Note: prior to reading this review, please consider watching the following youtube video. It is an introduction to my review, and the video is used to slowly lead into what I am about to discuss.
Introducing the Chromebook
A Detailed Review of ChromeBooks and Chrome OS
I realize that many of you are, at this moment, basking in the sunlight, enjoying the beautiful weather which has been brought upon some parts of our world today. If you aren’t — and are rather filled with worries or unsafe situations, I do wish you hope and safety. Indeed, the spring/summer season has truly kicked off. Not only in nature or in the lives of college students like myself, but also in the technology industry, where revolutions are being made which may impact our world to a great degree.
As a technology enthusiast, I am stuck between rocks very often. There may be times that I have to use a piece of technology which I do not enjoy on a personal level. Other times, life provides me with adventures to explore a new paradigm, and forbids me from judgements which cannot be made until I have fully evaluated every related concept and idea. I run Windows 8 on a daily basis on 3 of my computers. I also run Mac OS 10.7 Lion, Apple’s next flagship system. I have old computers from 1995, new computers from 2010, and everything in between. I do not consider my circumstances to be “above the rest”, but rather thank the world for allowing me the opportunities which I have been pleasured to take. Every time a new opportunity in the technology field arises, a small voice in my mind says: “Are you sure you want to jump into this?” and regardless of my feelings at the time, my answer has always been a resounding “Yes!”. This type of attitude has of course cost me many hard drives and perhaps frustrations too, so of course there are caveats as to everything. Today, another one of these “thought bubbles” popped up again, and I wanted to introduce others to the concepts;Providing clarifications, corrections to misconceptions, and advice along the way.
I imagine 10 years ago the Internet was just taking off in the mainstream. DSL was common place at the time, dial- up was just being phased out. Today, we have a very different world, one which increasingly relies on the Internet and web technologies. I’ll be the first to admit that the Internet has always scared me. Not even the Internet — the concept that so much of my data is not with me but rather residing in some complex in California or Washington. All my e-mails are on the Internet. My social network information. Bank transactions. The only things which are still stored locally for me are data files, such as music, documents, pictures, and downloads. These make up a big chunk of my computer usage. But nowadays, instead of trying to find my flash drive to place a word document of my research paper on there in order to use it in my college library, I simply e-mail it to myself. No problem, I can just go to my inbox and grab the document, right? It is very amazing how slowly I am moving into the lores of “the cloud”. Part of me is resisting the shift, while another is embracing it. I want to address both parts of me in this document, and discuss Google’s future strategies in computing, because soon you will see them in your own life perhaps. Friends who will use Chromebooks alongside you in the classroom. Your grandma who likes “simple” may buy a Chromebook. Just as the iPad had the potential to revolutionize our technology and did rightfully so, so do these new devices. The question is, how and what for?
Prior to reading this review, I suggested that you watch the accompanying video. (please scroll back to the top of the page and paste or click the youtube link.) It talks about Chromebooks and the philosophy behind them. For many, it should create a fundamental basis for this article, and will allow you to see Google’s point of view. Take away your biases for a minute while watching, and be considerate. While the ideas which are resembled are a bit one-sided, they nevertheless comprise the foundation of what the company is undertaking here.
The idea is rather simple. Now that we are always connected, why not design an operating system which only runs a web browser? It doesn’t need a bunch of drivers, frameworks, and thus it is very lightweight and efficient. It won’t require large disk space, so the laptops which you buy could be equipped with a small, few gigabyte storage card and still work. Everything is stored on the web, so you virtually have infinite storage as a result. One thing which the video fails to mention is that these machines can come with 3G service from Verizon Wireless, and you will get a meager 100 megabytes of data each month for free. That may not seem a lot, but for checking your e-mails on the go, downloading a few attachments, the limit should be enough. I’m sure you will be able to get more data usage if you wish. Perhaps if you run out, 1 megabyte would be 10 cents, which is a common charge with Verizon data plans.
