I was eager to try out the Google Chrome OS ever since I heard it was built on Linux, as I’m an avid Linux user. As it turns out, Chrome OS is a far different user experience from the Linux I’ve learned to love. However different these two relatives are, the Chrome OS is built for simplicity and ease of use. That it does very well. Where Linux and Chrome OS compares is that they are both Open Source, which means if using Chrome OS is nice but lacking, anyone is entitled to tweak it to their liking from the source code.
I’ve been using the Chrome OS for a little over a month now and I wanted to embrace the world of "cloud" computing before writing about my impressions on the cloud based operating system. Everyone that uses an internet attached computer is essentially using the “cloud” in some fashion, but the Chrome OS relies on the user to use web applications and web file storage for all of their computing and storage needs. This enables the user to take advantage of a number of benefits.
If the user’s physical hardware needs to be service or if it is ultimately destroyed, no files will be lost as they are all stored on the cloud. As more web versions of programs become available, gone will be the day to buy and install software, make sure the computer meets hardware requirements, and hoping the processor and graphics card are fast enough to execute large amounts of encoding or decoding. For instance, the project Autodesk Butterfly is a lightweight web based CAD program that leaves all the processing and rendering duties to remote servers. Having a server or a cluster of servers computing data for the user is a huge advantage and thus will lower costs for the consumer by not having to buy all the expensive components to use programs like CAD software. Also, when one of the expensive servers breaks, the companies that manage the servers are the only ones out of pocket to fix them.
The users also benefit for not having locally installed programs that are susceptible to bugs, crashes, and conflicts with other software on their computers, and this will cut down on many help desk phone calls and reinstalling of software.
There are many more benefits, but one more worth mentioning is a virus or malicious program aimed at attacking the computer’s file system. With the Chrome OS, access to manipulate the file system has been locked down to maintain the integrity of the file system. If something does accomplish to change anything in the file system, when Chrome OS is rebooted it will automatically rebuild itself, and the user will not lose any data, as it’s all on the cloud.
Since this is a test bed, this particular hardware will never be sold to consumers. The pilot program’s real focus is the Chrome OS, so a quick skim over the hardware, then on to the operating system.
The weight of the CR-48 laptop weighs in around 3.5 lbs and comes with a battery and AC adapter. The battery bay of the CR-48 has a
SIM card slot and a very well hidden switch to enable developer’s mode.
The keyboard’s QWERTY configuration remains, however some radius keys are different. Instead of your typical function keys, you have shortcut keys to help navigate the browser based operating system easier. The Caps Lock key has been replaced by a search key but can be changed back to Caps Lock if need be.
The touchpad is without the left and right buttons most are use to. All left and right clicks are generated by different touch inputs.
On the right side of the laptop there is the AC adapter plug in, a
USB port, headphone jack, a speaker, and a SD card reader.
The left side of the laptop is only adorned only with a VGA output, a speaker, and an exhaust vent.
The screen is 12.1 inches and has a matte finish. This makes it very easy on the eyes as well as having a very crisp picture.
Also included is a Verizon Wireless 3G wireless card with free 100 MB a month for two years exclusively for this program. Providing a credit card number is still required to sign up for the free data, as such I haven’t personally tested the cellular aspect.
Here are the hardware’s guts.
CPU - Intel Atom CPU N455 @ 1.66 GHz
Chassis - IEC Mario Pony 6101
Graphics - Intel Pineview Integrated Graphics Controller
Audio - Intel 82801G High Definition Audio Controller
Wireless - Atheros Communications AR928X Wireless Network Adaptor
Initial Chrome OS Setup
Once the power button is pressed, the Chrome splash screen will appear in about 5 seconds. The time to the login screen from pressing power comes in at 14 seconds. Resume from sleep is virtually instantaneous.
The initial boot screen will be the Let's Get Started settings. The language is defaulted to English (United States) but has a large lists of languages and keyboard maps supported. From this screen the wireless network is selected and has the options to enter proxy settings if needed.
Next will be accepting the Google Chrome OS Terms and the option to automatically send usage statistics and crash reports to Google.
After the terms are accepted it will reach out to install updates.
When the updates have finished a Sign In screen appears. It will only accept Google Account credentials or gives the option to skip and sign-in as a Guest.
After the credentials are accepted, then there will be the option to take a photo using the built in web cam to attach to the user account.
After the initial configuration setup, the next time the computer boots up, it will display the image above as the default log in screen.
The default login screen will consist of the initial user login (also designated as the Owner), a guest login, and an option for others to login using their Google credentials. The guest login will enable any user to use Chrome for browsing the web in incognito mode and with a few options to change settings. Restrictions to disable the guest account, and manage which users are able to log in are handled through the Settings of the “Owner” account.
Once logged a greeting appears over the Get Started screen welcoming the user to the pilot program.
After the welcome greeting has been dismissed, a Get Started screen appears to walk the user through the basics and other features like cloud printing and how to use the touchpad.
If you are acquainted with the Chrome/Chromium browser, then you basically know the interface of the Chrome OS. It uses a Chrome browser as the only user interface. In addition to the browser, the Time and Date, Wireless Signal Strength, and Battery Information are on the top right corner.
Chrome has a Dashboard, accessed when a new tab is opened, and consists of a Bookmarks Toolbar, an icon view of Apps installed, a list of most visited sites, and a list of recently closed tabs. It’s simple and usable, but lacking. One area that I find could use a tweak is the application icons. The inability of moving the icons around to group apps together or move the most used to the top is a bit of an annoyance, but not a deal breaker yet since I’ve not installed many apps, but in the future it may be a much needed feature. The interface also lacks a more fluid access between all of my Google tools like Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, Google Voice and Blogger.
