Google Chrome OS has been in the works for a while now, and has captured the imaginations of techies everywhere. Most of those interested were expecting — or at least hoping — to see laptops and netbooks that were near-completely cloud-based by the latter half of 2010, and the Cr-48 notebook and research “pilot program” was finally announced on December 7th. Many people have been testing Chrome OS for some time, however using methods such as booting from a USB-stick into a custom Chrome OS (or Chromium OS) build put together by friendly genius Hexxeh. The builds, as one might expect, were fraught with problems — hardware incompatibilities, the OS itself (and its features and capabilities) still in flux — and these problems usually lead to the conclusion that Chrome OS was just not ready for the world at large.
All of that is about to change.
Over the past year or so, significant advances have been made in the Google Chrome browser, which is the basis for the Chrome OS project. The ability to sync extensions, bookmarks (sometimes), and other user data allowed for users to carry their experience from one computer to another, and the introduction of the Chrome Web Store added a whole new way to find and integrate web apps into the computing experience. These things, as well as numerous back-end improvements, have brought us must closer to living in the browser, and have improved both the usability and viability of Google’s cloud-focused OS.
Hexxeh has been busy as well, coming out with new versions of his own Chrome OS build. The most recent one, Flow, was a strong step forward, but still only truly feasible for limited testing and playing around, especially depending on your hardware. When I tried Flow, I found that it worked well enough on one of my laptops, a Toshiba Satellite A300, though I often had issues connecting to WiFi, and had problems with saving into and loading files from the lightweight Linux system the browser interface is built on. My HP DV8000 couldn’t run it at all. Hexxeh reportedly has a new build on the way called Lime, but was waiting for the Chromium OS developers to move forward, and has been busy testing out his own Cr-48.
That was months ago. With all of the improvements in the Chrome browser lately, I found myself curious to try another go ’round with the OS. I was disappointed that Hexxeh’s Lime wasn’t out yet (it is still in development as of this writing), but on a whim, I decided to try one of the crisp and clean Vanilla builds from the bleeding edge nightly section of Hexxeh’s site, a near-direct link to the mythical builders in Mountain View (I picked up Version 0.10.157.r3d7fa3a0 on February 3rd, 2011). Much to my very pleasant surprise, the OS worked on my A300 — and worked perfectly, out of the box, with much fewer usability issues than any Windows installation I’ve ever tried! I was stoked — and have since been using the speedy little USB stick to boot up my computer into ChromeOS nearly every day, with the exception of times when I needed to do work in a decent vector drawing program. There really is no HTML5 comparison for Adobe Illustrator that I know of. Photoshop, sure — but not Illustrator.
In fact, the only real issues I had, other than the fact that syncing was a little spotty (app and extension syncing missed a few, and bookmarks wouldn’t sync at all), was the lack of Netflix (no Silverlight on Linux), and figuring out the new keyboard commands for reloading and closing tabs. Why Google decided to change the familiar F5 reload to Ctrl+R is beyond me, but once I figured out the quirks I was rolling along smoothly. Downloading and uploading files worked working well, too, though there should really be a direct path to the folder, rather than having to search through the Linux file system. While I’m throwing things out there, I would also like to see some built in social features like Rockmelt.
I have yet to try it on my DV8000, but I’ve found that this recent Vanilla build of Chrome OS has been a pleasure to work with, overall. When I don’t want to go through a long Windows boot cycle just to go online and do some work on the internet, I just plug in the USB stick and go. I’m up and running in just a few minutes. I hope that Hexxeh figures a way to do a dual boot on my actual laptop hard drive — one that can access more space for storage, and maybe other files in the Windows part of the drive would be ideal, of course. I don’t see that happening, but hey, a guy can hope, right?
If you want to try out the Vanilla builds of Chrome OS, or even the somewhat deprecated but known-to-be-stable Flow, grab a flash drive and check out Hexxeh’s website. Things are easy to find, and instructions are very clear. If you want updates on Hexxeh’s builds and the Chrome OS project in general, follow @hexxeh on Twitter.
Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!