First look at Chrome OS

Google's all-Web computers to hit stores June 15

The Web is the computer

Samsung and Acer will release the first Chrome OS laptops on June 15, turning Google's browser into a full-fledged operating system. Think of it as a computer that starts up instantly and does almost nothing but browse the Web, with just enough offline access and file management to tide you through a plane ride. Here is a first look at Google's Chrome OS.

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The hardware

The Samsung "Chromebook" will have a 12.1-inch screen, start up in less than 10 seconds, resume instantly from sleep mode and provide up to 8.5 hours of battery life. An Intel Atom dual-core processor, HD webcam, digital microphone, track pad, two USB ports, and support for SD cards round out the main features. It will be sold by Best Buy and Amazon for $429 for Wi-Fi-only or $499 for a 3G model, plus 100MB of free data a month. A similar laptop from Acer will start at just $349 but offer a smaller screen and only 6.5 hours of battery life.

Logging in

It only takes a few minutes to set up a Chrome computer after you take it out of the box. Log in with a Gmail account, take a picture of yourself if you so desire, and then you'll be surfing the Web in a Chrome browser running on top of Linux. With a Google account, all your bookmarks and settings will be synced on Google servers, making it easy to switch from one device to another.

Start your browsing

When you fire up Chrome, the first thing you'll see after logging in is the new tab page, with a list of all your installed applications.

Chrome Web Store

Chrome Web Store

Need more apps? The Chrome Web store is the place to go. (Yes, you can even play Angry Birds in the browser now.) Google credited advances in JavaScript, graphics processing units, WebGL and HTML5 with allowing much richer browser-based applications than were possible just a few years ago. The caching abilities in HTML5 even allow offline access to Web apps.

Gmail

Gmail

You can check any Webmail on the Chromebook, but if you're a Gmail user you can expect tight integration between your email and the browser. Google employees are already using an offline version of Gmail internally, and it will be ready for all Chrome/Gmail users sometime this summer – at some point after the June 15 Chromebook release date. Gmail offers a lot more than just email – you can do voice and video chat right within the browser.

Google Docs, and more offline apps

Google Docs, and more offline apps

With offline Gmail access giving Chromebook users something conceptually similar to offline use of Microsoft Outlook, so too will offline access to Google Docs help some users make the move from Microsoft Word. The aforementioned HTML5 caching capabilities in Chrome will store local copies of recent documents, letting a user continue working on a plane ride. Google Calendar will also receive offline access this summer, and some non-Google companies such as the New York Times are already providing offline access.

But it's still the Web

Despite offline access, it's the Internet connection that makes Chrome OS useful. There will be a file system and media player to let users manage movies, music and documents, but to make your files accessible anywhere you need to send them to the cloud. For photos, Google offers Picasa, but there are plenty of choices including Snapfish and Flickr. Even though it's a Google computer, you're not restricted to using Google cloud services.

What about Windows?

What about Windows?

Lots of businesses will say they can't move to Chrome OS because they rely on Windows applications. But if they're also a customer of Citrix, they can make the switch to Chrome OS. A service to be released this summer is Citrix Receiver for Chrome OS, which lets businesses stream applications from the data center to the browser. The same technology has already been applied to the iPad, as you can see in this image. VMware is also expected to release virtual desktop technology for Chrome OS, but no release date has been given.

Citrix will stream Windows apps to Chrome OS laptops

Business model

Businesses won't have to pay the full price of the notebook up front. Instead, Google is offering three-year subscription packages starting at $28 per user per month, including a Web-based management console, support and hardware replacements in case of failure.

Given the offline access, maturity of the Web, and access to virtual desktop applications, Google claims 75% of business users can move from Windows to Chrome OS. Will Google be proven correct? Only time will tell.

For more on Chrome, see “First look at Google Chrome 10.”

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