Life With Chrome OS: Cr-48 Review

Date: 25 March 2011

The good thing about being stuck in an airport waiting for a plane that’s been delayed for an hour is that I finally get around to writing a post on actually using Chrome OS. If you’ll recall, Google shipped me a Cr-48 Chrome OS notebook to play with. After some initial problems with the hardware of the first one, Google sent me a replacement. I’ve been using it as my main machine at home since.

The Cr-48 is nowhere near as powerful as my laptop from work but the ridiculously fast boot up and wake up mean that I can grab the notebook off the shelf and be enjoying Internet goodness in no time. It’s especially nice when I go home for lunch because I can actually use it when I have a 10-15 minutes before I have to head back. It’s not worth the time to pull out my laptop in that situation.

If you didn’t know already, Chrome OS runs a modified version of Linux with X whose sole purpose in life is to start the Chrome web browser. I use Chrome as my main browser at work, so the syncing is nice. That slows the login time down a little bit as Chrome takes the time to check for updates for all of the apps you have installed as well.

I switched the Cr-48 into developer mode to poke around a little bit. The nice thing about that is that you get a real shell to play in instead of crosh. Even more fun, that means that I can throw a -XY on my ssh commands and X forwarding works. That’s an added plus.

During my poking around, I was delighted to discover that Chrome OS encrypts your home directory by default. Admittedly, there’s little stored on the machine since everything is “in the cloud”, but that extra layer of protection is nice.

I was wondering if the restriction a browser only system implies would be restrictive. In my case, it’s not. It turns out that while I’m home, nearly everything I want to do, I do on the web. Thanks to cool apps like TweetDeck for Chrome, Grooveshark and Aviary, I have little need for local apps.

All that said, there are drawbacks. If you don’t have an Internet link, you’re dead in the water. Second, the lack of a file manager to move downloaded files to an sdcard or USB drive and back is annoying. It looks like they’re working on that but it kinda sucks at this point.

A week passes…. I started this post sitting in an airport in Denver and I’m going to finish it in an airport in Las Vegas.

I used my Cr-48 almost exclusively while at MMS. I say almost because the Excalibur hotel didn’t have wifi. There was an ethernet connection but the Cr-48 doesn’t have an RJ-45 port. Fortunately, I brought my work laptop, too, and I just left that one setup in my room.

Remember what I said a few paragraphs ago about being dead without an Internet link? Well, I got to see exactly what that means because, in their infinite wisdom, Microsoft choose not to setup wifi in the breakout rooms and explicitly turned it off during keynote addresses. There went Plan A of typing my notes directly into Google Docs and tweeting the whole smash via TweetDeck for Chrome. Fortunately, there was a Plan B.

Chrome OS comes with an app called Scratchpad (also available from the Chrome Web Store) which can be setup to sync with Google Docs. I had set that up previously, so I was all set. It turns out, even when I did have wifi during a breakout session (thanks to proximity to a wifi lounge) I just used the Scratchpad. It’s really fast and does everything I needed for note taking. The only drawback is that it sometimes makes multiple copies in the document list. What made it really nice is that I could pop it up over my TweetDeck tab and watch what was going on in the #mms2011 and #mmsfun hash tags and comment on the session I was in. (I even won second place in MMS Twitter Army contest put on my MyITForum. I just missed winning an XBox 360.) When I got back to my room or during a break in one of the wifi lounges, I logged into Google Docs and moved my notes out of the Scratchpad label and into an mms2011 label that I shared with my coworkers.

A side note here. I have barnacle installed on my phone to provide wifi tethering. That works great on my laptop but it doesn’t work at all on Chrome OS. Apparently, Google built in a security feature that prevents Chrome OS from associating with ad hoc networks like the one barnacle creates. The traditional cry of “It’s not a bug. It’s a feature!” applies here. I understand it but I would really love to be able to say, “Yes, I know that it’s an ad hoc network. Connect to it anyway.” Something like the invalid SSL certificate warning would be fine.

A couple of more complaints. First of all, the touch pad sucks. Moving the pointer and simple left clicks are okay but click and dragging more than a few characters is a difficult task only made possible through years of using emacs. Since there are no physical buttons, click and drag is triggered by double tapping and holding the second tap. Then you can drag whatever you clicked on around. Unfortunately, if you do that too close to an edge, you don’t get vary far. The good news is that you touch the pad with another finger on the far side of the pad and continue to drag. It’s kind of like when a kid pretends their fingers are the legs and “walks” them around. Just be sure you don’t lift up that first finger before you start dragging with the second finger. Middle and right click are taken care of by holding ctrl or alt, respectively, while clicking.

The next complaint is more my fault than Google’s. When they designed the Cr-48, Google replaced the caps lock key with a “Search” key. When hit, it opens a new tab and puts the cursor in the omnibar so you can search or jump to a page. Unfortunately, I tend to fat-finger the a key and hit that key. On my other machines, it’s not too bad because I just start shouting at things. On the Cr-48, I get torn away from what I’m doing and am left looking at the home page. Unfortunately, if I’m in Scratchpad, ctrl-w closes the note, which remains open in front, instead of the newly opened tab.

The battery life is amazing on this thing. I consistently got between 6-8 hours. It was less if I kept trying to connect to the phantom wifi signals I would sometimes see is hope of actually get a wifi connection. Tweeting with TweetDeck on my Droid 2 is fine but it’s not the same as using TweetDeck for Chrome. I started every morning with a fresh charge and was usually down around 60 percent around lunchtime. I’d usually spend a half hour in the alumni lounge around then and charge up to a bit over 70 percent before heading out for the rest of the day. I would never be able to do that with my laptop.

All in all, I’m very happy with my Cr-48. On a scale of one to ten, I give it a six. Don’t let that fool you, though. Even though it has its annoyances, I love my Cr-48. If they fix the software things, it’ll be an easy eight. I can’t wait to see what Google does with the official release.