This concept, of course, is rather insane. There probably are many questions which are popping up in your mind at the moment. “What about when I’m offline?” “will it support my music files?” and other ones to ask are important. There are several ways of looking at all of these. Offline content, according to Google, will be accessible through locally stored data. They specifically mentioned Gmail as being made available offline, but I am certain that Google Docs, calendar, and contacts will also be released. There will be a music player built into Chrome, so users could insert an SD card into the computer or a flash drive and access files that way. Put short, conventionality will not be thrown away completely. What will be thrown away are simple concepts like the use of a desktop or start menu. If you have used Google’s web browser, simply imagine your window being the only one you will ever have open. You can’t close the window, and must always have a tab open in it. You can create as many new tabs as you want, however. With this, I believe I’m getting into the OS review portion of this article, so let’s dive right in.
Chrome OS: Getting Started
As of today, Chrome OS is not yet fully released. However, you can obtain a daily build of it by visiting this link:
For Windows users with a visual impairment, the Image Writer software is not too screen reader friendly. I bypassed this by getting sighted help, though I’m sure if you found a program that can copy exact .img files to another drive, you’d be good.
Once the USB was all prepared, I proceeded to boot it off the SD card by doing a restart.
Chrome OS First Experiences:
After waiting about 20 seconds, you are loaded with a welcome screen. Here you have to choose your language, method of Internet connection, and sign in with a Google ID. All this is straight forward. For users who are blind, you can hit alt+Control+ Z to start up Chrome Vox, the built-in accessible screen reader which Google developed for Chrome OS and as an extension to Chrome.
In my experiences, nothing happened when hitting the key combination. I tried to do so repeatedly without any sound. So I turned off the computer, and rebooted with a headphone plugged into my headphone jack. To my shock, speech came up right away, telling me to choose my language. (Note: I hit tab, I don’t believe ChromeVox will begin talking automatically.) For those familiar with the voice which is used on Android, you will have no issues getting accustomed to the female Svox tts engine. At this point, you can choose your options.
Unfortunately, I never had wi-fi as an option. It appears as though Chrome OS does not recognize my card, which is rather sad, as many other Linux distributions (Chrome OS is actually Linux based) can identify it just fine. So, I had to run to my desktop machine, plug an ethernet jack into it, connect my phone via USB to tether it, and share it’s Internet connection under Windows. All in all, it was an easy yet unnecessary step;Hopefully those who test Chrome OS out will be able to use Wi-fi.
Once you choose your basic options, you must sign into a Google account. If you don’t have one, you also have the opportunity to create it here as well. After you’ve signed in, you are placed in a new tab where you can begin enjoying your browsing experience. It is also worth to note that if you do not have a Google ID, you also have a “sign in as guest” option, which I’d assume is similar to the “incognito” feature of Chrome-where no data is kept about your session.
ChromeVox: The basics, the Bugs, and the Barriers
As mentioned, for someone without vision, ChromeVox is a pretty solid screen reader built into the operating system. The way it works is rather simple. The ChromeVox Keys are windows+shift on a non Chromebook device. On a Chromebook device (More on Chromebooks later), you would use Capslock and shift. In fact, there is no capslock key on Chromebooks, and so that key is just called “search”. Now people can’t make up excuses for TYPING IN ALL CAPS and saying that they had Capslock on on their Chromebook! 🙂
Once you have gotten used to the ChromeVox keys, navigating is simple. The screen reader splits the website into groups. You can navigate between them by using CV+ the arrow keys. (CV will refer to the windows+shift key combination from hereon, or, on a Chromebook, Capslock+shift.) To interact with a group, you would hit CV+right, and the arrows again to navigate at the interaction level you chose. You could further hit CV+right and move into “sentence”, “word”, “character” navigation– think of this as “zooming in” on a page.
