14
Dec
IMG_20101213_083220
Last Updated: July 24th, 2011

Friday morning I received a surprise visit from UPS - and fortunately it wasn't the sort of surprise visit that requires me to then take a 20 lb. package over to my neighbor's place because the guy was too lazy to read the street number.

A somewhat hefty box, with a seemingly random sender name on it from Louisville, KY had been shipped overnight to my humble abode. I immediately knew it was a CR-48 laptop. Or a bomb. I signed up for the CR-48 Pilot Program moments after it was unveiled, but I certainly didn't expect to actually get a device - and definitely not so quickly.

IMG_20101213_083220 

Like a giddy child I tore away the outer shell, and found Google's weirdly endearing box artwork revealed. Given everything I'd read about the CR-48 (a lot), I'll say this now: I didn't go in with the absurdly high standards or expectations many gadget reviewers did. I knew I should be prepared for an unfinished, unpolished, beta product.

And, as it turns out, this is probably the best way to approach the CR-48. I'll very briefly summarize the specs, as they really aren't all that important (though I am going to wax poetic about the design, because all laptops should be this way)- the OS and the concept are the focus here:

  • N450 Intel Atom Processor (Single core)
  • 2GB RAM
  • 16GB Solid-state storage
  • 12.1" Display
  • 3G CDMA Access via Verizon
  • Webcam and microphone

It isn't a MacBook Air. It's not even a plastic standard MacBook. Google calls it a notebook, if only to avoid the recently diminutive connotation of "netbook". But in reality, the CR-48 is what the ideal netbook (read: "net") should be, at least in the ways that really matter - but I'll discuss that a bit later.

What's in the box?

A charging cable, a battery, and the device itself. The battery is quite large - unsurprisingly, it can power the CR-48 for 6 hours of continuous, maximum screen brightness use. Not shabby. The battery also comes 50% charged, so you can begin your mobile adventure in the cordless fashion immediately.

IMG_20101213_082831 IMG_20101213_082908 

The device, as you've all probably already ogled it before, is nothing extraordinary. But this, as Gizmodo pointed out, is where a lot its brilliance lies. The CR-48 was clearly designed from the aesthetic standpoint of streamlined utility, coupled with a philosophy mobile durability, with an emphasis on economy. The result? Rubberized matte black plastic everywhere. And it works - the CR-48 is beautifully non-descript, extremely solid feeling, and has as few seams as possible. Think black MacBook meets ThinkPad.

No creaky plastic, no stickers, no sharp edges, no odd beeps or whirrs when you boot up. The CR-48 is the world's most humble notebook. Adding to that humbleness and simplicity, there is approximately one page of documentation included with the device. Of course, it directs you to a number of websites that have additional documentation, but it's nice not to have to deal with a bunch of paper when you're trying to get your geek on.

IMG_20101214_142225

As you can see, my Nexus One's camera is not doing well.

Once you do open it, the almost eerie MacBook similarity goes from a creeping suspicion to an outright "I see what you did there." The keyboard action and design model Apple's, including the actually functional function-key replacements, as well as the oversized one-piece trackpad.

IMG_20101213_082702 (1)

Personally, I love it - I owned a newer MacBook Pro for a while and I still give Apple credit for designing the best keyboard / trackpad combo to ever grace a laptop. The CR-48 and Apple notebooks are the only laptops I haven't felt are hugely annoying to use from a comfort standpoint (at least without a wireless mouse). This, for me, puts the CR-48 above any other budget-minded laptop ever spawned.

Instant On

For all practical intents and purposes, it is. Cold boot startup takes 10-12 seconds from button press to login. Waking the CR-48 really is instantaneous, I'd say once you have the screen pulled up to the "awake" point, it takes anywhere from 0.5-2 seconds to leave off just as you left it. Whether it be Windows, OS X, or Ubuntu, no other OS in true sleep mode can make a claim to rival that.

How snappy is it once it is on? It depends - time from the login screen to the browser varies, anywhere from almost instantaneously to 5 seconds, depending largely on the number and complexity of the tabs you had open last. The bottleneck here is undoubtedly the Intel Atom N450 processor which powers the CR-48. Luckily, the N450 does support hyperthreading, so it's not nearly as gimped as the first generation Atoms that graced many netbooks in 2009.

Getting Started

Anyway, getting started on the CR-48 is dead simple: connect to WiFi, enter your Gmail account of choice, take a delightfully absurd picture, and go. You can skip the internet connectivity and just go into the OS directly if your WiFi needs web-based authentication, so no worries there.

