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Chromebook Better, But Still a Work in Progress

I think it’s instructive to put my two “alternative OS” systems—the Apple iPad running iOS and Samsung’s Series 5 running Google’s Chrome OS—side by side because they illustrate two interesting counterpoints in battle for platform dominance.

I’ve been working with Google’s Chrome OS for a while, first on the non-branded CR-48 laptop and now on this Samsung laptop running Google’s latest Chrome build. The operating system has clearly leveled up, it’s now mature with support for a file system, an SD card slot and active USB ports (those with CR-48 systems can also experience some of these enhancements).

Samsung’s Series 5 is a better, faster, more attractive than the CR-48, but it does not entirely alter the Chrome OS experience.

As with Apple’s iOS on the iPad, those using a Chromebook (which, at $499.99, costs the same as a base-model iPad) are asked to think and work differently than they would on the word’s most dominant desktop and laptop platform: Windows. The desktop in Chromebook is a browser with the occasional pop-up window to support file activities, and some cloud-based apps. Apple’s iPad is a mix of application icons that you can page through and a variety of disparate in-app experiences that use the iPad’s various hardware features (touch screen, accelerometer, compass, gyroscope, camera, etc) to accomplish a variety of touch and motion-driven tasks.

In the Chromebook there is a certain consistency from app-to-app, but often times Google’s own products and services work as if they were designed for a very different interface. Some of the games in Google+, for instance, barely fit on the Chromebook screen. A game is not particularly important, but I will say that every game I play on the iPad is clearly designed for the environment hardware platform.

The other night, I spent some time creating a Tumblr blog post on the Chromebook. Text entry and page navigation was just as good as it would be on a web browser in, say, Windows. I usually like to illustrate my posts with a screen grab (in Google Chrome OS, that’s Ctrl+Switch Windows button), graphic or drawing. This is where things got a bit dicey.

As a cloud-based system, you don’t actually install apps on the Samsung hardware (you do, obviously, on an iPad). So even though Google has the excellent, free Picasa desktop app, you’re forced on the Chromebook to use Picasa’s web-only presence. This means that even though the latest Google Chrome build includes a file system where you can download and add files and images to the system (local storage), you can’t manage image files on the desktop with the Picasa app. Instead, you use the, in my experience, slow and relatively feature-poor Picasa web site.

Picasa’s desktop app also includes some easy-to-use cropping, resizing and export tools. I use Picasa all the time during liveblogs—there’s nothing better for quickly resizing and shrinking digital images. In Chrome OS, I have to hand off uploaded photos from the Picasa Web app to Picnik for basic editing. Picnik is slow and not nearly as easy to use. Plus, I have to re-download the images to re-upload them to my blog. In the end, I gave up and walked over to my much more powerful Windows 7 PC to finish the post.

Hanging Together

To be fair, Apple’s iPad can present similar frustrations. It doesn’t even have a true file system. For images, you organize them in the Photo Library, but most web sites like Tumblr can’t browse that area of the iPad’s system. Typically, I upload images from the Photo Library to my Flicker account (using the Flickr iPhone app) and then either link to that or use Flickr’s embed code on my blog.

Still, with the exception of Flash-based web sites, things on my iPad simply work. Each part hangs together and anything with Apple in the name works seamlessly with all other things on the iPad. It’s a cohesive environment.

The Chromebook, on the other hand, still feels experimental and, as I noted earlier with the Google + games, not everything feels like it’s designed to work in Google’s own operating system.  For example, I ran into a bit of trouble when I wanted to check on my blog traffic. I’ve placed some Google Analytics code on my Tumblr blog and usually check in at the Google Analytics Web site for a daily traffic report. This does not work in the iPad because I can’t view by date. I assumed it would work like a charm on the Chromebook. Unfortunately, the site suffers from the exact same problem as it has the iPad—no date control. This is likely because both Web browsers are WebKit based. Still, if Google wants this system to compete with Windows as a leading alternative operating system, everything with the Google name needs to work like a dream on every Chromebook.

On the plus side, I still love working in the cloud. I’ve had a Google account (which started with gmail) for years and now I access all my Google services through this one account. Because I used a CR-48 and the Chrome OS before, set-up was fairly minimal. I signed in with my existing Google account and got to work. Creating documents in Google Docs and editing on any platform I want—as long as I have an Internet connection—is a great experience (though I do wish Google would add a spell-check button).

The Best of It

The File Manager in Google Chrome OS is a godsend. It breaks down the claustrophobic feeling I had with earlier Chrome OS builds. Now all sorts of files can come in from the outside and you can find whatever you’ve stored or captured on the File shelf (it’s where I eventually found all my captured screens). I do wish Google Docs allowed you to save files offline—but this is counter to the Google Cloud ideal.

Speaking of the Cloud, the Chromebook comes with Wi-Fi and two years of free Verizon Wireless 3G data access to keep you connected—just don’t eat more than 100 MB of 3G a month (no videos!).

In general, I like the app selection through Google’s Chrome Web Store, but I didn’t always find what I wanted. I found a Flickr app, but when I launched it, it simply took me to the Flickr web site. I tried to find a Skype video chat app, but no dice.

Hardware-wise, Samsung Series 5 screen is far brighter than on the CR-48, the keyboard feels great and the touchpad is much larger and more responsive (though I still prefer using a mouse or TrackPoint). The Intel Dual core CPU-based system is faster than the old CR-48, but it can also slow down if you have too many tabs open. Every once in a while the system stutters and you wait a second or more. I can’t tell if this is a local issue or if the Chrome OS is talking to cloud servers in the background.

The Chromebook has a couple of other things in common with its alternate OS counterpart, the iOS. Set-up is, as I said, minimal—you’re pretty much ready to use it as soon as you open the laptop. Plus, there’s no need for security software—or, at least there’s none to be had. I’m not sure how either iOS or Chrome OS help you defeat socially-engineered phising attacks.

Ultimately, the Chromebook still feels like what it is: a work in progress; while its main alternate platform competition, the iOS and iPad, is about as fully baked as you can get. This will change over time, but will it be fast enough for Google to turn the tide?

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