First Impressions of Google’s Cr-48 Netbook

Standard disclaimer: I am not an employee of, or in any way affiliated with Google.

Cool Box! After watching the Google ChromeOS press event on the 7th of December, I had gone to the form (a link for which had conveniently popped up on my “new tab” screen of the Chrome 9 browser I run on my Linux workstation – I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader as to whether or not that affected things) to request to take part in the just-announced Cr-48 netbook test. On Thursday, I come to find out Google had sent me one! In itself, this is pretty amazing for me: I’m not usually the first person to see new things Google rolls out, or get invites to try new products (I’m still waiting for the slight redesign of the Google Maps interface to grace my browser). This is, however, even more amazing to me considering, given the scope of the pilot program, the relatively few devices (60,000 by some reports) that they were making available.

But, having said that, I have been a heavy Google user for some time now: I use most of their products, including several “Apps for your domain”, Docs, Reader, Maps, and more recently Health, to name but a few. Going to the dashboard for my account reveals a surprising number (even to me!) of products that I’ve touched over the years.

I was a little slow in getting into Chrome, mostly because it started as a Windows-only thing, but thanks to Chromium, a year or so later, I was running it on my Linux workstation. Having the stable Mac version come out got me more on-board, and although I would oscillate between Chrome and Firefox, Chrome was gaining ground. When the synchronization feature was added was when I started using it full-time on my Mac, and I had been playing with a very early build of ChromeOS on a VM.

I would say here that the following ramblings are more about the experience of actually using ChromeOS on dedicated hardware than the hardware itself, although it’s impossible to a) completely separate the two, and b) not talk about new hardware!

So, fast-forward to the 9th and the opening of my surprise cool box(TM).  A small but decently-sized notebook, it’s not overly heavy, and the surprisingly-light (to me, anyway) and thin battery doesn’t add too much to the weight.  The promised full-size keyboard is reminiscent of a MacBook (although without the backlight! I’m surprised how much I miss that), as is the trackpad (more on that below), although only in concept: it’s smaller and isn’t glass.

Cr-48 Booting Putting in the battery and opening the lid prompted it to boot and go through it’s initial setup, which was simply accepting the license (which I did read, by the way), getting on the network, logging in with my Google account credentials and taking a photo for the login screen (there’s a built-in web cam).  By the time the browser came up, it had already synced my bookmarks, preferences and themes (I turned on the syncing of extensions, apps and autofill later), and I was ready to go!

Within minutes I had figured out what I see others are reporting as well: the trackpad is really, really bad. It’s overly sensitive, skips around a lot, and scrolling is uneven.  Fortunately, the lone USB port accepts keyboards and mice (even the wireless Logitech keyboard/mouse receiver I have), and while you can’t disable the trackpad completely, turning down the sensitivity seems to help a bit. (A side note, I plugged a mass-storage device into the USB slot, and detected the filesystem and showed me the label, but wouldn’t let me browse it.)

Otherwise, it’s a nice unit: from general web surfing to (g)email  and document editing (I’ve used Google Docs as my office suite for some time now), it’s a nice substitute for a full-size laptop.  Its 1.66Gz Atom processor isn’t the speediest thing out there, but it does an ok job.  So far, the battery life has been good: a full charge can easily get me through a day, but that’s not constant use, which I haven’t yet tested.  The near-instant wake is great, although I have noticed that the re-establishing of the network connection lags a bit at times.

I wish I could comment on using it with Verizon’s 3G network (100MB of bandwidth per month is provided for free for 2 years), but my unit for some reason can’t complete the activation (I have a ticket in to the Google “Chrome Notebook Ninja Team”, but have yet to hear back).  Looking forward to testing that.

Cr-48 Keyboard Shortcut Overlay One of the most talked-about change is the move to make the caps-lock key a “search” key, and I’ve been ok with this.  The misconception is that accidentally hitting the key will wipe out what you’re doing, but it actually just opens a new tab. You can change the behaviour of the key via the settings (including changing it back into a caps-lock (sans indicator!) ), but the setting I’d most like to see is having it be the shortcut for the find-in-page search, and open a new tab with a modifier key.  While I’m on the subject, they have a function that pops up an overlay of the keyboard, showing you the keyboard shortcuts, and updating when you hold a modifier key.  Brilliant, and surprising Apple hasn’t thought of this.

One of the big problems as I see it with a system like this is if you’re going to have everything in the cloud, how do you move stuff between apps?  I would love for there to be some sort of API where I could drag a file from my Dropbox account and drop it on the tab for my Google Docs account, and the file would be transferred.  In the mean-time, however, I have discovered that saving a file from a download does indeed save it locally, and puts it in an area that is browsable to a “file upload” form element dialog.  Nice.  Of other particular coolness is when you hold the power button, the screen shrinks and after a couple of seconds, goes to the lock screen.  Holding it again for a couple more seconds shuts it down.

A couple of final thoughts: once again, I realize I’m not the target audience of “technology consumer” (closer this time!), but one thing that would make this so much more useful to me would be an SSH app: I do a bunch of web stuff, and my editor of choice is still vi.  There *is* an ssh client included with the text “console” (oh, again I know this wouldn’t be for everyone, but could I please have the option of a full system shell? Please?), so it’s something, but having the SSH session in a tab would be nice.  Yes, I realize what I’m asking for here – this pretty much opens the discussion of “can Google extend the browser in such a way that a native app can run inside it?”, and there are some big issues there.

I’m torn between the usefulness of a full keyboard and the simplicity of a tablet here, and while I definitely see an advantage to both depending on what I’m doing, I’d still much rather travel with a laptop-style machine (I’m not going to touch ebook reading here, except to say that I won’t be reading ebooks on this thing, or any laptop for that matter), and I’m excited to see where Google’s going to take ChromeOS.