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In depth: Google's Cr-48 Chrome notebook

Google sent notebooks loaded with Chrome OS to beta testers. Our reviewer took a deep dive into the new operating system.

My holiday gift giving season started early Thursday morning when the UPS guy pounded on my door and handed me a package. Inside was a notebook -- Google's much-discussed cloud-based Cr-48 Chrome OS laptop, which was announced by the company on Tuesday.

What follows are my snap impressions of the Cr-48. I'll discuss the hardware of the actual computer itself, and then go into Chrome OS, and wrap up with my overall impressions of the user experience of the hardware and software working together. (For another viewpoint, check out JR Raphael's blog entry "Google's Chrome OS notebook: My first impressions".)

In the box

Inside the small briefcase-size cardboard box was the computer itself, its battery, a power cord and a power brick. The only documentation was a cardboard flyer informing you about safe-use practices for the computer and a second one with a quick rundown of the Cr-48's keyboard and basic features, and information about how to start it up for the first time.

A business card with Intel's logo was included in the package, so presumably the laptop comes with an Intel processor, but there was no indication about what kind. Similarly, the size of its memory and flash storage memory weren't indicated anywhere in the documentation. Presumably, when or if this actually goes on sale, customers shelling out real money for it will be greeted with a bit more documentation.

The Cr-48 is a matte black, anonymous-looking notebook that seems purposely designed to not draw attention to itself. The computer weighs 3.8 lbs.; it was light and comfortable on my lap (and remained cool as well). The case is a rubberized matte material; only the keyboard, touchpad surface, and webcam are slick and shiny. There's no branding anywhere on the Cr-48, and no stickers. Even the bottom of the computer is absolutely devoid of all labels and markings -- a look Google may well change in the production versions.

The overall design and build of the Cr-48 feels solid. This isn't a rugged "toughbook" by any means, but it certainly doesn't feel flimsy.

The display isn't glossy, and once I'd set the brightness at its highest setting, the screen seemed to feel "just right" to my eyes, even in a bright, sunny environment.

The screen is 12.1-in. diagonally. The system has a VGA output that lets you display on the notebook and an external monitor simultaneously, a webcam, built-in speakers and a sound output connector for headphones. A microphone is built in to the left to the webcam, but there's no sound input connector to connect an external mic.

The laptop has an SD memory card slot and a single USB port -- both of which have issues. Initially, I couldn't get the memory card slot to work, and when I plugged in a USB flash memory stick, I found there was apparently no way to access the contents of a USB drive through Chrome OS. At one point, I tried attaching a file to an e-mail by searching for the memory stick's directory under Gmail's "Attach a file" function. Nothing could be found.

There is, however, a work-around. I went to my profile in Facebook, clicked "Upload Photos" and then "Select Photos." The screen switched over to a basic Linux file navigator. I found my SD memory card listed under the "Media" folder and could access a JPG image from it. I was able to access files from the USB drive this way as well. PC World's reviewer was able to achieve the same results using the online photo editing site Picnik.

The USB port did recognize a mouse when I plugged it in, and the mouse worked normally.

The Cr-48 does not have an Ethernet connection. The only way to get online is via Wi-Fi or its 3G modem (which runs on the Verizon 3G network).

A keyboard with a difference

The keyboard is similar to the "chiclet" keyboard found on MacBooks. It took me a little while to get used to typing on it, but this is probably due to the fact that I'm not used to this style of keyboard. The keys are suitably responsive and don't require much finger-pressing effort to activate.

There are no function keys. Instead, where the function keys usually sit on a Windows-based PC-style keyboard, there are keys that help you navigate Chrome OS's Web browser (i.e. forward, back, full-screen, reload), brightness keys for the LCD screen and volume/mute keys for the sound.

Most notably, there is no Caps Lock key. Instead, Google has a "search" key, which merely opens up a blank tab or your default home page (if you have that set). Even the letter keys are shown in lower case.

The wide touchpad does not include visible buttons. The functionality of what would normally be left and right mouse buttons are set at the left and right bottom corners of the touchpad (i.e. you press down on the bottom-left corner of the touchpad to do a left-mouse button click.)

The touchpad feels a tad too sensitive in its default setting (and I prefer my notebook touch pads to be more sensitive than usual). Fortunately, this sensitivity can be adjusted through the Chrome OS settings. I also found pressing the touchpad's hidden buttons to be tricky, also probably due to the sensitive nature of the touchpad's default settings.

First start-up

After you put in the battery and flip open the Cr-48, it immediately starts to boot up. (You can also start it by pressing its power button.) It takes about 15 seconds to load the first screen.

The computer will automatically try to find the strongest Wi-Fi signal and connect to it. If the Cr-48 is unable to log onto an open Wi-Fi network, you then must click the Wi-Fi signal icon on the upper-right of the screen (between the clock and battery/power icon). A menu pops open listing all the available Wi-Fi signals within range. Choose the one you wish to connect to; if necessary, you'll be prompted to enter that network's required security key.

