Thoughts on Chrome OS and the Cr-48

Much to my surprise, I receieved an unmarked box containing a Cr-48 laptop from Google.

No warning. Just arrived. I’m not complaining.

I’ve been using the Cr-48 with Chrome OS a lot this past week. It’s been a pretty enjoyable experience. This is very much a beta, and this is why I’m posting thoughts and not a review. There is no way to review prototype hardware or beta software. Some things just don’t work. That’s why it’s a beta.

I’m not going to talk about the things that don’t work because this is a beta. The fact that the USB ports aren’t fully functional yet has nothing to do with what the final OS will be like. The performance of Flash does, however, because Flash has been on Linux for years (and Adobe never cared about Linux performance until a huge, mainstream company like Google started developing Linux-based products such as Chrome OS and Android).

Here are some thoughts and questions I’ve had so far:

It’s really not that jarring — Most of what I do involves websites: Gmail, Google Docs, WordPress, a few Drupal CMSes, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, Google, ESPN.com, Google Reader, Hulu, Netflix, nytimes.com, etc, etc, etc. It’s really not that jarring to use a Chrome OS computer. Most of the time, you won’t even notice that you aren’t on Windows, OS X or a version of Linux such as Ubuntu (Chrome OS is Linux based). If you spend most of your time in the browser, Chrome OS feels very familiar.

Forget about boot times – Chrome OS boots in about 12 seconds, and unlike most OSes, it doesn’t take awhile from signing in until you can do something (I swear it takes about five minutes for my XP machine at work to boot up and be ready to use). When you can boot and have a website open in about 20 seconds, it changes your relationship with a computer. My main computer is a Mac Mini hooked up to two monitors. It loads Dropbox, Mozy, Alfred, etc, etc, etc on startup. All things that I need when I’m doing heavy-duty work, but it also means that I can’t really use my computer for a few minutes. If my computer is turned off, and I just want to play around on the Internet, I usually keep it off. With a device like Chrome OS, those considerations don’t come into play. This is a lot like the iPad where you can just leave it laying around your house and pick it up and use it whenever you want to surf around the Web (the Cr-48 also sleeps very well and can go about a month in standy-by mode).

But can you work on it? — The jury is still up in the air. Anything you can do on the Chrome browser — my main browser — you can do on Chrome OS, except for anything requiring Java. It’s unknown if Java will be coming to Chrome OS or not. I can use WordPress on it, as I’m doing right now. I can do light image editing and graphic design work with Aviary. I can use social networking sites, read ebooks and even do light programming on Chrome OS. Video editing, screencasting and some of the other activities that I do are out of the question.

The Cr-48 is slow — This is a prototype, so you can’t get too down on it. I imagine that as Chrome OS approaches version 1.0 it will get faster even on older harder like the Cr-48. Chrome 9 — the browser — and Flash 10.2 both would give Chrome OS a major speed boost. As of this writing neither has made it to Chrome OS. The computer itself is a single core Atom chip, which is not enough to handle Flash video, because Flash is resource intensive (Flash 10.2 promises to solve some of these issues). So, my slower iPad can easily handle 720p HD video at 30fps without any issues, whereas Chrome OS can’t even do 480p video properly. That’s an issue. I would think that just about all Chrome OS netbooks will ship with dual-core Atom processors and hopefully have hardware acceleration for video. My cell phone handles video better than my Chrome OS laptop. Every Chrome OS computer needs to ship with the ability to handle 720p video at 30fps. Beyond that, Chrome OS feels much slower than using Chrome on my Mac Mini. Let’s hope that changes.

Flash is terrible on Chrome OS (and Linux in general) — One of the major arguments against Flash is that Adobe controls how well it runs on a platform. JavaScript is the exact opposite. Chrome. Safari, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera, etc are all trying to see who can process JavaScript the fastest, which has led to JavaScript-heavy websites (think most Web apps such as Gmail and Google Apps) to render much faster. And they keep rendering Web pages faster all the time as new browsers with better JavaScript engines come out. Flash doesn’t work like that. There is no competition and until Apple stopped using Flash in many of its products and HTML5 emerged, Adobe had no incentive to improve Flash speed. Flash is slow on your computer? Just buy a newer, faster machine! That was essentially Adobe’s message for years. Flash has always run best on Windows, which has left OS X and Linux users out to dry. But OS X users have it much better than Linux users. Adobe has never cared about making Flash usable on Linux until Google decided to develop a Linux-based OS with Chrome OS. Flash makes the whole browsing experience slow on Chrome OS, even if you aren’t directly using a Flash-based site. Any site with Flash-based ads on it will be slower than expcted. The good news is now that there will be a version of Linux from a major company, Flash should get much better on Linux. Web pages without Flash render very fast and are a pleasure to use.

So, who would want this? — Anyone who just wants to get on the Web and not worry about viruses, security, system updates, plugin updates, browser updates, etc. Chrome OS just works. It can’t do anything other than the Web, but for an increasing number of people, that’s pretty much all they do outside of perhaps iTunes or some other media-management software.

