Friday, December 10, 2010

Google CR-48 ChromeOS netbook review

So Santa dropped this box off yesterday.
At first I thought my wife had gone insane on Amazon, but it turns out that it was a present from Google.  Looking inside.....
Oh yes, CR-48 hotness.  There was a one page note with some basic instructions, but interestingly, everything was technical stuff about how to operate the netbook.  There were no instructions as to what I was supposed to do with it.  Was it a gift?  A loan?

Lots (probably thousands) of people received the same gift over the last couple of days.  Clearly Google is giving them out to early adopters, and looking for feedback and and some blog posts.  So, I will oblige.

The big deal here is obviously the ChromeOS.  The hardware is all going to change by the time this gets to a wide public release, but I will touch on it anyway.  The CR-48 has the same footprint as a 13" MacBook Air, but is about twice as thick as the thick part of the Air.  It is hard to get as excited about the CR-48 as I might be, because I did recently get the new MB Air, and it is abso-frickin-lutely amazing.

My setup experience was great, but some of that is due to the fact that I already use Chrome as my primary browser, and I have Chrome Sync set up to sync bookmarks and extensions across my machines.  So, when I fired up the machine for the first time and gave it my gmail login, about 10 seconds later, I was looking at exactly the same thing I would be if I were in the browser on any of my machines.  Kind of like the way Apple makes it dead simple to migrate settings, but much simpler because so much less is being migrated.  My 1Password did not make it over, but LastPass seems to work fine.  This is important because I don't store my passwords in the browser, where they are too easy to get too.

Bootup time is a few seconds.  And it is basically instant on when you open the lid from standby.

The ChromeOS is basically just the Chrome browser, with some apps tagged on.  How well this works for you depends on where you personally are in migrating your life to the web.  For myself, I am pretty far along that path.  I started the journey a couple of years ago because I wanted to start using multiple machines.  Now, I have an iMac at my desk, the MB Air for moving around, and an iPad just for the hell of it.  I also have a couple of older Windows laptops.  So, I try to use applications that work seamlessly across all of these devices (and my iPhone).

The apps I use most often do, and have cloud-based accessibility, making the ChromeOS a good option.  Here are what I use most day to day:
  • Gmail--I have a Google Apps account and it is my "system of record" for mail, contacts and calendar.  I don't use Google Docs much, though.
  • Seesmic for social networking--basically Facebook and Twitter
  • Evernote
  • Quicken 2007--here is one that does rely on the desktop.  Mint just does not have enough power to replace it, nor does Quicken Essentials.  WTF Intuit?  When are we going to see the next version of real Quicken?
Often I will use a desktop client to access the data in these apps--PostBox for mail, BusyCal for calendar, Seesmic, Evernote, Remember the Task for Remember the Milk, Jott--but that is to keep my browser tabs from being completely out of control.

Fortunately, LogMeIn works just fine in ChromeOS, so if I do really need the desktop, I can just remote in to it.  For Quicken, I do that anyway from my laptops.  Everything else that I use regularly can be dealt with in a browser just fine, except for MS Office apps.

If you can get away with just Google Docs, then it is hard to see how you need more than the ChromeOS.  In fact, as Microsoft improves the could versions of the Office suite, then this issue may go away.  Offline support is supposed to be coming back to Google Docs, probably specifically to support ChromeOS.

There are apps for the ChromeOS.  I tried a few.  The NY Times app looks exactly like the iPad app.  I would guess that will be true for many apps where they are going to leverage an HTML5 content structure into native wrappers for various platforms.  Other apps like Remember The Milk are just web pages masquerading as an app.

The only issue I have had so far is with the trackpad.  Some of this is hardware related.  The trackpad on the CR-48 is set a bit too far to the right, so the heel of my right palm hits it often.  This caused a ton of annoyance with the cursor position bouncing around, and made it very hard to write anything.  However, disabling the "tap to click" in settings has helped enormously.  The mouse may move around, but at least the cursor position does not change.  The trackpad is still wonky and jerky, so they need to spend some time with the drivers to sort that out.  Does not seem too hard.  I know that they were under pressure to get this out, and feel like this is truly a beta, as opposed to most of Google's betas, which seem more fully baked.

Other users have complained about flash bringing the CR-48 to a crawl, but I ran two simultaneous YouTube streams while typing some of this blog entry and it seemed fine.

I did see some oddness in a couple of emails where the attachments did not show correctly.  On another email, I successfully download a .docx attachment into a downloads folder, but I could not open it--it gave me an "Unknown file type" error.  This is odd given that Google Docs can deal with the docx format.  I could click on "view" instead of "download" to see it in html and then save it to Google Docs, which is what makes sense anyway in a browser-centric universe.

I don't know what the eventual selling price will be for ChromeOS netbooks.  Probably similar to the Linux netbooks today and slightly cheaper than netbooks with Windows Starter.  I am not a fan of Linux because, while it has gotten more user friendly, it is still not appropriate for the mass market.  The ChromeOS may well kill it in netbook applications.

With my MB Air, I am not going to use the CR-48 as much as I might.  It would make a great companion computer for a desktop.  Battery life seems impressive from an average sized battery, so the processor must not be having to work too hard.

Basically, if you already live a browser intensive lifestyle and use Chrome a lot, you will really not notice the ChromeOS, which is a good thing.  It will just feel like any other computer--just a whole lot cheaper.


  1. Thanks for the nice review, Chris! I too have moved largely to online apps. My medical billing and appointments scheduling program is Internet based. And, I plan to choose an Electronic Health Record (EHR) medical charting system that is "in the cloud". However, just as you noted, the one missing piece is Quicken.

    I have all of my accounts (business, personal, property) in Quicken 2009, a desktop program, and I am waiting for an Internet based version that is robust enough to handle the huge data files I have built over the years. Also, it's interesting to note that my web-based payroll program, Intuit Online Payroll (IOP), only functions under Microsoft Internet Explorer and not under the Chrome browser. Moreover, IOP does not "speak" to Quicken Online, only to the desktop versions of Quicken. Intuit really needs to get with the program and develop full-featured cloud-based versions of its programs that really do talk to each other.

  2. Bill--

    Intuit is a really interesting example of a company that stopped innovating a long time ago, but has not yet been disrupted. Mint had the best shot at it so far, and Intuit bought them out. I think it has been more than a decade since a new release of Quicken actually brought useful new functionality instead of just more bloat.

    I share your frustration with their cloud products. I worked for a startup called NetBooks (now WorkingPoint), created by Ridgely Evers, who led the team that created the original QuickBooks. He was also a small businessperson, and created NetBooks out of extreme frustration with the lack of progress in Quickbooks.

    But, change is coming. Outright, InDinero, Xero, WorkingPoint on the low end, and FinancialForce, Intacct and Netsuite on the higher end are going to force Intuit to innovate or die.

    Aaron Patzer of Mint seems to have a somewhat free hand at Intuit in helping them innovate on the web.

    As I sit here on vacation in the tropics, every time I have to remotely access my primary desktop to look at Quicken, I wish the newcomers well. One way or another, things will get better.


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