When choosing a laptop, you generally have to pick between either Microsoft or Apple's platforms. But Google is about to lob a new operating system into the mix -- Chrome OS. The software will hit the shelves in June, loaded onto specially constructed Chromebook laptops.
Chromebooks will provide a deliberately simplistic computing experience. Devoid of any physical storage, all applications and user data will be stored in the cloud, on Google's servers.
We've taken Chrome OS for a spin, so read on to find out exactly what this cloud-based operating system is all about. Note that our Chromebook, the CR-48, is being given away to developers by Google, and won't actually be going on sale, so we haven't put it through our usual usability tests.
On your marks...
A much-touted feature of Chromebooks is that they will offer extremely rapid start-up times. This is because they don't run a traditional operating system -- it's more like having Google's Chrome browser as the only program you can run.
We were really impressed by the start-up times on our prototype machine. It took 9 seconds to get to the user sign-in page once we hit the power button. If you put your Chromebook on standby by closing the lid, it'll snap back to life almost instantly once you open the lid again.
Another probable benefit of the lightweight Chrome OS is that battery life will be very good. Actual battery-life figures will vary with different Chromebooks, though.
Head in the cloud
So what does Chrome OS actually do? Well, it's really just a slightly mutated version of Google's Chrome Web browser.
Once you've turned the Chromebook on, you get a user-selection screen. To sign into the laptop, you'll need to enter your password for your Gmail account. This means you can't even sign into Chrome OS without an Internet connection, unless you want to browse using the 'guest' profile, which won't have your bookmarks and preferences saved.
Once you're signed in, the realisation of quite how pared-down this OS is will hit you like a tonne of bricks. There's no desktop, no media player and no hard drive. You can't even install programs. It's just a browser with a few extra bits and pieces bolted on.
The tabbed browser is just as simple and intuitive as Chrome on other platforms -- the URL bar also functions as a Google search bar, and tabs along the top don't take up much space. We love the Chrome browsing experience, and all of that is replicated here, including Flash support, so you can head straight to YouTube and start watching videos of cats falling into boxes. Google Maps works brilliantly, and Google Docs is every bit as useful as it is when running in Chrome on Windows or Mac OS.
The only obvious aesthetic difference is that, in the top right-hand corner, there's a clock, wireless-connection status icon and a battery meter. If you're used to Windows, think of this segment of the browser as the system tray.
There's one feature of Chrome that's doesn't make an appearance in Chrome OS -- the ability to drag tabs to the far left or right of the browser, and thereby open them in a new window. It's a shame because it means that, if you have stuff you want to copy from one tab into another, you can't just open two windows and keep them side by side -- you have to keep switching between the tabs instead.
You can't install programs on Chrome OS, but you can install apps from the Chrome Web Store. These are basically browser extensions, but there are some useful ones to be found. And there's Angry Birds too.
Google will be hoping that more developers start creating apps for Chrome OS, but whether developers take to the platform will depend very much on how popular it is when it first launches.
Tangled in the Net
We weren't all that impressed by Chrome OS, and it wasn't long before we became painfully aware of the limitations of a system that uses a Web-based OS. For instance, we wanted to take screenshots of our browsing sessions, but there was no print-screen button on our Chromebook. Instead, we had to install an extension called Aviary, which lets you take screenshots within Chrome.
But, because there's no desktop, we weren't able to save our screenshots anywhere. Luckily, Aviary will let you host your screenshots online, so we could then copy the URLs of our screenshots, paste them into an email and open them on a PC running Windows, before we loaded them into this story. Talk about a faff.
If your Web connection goes down, Chrome OS is about as useful as a chocolate fireguard. Abandon any plans of doing some quick work on a plane or train, or anywhere that doesn't offer a steady, reliable Internet connection.
Plenty of actions we take for granted proved surprisingly tricky. Chrome OS recognises USB sticks, and opens a crude file explorer in a new tab, but many types of file just won't open, and you can't copy, drag or otherwise move files from one location or storage device to another. It's all very frustrating.
All of this makes us wonder -- why buy a Chromebook? Chrome OS isn't a bad idea, but the free, multi-platform Chrome browser can do all the same things already, and, if you have it installed on a PC or Mac, you can do loads of other things offline, play all sorts of media files and, well, have an actual computer, instead of a Web browser.
The first Chromebooks are going to cost around £350 to £400, for which you could buy a passable budget laptop or netbook. Essentially, then, you're paying for the speedy start-up and overall simplicity. We're not convinced it's worth it -- yet.
Cloud computing is probably the future, but we're not sure the world's ready for Chromebooks and Chrome OS. Everything will hinge on whether Google can make Chromebooks more affordable, and make the general public -- and app developers -- aware of exactly why the platform is worth bothering with.
Edited by Charles Kloet