Meet Chrome OS

Chrome OS has an identity. It’s a definable, quantifiable piece of software. It isn’t as mysterious as I expected to be. In fact it’s quite a bit simpler. Chrome OS is a nuanced browser. Running Chrome OS is quite a bit like running Chrome. The computer boots, asks you to sign into your Google account, and presto, desktop. Oh yes, there is a desktop, but it isn’t terribly useful. There are shortcuts to the major Google Apps: Gmail, Chrome, YouTube and Search, by default. Next to these icons is an app drawer.

Here’s where things become tricky. The Chrome Web Store has a ton of apps. The issue is that many of the apps aren’t apps. Rather they’re bookmarks to web pages. Pandora is an example of this. The bookmark works fine. Obviously works correctly in a Chrome window, but this is not a native app by any stretch. The same hold true for other standbys like Dropbox and Evernote. There’s another side to this coin though. Games like Lara Croft & The Guardian of Light 82 and Bastion 89 run in the browser window. That’s distinctly interesting, cool (and also possible on Windows.)

The app situation is an issue. Web services and apps aren’t quite able to replace native applications. Web apps are getting better, no one can doubt that, but there are big holes. The largest example of this issue is photo editing. The stock photo editor on Chrome OS is limited to cropping, rotating, re-sizing, brightness and contrast. There are more effective alternatives in the web store and online, but Lightroom or iPhoto, these aren’t.

That leaves us at the doorstep of Chrome OS’s next issue. Real work is hard to do on this machine. The C7 is fine for light photo-editing, light word processing, light gaming and browsing. It’s fine for light anything, but sometimes folks need to work hard. Chrome OS isn’t up to that task. The real question becomes: what are you looking for in a $200 laptop? If the answer is a functionally great browser and little else, then Chrome OS on the C7 is worth taking a peek at.

That’s where we can curtail the negativity. Navigating Chrome OS is a breeze. Handy shortcut keys on every Chromebook make this a snap. Speaking of snap, there is a feature in Chrome OS that smartly replicates Windows 7’s Aero Snap feature. There’s even a shortcut key (the window with arrowed corners) to activate it. Another key with three windows on it cycles through active apps. Alt-Tab works traditionally, complimenting the function keys nicely. As mentioned earlier, there is a dedicated Search key on the Chromebook. This key is immensely useful. As you type it searches local storage, local apps and simultaneously performs a Google (Instant-enabled) search. It’s one of a few rare moments where the OS feels distinctly slick and uniquely Google at the same time. It’s comparable to the first time user-seeing Expose on OSX. It’s a moment where the pieces simply come together in favor of the user.

The C7 comes with a spacious 320GB HDD, but every Chromebook also comes with a two-year license to 100GB of storage on Google Drive. Drive is integrated into the Chrome OS file system. This is a slick solution that helps Chrome OS feel one with the cloud. It makes one wonder why the hard drive wasn’t exchanged for a small SSD, a la the $250 Samsung Chromebook.

The Chromebook will work offline. All of the major Google apps like Gmail and Docs will allow offline caching and modification of files. They will simply re-sync when an internet connection is available. The offline functionality crucially filled a wide gap in early iterations of Chrome OS.

Trackpad gestures work well. Two-finger scrolling is a snap. On the C7, there is no multi-touch, meaning pinch to zoom is out. The trackpad is one button, so the function formerly known as right-clicking is accomplished by tapping two fingers instead of one. Everything works in Chrome OS. It’s very functional. But the whole time I caught myself wondering, to what end?