The logic is rather simple, and it differs enough from Apple’s approach that you don’t have to worry about feeling confused. (While you can interact with objects in depth with VoiceOver, the effect is slightly different with Chrome;There is no “rotor”.) There is, however, a trend I wish to point out. In Windows 8, Microsoft is taking the approach of interaction as well with narrator. While this is not yet as powerful as we see in ChromeVox or the Mac, the common threads are there, and it appears as though all 3 companies are using similar approaches to giving on-screen access. We can all however say that Apple came up with the idea first, so they could be credited with evolutionizing the screen reader market as well.
To move by heading or other page element, you can hit CV+n, followed by h for heading, r for radio button, e for edit field, f for form, t for table, x for checkbox, o for list, l for link, and i for list item. Note that quick navigation won’t restrict you to the current “group” you are interacting with, so it still allows you to jump from one part of the page to another. Also notice how I phrased the pressing of the keys. You have to *not* release the ChromeVox keys when pressing n and your letter of choice, it has to be done in a rapid succession. I believe you can actually delay the presses slightly.
Stacking ChromeVox against webpages:
ChromeVox actually works very well with websites like Youtube. I was able to play a Youtube clip with no problems using the reader. Other websites, like my bank, loaded fine as well, and I can say that I was online banking in no time. Getting used to the new way of seeing a website takes time, and I often found myself pounding my down arrow keys alone to navigate around the webpage. Not so. One thing that ChromeVox does lack, however, is continuous reading. You cannot read a website from the cursor onward, or from the start. This may pose to be a significant barrier in the future, and I’d hope that Google would fix the issue.
The Chrome file manager:
As mentioned, the OS includes a file manager which is pretty straight forward. pressing alt will bring up the Chromium menu, where you have the file manager and can open it by pressing enter or clicking it. You are presented with an HTML file manager. Treat it like any other website. I was able to plug in my USB Flash Drive and saw files on it. Navigating folder by folder was also pretty simple, and ChromeVox had no issues reading individual items, though these were arranged in a table and at the time I wasn’t sure how to navigate tables easily. Still, it’s great to see at least some legacy support implemented in Chrome, and this will hopefully allow users who feel the idea of “web only” to be a bit pushing.
The Chrome Media Player:
I fired up a radio stream link, which opened up the built-in media player, or it seemed. This is where things fell apart. ChromeVox stopped talking to me, and I was left feeling a bit let down sitting next to a (seemingly) frozen laptop. I pressed the power button, only to be told, “Shutdown, button.”. So things weren’t frozen, but it appears as though ChromeVox had troubles rendering the media player page, and it probably was what froze up. To put it simply, I experienced something similar to this while playing my Youtube Video as well, though at that time once the video ended ChromeVox came back on. I can’t really comment on the media player as a result, but I do know that it will be able to play music files you placed on an external device such as a flash drive or hard drive.
ChromeBooks: Are they worth it?
Honestly, there is not much else to cover here about the OS. As I’ve stated, imagine running Chrome, throw in a media player and file manager, and you pretty much have Chrome OS grasped pretty well. Google is marketing their ChromeBooks as the device of choice for using Chrome. Currently, 2 models have been launched. One made by Acer, which runs you $349, and another laptop made by Samsung, which will run you $449 or 499 if you want 3G. The Acer model does not have 3G, but features Wi-fi, 16 GB of storage, a dual-core Atom processor at 1.6 GHz (N570), and an HDMI port for output. With the Samsung model, you don’t get the fancy graphics HDMI port but are down to VGA, an SD reader, 16 GB of Storage, and the same processor. Visually, both of these laptops look different, with the Samsung one sporting a very thin, almost Macbook Air like design.
