Review: Chrome OS by Art Schreckengost originally appeared in Full Circle Magazine issue 71.
In personal computing, choices include Windows, Apple, or Linux, while tablets make do with iOS, Android, or RT. However, Google has been working in the background for the past couple years to polish its Linux/Android knock-off, Chrome OS.
Overwhelm is not a word you’ll find to describe the early $600 Chromebook laptops with their puny 16GB flash drives, weak ARM processors normally found in tablets, and 12-inch screens. Those on a budget could opt for the $300+ Chromebox, a desktop looking suspiciously like a Mac Mini but still packing the small flash drive, and requiring that a monitor, keyboard and mouse be purchased separately.
No, the flurry of interest wouldn’t peak until the release of the $200 Acer C7 Chromebook in late 2012, sporting a beefier (although much maligned) Intel Sandy Bridge Celeron processor and a more adequate 320GB spinning hard drive.
Since the Acer release sales have sky-rocketed, and finding a new one can be tough (go to Google, they still sell them for the list price instead of the $40 to $50 mark-up seen elsewhere) but I got mine the old-fashioned way – I got it from a kid who bought one and got another for Christmas. Ah, how I love a discount! But does it live up to the hype? Can Chrome OS be the next best OS and a serious threat to the big boys?
Before we get to that question, it would be wise to give a brief history of this operating system and a little background on this sub-$200 laptop.
First there are two versions, both based upon current Google browser offerings. Chromium OS is the beta test bed that anybody can attempt to run and/or install on their computer (have fun, it works on a limited few). Although releases are issued daily, it’s possible to find a dud or two and they come with zero support and no guarantees. Those itching to give Chromium OS a shot can go to http://chromeos.hexxeh.net/ for downloads and detailed instructions.
Chrome OS is the release product, and isn’t publicly available unless you fork over $200 to $600 for the dedicated desktops or laptops. It comes with daily updates (with Chromium you’re stuck with what you get, it’s never updated), and security features such as data encryption, verified logon and sand-boxing.
As for the computer, you’ve seen it a million times before from the Acer net-book class. Sporting a standard 11.6” glossy screen (all Chromebooks, for whatever reason, don’t come any larger), it has 3 USB ports, no optical drive, HDMI out, wireless (plus an Ethernet jack), and the ubiquitous SD card slot. The only Chrome identifier is the logo on the lid, otherwise it’s similar to the Windows 7 or 8 variation seen in stores for at least $100 more.
It’s the operating system that warrants the most attention, though. Pay close attention MS, Apple and Linux (you, too, Android, even if Google does own you), here’s a lesson for all of you in ease and efficiency in 3 easy steps.
- Turn on the power.
- Choose your wireless signal or plug in your landline connection.
- Enter your Gmail account info, or opt for Guest Mode if you don’t have Gmail yet.
That’s it. All of maybe 2 minutes, some of which was spent fishing for my wireless security code. Add another few minutes as Chrome syncs the info from your Gmail account, and you’re out all of 10 minutes.
And what of the reviews that state Chrome OS boots in under 10 seconds? True, but only for the flash drive models. Those with standard hard drives will see that time doubled, but 20 seconds is nothing to gripe about, and is still better than even the much ballyhooed OS X running off a flash drive.
Truly impressive is the recovery time from deep sleep mode (initiated, as always, by closing the lid on an active session and then reopening it), which often was less than a second! Those interested in shutdown figures will be amazed at times averaging 2 seconds.
How can this machine be so quick? First the OS weighs in at just 250MB, which puts it in the flyweight class along with Puppy Linux and the like. Second, the BIOS is locked, prohibiting the introduction of other operating systems. Press F12 all you want at boot, but all it’ll do is ignore you (in normal operation post-boot, F12 brings up the page elements info area). Third, it doesn’t use programs, it uses apps (more on this later).
Another reason for the quick boot time can be attributed to what you see post-boot, mainly an abbreviated desktop consisting of a background image and two taskbars at the bottom. The left one is called “launcher” and consists of app icons. To the right is an area for wireless signal, battery life, and the time. In addition, the photo chosen by the user is also displayed at the far right bottom and this acts as a menu for settings when clicked.
