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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 The caps lock key has been replaced by a new tab or search button. The function keys have been replaced by back, forward, and reload keys.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.