The question is, is the premium price worth it? You would be paying for a laptop, which Google is branding, with a web-browser as your operating system. Since Chrome OS is based on Linux, there is no question about the smoothness of your experience when compared to Windows 7, which has struggles handling some more intensive Notebook tasks. With that Chrome OS also comes a non-technical hassle: You don’t need to update it, you don’t need to maintain anything, it will just work. If you want to use a calculator? Find it on the Internet. Want to edit photos? Maybe an HTML5 or web-based photo editor will come out. Want to write a document? Google Docs will do. Speaking of which, ChromeVox should support Docs, though I have not tested this claim yet.
The Other Road to Chrome OS
Or, you could install Chrome OS on your laptop or netbook. This one is a highly win or lose situation. Some laptops, like the IBM I tried running Chrome on, may not get Wi-fi. Others, like a small Toshiba NB205 netbook, don’t have a trackpad working. Yet others, like my old IBM computer, may not have sound. To put it short, hardware support in Chrome is trivial at best. The Linux kernel, sadly, is also not known for good power management capabilities;My laptop was running it’s fan at full speed the entire time Chrome was booted. On other models, though, power management may work very well.
Is Placing all data in the Cloud a risk, or an advantage?
This should be a fundamental question you should consider before looking into Google Chrome as your main productivity or school-based tool. While you can still use USB storage, you have to realize that whatever you modify, you would have to save in Google Docs. Sure, an offline version of Docs will be introduced into the OS this summer, but it will only allow you to make changes to your most recent files and later, they would be uploaded to the cloud again. So there is a push and need for files to always reside on the Internet. This gives you the advantage of being able to throw your laptop in the river and not suffer any major losses, other than your cash and time you spent setting it up, which virtually is 0. You could also log in to your friend’s Chromebook, and use your settings after he/she logs out. On the downside, many privacy breeches have occurred lately on the Internet, and trusting your data in the hands of companies such as Google could be a risky, risky choice. The cloud is never safe, and as a consumer you have a right to be aware of how your data is being used. Unfortunately, many big companies are in for making money off your data by surfing you with adds or content you enjoy. Using Chrome OS would certainly pose this risk.
So the basic decision here is up to you. Whether you see a difference in putting more files in the cloud or not could be a key factor in determining your decision. After all, most of your e-mails are already online, right?
Before turning this review into an explosive novel, I want to draw my basic conclusions of Chrome OS. The idea of simply having a browser, to me, at first, was very laughable. Why when I could simply install Chrome on Windows and be done with it? Same experience, right? Not quite so. Being in the cloud completely feels very different from knowing that your programs, applications, and settings are stored in your hand, in your own hard drive. But having the freedom of always being connected and using the same programs no matter what actually feels a little liberating. I’m no longer tied to this one laptop, but could log into my account at a library and access all that I had back on my Chromebook. Urm, laptop running Chrome. On the other hand, aside for documents, Facebook, and the average teen websites, there is not much else to do. I can’t broadcast a radio show using Google Chrome, until an app is developed which lets me connect to a stream. I can’t edit out audio from a recording either. Therefore you are very limited at what you can do.
The matter of if Google Chrome and Chromebooks will take off is entirely in Google’s hand. Enterprises and business can actually sign a 3-year contract for a Chromebook and pay anywhere from $28 to 31 each month to Google. They would also get free technical support, and, curiously, could virtualize Windows apps like Photoshop and use a remote access tool which Chromebooks could connect to and give employees or students the experiences they could get from using a full-fledged laptop. That right there could be attractive. Educational institutions can actually pay $20 a month for 36 months and receive the benefits of Chromebooks. This could seriously be a life saver for many network administrators. No more need to deploy updates across a hundred laptops, or for major tech support. Chrome OS, in theory, should just work because it is so simple and light. And updates are pushed securely by Google automatically.
For the consumer, getting the concepts to take off may be a challenge. Sure, Chrome may be simple for grandma, but is it “too simple” for most mainstream users? Whether you see it turning into the next iPad is totally up to you. It will definitely be very interesting to experience a world where a new type of computer is also fighting for a slice of the computer and mobile pie.