Google unveils the Chrome notebook

Cloud based Chrome OS and more

GOOGLE ITSELF HAS revealed more details about its upcoming Chrome OS and surprisingly its first Chrome notebook which will be part of a pilot program open to both businesses and the public. This is not the first cloud based OS around, but it’s most likely set to be the one to have the biggest impact once it launches next year.

Love or loathe Google, you have to give it to the company for coming up for new ways of drawing people into its services. The tight integration with Google’s Chrome web browser shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, especially as the name of the OS is Chrome OS. This offers both advantages and disadvantages, the biggest of which is that you have to sign up to Google’s services to take advantage of what’s on offer. In other words, if you’re not a fan of Google’s services, you can pretty much stop reading now.

The Chrome OS is still in beta and as such Google’s first Chrome notebook won’t be available for retail. However, Google is running a pilot program that anyone can sign up to for a chance to get their hands on a Cr-48 Chrome notebook. The Cr-48 will never enter the retail market, instead Google is betting on partners such as Acer and Samsung which will provide retail hardware at some stage during the middle of next year when Google intends for its Chrome OS to be retail ready.

The pilot program is going to help Google iron out some bugs and get feedback in general as to how the Chrome OS works outside of Google. Judging by the hardware, the Cr-48 isn’t going to blow anyone’s mind, but it does have some interesting features. Google insists on calling it a notebook, but it apparently has an Intel Atom processor at its core, but Google doesn’t actually list a processor in the specifications on its website. As for what’s know of the rest of the specifications, well, there’s no hard drive in the Cr-48, but Google hasn’t specified what kind of storage devices are being used beyond the fact that it’s some kind of Flash memory.

With a 12.1-inch screen the Cr-48 should at least allow for a decent web experience, if not a great one, but again Google hasn’t mentioned important things such as screen resolution. Due to the fact that the Chrome OS is a cloud OS, network connectivity is key, but oddly enough Google has only included wireless options, albeit some very good ones with dual band 802.11n and a Qualcomm Gobi 3G card fitted as standard. The Cr-48 is tied in to Verizon, but retail machines will differ here. More on the 3G connectivity a little bit later, as there are some interesting things to point out here.

Google has come up with its own keyboard layout for the Chrome notebook and gone are all the F-keys at the top of the keyboard along with the Caps-Lock key. The Caps-Lock has been replaced by a Google search key, although it can be reset in the advanced OS/browser settings. The top row of keys consists of a forward and backward key for the browser pages, a reload key, a full screen key, a next window key, a pair of brightness control keys, a mute key, a pair of volume keys and a power button. Google has also fitted an Apple-esque clickable touch pad which in a way is one of the best features of the Cr-48. Oh and there’s also a built in webcam, a D-sub connector, a single USB 2.0 port, a memory card reader and an audio jack.

Google claims up to 8+ hours of active use – that would be with Wi-Fi or 3G enabled we presume – or a weeks’ worth of standby. The Chrome notebooks will go into standby as soon as you close the lid and they’ll wake up again as soon as you open it. Pressing and holding the power button will eventually switch the notebook off.  The Cr-48 weighs in at 3.8lbs (1.72kg) which isn’t exactly what we’d call impressive in terms of weight considering how feature light the Cr-48 is.

For those that are lucky enough (or is that unlucky?) to get their hands on a Cr-48, you’ll get a whopping 100MB of free data every month for the next two years courtesy of Verizon. We can’t imagine what people will do with that much free data, but for those that feel like it’s not enough; a limitless day pass is $9.99 while an additional 1GB is $20, while 3GB is priced at $35 and 5GB at $50 per month.  This is all pre-paid and has to be used up within 30 days. Seriously, who figured that a notebook that is built around a cloud OS would only use 100MB of data month? So ok, there’s always the option to use Wi-Fi, but judging by Google’s cutesy videos, the Chrome notebook is meant to be used anywhere and everywhere, so Wi-Fi isn’t really going to cut it.

As for device support, the USB port only works with mice, keyboards and headsets at the moment and Google has pointed out clearly in its Chrome OS help section that USB Flash drives are not currently supported. Want to print from your Chrome OS notebook? Well, then you have to use Google’s Cloud Print service, but this relies in you having a desktop PC with Google’s Chrome browser installed and you’re actually printing via the PC, something which is fairly easy to set up, yet not what we’d exactly call an elegant solution, especially as the Google is hailing its Chrome OS as an alternative to the good old desktop OS.

The Chrome OS also has a set of security features built in, among which is a verified boot. This is meant to check the OS for modifications and will automatically revert to a non-modified version of the OS if some foul play is detected. Each users account on a Chrome notebook will also be encrypted and all of the apps are meant to run in their own sandbox to prevent a crash from bringing the OS down with it. On top of that, the Chrome OS will also auto update itself, so when there’s a new version out, there’s no way to stay behind using an older version, apart from not connecting to the internet which sort of defeats the purpose of a cloud based OS.

Google also conveniently launched its Chrome web store today which should be full of web apps by the time actual retail Chrome notebooks hit the market. It already works with Google’s Chrome web browser for those that are interested at taking a look at the sort of apps that will be available. Currently it seems like all of the apps are free, but there will be paid for apps at some stage as far as we understand it.

Overall we have our doubts as to how well the Chrome OS will fair with consumers. Having a web browser as your OS just doesn’t sound that tempting to us, especially as you’ll be fairly limited, at least initially, to what programs you can use. Some of the apps will work in offline mode, just as some of Google’s services currently do. However, this just doesn’t feel like it’s enough to us, as there are times when a web app just doesn’t cut it, or when you need to have a full fat OS with all that it entails. Still, we won’t knock the Chrome OS and notebook too much until we’ve seen it in action, but it doesn’t seem to be something we’d replace a standard notebook with any time soon.S|A

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