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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Chrome OS and the Cr-48

© 2010 Simon Hucko. Please do not use without permission

I was somehow lucky enough to be selected for Google's Chrome OS pilot program. Since this is like winning the geek lottery, I thought I would share my experience here on the blog for anyone who's interested. I'll try to tie it into photography as I go, but there will be plenty of non-photo geeking out, so if that's not your cup of tea feel free to skip through these.

I applied for the pilot program during Google's announcement last Tuesday (along with everyone else in the world). Friday night I came home from work and found an anonymous package on our porch. I opened it up and found my sleek black Cr-48 notebook complete with Chrome OS, Google's new operating system. After a bit of jumping up and down like a little schoolgirl (not my finest moment...) I popped the battery in and began using it.

The beauty of Chrome OS is that if you're a Googlephile like me, most of the setup is already done. It really works just like the demo - open the machine, connect to the internet, log into your Google account, take a photo for your user account (optional), and less than a minute later you're up and browsing. I use Chrome as my regular browser, and have my bookmarks and everything synced, so all that was ported to the computer within minutes of logging on. (Yeah, minutes. I'm surprised it didn't happen faster, but once it did it's been pretty seamless. Might have been a software update thing.) The experience is pretty much exactly like using Chrome on any other machine, which is the point I suppose. Things seemed a bit laggy and slow at the beginning, but after a software update, a bit of use and a restart or two it's humming along nicely.

An all-web experience means that the machine is really only as good as its internet connection. So far I've only had it on the wifi at home, so it's been cranking along. The Cr-48 has a built in 3G receiver and 100mb/month free data from Verizon (along with some paid options for more data), but I haven't tried that yet. At the moment there really aren't any offline options, but I know that's something that Google is working on and trying to push developers to do as well. The Chrome "web store" (which currently is more of a "link store") should help with this.

As far as photography is concerned, the machine is surprisingly usable, as long as you shoot jpeg and have access to wifi. You can connect a card reader or put an SD card into the built in slot, upload your images to a web photo editor like Picnic or Aviary, then post them to Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, Picasa, etc. Where it starts to break down is if you have a lot of images that you want to offload and store, like when you're travelling. At the moment, Chrome OS has no real file browser to speak of. You can get into a file structure when uploading images to the web, but there's no way to take images off a card and store them locally on the SSD (without going through some complicated ritual like uploading them to the web then downloading them again). I know that the point of Chrome OS is to do everything web-based, but it's a real pain to upload *every* photo to a web editor just to see if it's worth keeping. And, if you shoot raw, your only real option is to use a service like dropbox or e-mail the images to yourself so that you can open them on your photo editing computer back home. Google did say during their announcement that they know people want to connect things like cameras to their machine, so I'm hoping that means a Chrome OS version of Picasa is on its way that will let you manage photos locally and sync them to your online Picasa account. Picasa has some basic raw compatibility, too, so that would be a great solution and make it infinitely more usable as a backup when travelling. This is, of course, just speculation on my part, but if they're looking to target the consumer market at all that would be a highly desirable feature.

© 2010 Simon Hucko. Please do not use without permission

Just to be clear, the Cr-48 is bare bones demo hardware. It's merely a vehicle to deliver Chrome OS. Google is giving out 60,000 for free, so they're not going to be putting top-of-the-line hardware into it (see the specs here). It will never be for sale, except maybe on Ebay. The notebook isn't what they want us testing, the operating system is.

That having been said, and because I know people are curious, the Cr-48 is a pretty nice machine. It's sort of like a spy laptop - the all-matte-black finish and lack of any logos or stickers complements a nice clean design and makes me want to wear a tux and drink a dry martini (shaken, not stirred). It's not ultra-thin or super light (just shy of 4 pounds), but it's small enough to easily slap closed and carry with you anywhere. Boot-up time is measured in seconds, and if you just put it to sleep by closing the lid it resumes instantly (meaning you can close it, carry it, open it, and be right back where you were with no waiting). Battery life seems pretty good - I haven't pushed it to the advertised 8 hours of use, 8 days of standby, but it seems like it would be pretty close to that. The full sized keyboard is quiet and nice to type on (feels a lot like an Apple keyboard, actually). The trackpad is large, and works well to mouse around the screen. I'm a bit of a lazy typer, though, so I find myself bumping it with my palms sometimes, sending me to another part of the screen. Scrolling is done with two fingers, and is a bit rough (it'll randomly jump around, causing me to blow by whatever I was scrolling to). Call me old-fashioned, but I like using the edge of the pad to scroll. There's no horizontal scrolling yet, either, which is a bit of a pain. But, multi-touch support is good, and hopefully my difficulties are just hardware related. It's a bit underpowered when it comes to multi-media. Youtube videos and flash games seemed to run just fine, but I've noticed some issues with video from other sites (Vimeo especially). This can probably be helped with better hardware acceleration support, but will be a limiting factor on this device. I expect the commercial products coming out next year to handle this better.

As it stands right now, a Chrome OS notebook is definitely a second machine. You're still going to want something running a more robust operating system for things like photo/video editing and storage, gaming, and other stand alone apps that you use. However, it's a great solution for a second machine, especially with multiple users. My wife and I each have an account set up on it, and we just leave it on the coffee table. Pop it open for some browsing and e-mail, pop it closed and set it back down until you need it again. Sure, we each have Android phones, but it's so much nicer to work on a bigger screen with a real keyboard. I also see this as a great travel computer. Again, it's a nice step up from the smartphone in terms of usability, and the built in 3G can be a nice feature on the road. It also has great battery life, which means you can bring it for a few days and not worry about the charger (as long as you don't plan on using it heavily). Once the photo thing gets worked out a bit better this would be an excellent backup solution for photographers who are travelling - use the laptop as a local backup and put the keepers up on the cloud to make sure they don't get lost.

Since Chrome OS is still in early beta, I look forward to growing with it and seeing what it becomes. As it stands, there's a lot of potential there, and with the right set of software and features this could be an "only" machine for some people (think about your parents or grandparents who don't do much more than check e-mail and look at your Facebook photos). I'll post updates as things change, especially as some of the hybrid web/offline applications become available. If you have any questions, feel free to ask. I'll answer as best I can. I'm certainly no expert, but I'm happy to share my impressions and opinions.

For even more info, check out the nice in-depth review over at Engadget


[title of blog] on flickr


  1. DOOD! That is so cool! I had no idea, or else I would have signed up too. Do you get to keep the machine? Also, will it always be web-based, or is that a function of not sending out top-of-the-line hardware?

  2. @ Kristan - I'm pretty sure I get to keep it, they haven't said anywhere that we need to return them at some point.

    And yes, Chrome OS is designed as a thin-client web-based operating system. As it evolves they're going to add some local functionality, but the point of it is to use cloud computing and storage whenever possible. This makes the operating system lean and fast, and lets you run it on small inexpensive netbooks without compromising user experience.