Google Chrome OS CR-48 review
In this European exlcusive, we examine the merits of Google's first laptop to run Chrome OS
What do you spend most of your time doing on a computer? For more and more people, the answer is, in some form or another, simply browsing the web.
Whether it’s internet banking, watching the BBC iPlayer or checking your email, all these things are now done through a web-browser.
And rising the fastest among those web-browsers is not the newly launch Internet Explorer 9, or the geeks’ favourite, Firefox. It’s Chrome, the upstart from Google that’s been built for speed.
Put the two trends together and you get a computer based entirely around the web: Google’s Chrome operating system (Chrome OS) is – according to Microsoft's Ray Ozzie – a bet on the future. Launched on a widescale test to enthusiasts, it’s looking like it might just pay off.
Indeed, Microsoft Windows 7 operating system is a fine product, with remarkable capabilities when it comes to all manner of complex tasks – but increasingly it’s more than most people need. The web, and a decent way to get at it, threatens to smash Windows’ hegemony.
I’ve been using the only Chrome OS laptop that’s yet been launched for about a week now.
The CR-48 is, Google stresses, not final hardware or software. It’s not even for sale yet.
It’s a taste of the future; that shouldn’t make it immune from criticism, but it does mean the significant current problems with the device should not be a distraction. See through that forest of issues and what emerges is a product that – especially for businesses – deserves to be ubiquitous in a shorter time than many would think possible.
There are two reasons for that: firstly, cost. And secondly, Google’s right. The web increasingly does everything most people need.
Whether you’re noodling about on the internet or updating facebook, whether you’re paying your gas bill or streaming a film online, it all happens online.
I’ve swapped between a £2,000 Sony Vaio and the CR-48 several times over the week, and it’s only been for niche tasks such as Photoshop that I’ve needed a fraction of the Vaio’s advanced capabilities. And there’s also a web-based Photoshop, too.
In theory, therefore, a literal “netbook” is a brilliant idea. It does everything most people need, and basing it on Chrome means it’s very speedy, secure and flexible.
Integrating that software intimately with the specific computer hardware makes it a mostly fledged operating system; it’s the same approach that has proved so very effective for Apple.
Currently, however, there are lots of things Chrome OS can’t do. When Acer and Samsung launch their own models in May (or thereabouts) there won’t be issues with plugging in a USB stick if you really need to, for instance. Instead, there’ll be the chance to dwell on the seven-second boot time, the Apple-style multitouch trackpad that makes scrolling easy, or on the fact that Google has acknowledged that Chrome OS needs some sort of filing system for documents because not everything can exist wholly in the ‘cloud’.
The beauty of Chrome is that it gets out of the way, and that rather than programmes you can install small apps to add big functionality directly to the operating system itself.
So while there is no ‘desktop’ in the conventional computer sense, the web browser windows can do almost everything you need.
An extension called “Chrome to Phone” sends web links to your mobile at a single click; another reformats newspaper websites to look more like real papers, if that’s your preference; countless more integrate Twitter, Facebook and all the other staples of the internet.
It takes quite some getting used to: instinctively, many users reach for Outlook for email, Word for documents, Excel for spreadsheets. All those things have web equivalents that do not quite, yet, have the same power. And when you can’t get online, the CR-48 is rather limited in its use.
That’s why that quote from Ray Ozzie is so pertinent: the CR-48, so-named because it is an unstable isotope, may well be the perfect machine for a future where the internet is always available at high speeds and in a secure way.
All the problems with it may well be sorted out in the imminent future. But bear in mind: after 20 years of mobiles, huge swathes of the country still lack a decent signal. What’s holding back Chrome OS isn’t hardware or software: it’s infrastructure that will decide whether it’s part of the future.