If you've used the Chrome browser on other devices and have it setup to sync your preferences, bookmarks, extensions, autofill, themes, or apps across all your computers, then Chrome OS will already have those items synced and ready to use.
Before diving head first into the cloud, some settings might need to be adjusted to suit certain needs.
The Settings menu is accessed by selecting the wrench on the far right of the address bar and selecting Settings, or by typing chrome://settings in the address bar.
The Modifier Keys option is where the option is to change the search key back to Caps Lock among other options.
The personal settings will show the picture taken during setup. Unfortunately, there is not the option to change the picture. To change the picture this will involve resetting the laptop using the developer’s mode switch and taking the picture again from the initial setup.
Under the Hood Settings
Unfortunately, there is nowhere in the settings to find out hardware information. I actually stumbled across how to get this information while trying to send a bug report to Google. Typing chrome://system into the address bar will generate a very detailed report of hardware, driver information, Linux kernel, and more detailed information.
Using Chrome OS
Now Chrome is ready to surf the web but this is just the beginning of the journey to the cloud. As a user of localized apps and storage, the task of finding web based apps and storage to replace current apps and move data to the cloud exists.
The Google App Marketplace has a very good collection of free and paid web applications that can perform just about any task needed. The offerings of applications will surely grow as more users choose the Chrome browser and Chromium OS.
Here are just a few web apps that you can use to replace localized programs.
Documents - Google Docs can create and edit word processing, spreadsheets, forms, diagrams, and presentations and provides 1 GB of free storage for these files. Google Docs also allows sharing documents with other people for collaboration efforts. Another presentation tool offering from Google App Marketplace is SlideRocket, which is a little more robust than the Google Docs offering. MS Office Live is also an online manipulator of documents and may ease the transition for someone familiar with MS Office products. Office Live uses the Microsoft Cloud Skydrive for file storage and has 25 GB of free storage.
Email and Organization - I personally like Gmail's layout and email threading, coupled with Google Calendar. My notes and task organizing are handled by Evernote.
Image Editors - Aviary Image Editor, Deviantart, and Picnick offer a variety of picture manipulation options. Picnik can also put together easy collages. Also with Picnik you can pull pictures from a variety of different sources like Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, Photobucket, Picasa, or from a URL. Some of these offerings like Picasa have limited free space to store you photos.
Music - There are countless offerings on the web to get your music fix. DI.FM, Heart.FM, Last.FM, Pandora just to name a few. There are also storage based options where you can either buy music from the likes of Amazon or upload your own music. I personally use Ubuntu One which is integrated into my computers running Ubuntu, where you can upload and store music, as well as purchase from Amazon which automatically stores it in Ubuntu One. Ubuntu One has 2 GB of free storage.
Storage - Google Docs gives me 1 GB of free space for documents, Gmail give me over 6 GB of free space for email, Picasa gives me 1 GB of free space for pictures, and Ubuntu One gives me 2 GB free space for any type of files. True that this isn't an enormous amount, and hardly can fit all the pictures and music I have accumulated over the years. I also use Dropbox which provides another 2 GB of free space and Chrome has an applet you can install that makes going to your Dropbox as easy as clicking a button. I also use Box.net which gives 5 GB of free space and MS Skydrive with another 25 GB. Some might not like having their files in so many different places, and for those, any of the listed online storage sites will be happy to oblige by upgrading you to larger storage capacity for monthly or yearly dues.
There are many applications online that can replace applications that people buy, install, and have to maintain on their computers themselves. Everything ranging from document creating and manipulation, photo and video editing, project management, file conversions, as mentioned before even CAD offerings, and many others. The chances are good that there is a web application out there that can replace locally installed software, and if there isn’t, there is probably one being created or will be in the near future.
Underneath the browser interface still lies the Linux file system. Downloads are saved to a folder (/home/chronos/user/downloads) and is accessed by the shortcut keys Ctrl + O, however that is the only way to see downloads. There isn't any shortcuts to the rest of the file system or even an external drive that is connected. These take a little more to access.
In the image above the file system was accessed by using the Aviary online photo editor. When searching for an image file to edit, it will actually bring up the file system. To the new Linux user it may take some hunting to find what you are looking for. As seen in the photo, clicking on chronos in the left pane will bring up more directories, but in particular the option to click on the download directory where downloaded files reside.
Further down is directory named 8411-A4D2, which is the thumb drive attached to laptop.
Picasa and other Google apps will only bring up the download directory without a way to navigate through the file system. Aviary is the only web app that I have been fortunate to stumble across the file system, but I'm sure there are others.
While cloud computing is not necessarily a new thing, the way it’s being utilized is taking off now because most of the users have moved onto a high speed connection to the internet and are able to download and upload at higher speeds. This allows people to do more and be more productive in relation to their connection speed. This movement has even pushed the giant Microsoft into offering free cloud space and a free version of Office to create and edit documents online. Microsoft offering stuff for free is a sign that cloud computing is a progressive and rising technology.
The Google Chrome OS is taking cloud computing to the next level. Chrome OS is a stable and easy operating system to use and is useful to a wide range of users from the beginner to the power user. I'm anxious to see how well it will be received once it is released to the public on a range of platforms.
The Chromium OS Project offers the open source code that allows anyone that is interested to use the source code to contribute or distribute their own version of the Chrome operating system.
The source code and documentation for the Chromium OS Project can be found here: