By Harry McCracken | Monday, July 25, 2011 at 10:52 am
Last Thursday morning, as I packed for a three-day trip to San Diego for Comic-Con, I couldn’t decide whether to take my trusty first-generation MacBook Air, or use the trip as an excuse to review Samsung’s Series 5 Chromebook, which I’d just received. So I didn’t decide–I took both.
And then, once I’d arrived at the airport, I realized that I’d forgotten to bring the Air’s AC adapter. The Blogging Gods clearly wanted me to try the Series 5, one of the first commercially-available devices that runs Google’s Chrome OS.
The notion of using a laptop purely as a window to the Web–which is the Chrome OS proposition–isn’t inherently unappealing to me. (In fact, I tried to do just that back in 2008, in a project I called Operation Foxbook, long before Google announced Chrome OS.) Using Google’s first Chromebook, last year’s experimental CR-48, had left me more skeptical about Chrome OS rather than less so. But I still want to be impressed with a truly Web-centric computing device. Sadly, my time with the Series 5 at Comic-Con was frustrating in multiple ways. Google and its hardware partners are selling Chromebooks to the public at prices which aren’t lower than those for similar Windows laptops, but the Series 5, like the CR-48,still feels like an experiment.
If the $499.99 Series 5 were a Windows 7 machine, it would probably be a pleasing one. The black-and-white case of the one I have looks good, and it’s reasonably thin at .8″. The keyboard is full-sized and comfy. 12.1″ is an appealing screen size–highly portable, yet without the crammed feeling of a netbook. I had trouble with the touchpad (see below), but it’s surprisingly spacious.
This is a Chromebook, though, and one of the defining aspects of a Chromebook is that it doesn’t really work without Internet access. (It’s possible to listen to music using the bare-bones media player, and Google is working on limited-function offline versions of part of the Google Apps suite.) I figured I could still be OK: after all, I spend around 85 percent of my time using Web apps such as WordPress.com anyhow. I would just use Google Docs instead of my favorite word processor, Scrivener, and something like the Web-based graphics suite Aviary instead of Photoshop.
News coverage of Comic-Con leaves the impression that everyone there is strolling about dressed as a superhero–or, at least, is attending a preview of a major upcoming superhero-themed movie. No, not really. I spent much of my time in small rooms attending interesting panels with folks such as veteran cartoonists. And while I listened, I tried to do my day job, by blogging and answering e-mail.
The San Diego Convention Center has free Wi-Fi, and the Series 5 I tried has embedded Verizon Wireless 3G. That gave the Series 5 two ways to get online–and much of the time, either or both of them worked fine. I blogged. I browsed around. I tried out apps from Google’s Chrome Web Store. I mostly liked the user interface–I spend so much time online that using a browser as the primary interface makes sense to me, and Google does so in a thoughtful way. (The way Chrome OS manages multiple windows–a sort of stripped-down-but-slick equivalent to OS X’s Spaces–is especially well done.)
The Series 5’s battery life was terrific, too–if it didn’t hit Samsung’s estimate of “up to” 8.5 hours on a charge, it came mighty close.
Trying to do graphics for Technologizer using a Web app, however, was a fundamentally unsatisfying experience. Aviary is impressive in many ways, as are competitors such as Google’s own Picnik. But none of them are as swift as a good image editor that’s a piece of traditional software. I felt like I was working in slow motion. (Aviary, actually, didn’t work at all for my purposes: after I’d resized and cropped an image, I couldn’t save it as a JPEG file for use on Technologizer. In Chrome for OS X, it worked just fine.)
The Aviary file-save glitch was the only instance I noticed of a Web site that should have worked on the Chromebook failing to do so. Flash-enabled sites such as Amazon’s video on demand service performed adequately, which was a pleasant change from my experience with them on Android handsets and other mobile devices. And I knew that Netflix Watch Instantly wouldn’t work–it requires Microsoft’s SilverLight–so I wasn’t startled when it didn’t. (If you log into Netflix on a Chromebook, you get a version of the site focused entirely on the DVDs-by-mail service.)
Worse, I quickly figured out that:
End result: I spent a lot of time futzing with the Series 5, hoping that I could coax it into reconnecting to the Internet. Sometimes I succeeded; often I failed. When I failed, I closed the notebook and paid attention to the con.
If the Series 5 had been a cheap Windows laptop, I would have presumably had the same connectivity woes, but the lack of Internet access would have been aggravating but not devastating. I could have used a word processor, an image editor, or a fancier music player than the rudimentary one built into Chrome OS. The Chromebook, however, might as well have displayed a picture of a boat anchor when it couldn’t find the Internet.
Even when I was online, I had trouble with Chrome OS. Google’s Chromebook site talks about Chrome OS laptops avoiding “all the headaches of ordinary computers.” Which they sort of do–it’s just that the Series 5 turned out to have a bunch of headaches of its own.
At one point, the Chromebook seized up altogether, suffering a sort of Blue Screen of Death without the blue screen. When I rebooted it, I briefly saw a message that said that the preferences file was corrupt or invalid. Maybe a damaged preferences file caused some of the glitches I encountered. But I’m not sure how it got damaged, or how to fix it. (A Google representative contacted me about the issues after I mentioned them on Google+: I’ll let you know if the company helps me figure out what’s going on.)
My friend Louis Gray is using a Series 5 and says the experience is largely trouble-free, and so pleasing that he rarely uses his Mac anymore. Still, the oddities I’ve seen may also stem from bugs, plain and simple. One of Chrome OS’s selling points is that Google can push down updates and have a Chromebook silently auto-install them, much as Chrome-the-browser does. As with major new versions of Windows and OS X and other operating systems, waiting a bit will surely get you a more reliable Chrome OS.
But a Chromebook that behaves as intended will be almost entirely dependent on the Web. You have to find a Wi-Fi hotspot. Or pay for 3G, once you’ve used up the 100MB of free monthly Verizon service you get for the first two years–which you can do in a few hours even if you’re not doing anything that’s particularly bandwidth-hungry. And if you can’t get online, as I often wasn’t in the nation’s ninth largest convention center, you’re toast.
In other words, Chrome OS and Chromebooks are built for an era of genuinely pervasive Internet access and all-powerful Web apps that isn’t here yet. If that age arrives at all, it will take years, not months.
For now, using the Series 5 has given me new appreciation for Windows 7 notebooks that offer Chromebook-like hardware at a Chromebook-like price. (My pals at Laptop Magazine, in their Series 5 review, suggest Asus’s Eec PC 1215B.) Sure, Windows 7 has all the downsides that Google is fond of enumerating: bloat, security issues, update difficulties, and more. The only thing is, Chrome OS is still too short on upsides of its own.
Will Chrome OS get the opportunity to become great? It’s tough to say. Google cofounder and new CEO Larry Page says that the company is going to put more wood behind fewer arrows–which presumably means that at least a few additional projects that aren’t established successes will be going bye-bye. I’m honestly vague on whether Page and other Google powers that be see Chrome OS as a strategic necessity or an arrow that might not make the cut.
Seems to me that an affordable laptop that ran Google’s Android would make more sense in the real world than any Chrome OS device. It could be mean, lean, and browser-centric–and give you the ability to run apps that weren’t dependent on Internet access. This idea is so obvious that I’d be staggered if it hasn’t occurred to people within Google. And if the company decides that two mobile operating systems are one too many, isn’t it clear which one will go and which one will stay?