Google Chromebook: The good, the bad and the beta

What we learned about the Cr-48 during our two-month evaluation

When Google first started giving away the Cr-48 in early December, lots of reviewers posted their first impressions after driving the Chromebook around the block a couple of times. We’ve taken the Chromebook out on a two-month test drive to see how it performs in real-world conditions.

Nine things we love and hate about Chromebook | Chrome OS notebooks get the video treatment

Here are 9 things we like and 9 things we don’t like about the Chrome OS-based netbook.

Don't like: No "CAPS lock" key (but you can turn it back on)

There was a minor controversy over Google not including a "CAPS lock" key on the Cr-48. In truth, they simply re-assigned it to work as a "search" key. But you can turn on CAPS lock functionality for this key by clicking the wrench icon in Chrome OS, choosing "Settings," "System" and then "Modifier keys...".

Like: The learning curve of Chrome OS is easy

There's actually no new operating system you have to learn in order to use the Cr-48. Chrome OS is essentially the Chrome Web browser. The only difference between the two is that the settings menu of Chrome OS includes adjustments for things specific to the Cr-48 hardware (like its Wi-Fi, 3G and touchpad).

Don't like: Once you sign in, you're committed (unless you reset the entire OS)

Like a puppy, a brand-new Cr-48 "bonds" to the first person who claims ownership of it. The computer requires that you sign in with a Google account (such as a Gmail account), and once that happens, your account is locked into the computer -- it cannot be changed or removed (at least easily -- it is possible, but you have to force the computer into "recovery mode" to reset everything from scratch).

Like: Near-instant on

The Cr-48 snaps back on from sleep mode instantly. Starting from being completely turned off, it loads into the user log-in screen in 10 seconds, and from there, after you've signed in, goes to Chrome OS in 7 seconds.

Don't like: Cannot play your media files

Essentially, the Cr-48 seems to be in the same league as a smartphone or tablet in terms of its processing power -- except you cannot play your own media files (music and video) on it.

There is a clue that Chrome OS (and the Cr-48) may have the ability to do so: type about:flags in the Chrome OS address bar, and you will see "Media Player" listed. But, despite enabling this, we couldn't figure how to get this to work (or, if the current version of Chrome OS even allows for this to function).

Like: Long battery life

On a full charge, we found that the Cr-48 ran up to 8 hours. Of course, this duration depends on how much you use the computer to view/listen to streaming video or audio, how long you have the Wi-Fi or 3G modem on, or whether you run whatever else on it that puts the computer's processor through its paces (in other words, doing almost anything on it that makes using any computer fun).

Still, if you use the Cr-48 to do offline, low-processing activities -- such as writing -- it is possible to squeeze out a work day's worth of juice from its battery.

Don't like: The touchpad is too wide

The sensitivity of the Cr-48's touchpad can be leveled down, but we found that the touchpad itself may be too wide for such a small notebook. You have to be careful not to rest your palms upon the Cr-48 while typing. Otherwise, your palms will probably make contact with the touchpad and send the cursor flying off to another part of the screen.

Like: It's thin and light

The Cr-48 is no MacBook Air, but compared to most notebooks that sport 12.1-inch screens it's quite light at 3.8 pounds. And with a thickness of 0.875 inches, the computer fits nicely into a bookbag or backpack like a couple of magazines (or one thick fashion mag) would.

Don't like: No line-in audio connector

There is a pin-hole microphone on the Cr-48, set above the screen, to the left of its webcam, but the computer lacks a line-in connector. So you can't use a headset that has its own microphone. If you're using a webphone service, such as Google's own voice chat, you'll have to speak loudly at the Cr-48 -- and everybody around you will hear you.

Like: The sound is pretty good

The built-in speakers are sufficient, but you experience better sound quality from the Cr-48 when you plug in a decent pair of earbuds or earphones. We found that listening to streaming radio stations or jukebox sites like Grooveshark to be flawless.

Don't like: It gets stained easily

Even with our hands clean (honest, mom, we washed!), fingerprints and skin oil would stain the computer's rubberized housing as if we had touched it after we ate fried chicken. Using a cotton towel dampened with water to clean the Cr-48, lightly scrubbing in circular motions, helped somewhat, but our oily DNA remained.

Like: The rubberized housing

Despite its stain-soaking properties, we still do like the feel of the computer's rubberized exterior. You get a good sense that your fingers are securely gripping onto the Cr-48 -- it doesn't feel like a cheap, plastic toy.

Don't like: No Ethernet

You'd think including an Ethernet interface would be a trivial cost, but there is none. The only way to get on the Internet with it is through its Wi-Fi or Verizon 3G modem. We're guessing this is Google's intent to encourage you to think of the Cr-48 as a mobile device.

Like: Free 100MB with Verizon 3G

True, you'll definitely use up this monthly quota fast if you spend it, for example, watching a lot of YouTube videos. Still, 100MB for free is better than nothing.

If you don't want to pay Verizon for an increased quota (up to 5 GB for $50 per month), then we have a tip on how to effectively use your allotted 100MB: Many popular sites offer scaled down versions of themselves that cut back on images and JavaScript, presenting mostly the text content, meant for viewing on smartphones. You can often access them by substituting the letter "m" where you might normally enter "www" in their web address: m.cnn.com, m.facebook.com, m.gmail.com are examples.

Don't like: Picture perfect -- or not

When you first sign on to claim ownership of the Cr-48, it requires that you let it take a snapshot of you. Try to look your best, because you cannot redo or replace it with another shot later (unless you reset the computer by forcing it into recovery mode).

Like: You can hack it

Google doesn't mind if people tinker around with the inner-workings of the Cr-48. You can access the computer's terminal shell ("developer mode") by simply flipping a switch within the computer's battery compartment.

Some of the more Linux-savvy recipients of the Cr-48 have figured out how to get other operating systems running on it, including Ubuntu.

Don't like: No USB and SD card support

The Cr-48 comes with an SD flash memory slot, but Chrome OS does not allow you to access the contents of an SD card that you stick into it. The same is true if you plug a USB flash memory stick into its USB port.

Future access is likely: type about:flags in the Chrome OS address bar, and you'll find "Advanced File System" listed. Although this can be enabled, we still were not able to access the contents of external flash memory media that we stuck into the computer.

Like: It's free -- as in beer

Despite the flaws of the computer, it's hard to gripe much when Google is giving them away for free. The company will give away a total of 60,000 units.

As to whom specifically they are gifted to, and what criteria one must meet to qualify, that remains a mystery. You can still sign up to be considered, and the Cr-48 Shipping Tracker site -- set up by others not affiliated with Google -- supposedly tracks the shipping status of the computers as they are sent out.

Wen reports on technology news, trends and products as a frequent contributor to Network World and Computerworld.

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