Within this menu, you can also activate and log in to Verizon's nationwide 3G network. Verizon has partnered with Google to provide 100MB of free data bandwidth per month -- which, frankly, isn't anywhere near enough, especially for a notebook that works solely in the cloud. (In fact, 100MB per day wouldn't cut it for many of us either.)

According to the Verizon 3G activation page (that you can invoke from the Chrome OS wireless network menu), the free 100MB per month is guaranteed over 24 months. You can also get unlimited access on a $9.99/day basis, 1GB/month for $20, 3GB/month for $35 and 5GB/month for $50. A credit card is required, even for using the free 100MB per month allowance, although Verizon states that no charges will be made.

100MB per month is better than nothing, of course, but there's no doubt that the freebie is just provided to hook you into signing up for a Verizon 3G plan.

Once you're connected, a screen asks you to enter your Google ID -- or you can choose to log in under a Guest account.

On the next screen, you are asked to provide a headshot -- the Cr-48's Webcam will take a picture of you, and use this shot as your log-in ID's default profile shot. Say cheese. You can elect to skip this -- but if you do have a photo taken, make sure you like it before you proceed. I couldn't find any option to update the image or remove it. You can delete other accounts later added to the computer, but it appears that the Cr-48 is "bonded" to the first Google user who registers on it.

After your headshot is taken, Chrome OS loads up seconds later, and you are shown the browser's home page or a blank tab.

That's it. You are ready to use the Cr-48 and Chrome OS to surf the Web.

Chrome OS

Do you already use the Chrome browser? Then you already know how to use Chrome OS. The Chrome browser is, in a nutshell, the operating system of the Cr-48. There is no virtual desktop to exit to, such as in a more traditional OS like Windows, OS X or the various Linux GUI front-ends like GNOME and KDE. The browser is there when you boot up, and gone when you shut down.

To access the settings of the Chrome OS, you click on the wrench icon and choose "Settings." The operating system's settings page appears as a Web browser tab.

If you logged in with your Google ID, Chrome OS will automatically sync up with any settings you already have with Chrome browser that you use on another computer. So your bookmarks, saved passwords, preferred browser settings, extensions and Google's newly launched Apps will be downloaded and set into Chrome OS.

If you chose to log in using a guest account, Chrome OS will run under "incognito" mode, which is the same as the one you can access in a regular Chrome browser. Incognito mode does not save your user settings, cookies or passwords after you log out of the computer.

Performance

So how fast is Google's Chrome notebook? I checked out some of the latest movie trailers on YouTube. Chrome played them ably, and the sound quality cranked out by the computer was good. However, everything seemed to take a little longer than my usual notebook (a Dell with dual-core 2GHz processor and 4GB of memory).

Another JavaScript-heavy site, Facebook, took a while to load, too. The site was usable, but clicking through it and using it was not a remarkably speedy experience.

Further use and testing are required over time and various networks, but the overall impression I get for now is that while the Cr-48 performs capably enough, its performance feels more akin to that of a lower-end netbook or a smartphone.

I started to use the Cr-48 with the battery as it was shipped (it came about half charged). The system ran for about three hours before I needed to plug it in. Supposedly, the Cr-48 can run for eight hours on a full charge when you use it non-stop, but I have yet to test this fully.

How do you get one?

It has been reported that up to 60,000 units of the Cr-48 will be distributed -- an impressive number considering that some consumer tech vendors are lucky to even sell that number. And the unconfirmed rumor is that the giveaway is not necessarily based on a first-come, first-serve basis, but may be based on your ZIP code, as Google wants to evenly distribute the computers throughout the United States, which would make sense from a data-gathering and beta test perspective.

Currently, Google has a sign-up page where people can submit their email addresses to be considered for receiving one. Google also is opening up the process by encouraging users to submit videos where you plead your case.

Bottom line

The Cr-48 feels a lot like a smartphone with a much larger screen and keyboard when it comes to its Web surfing and media performance. The keyboard is good, but I find using the touchpad effectively takes some getting used to. By default, it feels too sensitive.

The Chrome OS is basically just Chrome browser, with an extra settings function that lets you adjust a few things like the touchpad.

So is this a game-changer? It's hard to say at this point: What sets the Cr-48 apart from other laptops are the hardware features that it lacks. To me, this feels like it should be a $150 to $200 device. I couldn't see myself willing to pay more, nor could I imagine most people would want to either. So Google is giving these computers away for free -- 60,000 of them -- for what is essentially a hardware front-end for its Web browser.

Come to think of it: Maybe that's the game changer Google has in mind.

Howard Wen reports for several technology publications. His Web site can be found at www.howardwen.com.

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