Microsoft squeeze.

Back Offline

To finish up this post, I actually moved back from the Cr-48 to my MacBook Air. One reason is that the typing lag was driving me insane. The other is that image insertion — and image management, is still pretty tricky with Chrome OS. So I’m back to a machine with more than just a browser.

This is actually the first time I’ve extensively used this machine in three days. It’s a little weird seeing the browser shrunk into a window. And I actually like it taking up the full screen more (that’s easy enough to do on a Mac or PC with Chrome, the browser). In a slightly weird twist, I actually don’t like seeing all the, yes, chrome. What’s the point?

Of course, I do cherish the speed of this Air versus the Cr-48. Oh and the trackpad. My god the trackpad. It actually works! It’s a thing of beauty that I will never take for granted again.

So there you go, I’m pretty divided right now on Google’s first take at the Chrome notebook. It’s both brilliant and bewildering. It’s both the future and a nightmare. But it’s definitely not boring, which is more than you can say for a lot of “new” technology these days. Watching it mature will be fun. But first the hardware needs to grow up.

If I could buy the Cr-48 right now, would I? No. But I’d download Chrome OS and install it on some cheap netbook. Or maybe even this Macbook Air…

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