Ten days with a Google CR-48 Chromebook — first impressions

Ten days ago, the UPS guy surprised me with a box that was approximately the size and heft of a large, abridged dictionary.

I was puzzled; I hadn’t ordered anything that large. I had been on my way out, netbook in my messenger bag and a bike helmet on my head. I opened the box and was further confused by a cutaway drawing of a hamster in a wheel powering what appeared to be a jet engine. (It’s been pointed out that this isn’t a hamster, but a guinea pig.)

CR-48

The  CR-48 (I call it the Chromebook) is a plain, black laptop. The keyboard is good, but I kept clicking the trackpad with my palms. I’ve been using it for everything that doesn’t need Microsoft Word (clients mostly send me Word files) or audio editing software (which is on my Mac). I’ll start with the bad:

  • It’s light, the same weight as my smaller netbook. The rubbery surface makes it easy to carry around the house or toss into a backpack. I barely notice the weight on my back while riding a bike or walking.
  • You need wi-fi to use the thing. That’s sort of the point, of course, but Google hasn’t implemented offline access yet. It’s supposed to be part of HTML 5, and  I have high hopes, but what it means is that I can’t use this thing in as many places as I’d like. The CR-48 comes with 3G (i.e., cellular) net access, which I haven’t used.
  • If you use a bluetooth mouse like I do, you’ll discover the trackpad has no “off” switch, resulting in accidental mouse presses while typing.
  • Google Documents isn’t fast enough or full-featured enough to be a Microsoft Office replacement, or even  substitute for OpenOffice.

There’s a lot about the Chromebook that’s good, some if it pretty awesome:

  • The hardware is good. I have no idea how much storage is on this thing, or how fast the processor is. And I’m fine with that. (Edit: For those interested, specs are here.) What matters is that, when I go back to my aging Mac or my vintage-March-2010 netbook, the web suddenly seems slow. And that’s on computers using the same web connection. The CR-48 gives you a great web experience.
  • If you can use the Chrome browser, you’ll have this thing figured out in about a minute. If you’re coming from Firefox or Internet Explorer (I won’t tell anyone, don’t worry), make that five minutes.
  • The trackpad itself is nice: large and smooth. Tapping to click works well, although I haven’t quite gotten the hang of dragging.
  • It’s assumed you’ll be using the computer where there’ll be wi-fi; there’s no Ethernet jack. I haven’t been able to get cloud printing to work just yet, but I haven’t had a pressing need to do so.
  • Google Calendar and Gmail run well, even a little faster than they do on my other computers.
  • Before the Chromebook arrived, I had been syncing Firefox on the Mac with my Windows 7 netbook. The CR-48 syncs bookmarks between both Chrome installations smoothly, so my bookmark bar looks the same on both machines. (I’d love to install Chrome on the Mac, but it doesn’t meet the minimum requirements.)
  • Battery life is great; I leave the charger at home more often now.
  • The web runs well on Chrome, and the only crashes I’ve experienced are for Flash-heavy pages, or extremely large ones.
  • Startup is fast. Waking up is even faster; open the lid, type your password, and you’re on the web in a few seconds.
  • I can stream audio while browsing the web, although there are limits. I can bring the CR-48 to its knees, but it takes some doing: Streaming music from box.net while running the WordPress editor will crash it, but I think that’s more of a problem with WordPress than with the CR-48.
  • Having one of these is like having a folding bike: people ask you about it, and want to try it out. (If you don’t like talking to random strangers, put this into the ‘bad” column.)
  • There’s no CapsLock key. There are, instead of function keys, a row of web-specific keys like back, forward, et cetera. There are also keys for switching windows, volume, screen brightness, and fullscreen mode. Its all easy to figure out.
  • You can have multiple tabs open at once. If you open a new window, it opens in a new screen; you cycle between the windows with the dedicated window-switching key, or with alt-tab (like in Windows). I like this, it allows me to, say, keep a flight-tracking window open in the background, not cluttering up whatever I have going on in my main window.

Everyone who’s used this has figured it out in a minute or two. (Google encourages you to have your friends sign into the guest account and get some quality-time with the web.) I don’t know if the internet is ready for us to use it as our computer, but the Chromebook is a good start. I suspect stuff like editing multitrack audio and video will need a machine with a big ol’ hard drive for the forseeable future.

If you browse, read email, chat, and not much else then you’d be happy with a CR-48. If you need even one application regularly, this would make a nice machine to browse the web in the living room. For the vast majority, those who use word processing and spreadsheet programs: unless your needs are simple enough for Google Documents, this isn’t for you. There’s speculation that 2011 may be the year of the cloud. Cloud computing may be the wave of the future, but the future isn’t here just yet, or at least not outside of my living room or downtown cafes with wifi.

 

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