Well, would you look at what showed up on our frigid doorstep this morning? That's right, we are now the proud owners of Google's first Chrome OS laptop -- the Cr-48. Obviously, we ripped open the box and got right to handling the 12.1-inch, Atom-powered laptop. So, what does the thing feel like? How's that keyboard? And more importantly, how's Chrome OS looking? Stand by for our impressions, which we'll be adding in depth over the day. First impression: this thing is different.
Mega update: We blew this thing out! There's that video we already showed you, along with a way deeper dive into the hardware and the OS. It's all after the break, and you'd be a fool to miss it.
Look and feel
The Cr-48 may look like just any other laptop, but we can tell you right off the bat that it feels considerably better than most of those plastic netbooks sitting on store shelves right now. The entire body (that means the lid, edges, and the underside) is made of a soft, rubber-like matte black plastic -- in fact, it feels a lot like the back of the Droid, though it feels a bit less rubbery. Overall, it looks a lot like the old black MacBook, including a magnetic latch with a split spot for getting your finger in and lifting the lid and a sunken screen hinge. We're obviously pretty taken with the hardware design look and feel, but the laptop itself isn't going to turn heads or win any beauty contests, and that was clearly intentional on Google's part -- remember this one isn't for consumers, but more for those less stylish developers and early adopters.
When we first picked up the 0.9-inch thick laptop we expected it to be a tad lighter -- according to Google it tips the scales at 3.6-pounds. If you ask us it just feels a bit too weighty for the size, however it's still easy enough to transport from the couch to the desk with one hand. On the flip side, we're impressed with its thin body and the fact that its battery fits flush with the bottom of the chassis. Yes, thankfully, there's no awkward battery hump like its closest competitor the Jolibook. Let us not forget about the ports: the left side is home to a VGA socket and the right side a USB port, 3.5mm headphone jack and an SD card slot.
Chrome is super limited on drivers right now, but we did mount an SD card and a USB flash drive -- there's just no dedicated, easy way to get to the file browser. Interestingly, earlier versions of Chrome OS have given a pop-up within the browser for surfing through an external drive, so we don't know why Google has excised that at the moment. The USB port did work for attaching a mouse, however.
The laptop doesn't get nearly as hot as some of the worst offenders we know, but while it started out very cool, it did warm up over time -- though, so far we haven't managed to kick on the fan once.
Keyboard and touchpad
Surprise! Under the lid is that chiclet keyboard we showed you prior to the Cr-48's official birth. The keys, like the rest of the system, have a soft rubbery coating and feel pretty darn nice on the fingertips when typing. But as you can see from the picture above, the keyboard layout is probably the hardware aspect of the system that differs most from other netbooks out there. That's right, it's not your grandfather's keyboard, and Google made some real changes to the traditional layout -- it ditched the Caps Lock button for a search key, nixed the usual function control row and wiped out the Windows or Command button so there's now room for ultra-wide Ctrl and Alt buttons.
For the most part though, the changes didn't take much getting used to. There's an option to change the search key back to a Caps Lock, but we preferred keeping it as is since it automatically launches a new tab when pressed. And as you can imagine, the top row's back, forward and refresh keys were also incredibly convenient for the browser-based OS. We should also note that all of the typical Chrome keyboard shortcuts work out of the box, including Ctrl + the number of the tab, or Ctrl + D to bookmark a page.
We're not going to lie, we got pretty scared when we saw a ClickPad in place of a regular touchpad with real mouse buttons on the Cr-48 -- as you've probably heard, our experience with these hasn't been the best -- but the navigating experience isn't as bad as we expected. That doesn't mean it's perfect, but the plastic surface is responsive when navigating with a single finger or using two to scroll down the length of a webpage. However, things start to get shaky when you try and use the pad like a regular mouse button -- you know, with a thumb hovering on the left mouse button and an index finger on the pad itself. That setup causes either the cursor to mistakenly jump or not move at all. Our guess is that Google's using the older Synaptics ClickPad here, and as we've seen, future versions should help with those issues. We should also mention that there's no right click button, so to do so you have to tap two fingers on the pad itself.
