ChromeOS: lightweight web-based alternative for the Internet Age? Or browser with ideas above it’s station? The engineers at Google thought they had it right when they looked at the majority of computer users’ actual usage and concluded that 90% of it was spent in-browser. So they put everything on-line in the Cloud and wrapped a thin operating system layer around a browser so you can get at it.
It seems Google bet on the right horse by backing the Cloud. But more than two years on, can we say the same for its’ ChromeOS desktop? Is it worth trying if you don’t have a Chromebook laptop on which to run it?
If you followed our first three parts to installing and running ChromeOS using the builds by Hexxeh (http://chromeos.hexxeh.net/), you will now be looking at a desktop that consists of more than a Chrome web browser.
Boot up ChromeOS for the first time and you’ll a login screen not unlike Windows or Linux. Sign in with a Google account and you arrive at something that looks almost like a conventional desktop; browser window, wallpaper, a row of apps pinned to the bottom of the screen; not unlike the Windows Taskbar or panels in Gnome, Mint, KDE and others. Or… hm, let’s see… Android.
This is the default view and that tray, or panel or… what do we call it in ChromeOS? The ‘Shelf.’ Of course. I shall persist in using ‘Armoire’ or ‘Welsh Dresser’ until Google catches up with me. Anyhow it is always visible and is also home to an app launcher, looking very familiar from Google’s mobile products. Click on the tile with the smaller squares in it and the app launcher pops up. Better that than go looking for a bookmark in the browser.
The Chrome icon, bottom-left, looks like a menu button or Start button, but it represents the omnipresent Chrome browser; all it will do is open a new browser tab.
The Shelf treats every app as an icon, but not every tab. Important apps like Gmail, the ‘Get Started’ panel, and the File Manager are constants. In the Chrome browser, however, you can open multiple windows containing multiple tabs and the icon will show the current tab with focus, but you better be able to keep track of all your tabs otherwise you can get lost in ChromeOS as easily as any other.
You can change the start-up behaviour, ChromeOS will pick up your previous session with all open tabs or start fresh.
On the bottom-right, the clock-come-notifier is your access point to Settings, Help, system status, volume controls, lock screen, sign out and shut down. You know what, post Windows 8 launch, there’s something remarkably similar in the feel of the interface between Modern UI and ChromeOS.
Clicking into Settings, for example, opens up a browser tab that is a Jack of many trades; you can switch from Settings to browser History, to Extensions to Help.
Since version 19, ChromeOS has windows that you can minimize, maximize or close and has gained more features to make it customisable and feel more like a real desktop. Settings has an Appearance section, through which you can access the Wallpaper Picker, either from Google’s downloadable galleries or a custom image of your choice. You can theme your desktop – again, there is an extensive theme gallery from which to choose in the Chrome Store.
Go to Extensions and the Get More Extensions link is one of your gateways into the Chrome Store, from where you can easily add a multitude of browser extensions, on a fully searchable page which is also categorised. It’s also possible under configuration to set keyboard short-cuts for your favoured extensions and apps. In fact, the Chrome Store is the keystone holding up the whole OS as a viable desktop. More on that later.
ChromeOS seems pretty stable. The strength of the browser is evident, not once have I managed to crash it and while it’s no speed demon, you can switch between multiple tabs consistently.
Looking at that desktop, you can’t help thinking of all the things that are missing; no Android or KDE-style widgets, and on the Hexxeh build, you can’t fill the space with short-cuts to web pages or documents. The app icons at the bottom of the screen can’t be customised to short-cut to bookmarked web pages or playlists. Nor can you add short-cuts to documents, books and media to the desktop, which sits there a blank, unusable space.
So where do we go next in ChromeOS? Why, the apps, of course. AJS