IMG_20101213_083042 

Once you sign in, your Chrome extensions and Web Store apps (if you use Chrome) populate into their proper places, and you're automatically signed into your Google account and related services.

What can you do? Anything you can do in the Chrome web browser, and a little more. There's an integrated Google Talk app from the Web Store you can install, and I like it a lot better than the Gmail-based version. Other CR-48 specific tweaks include mouse sensitivity, user and guest access management, and network settings.

As has been touted, the CR-48 comes with 100MB per month of free Verizon 3G service. Many had no difficulty signing up - I did. Upon attempting to activate, I was merely sent to the "sign up for a plan" generic page, with no indication of any CR-48 specific options. I called Verizon, and a very nice representative (who was indeed familiar with the CR-48 promotion) tried to walk me through manual activation, which didn't work. After about 20 minutes, I gave up and thanked her for trying.

Miraculously, I tried again 10 minutes later and the activation page led me to where I wanted to go. Weird. It also appears you'll have to renew your subscription every month if you want to use that 100MB freebie, but obviously I'm not certain yet.

Using It

The Chrome OS is a glorified web browser. Everything you can do in Chrome, you can do in Chrome OS. There isn't much more to say - yet. The OS is designed to be lightweight, instant on, battery friendly, and as independent from local storage as possible. It succeeds on most of those fronts. And on all of those fronts it will only get better, particularly as Google optimizes their services for use on Chrome OS devices.

Chrome OS uses a nifty window-pane feature so that you can have multiple "panes" open at once, and you can swipe through them using a function key. The action is super quick, and it's very useful. I keep one window for personal and social, one for news, and one for Android Police-related things, it makes organizing your browsing a lot easier than relying solely on tabs or the clumsiness of windows - think home screens for your browser.

Also, having caps lock as the "Search" button is nice (it just pops open a new tab at this point), as is having dedicated forward, back, and refresh keys.

So, what about the issue of speed?

The processor in the CR-48 really makes Chrome OS feels downright sluggish when compared to the quad-core AMD Phenom II my desktop is packing, but that's to be expected. A dual core model would probably speed up things significantly, so I'm not going to chastise Google on this one - the N450 is cheap, power efficient, and it gets the job done.

Chrome OS is like being on the internet, but all the time. Kind of obvious. I'm going to have to switch to Google Docs if I want it to be a productivity machine. Fair enough. I can't do my blogging on it (we use Windows software here), and that kind of sucks. There are a number of things you can't do, of course. But really, Google makes a fair point when they say that for the average non-techy, most things you'd want are there. The average person really does "live" in the browser.

It's Awesome, But Why?

I fail to understand why so many reviewers have been trying to compare this economy-notebook to even an entry level MacBook; it's a test device, and people are receiving them free of charge.

If Google were to sell the CR-48 or something very similar (which I don't see happening), I wouldn't expect to pay more than $400 for it - well within the bounds of netbook pricing territory. But the CR-48 is ten times the netbook of any netbook out there right now, and that's what is so important emphasize. How so?

The build quality, for one. This thing feels even more solid than a plastic MacBook, in my opinion. You get that sense of confidence that dropping it a few feet wouldn't be the end of the world - which it might not be, as the CR-48 has no optical drive or spinning disks to worry about.

It doesn't get as hot as a netbook. The battery lasts longer. The screen is bigger, brighter, and just better overall than any netbook I've seen. Anything smaller than 12" is just not worth it (that's what she said) on a laptop display, in my opinion. It's quicker than Windows netbooks. Finally, my mom could figure out how to use it without any instruction at all - and that's saying a lot. This should be every netbook, and I think that's what Google is trying to say with it.

Conclusion

Ten years ago, something like Chrome OS would have been laughable. Five years ago, it would have been pretty impractical. Even two or three years ago, it would have been substantially less viable for the average person.

Think about how many things you do in your browser. Gmail is almost ubiquitous, as is Google Talk. Video, whether Flash or HTML5 (Note: the CR-48 sucks at Flash, I'm thinking this is the OS more than the processor, though, given odd Flash behavior I've experienced). Social networking: Facebook and Facebook chat, Yelp, 4Square, Twitter. Productivity: Google Docs, SlideRocket, ManyMoon, Google Apps. Music: Pandora, Grooveshark, last.fm.  I mean, think about any of the Google web products - they're all designed for use in a browser environment.

There are some things, though, that I admittedly miss. Namely, a media player. While Chrome OS will play MP3 files that you download automatically, that's about the limit of its media associations. Yep - MP4 video, AVI, MPEG-[1,2,3], WAV, and just about every other media file won't play. There was a "enable Media Player" check box in the options when I got the device, but it mysteriously disappeared in the latest update.

