Using a Chromebook for the first time is quite disconcerting – things you take for granted aren’t there.
Google describes the Chromebook as a machine designed specifically for “people who live on the web”, and this is the key to understanding what Chromebooks are all about.
Anyone that’s suffered through the pains of using and maintaining a Windows machine should appreciate the Chromebook’s simplicity: no long boot and resume times, no system and software updates to manage, and no need to backup files.
But there is a price to pay: the initial discomfort and disorientation when you start using one.
At first glance, our test machine, a Samsung Series 5 3G Chromebook, looks like any other 12in netbook or ultraportable. Once you open the lid, the differences are noticeable and come thick and fast. Switch on the Chromebook and it boots up in about 8-10 seconds, an order of magnitude faster than a standard notebook. Without the Windows (or Mac or Linux) bloat, the Chromebook’s start up speed is comparable to that of tablets.
After asking you to sign in via your Google ID, the Chromebook provides its second surprise: it boots directly into the Chrome browser, not a desktop. The instinctive reaction when it does this is to minimise the browser and find to the desktop, but the unique version of the Chrome browser on the Chromebook does not have a minimise button (or maximise or close ones).
“WTF?” you find yourself thinking, when you realize you can’t get rid of the browser and that everything on this machine happens in it. There is a button you haven’t seen before up in the browser menu, but it’s for switching between browser windows (closest thing to alt-tabbing on a Windows PC).
Having given up looking for a desktop because there isn’t one, your next instinct is to start looking for the applications. But with no desktop nor Windows Start button, software is nowhere to be found. Eventually, you figure out that the apps are Chrome web apps and appear when you open a new tab in the Chrome browser (which is exactly how it happens on a Chrome browser on standard PC).
Although you can install any of thousands of apps from Google’s Chrome Web Store on a Chromebook, our Samsung machine’s out-of-the-box web-apps list disappointed us. There was Gmail, of course, and Google Calendar, Google Docs and Scratchpad (a primitive note-taker that saves stuff to the Samsung’s 16GB disk, just in case). Without wasting any time we quickly added some more apps, including one that linked to Dropbox for our online storage; Aviary Image editor (a reasonable online image editor) and Facebook. With more time in the Web Store it would be possible to add quite a bit of functionality to the Chromebook.
If you already run a Chrome browser on another computer on which you have installed Chrome apps, Google will port all these across, as well as calendar, bookmarks and other settings once you sign in to a Chromebook. In fact, you can set up a Chromebook’s apps even before you buy one. Or you can pretend you’re using a Chromebook – just don’t leave the browser under any circumstances.
The Samsung Chromebook’s trackpad is larger than you normally find on a notebook and is without trackpad keys. To right click, you tap it with two fingers at once. We are not sure what the point of this no-keys trackpad is; it seems like change for the sake of change, possibly to highlight the pure simplicity of the Chromebook. Some reviewers have called the Samsung Chromebook’s trackpad elegant; we call it stupid since it forces users to learn a new way of using a standard feature.
Another surprise is the lack of a Delete key. We discovered this after spending five minutes forensically examining the Chromebook’s chiclet keyboard trying to find one. You have to use the backspace key to delete or by right clicking on something and selecting delete from the dropdown menu. There is also no Caps Lock key, which has been replaced by a web search key.
The keyboard also does away with the top row of function keys, replacing them with a set of Chrome-specific buttons, most of which have been designed for web surfing (from left to right: forward, back, refresh, full screen and browser windows switching, plus brightness and volume). The lack of function keys, as well as bigger than normal keys which are widely spaced, really give the Samsung a toy-like feel, but the keyboard is superb for typing. It definitely feels much more spacious and easier to use than any netbook keyboard.
In essence, Google has tried to create a keyboard that’s tailored specifically for web surfing
WEIRD FILE MANAGEMENT
So with just a browser to do everything, how does the Chromebook manage files? The temptation is to go looking for a file manager, as you eventually do on Android or iOS device (with third party apps). But on the Chromebook the file system is hidden from the user. When you create documents it wants you to place them in the cloud.
The surprise here is that although Gmail and related Google apps are the default apps served up by the Chromebook, you are not tied in to them. You can just as easily do your entire cloud computing on the Chromebook using Microsoft’s Office web apps and SkyDrive. It’s also possible to set up browser links to online storage drives, such as Dropbox orBox.net. The Chromebook does recognise some external storage keys or drives inserted into its two USB ports. Plug one in and Chrome OS pops up a notification at the bottom of your browser saying “removable device detected…scanning content.”
But if doesn’t have a driver for the drive, the scanning lasts for eternity, as it did when we inserted a generic 4GB USB key the Chrome OS did not recognise.
When it recognises the drive and completes the scan, Chrome will display a list of folders and files in the Chrome browser window. For photos, it will show a thumbnail as well as giving you the option of sending the photo to Google’s online Picasa photo albums. But while you can see the files on an external drive, you can't copy them to the Chromebook or edit them.
Like many tablets, the Chromebook comes with a 16GB solid state drive. But the drive is reserved only for Chrome system files and data from any off-line apps (which are coming in the future, says Google). You can't save directly to the drive, since it's invisible to the user. Out of the box, the only app on Samsung Chromebook able to save to the onboard storage is “Scratchpad,” a very rudimentary app that looks like Gmail's todo list, in which you can save some short notes regardless of whether you are connected or not.
How do you print with a Chromebook? With great difficulty. You can’t connect a printer to the USB port since the Chromebook won’t recognise it. The only way is to use one of HP’s web-enabled printers in conjunction with Google’s own Cloud Print Service. In fact, Chrome OS uses Google Cloud Print for all printing. As Google itself points out, “There is no native printer software nor printer drivers on Google Chrome OS.” There is also an even more complicated way by using a Chrome “connector,” and networking wirelessly to another PC, but it’s not even worth going into here.