Chrome OS First Impressions

Nearly two months ago, Google launched its first internally built laptop, the Chromebook Pixel.  Reviews have been polarized (and polarizing): what exactly is the target market?  Who is willing to put down ~1,400 dollars for a laptop that can basically only run Google Chrome?  The debate had me take a hard, long, critical look at Chrome OS – I have previously done little more than deride it in 15-second rants, tangentially mentioning Google TV and Android.  This time, after careful pondering (but not without hesitation), I ended up buying the $249 ARM-based Chromebook.  These are my thoughts after finally getting my mitts on Chrome OS.

Chrome OS: The Concept

Chrome OS is Google’s response to Windows and Mac OS X.  (Those of you in the know can stop laughing now.)  The line of thought is more or less like this: since most people are rapidly adopting the cloud computing paradigm, there’s a lot of cruft in desktop operating systems that is not really needed anymore, or alternatively is ripe for being re-implemented in radically different ways.  This does sound a lot like Google’s way of taking on things, search and email being but two similar examples.

Therefore, Chrome OS expects you to ditch Windows, Mac OS X or Linux for a device that can basically only run Chrome and what Chrome may get you while connected to the Internet (some  offline capabilities exist).  In return, it promises an instant-on computing experience, with virtually no initial setup, everything safely stored in the cloud  (allowing you to keep calm no matter what happens to your Chromebook), a virus-free, never-slowing-down device that is essentially yet another extension of the sync-everything philosophy that you may already be enjoying by using Chrome on your computer, tablet or phone.

Needless to say, such a view has to be polarizing.  But, as many have noticed, Chrome OS has indeed come a long way over the last couple years.  For one, it has found its way out of the Intel world and into ARM, promising cheap devices with long battery lives and performance and capabilities that in some ways can rival that of typical ARM devices, such as tablets and phones.  Indeed, the $249 Samsung Chromebook has managed to hold the #1 spot at Amazon’s best-selling laptop list for the last six months.  But is that based on price only?  How does it measure up against the competition?  And what about the new, incredibly premium (and Intel-based) Pixel?  I couldn’t help shaking my head hard in disbelieve at it.  What is the fuss with Chrome OS?  Why hasn’t Google killed it yet?  Haven’t we all seen that Google TV is going nowhere?  Isn’t Android doing well enough that there are even third parties building Android laptops?  Who on their sane mind is going to buy a device that costs like a Macbook Air or entry-level Macbook Pro in order to work solely on the cloud?

Sorting Out The Crossroads

So I got to think.  And I got to read.  Those In The Know were actually finding Chrome OS very compelling “as a second device”.  They were saying that a true laptop with keyboard was still better than an iPad with the best Bluetooth keyboard/dock you could find.  They were finding it was just fine to do email, write documents and the like – the kind of stuff I loath using my iPad for and that inevitably gets me out of bed and in front of the desktop if it’s gonna take anything more than five minutes.  They were saying it was an interesting productivity setup.

I ended up having to find out by myself.  Of course, a cheapskate like me would never consider a Pixel, but the latest Samsung model was, well, within arm reach.  So I reached out and grabbed it.  And I think it’s a great idea.  No, really.  I won’t bore you with hardware and software details – there are plenty of good reviews out there.  But this whole experience has really opened my eyes.  Think about your current desktop setup, and ask yourself: can I do most of my work on a Chrome browser?  The answer, in my case, is a resounding yes.  I can’t do everything within that setup yet, but easy access to that which I can is provided very efficiently by a Chromebook.  This device cannot take the place of my desktop machine.  But it certainly can take me away from it for a substantial amount of time – in ways other “post-PC” devices really can’t match.

Here are some specific thoughts I’ve distilled from this experience:

  • Price does matter – a lot.  With many aspects of this device, I find myself saying “this is good enough or better than I expected for a $249 laptop”.  At first, I was worried I was being too lenient based on this.  When I’ve attempted this in the past, a few days or weeks after the initial infatuation is over, I’ve ended up hating the device.  But I soon realized that this is actually a good (no, great) device for this price.  And in fact, I think we all look at our devices based on how much we paid for them: our forgiveness for failure to meet our expectations drops dramatically as a function of the amount we spent.  Maybe that’s why I like my Nexus 4 so much (great, great value for the money) and have a really hard time whenever I hit the tiniest issue with Apple hardware in general, even that which I don’t own.  Maybe price-bias isn’t so bad because it tends to be consistent
  • The price-perception thing is why Google launched the Pixel.  I couldn’t find a link to where I first read this, but I heartily agree.  We, the cheapskates of the tech world, are singing the praises of the Samsung Chromebook.  There are some power users that would really be willing to try it, but they won’t even look at $249 hardware.  The Pixel is for them.  In fact, I’m told Linus Torvalds has been fairly vocal about how much he likes his Pixel.  Google may not be so wrong on this front as it initially seems
  • The Chromebook success is not entirely in the hands of Google.  It sounds obvious, but it being a cloud-based device, it needs a healthy ecosystem to make headway, and try as it might Google has a limited role there.  Granted, it must provide a lot of basic, foundational work.  But I clearly remember using Evernote Web a year ago and it was…  Hideous.  It looks and works a lot better now.  And that is something Google cannot control.  In the specific case of Evernote, they may try to compete with Keep, but they won’t be able to do this with every major cloud service provider.  On the other hand, they are definitely working hard to improve the Chromebook experience across the board – had I bought mine two months ago, I wouldn’t have been able to use Netflix on it (didn’t work on the ARM model), but it’s now fixed.  So a lot of the uptake hinges on Google’s capability to partner or cajole the industry into better supporting this particular view of cloud entry
  • This device may not be appropriate for everybody.  And this also sounds obvious, it being the case for nearly everything.  But modern PCs are really general purpose devices, and most people can make them fit for themselves.  With Chromebooks, those who do heavy media editing, lots of printing, and use plenty of specialized apps (such as IDEs, CAD/CAM software and the like) won’t find a proper substitute.  At best, a Chromebook can be a great second device for such people   But for others, it can be their main (or even only) device to great effect: think writers, students (professors?), and others who need something more akin to a desktop experience than what tablets can offer, which is also fairly cheap and easy to carry along, and you’ll get an idea of the target market for this
  • There is still plenty of potential for growth.  With the debacle surrounding Windows 8 and Apple more keen than ever in keeping profit margins as high as possible, Google may be on to something quite interesting with Chrome OS.  It’s already got Samsung, HP and Lenovo interested enough to launch Chromebooks (and, in Samsung’s case, a desktop offering more or less in the vein of the Mac Mini).  And with the Pixel, it enters the hardware business itself with a very polished, high-level offering that can appeal to a certain market segment.  I don’t know what the stats are, but I feel adoption has plenty of room to grow and it really seems well poised to do so

As I write this, I can’t help blushing over the irony that I find this device so versatile compared to a desktop, tablet or smartphone, and yet, it’s biggest merit is, it can fire up a desktop browser.  The cloud makes it possible. And with the cloud having changed the way we work, Chrome OS seems to suggest the shake-up extends to the very devices we use for reaching it – obvious in the case of post-PC devices, but not so much so for PCs themselves.  And from where I stand, I think Chrome OS is just right.

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