(Hello visitors, if you’re interested in this post, you may be interested to know that I have posted my impressions of the newer Chromebook Pixel here)
Last year, I had the chance to attend the New Game conference sponsored by Google to talk about the use of HTML5 in games. The conference itself was fascinating as it brought up many of the themes I’ve mentioned before on this blog about the rise of HTML5 as a tool to build compelling software, but one of the highlights was that Google gave every attendee a free Samsung Series 5 Chromebook to test out and use for development purposes.
I’ve blogged a few times before about Chromebooks and how they represent the next logical step in Google’s belief in the web as the core platform for software delivery (seeing how they’re machines that are built almost entirely around the browser), and I jumped at the chance to test it out.
I initially tested out the Chromebook shortly after getting it for a week or two. To be completely honest, I was underwhelmed. While there were many cool things about the operating system (it always being up to date, the built in Google Talk experience, and the ability to use Google Docs as a scratchpad for starters), the machine just felt very slow (likely in part because of the low-end Intel Atom processor inside). The device never seemed to sync properly with my Google account, the lack of a desktop made this feel more like a browser with a keyboard than an operating system, and poor support for offline functionality and handling of peripherals made it feel very constraining. I meant to write up a review on the blog but I never got around to it and it faded from memory, collecting dust in storage…
Flash forward to May when Google unveiled a pretty bold re-vamp of the Chrome OS operating system that lies behind the Chromebook: Aura. Aura replaced what was formerly a within-one-browser-window experience with something which looks and feels a lot more like a traditional operating system with a taskbar, multiple windows (and hence true multi-tasking), a desktop background, a “system tray/control panel” to readily access system-wide settings (i.e. battery life, which WiFi network I’m connected to, screen brightness, etc), and an application launcher. My previous problems with syncing with my Google account are gone (and its support for tab syncing – where I can continue browsing a webpage I was reading on another device – make using this very natural). The experience also just feels faster – both the act of browsing as well as thinsg like how quickly the touchpad responds to commands. Chromebooks now also handle more file types natively (whether downloaded or from removable media), and, with the recently announced offline Google Drive integration, Chromebooks have gotten a lot more useful and have taken another step to achieve the “web file system” vision I blogged about before.
Much to my surprise, I’ve even found myself turning to my Chromebook regularly as a casual consumption device. It being instant-on, browser-centric, and ready support for multiple user accounts makes it a perfect device to watch TV epsiodes or movies from Google Play, Netflix, or Amazon Videos or to share interesting articles to my Tumblr (something that my touch-centric Galaxy Nexus and Motorola Xoom do less well at).
Realistically, there are a set of apps which I’ve found to work much better on Windows/Linux (mainly coding, using Microsoft Excel, and composing blog posts) and which prevent me from using a Chromebook for 100% of my computing needs. But, while important, these only take up a minority of my time on a computer — what actually stops me from using the Chromebook much more actively as a primary machine in my job and day-to-day are two far more pressing items:
- Evernote does not work. I am a very active user of Evernote for note-taking and note organization, and its unfailing ability to crash whatever tab is open to it on a Chromebook is a pretty major roadblock for me.
- Some web apps don’t play nice because they don’t recognize Chrome OS properly. The key culprit here for me is Microsoft Outlook. A conspiracy theorist might think this was some ploy by Microsoft to get people using Chrome OS to switch to Windows or by Google to get Outlook users to switch to Google Apps – but at the end of the day, Microsoft’s very nice, new Outlook Web App, which works beautifully on Chrome on my Windows 7 machine, treats the Chromebook as if it were a barely functioning computer running Internet Explorer 6 – leaving me with a crippled web experience for what is my corporate email lifeline. If Google made it possible to spoof the browser identification or found a way to convince Microsoft to give Chrome OS flying colors when it comes to serving up web apps, that would make me a MUCH happier camper.
These issues aside, there is no doubt in my mind that Chrome OS/Chromebooks are a concept worthy of consideration for people who are thinking about buying a new computer for themselves or their loved ones: if you spend most of your time on the computer on the web and don’t need to code or create/consume massive files, these machines are perfect (they boot fast, they update themselves, and they are built with the web in mind). I think this sort of model also will probably work quite well in quite a few enterprise/educational settings, given how easy they are to support and to share between multiple users. This feels to me like an increasingly real validation of my hypothesis of the web as software platform and, while there’s quite a few remaining rough spots, I was very impressed by the new Aura revision and look forward to more refreshes coming out from the Chrome team and more time with my Chromebook :-).