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Google polishes Chrome OS, but is it enough to entice buyers?

New Chromebook boasts improved UI and performance, but price is still an issue

By Howard Wen, Network World
June 18, 2012 07:03 AM ET

Network World - Google launched the Chrome OS in late 2010 and has continued to update it despite lukewarm reception by the public toward the platform's model: a browser-centered OS running on a lightweight, minimally-spec'd notebook meant to be used with an always-on Internet connection.

First look: Samsung's new Chromebook

Samsung just released a new top-of-the-line Chromebook, the Series 5 550 and the first so-called "Chromebox," the Series 3. The Chromebox is a mini-PC in a case that's similar in size to the Mac mini. You connect your own keyboard and mouse to it, and separate monitor, but otherwise it has most of the same specifications as the Series 5 550: both Chrome computers have Celeron CPUs, 4GB RAM, 16GB on-board flash memory storage, and come installed with Chrome OS, V.19.)

We've been running the original Chromebook, the Cr-48, so we were familiar with the product line when he tested the new models.

Because the hardware and software are closely wedded together in a Chrome computer, you really can't evaluate the hardware without first examining Chrome OS itself.

A more traditional look-and-feel OS

Previous iterations were essentially the Chrome browser running atop a Linux kernel. Aside from having a file manager, image viewer, and media player, it was no different than a web browser. But in this case, you were locked into full-screen mode, and there was no familiar desktop user interface to exit to. Though it could be argued that there were advantages to the extreme simplicity of this design, it probably felt constraining to most users accustomed to a more traditional OS.

In the latest version, Google has added standard OS UI elements, including a desktop (with changeable wallpaper), resizable browser windows, and a taskbar along the bottom of the screen, dubbed Launcher. The Launcher and desktop do help give Chrome OS a more "open" feel when you interact with it. In actuality, these are superficial re-arrangements of app icons and shortcuts, but they do prove themselves to be handy for quickly accessing your often-used web apps.

The Launcher

Clicking the Chrome icon on the Launcher bar opens a browser window, as you'd expect. Clicking this icon again will open a blank tab in the browser. Other icons on the Launcher include those for Gmail and Google Docs (now referred to as Google Drive), each of which will open a browser tab to these web services when clicked. (An icon for Google search will launch a separate browser window that for some reason doesn't support the ability to open tabs within it.)

In prior versions of Chrome OS, a blank tab displayed icons for web apps installed on the OS. Starting with Version 19, you access your installed apps by clicking the Apps icon (an image of a 3-by-3 grid) on the Launcher. This takes you to the desktop where shortcut icons for the apps installed on your Chrome OS computer are presented in a grid layout for you to click to launch.

I don't feel that clicking the Apps icon on the Launcher bar is as convenient and fast as opening a blank tab that in prior Chrome OS versions listed your installed apps, but this might just be my personal preference. (The number of clicks for either way is the same.) So this change may be subtle to most users.

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