Google CR-48

I was one of the fortunate who received a free Google CR-48 “Chromebook” several months ago, after applying to be in Google’s pilot program. I still find it fairly amazing that Google would send out thousands of free notebooks (and no doubt, they knew the risks, such as people getting Windows 7 and Mac OS X to run on them) with the vague hope that people would provide bug reports and feedback. In fact, it took all of about 5 minutes, if that, for me to file my first bug report (regarding YouTube / Adobe Flash playback, which was soon fixed in the following ChromeOS update).

I’ve had mixed feelings about the Chromebook over the time that I have used it. There are a number  of positives: battery life is excellent; the device has a great minimalist look and feel to it; instant wake from sleep is fantastic; the free (albeit quaint allotment) Verizon 3G broadband is a nice bonus; I love the dedicated Search button (which replaces the CAP LOCKS key) that opens a new tab in ChromeOS; and the device comes with a webcam.  Being a huge fan of Google’s Chrome browser, as well as GMail and Google Docs, a notebook built around Google’s ecosystem seemed like a perfect fit.

However, there were growing pains with ChromeOS, which given the nature of the pilot program, was no surprise. Adobe Flash performance was spotty in those early days. The OS had a rough-around-the-edges feel to it. The device was no speed demon, particularly on Flash-heavy sites. There were limited local file management capabilities.  There was no Netflix Watch Instantly support, which held me back from fully committing to it (because why should I switch between my work and home notebooks?). The frustration early on was, with ChromeOS being built around the ideologies of the Web and Cloud, I was limited compared to what I would be used to with a Windows 7 notebook (on hardware that could run Windows). It was no longer a matter of simply downloading an application for whatever need I had. If it wasn’t in the Chrome Web Store, I’d have to find some online equivalent (such as a picture editing program). So there were certainly compromises in using a Chromebook. It could never replace my work notebook, for example.

But then again, it doesn’t have to. The majority of my non-work notebook usage comes down to either writing (done in Google Docs or blogging), social sites such as Twitter and Facebook, visiting some tech, book, or humor sites, watching Netflix, or YouTube. Up until recently, I could do most of that on my Chromebook. Now, with the recent release of the Netflix plug-in for ChromeOS, I can do all of that. And for most people out there, I imagine it’s all they’ll need.

ChromeOS is also so refreshingly low maintenance. In the months that I’ve used it, I’ve only had maybe- maybe– one system crash, and all it did was neatly log me out, reboot quickly, and come back up. Performing a system update is easy; I see the wrench icon in the top-right corner have a little arrow overlaid on it, which tells me there is an update available. I select the option via the menu to update, and within 30 seconds I’m back up and running. I cannot say that for any other OS that I have used. Even more impressive is that the hardware Google used is a fairly basic Intel Atom single-core processor, 16GB solid state memory, and 2GB of RAM. Google has done an excellent job of refining ChromeOS over the past several months into running smoothly on this hardware, and provided with even greater specs ChromeOS will be ridiculously fast.

My biggest concern with Chromebooks making it in the market is the price. Is the fast boot-up, great battery life, low-maintenance and decent functionality worth $350 to $450? At the low-end of that price range, absolutely. At the higher end, not so much, when you compare what you’re spending with what you’re getting (and what comparably priced hardware loaded with Windows 7 can do). I think Google and its partners have a real opportunity to lock in on a niche market. The question is, will they have the patience and marketing smarts to tough it out?