Classified under cool things that can happen that I wasn’t expecting would be having Google send me a free laptop, but that’s what happened last week.
How I got it
As most have heard, Google has made their own operating system called Chrome OS and they put together a pilot program to get it into the hands of people while they continue the development. To get one, you can apply for the pilot program by filling out a form and hoping for the best. They are trying to get all kinds of people in the program, but I’m not sure of the specifics of how they’re choosing people. I filled out the form almost right after it went up and was hopeful, but I figured it was a long shot especially since when I answered the question asking why I’d be a unique user, I kind of gave an honest response and said that I wouldn’t be.
I expected that to be the end of it, I hadn’t heard anything so I figured I wasn’t chosen. This is where the surprise comes in, Friday night when my fiancée and I got home from our company’s holiday party, there was a box sitting on the front step. It was addressed to me which was confusing to both of us as I wasn’t waiting on anything, all the Christmas gifts that I had ordered had come already. The box was completely unmarked and the return address didn’t help–it certainly didn’t say Google on it. I was a little afraid, to be honest. I made my fiancée face the other way just in case it was something I ordered for her and had forgotten about. As I opened the box, I actually leaned back a bit, I had a slight fear that it was going to blow up in my face. I really had no idea what it was. Had I been completely sober at the time and not still a little buzzed from the party, I may have been even more careful.
When I got the box open, there was just another box inside. This box wasn’t labeled either. There was a nice graphic on one side that gave no real indication of what was inside and a lithium-ion battery warning sticker on the other side. No other markings. I was still a bit confused so I again opened the box in front of me with extreme caution and still expecting a face full of explosion. As I opened this box, the first thing that I saw was the battery and as I pulled that out, I saw a sheet of paper and the computer itself. At this point, I knew exactly what it was, but I was in utter shock. I couldn’t believe I had been selected for the pilot program. I also couldn’t believe that Google had sent me a free computer and didn’t even send me an email to let me know I had been selected–apparently, most people did get an email though.
Even though I was tired and a bit buzzed still, I immediately powered the machine on and started playing with it. How could I not? It was neat and my fiancée quickly grabbed it from me and logged in with her account too.
How could I not review this thing, right? So where to start? Hmm…I’ll start with the outside. If you’ve read any reviews of this thing so far, you’ll know that the aesthetics are view simple. The computer is all matte black and entirely unbranded. It looks amazing, sort of reminiscent of the black MacBook. There are no fingerprints left as you handle it. It’s wonderful. Appearance-wise, computers don’t get much nicer than this. I truly love it. One thing that you would never even think about until you’re presented with an unbranded computer is that if you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to try to open it from the wrong side. When you pick it up, it’s not immediately apparent which side the hinge is on. I’ve made this mistake a few times.
It’s a bit bigger than my Asus Eee 1101HA which makes sense since it’s a 12″ screen, but it’s comparable in weight. The machine doesn’t feel featherlight, it’s got a small bit of heft to it, but it also feels quite solid. I don’t feel like I’m going to break it…very unlike my Eee. Very nice. When you open up the lid, everything still feels pretty solid. When you close it, the top snaps down with authority and stays closed. Again, very nice. While it’s open, you’re presented with a spacious, yet simplified chiclet-style keyboard. I like the keys and this thing is a pleasure to type on–I’m actually typing this review on it. The keys feel solid under your fingers and don’t have too much travel, but there is enough to keep you from guessing if you’ve actually pressed them or not. I like typing on this thing much more than my Eee.
The most interesting part of the keyboard is the layout of the keys. Obviously, a Windows key isn’t needed so that’s gone. This frees up some room so the Ctrl and Alt keys are a bit wider. Along the top, the function keys are history and that’s okay because they don’t really have a lot of use on this machine, but they are replaced with keys for refresh, screen brightness, volume, etc. You’re not losing anything here. The caps lock key has been replaced with a search key which doesn’t bother me in the least, despite some groaning from the internet about this. The last major change to what’d you’d expect is one that bothers me though, there are no end, home, or delete keys. On my MacBook Pro, I’m used to being able to do fn-Delete for a right delete, but there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent here that I’ve found yet. Home and end can be achieved by holding down Ctrl and Alt while pressing up or down. It gets the job done, but there’s still a bit of oddball functionality loss (like being able to go to the beginning or end of a page) and annoyance here for someone who uses home and end a lot. Your average user won’t miss it, but being a software developer, I’m very used to needing to move around text quickly without the mouse. It’s become part of my everyday computer-usage. The only other negative about the keyboard is the lack of backlit keys. Though, to be fair, this isn’t really something that would be expected for this level of hardware, but it goes a long way when it’s there.
(Update: I actually took a look at the help article for all the keyboard shortcuts and the situation is much better than I originally feared. I think I’m good here…mostly.)
The trackpad is somewhat of a mixed bag. I like the feel of it under my fingers, it’s large and responsive. Not only does it feel much better than my Eee’s trackpad, but the two-finger scrolling is quick and responds well. It’s smooth instead of jerky like on the Eee. My experience here seems to be very different from most other reviews. Maybe it’s just that my expectations were for a similar experience to my Eee and not to my MacBook Pro. Anyway, you get a couple other gestures like pinch to zoom and you can do a two finger tap to right click–this doesn’t work very consistently. Unfortunately, you don’t get any three finger swipes like I’m in love with on my Mac for moving back and forward in a browser. Also, the trackpad gets very finicky when trying to select text. The best method I’ve found is to click the pad down and drag your finger while still holding it down. It works, but my hands never want to do that, they try to instead use a method more similar to what MacBooks allow–you can get away with using two fingers.
