In June this year, Google extended its reach into the computer market by launching the Chromebook platform. Many thought this an extremely strange move, especially considering underpowered netbooks are on the way out in favour of chic tablets. But Google is an Internet company, so it makes sense that the Chromebook revolves around cloud computing. Think of the Chromebook as a netbook that occupies a niche between a pure cloud client and a traditional laptop.
The Chromebook runs on Google’ Chrome Operating System (OS)—albeit totally transparent to the user—and is unlike any other netbook. The main reason is because there’s nothing installed on the machine but a browser, Google’s very own Chrome no less—no apps, no drivers, no folders, no nothing!
The Chromebook shuns local processing power in favour of online applications. There isn’t even an optical drive so you can’t install anything. The only way to extend the functionality of the machine is through browser apps, themes, extensions and games—a good range can be found at the Chrome Web Store.
If your broadband connection at home stinks, or you’re not interested in signing up to another 3G mobile plan, then the Chromebook isn’t for you. However, it’s worth noting that although the Chrome OS concept relies on an Internet connection, many third-party applications can be used offline using HTML 5’s offline storage features. Offline versions of Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Docs are now available.
Built for browsing
Samsung and Acer are currently the only manufacturers to offer a Chromebook. The Samsung Chromebook Series 5 (£349) has a 12.1-inch (1280 x 800) matte display, while the Acer Chromebook (£349) is more of a traditional netbook chassis, with an 11.6-inch widescreen HD display with a 1366 x 768-pixels resolution. Both machines are designed for lightweight Web browsing, hence the inclusion of an Intel Atom N570 1.66GHz dual-core processor and built-in dual-band Wi-Fi and 3G.
The Chromebook Series 5 looks like a regular netbook. It’s relatively light at 1.48kg (an Apple iPad 2 weighs 601g) but in terms of specification the Chromebook Series 5 is left wanting compared to a netbook. The battery is non-removable, the 2GB DDR3 RAM isn’t upgradeable and the 16GB SSD hard disk isn’t accessible. There’s no wired Ethernet or HDMI ports, relying on a single mini-VGA output (adapter supplied), two USB 2.0 port, SD card reader, 3.5mm audio in/out socket and a SIM slot, enabling the 3G model to access a mobile Internet connection. The built-in Web camera and microphone at least make it suitable for VoIP and chat applications.
The inclusion of USB ports is a bit misrepresentative because Chrome OS doesn’t support installing new device drivers, instead relying on pre-supported devices such as Ethernet adapters, mice and keyboards. It does, however, support external storage devices (NTFS and FAT32 volumes supported) and the Chrome browser can view, play and queue the most common file types including PDFs, pictures, music and videos. Don’t get carries away— support for local files is a low priority and ChromeBook OS offers rudimentary management tools. Printing is more of a pain, forcing you to use Google’s Cloud Print service to send files via a different computer.
Booting the Chromebook Series 5 for the first time takes you through a setup procedure unlike any Windows laptop. All the Chromebook Series 5 asks for is your preferred language, the security details of a local Wi-Fi access point—there’s no Ethernet connection on the machine—and your Gmail username/password. If you don’t yet have a Gmail account, you can get one there and then or log in as a guest. From there it’s straight onto the Internet using Google’s Chrome browser. Future log-ins simply require you to pick an available Wi-Fi connection and then your Google username and password.
Getting a Web open as quickly as possible is the biggest selling point of the Chromebook. Giving something close to the instant-on experience of a tablet, Chrome OS boots in under 10 seconds and resumes from hibernation in around 2 seconds—a real joy compared to a Windows laptop. You’ll also appreciate the way the Samsung Chromebook automatically powers on as soon as the lid is lifted and hibernates when it’s closed. Another usability benefit is that you don’t have to worry about Windows updates and security patches because the simple design makes it easy for Google to issue frequent updates to the Chrome browser.
The Chromebook Series 5 sports a TPM-authenticated boot sequence and the only data stored on the SSD is encrypted caches and settings—all user data is stored in cloud-based applications, such as Gmail and Goole Docs. From a user’s point of view this is great, but IT departments might be less keen to support a platform that automatically patches itself with no local management.
The Chromebook Series 5 enhances the Web browsing experience by replacing the function (“F”) keys on a laptop with a dedicated row of navigation and control buttons. Instead of a Caps Lock key, for instance, there’s a dedicated search key. There are also dedicated keys for navigating “next” and “previous” web pages, refreshing a page, and toggling between a full-page display (removes browser bar). There are also screen brightness and volume keys. The button-less trackpad is large and relatively responsive, but Chrome OS doesn’t currently support swiping left and right to navigate between pages or pinch and zoom functions.
Pie in the sky?
While the Samsung Chromebook Series 5 represents a significant shift in the idea of personal computing in that every application is used online, there are certain major issues to be addressed. For example, the simple task of printing via Google’s Cloud Print is considerably complicated compared to vanilla printing through a laptop. Secondly, and critically, there is the obvious issue of being unable to operate the Chromebook unless you are online. Although Google has developed technology that allows websites and services to operate offline, there are not many working options at the moment—Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Docs are the exception.
The Chromebook Series 5 offers a fun computing experience that eliminates some of the annoyances of using a Windows-based laptop, such as slow boot time, constant security updates and gradual performance deterioration (because a Chromebook upgrades itself automatically, in a few months it should actually be faster). But when it comes down to value, existing netbooks running Windows 7 with extended functionality and a similar battery life of 8 hours are available for a third less cost.
Google’s vision for the Chromebook is one that represents a vision of doing away with traditional software for personal use in favour of doing everything on the cloud. SaaS (software as a service) is definitely catching on more as the choices continue to grow, but for many users—especially home users with tight budgets and intermittent Wi-Fi quality—it can be more trouble than it’s worth. With a little more time and commitment from Google, the Chromebook could possibly be a contender for frequent tech-savvy travellers. But for now, a tablet is much more appealing.