First Impressions: Google Cr-48 Chrome Notebook Dares Us to Cut Cords

Google unveiled its new Chrome OS only two days ago—and already they've shipped their sleek, brandless charcoal notebooks out to a lucky few for testing. We received one today and have been happily playing around with it for hours. Of course, the Cr-48 is not ready for review—it wouldn't be fair to analyze the product when its software and hardware will undergo so much testing, bug fixing, and improvement in the next six months. (Indeed, the actual Cr-48 will never retail; Acer, Samsung, and other OEMs will be shipping Chrome-based netbooks in mid-2011.) However, our initial impressions do demonstrate the leap Google is asking us to take—a leap into unknown and foreign territory where we let go of our traditional OS experiences and enter the cloud.

From the get-go, the Chrome OS reminds us what we agreed to when we applied for this thing: It's all about the Web. The first prompt asks for a Wi-Fi connection. The log in screen asks for a Google logon. Users are instantly greeted by a Chrome browser once logged in—after all, the browser itself is essentially the OS. There are no docking bays, taskbars, or desktops. (See below for video.)

"I feel like I want to get out of this—I want to see the operating system," said one FCer, looking for the minimize button.

There is none. For that matter, you won't find many of the traditional buttons you see on the keyboard either—the keys have been designed with the Web in mind. The caps lock key has been replaced by a new tab or search button. The function keys have been replaced by back, forward, and reload keys. It's a platform optimized for surfing online.

Now, you don't head to the Windows or Apple buttons to alter settings. All settings—system-wide settings—are altered from the Chrome browser. That tiny wrench icon you're used to clicking to open an incognito browser? It now features options for settings (System, Internet, Under the Hood, Users, Personal), About Chrome OS, and logging out. It's a unique user experience. Have you ever logged out of a browser? Well, you aren't on Chrome OS. When you log off the Internet, you log off the computer.

The other odd new experience of the Chrome OS is the cloud. More than once while testing the computer I thought to take a screenshot. But where would I store it? Normally, on Macs, it'd end up on the desktop; on PCs, I'd copy and paste it into Photoshop. But I don't have a desktop. Everything is Web-based. Indeed, once I opened up an app called Scratchpad, Chrome asked whether I wanted to sync my notes to my Google Docs account or whether I wanted to save my notes locally. It's a strange prompt that made us consider things we'd never consider on an Apple- or Windows-based system.

But there is some semblance of folders and a taskbar or docking bay. Rather than have everything appear as a new tab, certain items minimize (a la the genie effect) to the bottom of the screen. Gchats, notifications, a downloads folder—all of these items disappear and re-appear upon mouse-over. Additionally, there is the option of having more than one window open. Each new Chrome browser is essentially a separate work space—just like on Macs. Hitting alt-tab or the screen-change key on the top will scroll from one browser window to the next, each with a separate set of tabs.

Google is asking you to rethink the experience of notebooks. To some, this will be a liberating experience that allows you to let go of the constraints of a traditional OS—hard drives, files, programs, folders. To others, that sacrifice and insular-browser focus—although entirely based in the cloud and free of typical OS burdens—can make Googe's Chrome system feel, well, claustrophobic.

Follow Austin Carr on Twitter.

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  • Bob Jacobson

    I get that the megafirms are competing with each other at the total-system level, but I for one would appreciate companies, a bit smaller, that did one or a few things extremely well -- not to the exclusion of other providers, but in concert -- and whose ambitions matched their abilities. I'm still waiting for AdSense to make sense. (I've been notified of a piracy, monies owed to me, and how much Google appreciates my business all in the last year, without follow-ups.) I am perplexed that Apple gives more attention to transient music downloads than to providing absolutely stellar computers. Microsoft -- well, what does Microsoft do, exactly? One can go down the line, even including such new entrants as Facebook and Twitter, pondering where the quality went. Where did it go? Will we get it back -- in time to enjoy before the public power systems start flickering, because some energy conglomerate wants to get into casinos?

  • Thomas Tai

    "There is nothing wrong with your laptop. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your laptop. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to... The Chromium Limits."

  • Rahul Desai

    Interesting article.. can't wait for the official release. I'm sure it will give a deent competition to MS and Apple.

  • Bud Thompson

    A very well-written and balanced piece on a difficult subject by Austin Carr.

    What would happen to Google's cloud in the event of a catastrophic earthquake on either the Hayward Fault, or the San Andreas? I use Google Docs extensively, but I am.....WORRIED!! (Caps lock engaged)

  • Robert Godes

    I think your data would be OK but you will not be able to access it. !~( . Of greater concern is the next CME from the sun. When that takes out several com satellites it could be a longer time before you have access to any of your data, money, drugs... The web has made us all very dependent on each other where the other is someone we have never met, touched, or seen.

  • Michael Shoemaker

    Great piece. Well-balanced. Couple thoughts/questions:

    1.) Do web apps, esp productivity apps, run noticeably faster on OS? If not, then this doesn't seem to add much and mostly takes away. After all, I can run web apps on a Windows or Mac-based machine.

    2.) The notebook looks big!? It seems to me a strange venue for testing an idea that is based in the notion of portability. Also, I would think people will experience the most benefit from Chrome OS when they are running it on multiple devices, thus making the portability of data factor really jump out at you.

    3.) Since Google has been a leader in building rich productivity apps for the web, it makes sense for someone to feel locked into the Google world at first. But I would imagine that as the platform grows, choice increases, and competitors come in with their own Docs, Calendar, Mail, etc. apps optimized for Chrome OS, some of that feeling of claustrophobia will go away.

  • james

    I'm on my Chrome browser right now using apps and that's basically the entire experience. Apps, the cloud are fun but if I had a choice I'd still get a Windows-based Netbook/iPad because I would still like to use iTunes, MSN, and Office (also angry birds on the iPad!!). I like Google Docs but I still feel its a little immature for my use and I'm not sure about anyone else but I feel a bit violated when my entire digital life is located on Google's servers. Still, kudos to them for another choice than Apple/MS.