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Chrome Operating System Review: Running Naked

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: Bill Fulks•updated: 8/11/2011

The new Chrome OS from Google promises to provide the functionality of a local operating system while putting less demand on system resources. In theory, this can be accomplished through the use of online apps and services. Does it really work, or is this cloud full of hot air?

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    Chrome OS: All Flash?

    The Google Chrome operating system has had a difficult path to the market. Originally announced in 2009, initial reports seemed to indicate that it would hit the market by mid-2010. Yet as time went on, it seemed as if Google had put Chrome OS on a back-burner while devoting the majority of its attention to Android for smartphones and tablets.

    Now the OS is finally available, but only on two laptops - sorry, Chromebooks - are available today. They're not as inexpensive as was expected, either. Acer's rendition is the most affordable at $350, which is a bit pricey for an Atom netbook. The Samsung Series 5 which starts at $429, is absurdly expensive for a netbook with Atom inside.

    We're not going to talk further of the Chromebooks themselves, however. The purpose of this article is to focus on the operating system itself. Does Google Chrome OS deliver the wondrous cloud-computing experience that it promised?

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    Ease of Use

    Rating Average

    Chrome OS Review Chrome OS has clearly learned from Android. When a Chromebook is turned on for the first time it opens up to a login screen that requests a Google account. Once entered, the laptop is synced with that account and a handful of tutorial pages appear, providing basic information such as how to use multi-touch gestures.

    After that, users are left on their own. This could cause some confusion, but in this instance there shouldn't be a problem because the operating system replicates the appearance and functionality of a Chrome web browser. Anyone who has used a web browser with tabs will be familiar with how the operating system works. Chrome OS also borrows most of its keyboard shortcuts from Windows, so functions such as copy-and-paste require no adjustment at all.

    What may confuse some users is the interface that appears when a new Chrome tab is opened. It presents a variety of "web apps," but no clear indication on how to add more or where the best can be found. The operating system ships without even the most basic software. There's no equivalent to MS Paint, for example.

    Image Credit: Redmond Pie

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    App Selection

    Rating Average

    A lack of pre-baked software wouldn't be an issue if the app Web Store was clear, easy to navigate, and chock full of excellent software. Unfortunately, it scores poorly in all three categories. Google's Web Store is much like the Android Marketplace when it first launched. The selection is poor, and it's immediately clear which apps are worthwhile.

    My attempt to find an image editor was painful. Searching returned twelve results, none of which were clearly better than any of the others. If there was any order to how they were presented, I couldn't find it. Lacking any guidance, I simply tried several different apps, muddling through them until I could find one that was acceptable. Wasting time in the search of a Paint stand-in would have been annoying itself, but my blood pressure began to realize that many of the apps were tied to services that required registration.

    I never found an app that satisfied me. After trying for a half-hour, I gave up and decided to edit images on my desktop instead.

    My woes were only worsened by apparent compatibility issues between Chrome OS and Chrome browser. At one point I wanted to take a screenshot of a specific portion of my desktop, which isn't supported in Chrome OS. My attempts to use Chrome screenshot apps failed, however, as they would not work with the file manager properly.

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    Rating Average

    Chrome OS Features?

    There are none.

    Chrome OS is supposed to be a cloud operating system, which sounds great in theory. In practice, there are many features of a modern operating system that don't need to be in the cloud. Let's take parental controls as an example. Windows has useful parental control features baked right in, but Chrome OS has nothing of the sort. Want to manage user or account permissions? There's nothing of the sort here. Would you like to adjust font type or text anti-aliasing? Hopefully you'll find a Chrome extension that works, because none of that is included.

    Compared to Windows and OS X, Chrome is running buck-naked down a city street. This can't continue forever. Eventually, someone will call the police.

    Image Credit: Gadget Help Line

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    Rating Average

    Here's the payoff. Chrome OS may not have any features, and it may not have many apps, but at least it's quick. It's only running a browser, so there's nothing to slow it down. Right?

    Wrong. Chrome OS runs on netbook hardware and feels no quicker than a Windows machine equipped with the same. Browser tabs open quickly enough, but opening more than five or six results in subtle performance issues, like slow web page load times and delays while switching between tabs. These problems and others only become worse as more tabs are opened.

    That's not the worst of it. Many of the web apps available to Chrome OS run poorly. Entanglement, a game that came pre-installed on the Acer Chromebook I tested, was slow enough to be virtually unplayable, and it wasn't a fancy 3D game but rather a simple 2D puzzler. Even Google Docs often lagged, with text appearing a second or two after the keys were pressed.

    At least the Chromebook boots almost instantly, but this hardly forgives its other performance sins.

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    Rating Average

    Google Chrome OS lacks app support, has virtually no features, and isn't quick. There is absolutely no reason to use this operating system rather than Windows or Mac OS X. That's the bottom line.

    Perhaps an argument could be made for Chrome OS if it was installed on netbooks priced under $199, but as already mentioned, that's not the case. The two Chromebooks available today are more expensive than similarly equipped Windows netbooks.

    Much work will have to be done to make Chrome remotely competitive to Windows and Mac OS X, and that work can't be done overnight. Google's success with Android may have made the company overly confident. What they may not realize is that PC operating systems are far different from those on mobile devices, and they've been developed for decades. Google can't catch up to that overnight, and as it stands, novelty is the only reason to buy a Chromebook.


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