A Second Look At Chrome OS

Chrome OS – Second First Impressions

The biggest problem with the Acer Chromebook I looked at last year was the operating system. It was a mess. So, has it improved with time?

First impressions are just as positive as they were with the Acer. Chromium is built to boot quickly–within 15 seconds or less. It also has a snappy sleep mode that allows the operating system to appear almost instantly when you open the lid. If you don’t open the lid quickly enough to see the OS flash to life you might be misled into thinking that the sleep mode isn’t working. 

User account management is tied to your Google account, which means you log in with the same password that controls Gmail, Google+ and all other Google services. Because nothing runs in the background, logging in is similar to a web page instead of traditional PC. The system responds quickly and is ready for action the moment you press enter. 

All of this was true when we reviewed the Acer, but things started to fall apart when I opened Google Documents to try and do some work. The experience was slow and hampered by poor multi-touch scroll support–issues that have now been resolved. The Samsung Series 5 feels smoother in almost all situations. 

Since the hardware is the same, I can only assume there have been some performance tweaks to the operating system itself. Chromium has gone to the gym, cut some pounds, gained some muscle, and is now the agile OS that it promised to be from the start. 

This feel should be apparent to anyone who uses the Series 5, but it is most evident if you happen to have a Windows netbook that can be used for comparison. I love Windows 7, but it simply can’t keep up with Chrome OS when an Atom processor is conducting business. 

Still Featureless, But At Least Full Of Apps

There have been a few features added to the stable release of the OS since our last review. One major addition is the inclusion of windows. It’s now possible to open multiple instances of Chrome instead of just using tabs. 

You may be asking – why? I’m not sure. The feature can be a bit helpful when you are running a few apps in the background, but otherwise it is more difficult to wield than multiple tabs even if you’re running more than ten tabs at once. This awkwardness is resolved by the inclusion of a desktop in the beta and developer versions of the operating system. More on that in a moment.

As for apps – hallelujah, they’re useful! I use Chrome as my primary browser on both my Windows desktop and my MacBook, so I’m no stranger to the Chrome Web Store’s content explosion. It’s hard to believe that this content-rich storefront was barren just eight months ago. Users can choose from a wide variety of image editors, document managers and other useful utilities, some of which are as easy to use as the best Windows freeware. 

The gaming section deserves particular note. There’s a ton of fun games to play through Chrome today. Most of them are Flash based and not all run well on the Atom processor used by the Samsung Series 5, but I was able to enjoy a few levels of Kingdom Rush and Crimson Pirates, two of my personal favorites.

Improving the selection of apps has gone a long way towards addressing my complaints about the functionality of Chrome OS, but it hasn’t addressed every concern. The file manager is still pathetic, there are still no parental controls, and the only input options that can be adjusted are tap-to-click and pointer speed. Feature content is behind not only Windows and OS X but also iOS and Android. Anyone thinking of a Chromebook needs to be aware of that fact. 

Google Drive Saves The Day

Because the file manager in Chrome OS is terrible, sharing files can be difficult. All the Chrome services are available–but with such a poor file management system backing them up–they feel like islands. 

The recently launched Google Drive (you can read our preview here), helps to solve this. If you use it, the responsibility of file management can be off-loaded to Google Drive. The main disadvantage of it–the fact that you can’t access files offline–is irrelevant because Chrome OS is nearly useless without an active Internet connection no matter where you store your files. 

The Google Drive interface is almost identical to Google Documents, so it’s not hard to learn. The 5 gigabytes of (free storage) space is limiting but the system only has 16GB of local storage, so you’re going to have to learn to deal with limited storage no matter how you browse files. I think most users will find that the intuitive interface of Google Drive makes it the file management system of choice for documents, images and other frequently accessed files. The system drive will be used for larger media and for downloading apps. 

The Dev Channel – A Look Ahead

Usually we don’t consider future software updates when reviewing a laptop’s operating system, but future updates usually aren’t available by simply changing a setting from a drop-down menu. That’s all that’s required to enter the dev channel and automatically download the developer version, which is now at Chrome OS 20 (the Series 5 shipped to us with Chrome OS 18).

In a complete reversal of its design philosophy (which to my understanding was implemented first in Chrome OS 19), Google is trading its browser-only design in for a desktop. Yep, that’s right. The company is acknowledging that you can’t do everything in a browser, and–rather than going into denial–the developers have embraced the desktop.

It’s beautiful work that’s influenced by the (potential) elegance of Windows Aero and the simplicity of OS X. Some features have been copied, such as Aero Snap–if you drag a window to either side of the desktop it automatically re-sizes to take up just half of the display. The taskbar works just like the one in Windows 7, acting both as a task manager and launcher, while the apps view is a clear rip-off of the Launch Pad feature in OS X–except it’s easier to use because the icons are larger. 

There’s not a lot of original ideas, but who cares? The desktop is visually attractive, functional and transforms the Chromebook from a browser-in-a-box into a proper PC. There’s even a new, better file manager, more readily accessible display/sound controls and a better wireless connection manager. 

Despite these advantages, I can’t give unrestricted praise. The unfinished dev channel version seems to have performance issues. Switching between tabs now causes a checker-board pattern to appear before the web page is rendered and multi-touch scrolling is a bit jerky–most likely because pages are not being rendered as smoothly as they were before. Not all apps work yet, either. 

These problems are excusable for now because it is a developer version–it’s not even a full beta. If these issues are addressed by the time the update is released, or the Chromebooks are updated with newer hardware, the desktop will be a great leap forward for the operating system. 

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