The second part of our look at the ChromeOS desktop.
On paper, ChromeOS gives you a very flexible working environment; within the browser, you have access to all the Google Apps, a huge selection of extensions to enrich the browser itself, and the Chrome Store sitting on top of that, providing a vast array of third party apps and games.
Such is the selection of apps – tens of thousands of Chrome-optimized applications, including “hundreds” of off-line apps – I find it difficult to find what I want. The home page displays a bottomless list of apps, in a jumble of tiles of various sizes. You’re better off using the search in the top left or select from one of the app categories listed down the left-hand side, including ‘popular’ and ‘trending’ and a heading for the apps you’ve installed.
We mentioned the ChromeOS approach where everything is in the Cloud. So what happens when you have no Internet connection? Contrary to the way we’ve worked with computers for years, storing all our files locally, ChromeOS is built on the primacy of the web; on-line takes precedence, therefore offline Mail and Docs can only use the content you remembered to sync whilst connected. In the case of off-line Mail, you can only download emails from within the past month (or less, choosing in Settings); offline Gmail physically won’t let you keep your entire mailbox locally – that’s against the ‘rules’ in ChromeOS. It’s more like mail on your smart-phone.
This was the Achilles Heel of ChromeOS, until last year it gained off-line editing capability with the Google Drive app which gives you access to your files stored in your Google Drive folder and all of your documents stored in Google Docs.
The file manager is rudimentary by desktop OS standards, more like that that found on a smart phone. It treats the Downloads folder as home, but you can also store files on a USB drive or a memory card. You can move files from one storage device to another, but oddly it lacks any drag-and-drop operation – you have to copy and paste files.
Happily, Google Drive is now integrated into the file manager; you can save or copy files into Drive, as well as open Drive files on your Chrome device. But don’t think this is like Dropbox or Sugarsync; as a user you have to ‘pin’ the files you want to available offline.
The Offline Apps now have their own category under the “Collections” in the Chrome Web Store. The two ‘stars’ here will be Gmail Offline and Google Calendar.
If you’re working on a document in Google Docs offline, you can continue working in your document while your changes are cached locally and then synchronized as soon as you come back online.
You can choose to save files in the Downloads folder or on Google Drive – when you plug in an external storage drive, such as a USB drive or SD card, a new folder automatically shows in the Files app underneath your Google Drive folder.
In trying to produce a round-trip operating system allowing you to do all your work in the Cloud, the list of supported file formats has expanded to include support for all MS-Office files (doc, xls, ppt, docx, xlsx, pptx), not to mention .txt and .html, and all common archive formats; zip, rar, tar, tar.gz (.tgz), and .tar.bz2 (.tbz2).
Which brings us on to media files.
Music and video playback
Chrome OS has gradually picked up media support, Netflix streaming and 1080p YouTube videos run smoothly, with Vimeo, Hulu, and movies from Google Play also available. If you have a Chromebook running the official ChromeOS release, all this is baked in.
The issue with the Hexxeh build is that while his ChromeOS Vanilla builds continue as normal, Flash, MP3 and PDF aren’t supported as these require plugins or codecs which Hexxeh doesn’t have a license to distribute, or even provide installation instructions. There are workarounds to install codecs and plugins, but these are worth a tutorial in themselves. With all the codecs installed, ChromeOS will open .mp4, .m4v, .m4a, .mp3, .ogv, .ogm, .ogg, .oga, .webm and .wav files, along with PDFs and “common image formats” (read: .jpg, .gif and .png).
Google Music is available, with a familiar interface should look familiar, but there’s no such thing as offline Google Music – it’s all part of the licensing deal Google signed with the record companies. Although you can now pin favourite tracks in Google Music, you will need an internet connection to listen. The Chrome OS very simple (by which we mean feature-light) bundled media player lets you play music stored locally on an SD card
Chrome OS is taking steps toward creating content and editing content such as photos. Assuming you can get your photos into ChromeOS, you will find Google’s own photo editor with options to auto-enhance, crop and rotate shots, as well as adjust the brightness and contrast. It’s a bit like a basic photo editor you’d get on your mobile phone, no worries for Adobe or Shotwell just now. There are other photo and media apps in the Chrome Store
We’re better off when it comes to books; go to the Web Store and install Google Play Books and you can read e-books offline. It gives you the same Google Books interface you already know, with a search feature, table of contents and the ability to adjust the typeface and font size. If you’re getting your e-books from the Google Play store, you can download your books so that you can read them without and Internet connection; just hover over a book’s thumbnail in the Play Store and check the box “Make available offline.”
Now that Google+ has assumed flagship product status, the social network appears in Chrome OS separate apps for the social network, as well as Hangouts, the video chat service. Hangouts opens a new Chrome browser window – not just a new tab – presumably to sand-box potentially difficult audio and video streams. There’s still no sign of a Skype client or service that will run on ChromeOS
Chrome Remote Desktop
With a remote desktop app, you could of course, become your own Cloud; just reach into your other PC’s to get those files not stored on your ChromeOS device, as well as shre your screen. Chrome Remote desktop is in the Chrome Web Store. In theory you could access Skype, FaceTime and Colloquy – apps that aren’t directly available on Chrome OS. Mull that one over. For now it supports Windows Vista or later and Mac OS X 10.6 or later, but no Linux.
You need to install the latest version of the Remote Desktop as a Chrome browser app from the Chrome Web Store on both your Chrome OS device and host machine. Then, you need to download a host installer to enable remote controllers and create an access PIN for each machine.
ChromeOS has some clear advantages. It’s currently very secure; Google regularly pushes software updates seamlessly as it has done with the desktop Chrome browser for some time. You don’t have to worry about anti-virus software, as the underlying architecture with secure sand-boxing of the Chrome OS system makes infections very improbable. System resets are quick and relatively painless as long as all your apps and settings are stored in the Cloud.
However, by the time you supplement Google Apps with third party tools from the Chrome Store, your workaday ChromeOS environment ends up looking a bit of a patchwork. Or is that just me?
So, ChromeOS; is it complete? Of course not, no operating system ever is. Is it looking like a true platform? Well, more than it did at launch two years ago. Without abandoning the central ‘Cloud-centric’ premise, Google is now pragmatic enough to allow for a degree of local file management and offline capability, and, with Remote Desktop, simple remote access to Windows, Mac, or Linux PCs. Former liabilities are being chipped away with successive releases. If you’re someone who is at home with a smart-phone but doesn’t need the technical complexity that comes with a Windows, Mac or Linux desktop, then maybe ChromeOS is enough – just as long as you’re completely comfortable living in the Cloud.
Will it suit everyone? Certainly not. It’s still an immature platform. The browser based apps aren’t as feature rich as most dedicated desktop equivalents, and if you rely specific desktop apps and the file formats they work in, ChromeOS and the Chrome Store are going to come up short. AJS