Using a Chromebook for the first time is disconcerting. The Chromebook is the first truly cloud-based notebook running Google’s Chrome OS and usable only if connected to the web. We didn’t expect to be so weirded out when we looked at one a Samsung Series 5 3G (Wi-Fi and 3G) the current top-of-the-range Chromebook. This machine is on sale in the US for US$499 and will arrive in Australia later this year.
At first glance a Chromebook looks just like a netbook then you quickly realise this machine redefines computing in many ways. Is this the precursor to how we’ll be computing in the future?
1. No desktop
After asking you to sign in with your Google ID the Chromebook boots directly into the Chrome browser not a desktop. Our immediate reaction was to minimise the browser and look for the desktop. But the unique version of the Chrome browser on the Chromebook does not have a minimise button (or maximise or close). There is a little square button you haven’t seen before but it’s for switching between browser windows. That’s when it hits you: you are stuck in this browser all the time. This entire computer exists to run the Chrome browser!
2. No installed apps.
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 menu or Program Files folder anywhere software is nowhere to be found.
3. The apps are…web apps
The apps you have to work with are Chrome web apps and extensions and appear when you open a new tab in the Chrome browser (see our examples above added from the Chrome Web Store). These are the exact same apps and extensions you can get today on a Chrome browser on any PC and they use the browser as a de-facto desktop. The difference between and app and extension in Chrome is that an app is a self-contained application that works within the browser while the extension extends the functionality of the browser itself. Google is also working with Citrix and VMware to port their virtualization software to Chrome OS in order for people to run their Windows apps on it.
4. No Function keys
These have been replaced by a set of Chrome -specific buttons most designed for web surfing. From left to right in the example above they are: back forward refresh full screen browser tab switching brightness and volume and the on/off switch. In essence Google has tried to create a keyboard that’s tailored specifically for the web.
5. No delete key
Google seriously. Where once deleting was easy (i.e. reach for the delete key) now it’s a pain in the butt. I must have spent five minutes trying to find the delete key only to realise there wasn’t one. You have to use the backspace key to delete or by right clicking on something and selecting delete from the dropdown menu. There’s no Caps Lock key either. It’s been replaced by a web search key.
6. No onboard storage accessible to the user
The Samsung Series 5 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 (most of which are coming down the track says Google some maybe later this year). You can’t save directly to the drive since it’s invisible to the user. Out of the box the only app on the Chromebook able to save to the onboard storage is â€œScratchpadâ€ 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.
7. The most challenged file explorer of all time
When everything happens through the Chrome browser and all data is stored online you theoretically don’t need a file explorer and on the Chromebook the file system is hidden. However since you can plug USB keys or SD cards into a Chromebook Google has made available a simple file explorer (above). When it recognises the drive and completes a scan of it Chrome will display a list of folders and files in a browser window. For photos it will even show a thumbnail as well as giving you the option of sending the photo to Google’s online Picasa photo album. But while you can see the files on an external drive you can’t copy them to the Chromebook itself. You can only rename or delete them (see above).
8. Can’t connect to the printer.
It’s possible to print from a Chromebook but it will take some setting up. You can’t connect a printer to the USB port since the Chromebook won’t recognise any printers directly. 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 â€œThere is no native printer software nor printer drivers on Google Chrome OS.â€ You can also print by using a Chrome â€œconnectorâ€ and networking wirelessly to another PC but we’ll leave that one alone for now.
9. Fast boot and shutdown
Switch on the Chromebook and before you know it in eight seconds or so the Chrome browser is staring at you ready to go. Press the on/off switch again and shutdown is even faster. We like it.
10. No connection? Sorry.
In the course of testing a Chromebook non-stop for a week we often found ourselves outside Wi-Fi range. You forget that you need to be connected so you log in to the Chromebook and then realise it’s a paperweight because all your apps and data are sitting in a Google server farm somewhere. Again another mental adjustment needed to cope with that! Not a problem obviously on a 3G Chromebook (although in our case we didn’t use the 3G option). All this however maybe short term only. Google is working on adding off-line capability to several Chrome apps starting with Gmail and Google Docs.
The Chromebook really is quite revolutionary and while we’ve listed these top 10 weird experiences there are countless advantages to using one particularly if you use Google Apps as heavily as this magazine does. If you can run the business through Google apps and have access to a browser a Chromebook will be a fantastic simple no-maintenance web terminal that will obviate the need for big complex notebooks. Our feeling is that within a year or two the majority of its apps will have offline storage anyway so they will work just like ordinary installed apps when the Chromebook is not connected.
There’s one caveat to all this. The prices of Chromebooks need to come down – otherwise they just won’t compete with better specced similarly priced notebooks or netbooks.
[This top 10 list was adapted from the cover story in this month's APC magazine (August edition). In the in-depth story we give the Chromebook a complete going-over and list all the pros and cons of such a radical machine as well as an examining the Chrome OS that makes it all possible.]