As soon as Google announced the pilot program for the Cr-48 and told journalists they were on it, there's been a frenzy of anticipation for the first computer to run the new Chrome operating system. V3.co.uk has now had the system for 24 hours and it's time for first impressions of the hardware and software.
The first thought as it came out of the box was that it looks remarkably good for a prototype. You can't buy this laptop, only ask Google for one, but it's built to look and feel like a desirable commercial product - which may just be a move to win early support or just good design sense.
The chassis is non-stick rubber, matte black and completely unbadged, making it look very cool indeed and it's even pleasant to touch. Our office designer couldn't keep her hands off it and I've already had more than enough offers from people looking to do the review for me.
"It looks just like a Mac," is a common comment.
Open the lid and the resemblance is even more striking. The key style and positions look very Mac, right down to the massive touchpad. Google's played around with the keyboard a little, too. As promised, Caps Lock has gone and been replaced with a far more useful search button that just opens a new tab for browsing. The function keys have also been replaced, with buttons for moving forward or back in the browser, reloading, resizing and tabbing as well as brightness and sound controls.
The 12.1in screen is good quality, and boot up time is around 14 seconds. The typing action is very smooth - it's a full-sized board and typing is easy with well-machined construction and good key travel. The actual lettering on the keyboard is tiny however, so if you're a hunt and peck typist then expect a lot of squinting.
But the biggest physical problem the Cr-48 has is the trackpad - I'm taking to it like a duck to an acid bath. The 2.5 x 4in trackpad uses no distinct buttons but relies on gesture control and a lower physical click capability. Place two fingers on the pad to scroll and then double tap to click, at least in theory. In practice this is nearly impossible to use - the cursor has a tendency to either move two inches to the side or jump to the top of the screen at seemingly random intervals.
Google isn't confirming the exact inside specifications but the Cr-48 is certainly running an Intel processor which appears to be a single core Atom N455 running at 1.66GHz with 2GB of solid state memory. A VGA outlet, SD card reader, headphone jack and a lone USB port are the only connectivity options, and they don't work particularly well.
At the press conference Google warned that there would be problems with the USB for downloading photos, but I've yet to find a use for the connector outside of keyboards and mice. None of the USB drives we had lying around were recognised, nor any SD cards, although the headphone socket works fine. But since trackpad problems make a dedicated mouse a necessity I suspect Google will need to include better support for peripherals soon.
It is possible Google is waiting out Light Peak and USB 3.0 conflicts, but it's more likely to be a development priority issue.
On the software side, without Wi-Fi access, the Cr-48 is initially a brick. At this stage the very nature of the operating system means that you can't even get it up and running without a wireless internet connection since there's no Ethernet port. There is a built-in Verizon 3G modem which worked well in early testing, although you do have to register an account before you can get your 100MB of free data a month.
Google's guaranteed this free data for two years and it could be a serious selling point. Most 3G-enabled devices require a contract of a year or so and the concept of free time online could be a real winner with those people who might occasionally need out of home/office connectivity but not enough to justify monthly payments.
Once you log in to a wireless connection you'll need a Google account to get the system up and running. The laptop will also ask for a picture, although not for biometrics at this stage. One note of warning from those receiving the systems - you can't change the picture, something I now regret.
As the system starts up it's very like running the Chrome browser in full screen. A choice of web applications are available, including a couple of games, Gmail and a note writing application but the system is going to take the average user some time to set up. One feature that helps with this is the Chrome browser's ability to synchronise data with other machines.
As a device for accessing cloud data, the Cr-48 is very good. All of the Google Apps seem to work well and there are no problems interacting with third party applications. A few reviewers have reported Flash problems but we've seen nothing yet, and the system is capable of handling most video.
However the operating system has a very claustrophobic feel to it. You are in the browser, and getting into anything else is a struggle. There are plenty of users out there who don't want to have to deal with the guts of an operating system but it would nice to be able to download software outside of the Chrome application store and have an expectation of it running.
And that's the crux of the issue with Chrome. Google's argument is that you don't need an operating system weighed down with the layers of software crud that were needed to support the basic infrastructure back in the day. A cloud system can use a very tightly locked down operating system that's cheap to build and support.
This is true, in theory. But it's also a big jump in experience to expect people to make, and much more needs to be added to the OS going forward to make it acceptable to a broad, and particularly a business, market.
The Cr-48 is a machine in progress. The operating system (described as version 0.9.128.8) and applications are going to be updated on a weekly basis and the company says this laptop will get better over time rather than worse. As such the operating system is going to take more than 24 hours to dig into. Expect further postings on the software side; I've got a list of questions for Google as long as my arm.
Author: Iain Thomson
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