Checking Out the Google Cr-48

December 15, 2010

Ars Technica has a review article up on the new “first cut” Chrome OS laptop from Google, the Cr-48, which I wrote about in a post a few days ago.   As the article acknowledges, this is basically a prototype of the product to come, so any conclusions must be to a certain extent tentative.

To get a feel for how Google’s new platform works in the field, we spent a few days testing the Cr-48, an experimental laptop prototype that runs an early version of Chrome OS. Although the software is still under development and not yet mature enough to support an authoritative conclusion about the platform’s potential, we have assembled some observations based on our experiences.

The machine itself is reasonably sleek (there are several photos in the article).  It starts automatically when the lid is opened, and boots in 10-12 seconds; even better, it resumes from a suspended state almost immediately. Google’s ability to work directly with the hardware manufacturer undoubtedly helps here.

The reviewers found that the basic functionality of the machine was satisfactory, although there were a few rough spots.   The machine has a USB port, but support for devices attached to it is pretty rudimentary.  Support for the built-in touchpad (mouse substitute) was also somewhat lacking, and media playback was not really entirely satisfactory.  I would hope, and expect, that these problems would be resolved before a product is released next year.

The basic concept of the Chrome OS is, of course, that computing will take place almost entirely in the cloud, with user interaction via a browser interface.  The Cr-48 seems to give a reasonable first look at how this might work.  One advantage that comes from the approach is security: it is possible to implement security measures that would be difficult or impossible with a more conventional OS.  For example, practically all of the filesystem is mounted read-only, and it is not possible to run executable code from any other location, except in the browser “sandbox”,   Even a ‘root’ user cannot modify system directories, like /etc or /bin.  (The Cr-48 system does have a hardware switch that allows the user to bypass some of these restrictions, but it is not clear that this feature will be present in the final product.)

It’s not clear, of course, whether this new approach to computing will catch on in the market place.

The strengths of the Cr-48 prototype suggest strongly that the concept of a browser-only operating system could be made to work eventually by taking the current Chrome OS implementation to its logical conclusion. It’s also clear that there are some tangible advantages to Google’s approach, particularly in the area of security. The question that is still unanswered is whether the trade-offs will appeal to regular computer users.

As I’ve said before, I think that, regardless of whether Chrome OS machines are ultimately a commercial success, the introduction of a new way of looking at client computing is a positive development.

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