Chromebook: Google's other post-PC vision

14 Feb 2013

I have spent the past week getting to know Google’s other vision of the network computer - the Chromebook. I must say that I came away very impressed, yet at the same time very frustrated at the rough edges that remain today, three year after its launch.

Google first launched the Chromebook with its developer-focused, Intel Atom-powered CR-48 back in December 2010. The idea was simple enough, why bother with all the bulk of a full-blown operating system with all its pitfalls and security vulnerabilities when most of the time all you need is a web browser. Why not make the browser the OS?

I got a Samsung ARM-based Chromebook, the one that has been at the top of Amazon’s laptop sales charts for most of the Christmas season.

Despite its Macbook Air type looks, it has nowhere near the quality. The display is an old fashioned, slightly yellow TFT one with blacks being just dark grey, no fancy IPS or LED backlight here. The keyboard is nicely spaced but hardly is worth writing home about. The clickpad is passable with a bit of lag but flexes a bit when picking the notebook up from the lower left edge, causing extraneous clicks. But what would you expect for $249?

Turning the machine on was a pleasant surprise. The promise of sub-10-second power on to the browser, once setup, is a joy to behold and makes Windows 7’s bootup time seem archaic. The fact that this is on a dual-core ARM processor that does not require any active cooling, makes it all the more impressive.

The Chrome browser works nicely even with flash-based sites and can do everything a real PC browser can. A few hours in I was loving it, being able to do all my surfing and research on a nice PC that, without any active cooling or spinning hard drive, is totally silent.

As it turned out, I barely missed anything. Doing my writing already in Google Docs I took to the Chromebook like a duck to the water. Granted, Google Docs does not offer all the functionality of Word, Google drive spreadsheets is probably more comparable to Excel 97 than to Excel 2013 and Presentations is nowhere near Powerpoint, but for many of us, it may be all we need.

The financial analysts and graphics artists can get a proper Windows notebook or a Mac, but for everyone else, the Chromebook is a viable alternative.

Printing used to be a problem, but as it turned out I have two printers in my home that are able to be connected directly to Google cloud print and thus seamlessly works with the Chromebook. For every other printer, it is possible to share it via a Windows PC.

I missed Skype as I have an unlimited subscription, but Google voice works well enough and if anything, the voice quality is much better than Skype these days.

What impressed me most perhaps was Audodesk’s Pixlr photo editing Chrome app / website. The ability to edit photos in a browser with all the heavy lifting taking place in the cloud was really impressive. The way Pixlr integrates seamlessly with Google Drive means that anyone with auto-upload enabled on their Android phone will be able to open pictures for editing from Pixlr immediately, as it is already up there in the Google cloud.

Autodesk seems to be the dark horse in the cloud computing revolution here with polished, capable products. No, it is not a competitor to Adobe creative suite and no, they do not seem to have figured out how to monetise it properly yet, but the graphic solutions out there make you sit up and wonder if there really is a need for a big, hot CPU on your lap any longer.

Perhaps not too surprisingly, the Chromebook stuttered and crashed when trying to open an 8 MB 24-megapixel picture from my Sony A77 DSLR. But that would be an unfair use-case. For everyone else with a point and shoot or for editing cameraphone pictures, it is more than fine.

Another nice Chrome app is the remote desktop that allows the Chromebook to take over a Windows PC (or a Mac) - but alas not a Linux PC - for anything else that might have been missed. Third party ones also exist for more enterprise-class remote desktops.

Then there is offline mode. Aside from being woefully unintuitive to enable (the option in Google Drive is under more, not under settings) it works quite well and allows the notebook to be used for note-taking, email composing and document editing where there is no internet connection.

Media playback is good with support for most of the codecs in my library. But the CPU was clearly struggling with higher bitrate HD playback, with dropped frames every now and then. YouTube HD content is also limited to just 480P playback and there is no Netflix yet on the ARM chromebook platform unlike its Intel-based brethren.

Best of all, with everything taking place in the cloud, I should be able to borrow a friend’s Chromebook or Chromebox and log in with my credentials and continue straight where I left off.

But where the Chromebook falls flat on its face is support for a second language, such as Thai.

90% of the time I write in English but I often have to do research in Thai. The problem is that ChromeOS still has a bug that affects some users and renders the language switching menu unworkable. You can go to settings / advanced / languages, but cannot select the languages that come up there, and the language icon disappears too.

Doing some Googling, this appears to be a problem with certain Google accounts rather than OS builds. A workaround is to create a clean Google account to be the owner of the Chromebook account and use it to log in, then to add the main Google account as a secondary account in docs and Gmail. A bit clumsy, but it works and restored the language switching icon.

The fact that this bug has been around since the Chromebook’s launch in 2010 and still has not been fixed makes one wonder how serious Google is about the Chromebook ecosystem for developing non-English speaking markets.

The $249 price also includes two years of 100 GB Google drive storage, up from the standard 5 GB, worth $5 a month. This means the Chromebook is effectively costing just $130.

Perhaps the real question is whether ChromeOS as a platform is better than Android? One comparison would be to the much more expensive Asus Transformer Prime tablet with its HD IPS screen and keyboard dock.

Is there really a market for ChromeOS in a post-PC world? Well, judging from the Amazon sales figures for the past couple of months, the public has given a resounding yes to the idea of a cheap, carefree, web access device. Now, if only Google could iron out the bugs for the rest of the non-English speaking world.

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