Enter business? — Chrome OS really screams out for business use. So many employees don’t use the full functionality of their computers (or use virtually none). They use websites, occasionally open Word or PowerPoint docs, do some research and use some custom software. Most of those people could switch to a completely Web-based OS. But why would they do it? Simple. Chrome OS is a very secure platform that requires no IT management. The system updates itself without needing any input from the user and Web apps do the same as well. Would IT managers go for something that writes out much of their job description? Maybe not. But the smart ones — the ones you want at your organization — would realize that Chrome OS would free them up to do bigger thinking. It would allow them to spend more time investigating how to us IT more efficiently and how to makes workers’ jobs easier. Instead, much of IT work right now is tech help. Imagine a system that is very secure, sandboxed (even infected apps couldn’t affect other apps or the system itself), auto updates, and makes employees take care of their data by forcing them to save everything to a redundant and secure platform. How many of your employees save important documents to their computers hard drive instead of to your server? Far, far too many. With Chrome OS, that’s simply not an option. Chrome OS would save money and time. For many of your employees, they’ll need a heavy OS. But for the ones who don’t need one, why would you give them one?

The perfect parent computer — Chrome OS would seem like the perfect computer for my Dad. The only thing he does is surf the Web. He reads websites, checks e-mail and plays fantasy sports. I could definitely see him having a Chrome OS netbook on his desk. It doesn’t take up much space, can be easily powered on in seconds, lasts for a long time on each charge, is very secure, updates itself and requires no maintenance.

Can this work in a tablet world? — That’s the biggest question. Pretty much everything I have said about Chrome OS  could be said about an iPad or some of the tablets coming out. True most tablets don’t update their software in the background for you (I think this will be changing), but tablets are much less complicated to use than a traditional OS and should be much more secure. People who need a dedicated keyboard and trackpad will appreciate Chrome OS. I could certainly see Chrome OS receiving business adoption for employees who don’t need much computing power. Ultimately, I see a world where most households have one main computer that runs either Windows or OS X. After that they’ll have several other computing devices — smartphones, tablets and perhaps Chrome OS netbooks. It makes sense. Most people don’t really need more than one-heavy OS device per house. For students writing and researching papers, Chrome OS makes more sense than a tablet. On the other hand, a tablet makes more sense during class. I don’t know how this will shake out, but I do know the days of most households having multiple heavy-OS computers are over.

Google got the netbook right — Prior to Chrome OS and the Cr-48, netbooks were about taking a full-featured OS and mating it with simple hardware. The Cr-48 is about taking full-featured hardware and mating it with a simple OS. The typical netbook isn’t good at anything, regardless of how good the software could be. Anything less than a full-sized keyboard is worthless for serious writing or programming. Most traditional netbooks have cramped keyboards that are hard to type on (often harder than a touchscreen tablet). The Cr-48 comes with a fantastic keyboard. You don’t need a full-featured OS to do research or type papers, blog posts or news stories, but you do need a good keyboard. Netbooks currently excel at nothing. They are just small, cheap laptops. They are worse than tablets. The Cr-48 has some things that it genuinely does better than a tablet. It comes with a fast HD (SSD) that allows for quick startup, a Web cam for video conferencing and audio calls, a nice sized screen and more. Yes, the processor isn’t that fast, but Chrome OS doesn’t need a fast processor, and why spend money on something you don’t need? Finally, Google has found a way to give netbooks a niche beyond being cheap devices that people later regret.

So how does this fit into my workflow? — Too early too tell. For programming, video editing, screencasting and some other activities my Mac Mini will get the nod. It’s fast, has two monitors, can run a variety of development environments and more. For surfing the Web and lounging around, the iPad is king. The iPad is just fun. Using your fingers to navigate the Web and flick pages up and down is really a special experience. I also use my iPad at work as a note-taking device, as well as for e-mail, calendars and project management. It’s the perfect work companion. It’s also a fantastic device for my train rides on the metro and for going to coffee shops. The Cr-48 may eventually become my go-to writing device. I can take it anywhere I want, unlike my Mac Mini, and it’s great to type on (I love the keyboard), unlike my iPad (the typing is fine for notes, but not for longer content). I like to sit on my balcony with my iPad, but I missed having a laptop to do work on when it’s a nice day. Now I can do writing work on it with the Cr-48. I also think this will be a great device for when I have guests. When my family members visit, they eventually want to check their e-mail, adjust their fantasy lineups and surf the Web. Chrome OS is perfect that. You can leave the laptop in your guests room, and they can quickly sign in as a guest, do whatever and then their session will be destroyed upon log out.

So who would you recommend this for when it launches this summer? — My Dad (my Mom has a Macbook Pro that she uses for work) and anyone looking for a cheap writing and researching device. If a Chrome OS netbook comes out in the $300-400 range, it would probably be a better product than a comparably priced Windows laptop. I’ve seen far too many people buy cheap Windows laptops, only to have to replace them fairly quickly because they become so slow and unusable. Chrome OS doesn’t have those issues, and even a $300 Chrome OS laptop should be usable for years to come.