Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Google CR-48 My Impressions - Part II Chromium OS
This is part II of my on going posts about Google CR-48 Netbook. Part I went over the hardware specs of the net-book and in this part I'll go over the much discussed "Chromium OS".
Upon first boot you are required to sign in to your Google account. By Google account I mean a traditional Google account or a Google Apps account that has been migrated to the new google apps infrastructure. If your Google Apps Domain has not been migrated then you can't use that account to sign in.
You also need to connect to a WI-FI network before being able to proceed.
After a successful sign in, you need to accept the Google EULA and then you are on your way.
After all this is done you get your first look at "Chromium OS", which not surprisingly is nothing but a "Chrome" browser window, and a status bar showing time, network status, login status etc. The status bar is integrated in to the browser window, so it saves some precious vertical real estate.
One good thing about the first boot is that a helper application is automatically launched for you, which goes over some basic features of the netbook's hardware and software. Especially helpful for getting acquainted with CR-48's multi-touch trackpad and special keys on the keyboard etc.
Startup - Shutdown
As expected of a net-book, the CR-48 starts up very fast and also shuts down very fast too. I get a login prompt under 5 to 7 seconds and shut down is also under 5 seconds. If you short press the power button while the netbook is turned on, you're logged out, while a long press results in complete shutdown.
Closing the LID will put the net-book to sleep and wake time from sleep is almost instantaneous.
Well Chromium OS is a bit strange to use first time. You have to wrap your head around the idea that every thing i.e. all your apps and all your data is in the cloud (The new fancy word for Internet).
But once you over come the initial blues, it's in fact quite fun to use the net-book.
You don't have to worry about loosing your data or apps as everything is stored in the cloud. Even if you reload your OS, perform a recovery, all the data/apps are automatically downloaded, ready to use under the new installation. I think that is the single most appealing feature of Chromium OS.
You do have some options to configure your net-book, like setting your local time-zone, enabling/disabling WI-FI/3G, options relevant to the chrome browser etc. One annoying thing I found is, every time you wipe the net-book clean and start fresh, your time-zone preference is reset to "Pacific Time". It should be backed up and restored automatically along with your apps and data.
For the technically inclined, there is also a terminal mode which allows you to run some basic command line programs.
That's about it for the "Chromium OS" from a user's perspective that is. Very simple and very clean.
Multi User Support
While it is good that chromium OS supports multiple users out of box, you can't do fast user switch, i.e. you have to fist log out as first user in order to be able to login in as a second user. A bit annoying if two people are going to share the same netbook. Although in chromium's defense, when you log back in, all the tabs that you had opened before logging out are restored.
Also you can take a picture for each user using the webcam, which will be shown on the login screen.
Chrome Browser and Chrome Apps
From an end user perspective this is the most important area. The browser is the same as the stand-along Chrome Browser you can install under Windows/Linux. So if you've used chrome browser before, you should be all set. There is a dedicated button to switch to a full screen mode, which hides the top toolbar and frees up some vertical space.
You can have a complete integrated and unified setup across all your chrome installations if you setup chrome sync. Once you've setup chrome sync, all your chrome installations will be synced up to share bookmarks, extensions, passwords, preferences etc. This is a really nice feature.
Flash is already built into the browser, and you can play flash videos just fine. Although the hardware specs of the net-book does not allow for smooth playback of HD videos. In fact under cr-48, you don't even get an option to select a HD version of a video, even if one is available. Google should really have put NVIDIA ION in this one, instead of the integrated Intel video controller.
The Chrome Web Store is the place to go to your cloud based apps that can run inside your browser. The web store is rather new and unfortunately most of the so called "Apps" are really nothing but bookmarks to respective sites. But there are quite a few good web apps already which are ready for prime time usage.
I hope Google cleans up the web store so as to disallow bookmark only apps. But all in all, it is a step in the right direction.
As of yet there are no paid apps, but I suppose those will also be available if and when Chromium OS takes off and more and more developers build dedicated Apps for the platform.
Some useful Chrome extensions and Apps
Here are some chrome extensions and web apps that are useful, especially under CR-48.
Local file system
There is limited support for viewing the local file system. No Explorer style GUI tool but file upload dialog box does allow you to select files stored under the "/home/chronos/user/downloads" directory. This Chromium OS build sets aside a hefty 11GB partition for storing user data, though I can't imagine which web apps would need that much space.
The inner guts of Chromium OS
For the curious , "chromium OS" is built on top of "Ubuntu Linux", and you can access a lot of the underlying Linux functionality once you switch your net-book to the developer mode. In fact if you want to tinker with your CR-48, switching to developer mode is the first thing you should do. It will open up a window of other possibilities including being able to run a different flavor of a full fledged Linux distro.
Although the CPU is 64bit, the OS itself 32 bit. Also even though Chromium OS is open sourced, CR-48 ships with some closed source drivers as well, so you may get a sub optimal performance if you were to switch Google's build with your own chromium OS build.
Overall Impression about using Chromium OS + Apps
Frankly I was surprised how easy it was for me to get used to "chromium OS", even if I hadn't used it before. Of course the fact that I was already using chrome as my primary browser helped. But giving up on local apps and using the cloud apps was not really as hard as I had expected.
I had already switched to Google Docs, so I never missed a local office suite. The web store has some useful apps for your day to day work like notes, todo lists etc.
The only thing I am lacking is a decent IM application, there are quite a few available in the web store, but I am a bit skeptical of storing my IM account details at a 3rd party web-site.
My main concern is the future of Chromium OS. There are already talks of merging chromium OS in to Android. I guess we just have to wait to find out.o
But for day to day tasks "Chromium OS" along with CR-48 are more than sufficient. CR-48 will surely replace my carry around laptop, an old HP nx6325.
Another annoyance for me is this bug in Chrome, due to which Indic fonts are rendered wrongly in Chrome under Linux. Until this bug is fixed, I can't use chrome under Linux full time.
Here is a slide show of some more screen shots from CR-48 running Chrome OS.