While additional icons can be added to the launcher, the right one is set with no adjustments allowed. In fact, other than changing position and allowing for autohide, there is nothing else to be done with either taskbar.
At this point one should notice that Chrome OS didn’t get its name from the metal coating, that honor comes from the only native program included – the Chrome browser. Everything else you choose to add is an app that works in that browser.
Open Chrome (first time users will get a blank page), and click the link in the lower right corner for the Web Store. That opens a bevy of apps under various categories. Click on any one of these and the option to “Add to Chrome” appears. Click on that and it’s installed, or is it?
Actually, no. Unlike your Android tablet where apps are either installed or held in the cloud, Chrome OS apps are merely icons that link to websites. Nothing is physically installed other than the linked icons. Those desiring to install and run programs like Microsoft Office, Quicken, Skype, etc, will be dismayed to discover programs don’t work – Chrome is it in that respect; however, there are workarounds for some programs and that’ll be discussed shortly.
Might explain why my hard drive space never decreased.
Expect more of the same with peripheral devices, too. USB flash and hard drives work fine along with some (but not all) DVD players and mice, but you can kiss your standard printers and DVD burners goodbye — no drivers and no way of installing them.
But there are other curiosities, too. For example:
- Apps are thrown into the Apps library as they are installed, not alphabetically. After a couple hundred entries it became so confusing I had to install yet another app (Simple Launcher) to put everything in order (another hint to Google – correct this issue).
Also, unlike the Chrome browser used in Apple, Microsoft, and Linux systems, this version does not list installed apps when a blank page is opened – everything goes into the Apps library. If you see an online screenshot with app icons on the desktop outside of the browser, that’s an older version (apparently discontinued probably because it required the browser to be minimized in order to see apps).
- Google recommends creating a recovery flash drive (a 2GB unit will do) and there’s a reason. Should Chrome OS die, the only other way to get a copy of the recovery file is to go online, something that may be a tad difficult if your Chromebook won’t boot and you don’t have another computer. There is no buying a DVD or bumming someone’s flash drive since the recovery files differ from one unit to another; however, Google is more than happy to give you a copy for later use.
- The included Chrome browser is nearly identical to what you’re probably using now, but it does have subtle differences. Pinning tabs (right clicking to reduce them to 1⁄4 size and leaving them permanently in the windows area for future use) doesn’t work here. Pin all the tabs you like but they’ll be gone at next boot (Google is working on this one). The minimize/maximize/close buttons found in most other browsers don’t exist here, at least not together. Maximize pulls multiple duties, but you wouldn’t know that by just looking, and the only way to expose the other options is by
doing a mouseover at which time several choices are presented (move window right or left, minimize, restore, and go back).
- Like the idea of a Recycle Bin, trash can, or whatever your current OS calls the place to hold deleted files? Well, there is a slight bent here. There is no trash receptacle in Chrome OS itself, it’s in the Google Drive online. I’ve seen many complaints about the inability to retrieve deleted files, but these users apparently don’t know its location; however, it is odd that it doesn’t exist in the OS but in the cloud.
- There are thousands of apps available in the Web Store, but many of them are repeats, just like in any other app store I’ve seen. Hardly scientific, but I’d be willing to bet that nearly a third are repeats with different names. Yet other apps linked to websites offering a boatload of additional apps in addition to the one I initially picked, so I guess it all evens out.
- One could assume that if it’s in the Web Store, it should work in Chrome OS; however, that’s not the case. Much like Linux and Android, what you see is not always what you get.
- Updating is done in the background like Windows, and this process may produce a noticeable slowdown in system operations. Since there is no warning about background issues, it’s easy to blame a bad connection when such may not be the case. Rarely happens, but it’s an aggravation when it does.
In Part Two, Art goes on to look at the Apps available in Chrome OS
Related: How-to: ChromeOS Desktop Part 1