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As a not-so-closet techie (or tech-geek, if you will), I find myself instantly attracted to all things new and shiny — even when the polish is not altogether there yet. This is why, on this US Thanksgiving evening, I find myself writing a post about Google Chrome OS from within a recently released build of Google Chrome OS (and I’m writing the post in Google Wave, no less). I’m positively giddy! I know, I know, so much hype is surrounding Chrome OS — and pretty much anything that Google does these days — but I don’t care. I want to play! I like to play!! And so here is my take on the current state and usability of the Google Chrome Operating System and how to check it out for yourself…
What is Google Chrome OS?
First things first: for those who don’t know, or haven’t read our previous post on Google Chrome OS (or Chromium OS, as it is also called) is an operating system that is designed mostly for netbooks and is meant to be extremely lightweight and fast. It is also "cloud" based, which means that, outside its architecture, it does pretty much everything it needs to do via online applications. In fact, it is basically the Google Chrome web browser on steroids. Why would anyone want this? Well, the world as we know it appears to be heading quickly toward the cloud as more and more applications are meant to be accessed online and are, more often than not, just glorified web pages themselves. There’s even a (relatively) new acronym for these applications: RIA’s (rich internet applications). These are the Facebooks, Twitters, Mint.coms, Remember the Milks, ReQalls, Tweetdecks, and countless others; and are the basis of technologies like Adobe AIR and 90% of the iPhone applications already out there or being created right at this moment. Google is not the first to target this space (Jolicloud is heading there too, and could be argued that it is prettier and more traditionally functional than the minimalist Chrome OS) — but they are doing a pretty decent job of it so far.
What Can You Do With It?
Well, you can browse and interact with the internet, in all of its glory, and you can do it at the speed of light — or some relative comparison. The OS loads up in mere seconds, you sign in with your Google account, and bam, you are online and looking at your Gmail page. If you just wanted to turn your computer on so you could check your email or do some other sort of browsing, then this is totally the way to go! Especially for lower powered systems like netbooks, which is what Chrome OS is meant for. Even heavier load websites like Google Wave open much faster than they do on a regular OS, even in the Google Chrome browser. If you are looking to open up and edit a Microsoft Word document though, you are going to need something like Google Docs. The same goes for any other dedicated program, as you can’t install applications of that ilk in Chrome OS. Don’t get all glum, however — even Microsoft Office is planning to go online in 2010 (already in beta), and you can play Zynga’s Farmville on Facebook all day long to keep you busy, with only their servers to slow you down.
What Works and What Doesn’t
Depending on the computer you use Chrome OS on, you will get varying hardware results. Some machines can’t get the audio working and some, like mine, have audio, but no control over the volume of said sound. It should be noted that I’m not using a netbook, either, but a full sized Toshiba A300 laptop. The video scaled extremely well on my laptop: it is full screen and absolutely crystal clear. It actually looks better than the screen does in Windows Vista or Windows 7. In fact, I feel like I am looking at a high definition monitor — even zooming in keeps things fairly crisp and clear. I would love to show you exactly what I mean — really I would! — but there doesn’t appear to be any sort of storage or file access yet. I can download files, but can’t view them. I’m not even sure where they go, as I can’t open the folder — not even an in-browser version of the folder. So, if I was even able to take a screenshot, I wouldn’t be able to show it to you, because I can’t access it. This will likely (I should think!) be fixed by the time the OS is in production though, even if it is via extensions to send items to web storage and online viewers and the like. In the meantime, here is the (rather rough) video from an Engadget article on this release of Chrome OS (I actually had slightly better luck than them in that I have audio).
Pinning tabs, as well as dragging them and opening new windows works just fine. The sliding animation that happens as you jump to a new window is very slick looking as well. All of the other major features you would expect from Chrome (and most modern browsers) are also there and functional, such as Incognito (private browsing) mode, theming, under the hood tweaks for performance and preferences, bookmarking, "bookmarklets", history, etc., etc., etc. — even built in developer tools. The problem is, there are also items that you would find in the browser that do not work, such as turning a website into an application. One would think that this, of any feature, would be supported in Chrome OS, and perhaps it will be at some point, but no such luck at the moment. There is also support coming for Extensions, but as that is not available fully for the regular Chrome browser, it may be a bit longer before we see integration into Chrome OS.
Chrome OS has a "Start Button" of sorts, in the top left corner, that allows you to log in to an applications screen. Currently, there are a few applications in there that are actually applications such as the Google Calendar Panel, the Google Contacts app (which is actually Google Talk), the Calculator (gave a blank screen, unfortunately), and the Tasks app. The Tasks app was the one thing that caused Chrome OS to crash on me. Everything else in the apps pane is actually just a pretty shortcut to a web page. The apps pane is visually appealing and easy to navigate, but there is currently no way to add additional applications or shortcuts. The "Get more" button is there, but greyed out and unusable, and as mentioned before, Create Application Shortcuts doesn’t work (one would assume that this is where such shortcuts would go).
How You Get It
The first thing you need to do is go to this website: http://carbon.hexxeh.net/chromiumos/
The next thing you need to do is download the build and prepare (format) a 4GB USB stick. 4 gigs may seem a bit steep, but I hear that future builds should be better compressed. Follow the instructions for your operating system. I am using Windows and found the instructions to be extremely straightforward.
Once you have extracted the downloaded image and used the program/method recommended in your OS’s instructions to put the bootable image on the USB stick, restart your computer and watch for the prompt that allows you to either select what you want to boot from or enter your bios so you can change the boot order. You want the one that says something about USB or flash drive.
Then you wait the few seconds it takes to load, log in with your Google account and commence playing! If it takes more than a minute, then you are likely having hardware compatibility issues. In fact, if it even takes a minute you might be having hardware compatibility issues.
Remember to be plugged in to your internet or you won’t get very far. Oh — and I wouldn’t recommend trying the USB stick on multiple computers. It didn’t go too well for me and I had to make sure I was disconnected from the internet when I logged in so I could get my resolution settings to work properly again on the original computer. *grins sheepishly*
What do you think of Chrome OS in general? Have you tried the build? What was your experience? Let us know in the comments.