Screen and speaker
The matte screen overwhelms us with gratitude. Thank you, Google. Thank you. Interestingly, it packs a 1280 x 800 resolution into its 12.1-inch dimensions, which strays from the typical 1366 x 768-resolution on most 11.6-inch and 12-inch laptops today. That means you can still get plenty of information on the screen, and we certainly didn't feel as cramped browsing as we traditionally do on sub-13.3-inch laptops. We did notice that the screen is a little dark, and while it's passable on viewing angles, you can really blow out the blacks further by viewing the screen at a lower than optimal angle.
We pumped a little bit of MOG and Pandora music through the speakers, and there was nothing offensive in the noise, it certainly wasn't spectacular. Think ThinkPad, not Dolby.
Performance and Chrome OS
With a tap of the power button the OS warms up, a graphical logo splash occupies the eye for a few seconds, the cursor comes alive, and then you're into the login screen in around 15 seconds. If you need to create a new user you just enter your Google account info (Google will allow different login forms, like OpenID, in the future), tap sign-in, snap a picture of yourself with the built-in webcam to use a profile shot, and "boom," you're into the OS. If you already have a profile stored, you need to type in a password every time you jump in, and it takes around 5 seconds to login.
While the boot is not what we'd call "instant" (although certainly very good), waking from the low-power standby mode is basically instant, certainly less than a second. Google claims you can stay in standby mode for around eight days, which seems pretty great to us. Clearly, we haven't had the time to test that just yet.
Once you're in the OS, you're in the browser, obviously. There's no minimize button up top, and the OS's best impression of an app launcher is the "new tab" button, which lists your apps, with "most visited" and "recently closed" sites below that. If you've seen Chrome, you've basically seen Chrome OS. Outside of tabs, there is a basic form of window management. If you hit Ctrl + N you get a new window, and you can toggle between your multiple windows with one of the action keys above the keyboard, sort of like virtual desktops.
There's a connections drop-down on the top right corner, which allows you to turn WiFi on and off, switch networks, or turn on your Verizon 3G. To the right of that is a simple battery life indicator, and, unfortunately, right now there's no way to control some power saving features, like the automatic screen timeout. You need an internet connection for the very first setup and login, but you can login to an existing user while the device is offline, and access anything that's cached or HTML5-stored on the device -- like some of those new Chrome Web Apps.
Our bookmarks and web apps carried over from desktop Chrome, but only after we remembered to set up sync on that copy of the browser -- it's on by default in Chrome OS, however. Even when we deleted our user on the Cr-48 and re-added it held onto everything just fine. The one exception to this symmetry was the small selection of default apps that Google has installed on the laptop, including EA's Poppit!, one of the most mundane Flash games we've ever come across. Those never get pushed to our other Chromes.
Even non-browsery things take place in the browser, like browser and system settings (the latter of which is laughably minimal, primarily concerned with setting the time zone). Google Talk is a pre-installed extension, and pops up a little dialogue from the bottom of your screen, which can be minimized into a small bar -- think of a purtified version of the separate GTalk chat "windows" in Gmail. A similar pop-up exists for downloads.
Wait, did we say downloads? Yes, we did. There is actually a filesystem, which we've seen two separate views for. When you upload a file on some random web app (like the excellent Pixlr Editor), you get a Linux-style file browser, with a full view of the file system, including the ugly OS-level stuff -- we doubt Google wants us to see this, in fact. However, if you upload a file from a blessed web app like Gmail, you get a very simplified file browser that shows any files you've downloaded and any screenshots you've taken. Ctrl + O opens that "file browser" up as the downloads pane, in case you want to rummage through screenshots you've taken or files you've downloaded without actually uploading them somewhere.
The other biggest difference between this version of Chrome and the desktop version that we noticed was that not all extensions can be installed, even ones that are listed with pretty new icons and meta data in the Chrome Web Store. Luckily our favorite was no trouble: FlashBlock.
