CR-48 review roundup: Can Chrome OS power your next PC?

Google's prototype notebook running its Chrome OS is gathering interest and praise, but it's mostly academic.

Chrome OS notebooks won't be for sale until mid-2011, but some tech writers are getting a taste with the Cr-48, Google's unbranded Chrome OS test notebook.

Although the CR-48 hardware is mostly irrelevant -- Google has no plans to sell this particular model to the public -- the experience of working in a cloud-based operating system is worth reading about. Here's what reviewers have to say about Chrome OS on the CR-48:

How Fast is the Start-up?

The initial setup is a breeze. "It took me less than a minute to start up, establish an account, take my own picture, connect to my WiFi network, and load my iGoogle homepage," InformationWeek's Thomas Claburn writes.

Routine boot-ups are "not what we'd call "instant" (although certainly very good)," Engadget's Paul Miller writes, but there's truth to Google's claim that Chrome OS springs into action from standby immediately after opening the laptop's lid.

What's the Interface Like?

Essentially, it's the Chrome browser, with a few tweaks to compensate for the lack of a traditional operating system. In lieu of a proper task bar, you can use Alt-Tab to switch between browser windows. As Laptop Mag's Avram Piltch writes, "because there's no desktop behind it, you can't minimize, maximize, or resize the browser window, nor can you view two browser windows next to each other."

Some Web apps escape their own windows by operating in pop-ups, such as a chat window for Google Talk and a music player from Piltch says Google needs to do a better job of handling these windows. Right now, you can only drag them horizontally along the bottom of the screen, or drag them down so a narrow strip sits at the bottom of the display.

"Pinned Tabs" become crucial when working in Chrome OS, says Jason Kincaid at TechCrunch, referring to tiny tabs you can stick to the browser's top-left corner. "If you fail to organize your apps you'll find yourselves sifting through a dozen tabs every few minutes, which is very frustrating."

How Much Work Can You Do on Chrome OS?

I read a couple comparisons to Apple's iPad among the CR-48 reviews. As Brad McCarty notes at The Next Web, Chrome OS succeeds where Apple's iPad fails at blogging, because he could store images or other files locally before uploading them to WordPress.

Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land wasn't as forgiving on the content creation front. He said the CR-48 is still "mostly like an iPad with a full-sized keyboard attached. I find the iPad limiting." Just as the iPad relies heavily on the strength of its apps, Chrome OS will rely on the strength of the Chrome Web Store. Claburn at InformationWeek adds that the CR-48 "is similarly ill-suited for development and content creation, though it's better than the iPad (except when used with a wireless keyboard) for rapid text entry."

Technologizer's Harry McCracken immediately hit a snag with Chrome OS -- he needed to tweak some WordPress templates using Apache, MySQL, PHP, and Subversion -- and had to jump on a MacBook Air to get the job done.

Will Chrome OS Recognize Peripherals?

Sullivan had good fortune with Microsoft's Arc Touch mouse, which operates via wireless USB transmitter. He also got an external monitor working through VGA output, but noted that the laptop's monitor shuts off. Google has no plans to use external monitors as desktop extensions, like you can do on a Mac or PC.

Support for external hard drives is coming to Chrome OS, but for now they're not supported on the CR-48. Chrome OS couldn't read data from Sullivan's Droid 2 and Samsung Fascinate Android phones, but did charge them. (McCracken, at Technologizer, said his iPhone wouldn't charge.) For now, the main way to bring external data into Chrome OS -- aside from the cloud -- is through a built-in SD card slot.

Is the CR-48 Hardware Important at All?

Forget most of what you'll read in reviews of Google's CR-48 Chrome OS notebook. Because it's just a test unit, there's no telling how its performance or design will carry over to consumer-facing Chrome OS machines from Acer and Samsung, so ogling the hardware doesn't serve much purpose. (One exception: The CR-48's keyboard, which ditches caps lock and function keys in favor of search and navigation buttons, will likely inspire other Chrome OS notebooks.)

As for software, reviewers seem leery about moving entirely into the cloud, but it's still to early to render a final verdict. I'll be interested to hear more impressions of Chrome OS after reviewers have lived with their laptops for weeks or months.

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Jared Newman

PC World (US online)
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