The 12″ screen is the right size and gives more resolution than a standard netbook, much nicer than the smaller screens on my most netbooks. My Eee is an 11″ model, but the extra inch makes a big difference here. Definitely worth the larger physical footprint. Additionally, it’s got a matte finish and is plenty bright. Unfortunately, that’s all I can say on the positive side for the screen. The contrast on this thing is horrible and I can’t find any adjustments for it yet. Everything feels very washed out and the vertical viewing angles are crap. There’s a very small angle that looks acceptable. Horizontal angles are quite a bit better though.
There are just a handful of ports on this thing. For what you’re going to use a cloud-only OS for, one USB port will get you by and the SD slot is nice to have, but of limited use to me since I’ll won’t be able to do any photo editing on this. Most people will be able to pop in a memory card from their camera and immediately start dumping to Picasa, Facebook, and Flickr. The machine comes with a VGA port instead of an HDMI port which is slightly disappointing. Granted, the machine doesn’t have the power to really drive HD content, but an HDMI port is a bit more useful these days than a VGA one is.
I haven’t been able to fully test the battery life yet, but it seems pretty solid. I think getting close to eight hours of life out of this thing could be a reality. The power brick is nice and small like you’d expect for a netbook so that’s nice, but I haven’t really kept it plugged in while using yet. Now that I think about it, it hasn’t seen AC power in over 48 hours and I’ve probably put four or five hours of use in since that charge. I’ve got 31% left right now. That kind of life puts the Cr-48 in the very good category. It’s more than my year and a half old MacBook Pro gets, but less than my fiancée’s 2010 MacBook and my Eee. Of course, those aren’t all fair comparisons.
Update: I forgot to mention the speakers, they’re located on the sides of the machine and get decently loud. They acceptably clear, but as would be expected, lack any bass at all.
Alright, so let’s get to the actual using it part. The Google Cr-48 is unlike using any other computer. It’s the first machine built for Google Chrome OS which attempts to make a pretty big statement in favor of computing solely in the cloud. If you think about it, most of your computer use is probably in your browser anyway and what isn’t can be moved there pretty easily.
When you turn the computer on, a cold boot takes about 15 seconds. This is the kind of thing anyone can get used to. If this is your first time using the machine, you are presented with a screen to login with your Google account. Once you put in your email and password, the computer snaps your picture and you’re off to gallivant around the internet as you please. If you use Google Chrome as your browser already and have the sync turned on, everything pulls down for you. You get your extensions, bookmarks, etc. From here on out, everything you do on the machine is in the cloud. If you use someone else’s Chrome OS machine, you’ll pick up right where you left off when you log in. When you first experience this, it’s pretty remarkable. You’ll love it.
When you close the lid, the computer almost instantly goes to sleep and when you open it back up, it’s on by the time you have the screen in position for use. You’ll love this too.
After you’re logged in, you get a Google Chrome window. That’s it. All you get is a web browser. The idea is that webapps can do everything for you. For most people, Google’s assumption (prayer, really) isn’t completely unattainable. Since Chrome OS really just lets you use a web browser, let’s talk about that. If you’re a Google Chrome (the browser) user already, you’ll feel right at home.
The browsing experience on the Cr-48 is very good. It has to be, this is all it has. Just about everything about the browsing experience is a smoother than on my Eee, but significantly slower than on my MacBook Pro or my Windows 7 desktop. There are some caveats though, flash performance leaves a bit to be desired. An Intel Atom with integrated graphics just doesn’t cut it. Low resolution videos play fine, but even 480p videos start to get a little choppy. Something that I think is a little odd is that YouTube videos don’t give you the option of 720p or 1080p. The options just don’t show. In reality, this is probably a smart move on Google’s front because I don’t think this machine would handle it very well, but therein lies the problem. Google thinks and wants the future of computing to be entirely in the cloud and media is continuing to become a bigger and bigger part of the online experience. On top of that, HD is becoming more and more important…even for video on the web. How could Google ship a machine to show off their new OS that doesn’t play HD video from their own video site? Granted, this is not a production machine–you will never be able to buy it, it’s sort of like beta hardware–, the OS is still in beta and not at v1.0 yet, and the OS is built on Linux and Adobe’s Linux support for Flash is awful. Still, to not even allow HD video is pretty crappy. This needs to get fixed before Chrome OS can be sold with production machines.
That’s all I’ve got for now, I’m still fiddling around with this thing and trying to find some hidden stuff. I haven’t tried developer mode yet, but I’ll get to that soon.
Factoring in that this is not production hardware and this is a beta OS still, I like the Cr-48 a lot. There are some glaring flaws here, but the overall experience is very positive. I like what Google is doing here, but like many (even former Google employee and the creator of Google) have questioned, what is the long term plan for Google Chrome OS? How will it not get swallowed up by Android which offers more and could pull off what Chrome OS offers.
For 95% of netbook users, this could do it for them, but I need my Lightroom. I’m not going to lie, Adobe Lightroom on a netbook isn’t the best experience, but it runs and with a little patience can get you by while you’re away from home. It’s nice to have a cheap computer that I don’t need to worry about yet can still run Lightroom while I’m on vacation. When I’m away, I can dump a days’ worth of photos on there and at least start tagging them and even get some of the basic editing done. If I could do that on here, my Eee would go up for sale.
The bottom line here is still a very big like. Even though I now have six computers to my name, this one will get a solid amount of use. My MacBook Pro won’t be replaced and my Eee will still come with me when I travel, but this will be nice for browsing on the couch or in bed.