And speaking of Flash... it seems to be this laptop's Achilles' heel. Even things as minor as Pandora seem to be putting a huge strain on the system, and cause everything else to slow down. When Google claimed Chrome OS ran the web "natively," it seems like it was ignoring the fact that Flash feels like emulation. Still, it's nice that it can run Flash. Is that hypocritical of us? The fact that Pandora or MOG can act as a music player on an OS that doesn't have a music player seems vitally important to the future of this OS.
Flash was the most painful when trying to deal with video. YouTube videos weren't perfectly smooth, but were at least passable at standard resolutions. Hulu videos, however, were unacceptably choppy. Also, the choppy, laggy, blurry video chat we attempted through Google Talk made us want to murder someone. It felt like we'd just wound back the clock and were using a hopelessly underpowered netbook, and we doubt that's how Google would like its shiny new OS to be perceived. Luckily, Adobe has already stated that it's on the case, and 10.1 (which means hardware acceleration) is in the works. In the meantime we found HTML 5 video, including clips from Youtube.com/HTML, to be an improved experience. At full screen video is still very choppy, but we're inclined to blame part of that on the N450 processor -- having a dual-core N550 CPU in here probably would have improved that experience.
One feature that we didn't get to spend too much time with but could be pretty clutch is Cloud Print. Basically, you set up your copy of Chrome on a regular computer to recognize printers on that local machine, which then get shared via your Google account with any other Chrome browser you've logged into, like your fancy Chrome OS machine, which can then print to any printers associated with that host machine. It might not sound as fancy as Apple's AirPrint, but it's probably going to be a lot more useful in the short term.
Google already went over this, but in case you missed it: multiple users is a breeze. Not only is it easy to set up a new user and sign in and out (though you have to enter your password every time it seems -- we didn't see a way to make one user a default), but the guest user spawns an "incognito" browsing mode, that not only stops the guest from accessing any of your info, but also covers the browsing tracks completely of the guest user. We figure the Googlers responsible for Chrome OS have some pretty shady friends, so we can't blame them for taking precautions.
Now, we've given our thoughts on a lot of this OS because we like you guys, but at the end of the day it's beta software running on non-commercial hardware, and that's why this is a preview, not a review -- none of this is final. Google has made it clear that it has plans to make a lot of improvements to the OS before it launches, and it certainly needs it. We encountered plenty of bugs and slowdowns, to be sure. On occasion when we went to sign out we ended up losing our session, as if it had "crashed" -- though thankfully a "restore" dialogue came to our rescue each time. Some extensions that worked for us initially stopped working later on, and some sites would perform really well one moment and really sluggishly the next. Interestingly, Google touted the OS as immune to the sort of slowdowns you get over weeks and months with a desktop OS like Windows, but we noticed slowdowns over a matter of minutes and hours. Hopefully these kinks can be ironed out, but we also wouldn't mind if third party manufacturers use some more powerful hardware than what Google's cobbled together.
Verizon connectivity and battery life
As promised, this was pretty much a snap to set up. All Chrome OS laptops are getting 100MB a month of free data from Verizon for the first two years of their laptop, but if you want more data than that there are a variety of pay options. Ten dollars gets you unlimited data for a day, and there's a meter on the tab that reveals how much data you have left. Pretty helpful, Google.
Google promises eight hours of battery life. Our units came with a halfway charged cell, which means we'll be updating this portion of the preview when we get this thing filled up with juice and can use it out and about. Right now at least one of our units seems about on pace for Google's estimate.
This is a tough one to sum up. It's not a "real" product, in the sense that you can't buy it. Still, it represents the infancy of a series of products that will be very real and probably pretty well priced. We can already see some reasons why particularly browser-bound folks might consider this over a netbook, but for most people we'd say Google has a long ways to go to create a true netbook or laptop alternative -- besides, how many secondary and tertiary devices does one person really need? While the OS is pretty much all that matters here right now, and the internals are nothing special, our favorite part of the Cr-48 probably happens to be the one true inessential element: the design. We wish more computer manufacturers would take a note out of this understated book.
Joanna Stern contributed most of the interesting parts of this amazing report.