What else does Chrome OS not do? Built-in webcam video recording or picture-snapping. You can upload video directly to YouTube, but this runs through a Flash interface, and the quality is unbelievably poor. I haven't tested the Google Talk video chat, but presumably it works a little better. There's no easily accessible file browser. No support for Android devices (yet). Chrome to Phone doesn't work (I imagine this will get fixed eventually).

Considering what I really use it for, though, most of those things aren't super important - they're things we expect out of a media center device, not a high mobility productivity laptop.

All in all, I'm just happy I got a free laptop, and I'm eager to see what the Chrome OS team will change, add, and fix over the coming months. If anything exciting happens, we'll keep you on the up and up.

David Ruddock
David's phone is whatever is currently sitting on his desk. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • AdamJ

    Very good review. Nicely done!

  • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/jaroslav-stekl/ Jaroslav Stekl

    Nice review, David! Looking forward to getting a CR-48 of my own (if my request goes through; if not, I might just buy a retail Chrome OS netbook when such products start hitting stores next year).

    • SiliconAddict

      The problem is the retail ones aren't going to look nearly as badass.

  • SiliconAddict

    GRRRRRR I want one.

  • Mark Smith

    But does it blend?

  • thatboytitz

    I got one too and was wondering where the media enable went to. Type in about:flags in the omnibar and you'll see it in the list of new features. The only problem I feel is holding the OS back is the lack of well done Web Apps. Overall I feel it's a nice netbook. Plus it was free so that didn't hurt.

  • http://mindmirror007.blogspot.com alchemist007

    Nice review! I got my Cr-48 last week and digging it!

  • papasurf

    Good work David! I just signed up after reading your review. Hope I get picked too :)

  • http://www.anivision.org Xcom923

    that's awsome you guys, Question though. Did you get a email saying you were getting them before hand?

    • David Ruddock

      Supposedly no notice has been given to any recipients (aside those who were press at the announcement).

  • http://thomasfinancialgroup.net Michael Thomas

    Great review and I completely agree.

    My story is similar - I submitted my request and the NEXT DAY Santa left a package on my door step!

    I like it more than I thought I would. I use it as my primary machine and the only complaint is the sluggishness and the trackpad (both hardware problems, not Google OS ones).

    I do ALL my computing in "the cloud", such as Google Docs, Gmail, Google Apps etc. I have also been using Chrome exclusively and it was awesome to have all my bookmark, plug-in and app magically appear in Chrome OS.

    I look forward to advancements to this platform

  • http://dangerismymiddlename.coms Paul Danger Kile

    The only things I want my desktop for are Photoshop, file storage and computer programming. I find myself choosing my Android handheld all the time, and I could mostly live on one of those things. My wife and daughter do almost everything in the Chrome browser, and we have great Verizon coverage here, so this would be perfect for them.

  • http://www.timothygault.com Timothy Gault

    I hope I get one, the tracker shows one being delivered to my city today. Crossing my fingers!!

  • chris ponciano

    awww, lucky. im hoping i get an early christmas present :)

  • Andreas

    Does anyone know how they are picking the people?

  • Ellett

    Music Player is coming, file system is coming, better use of webcam is coming...and I hear bluetooth is in there too. Try this if you have a Cr-48. In the omnibox, type about:flags. That will let you enable some goodies such as early versions of music player and file system. Warning, they're pretty rough right now. But you can see some of where Chrome OS is going. (And try about:flags in a standard chrome browser for a different set of toys.)

    • David Ruddock

      I was entirely unaware of this. Thanks for the tip - glad to see the Media Player is still in there somewhere!

  • papasurf

    I noticed is on its way to my zip and the service is now ground instead of overnight. More suspenseful that way I guess :)

  • http://www.anivision.org Xcom923

    I've had several come to my zip now and none for me T_T, I do want to know something though. How is video playback. I've not herd anything yet on the subject. Youtube of course, can you play 720p without skipping? or higher? or don't even think about HD.

  • Ellett

    YouTube playback is all right, but not above 480p. You don't even see an option for anything higher-res at this point. I understand that Chrome OS doesn't utilize hardware graphics acceleration yet, so a performance improvement may be on the way. Screen is apparently 1280X800, which would support full-screen 720p, but the capability to drive that resolution just isn't there yet.

  • Ellett

    If you're looking for the Cr-48 to be a machine that does everything and does it well, folks, remember that a Cr-48 doesn't necessarily represent what a commercial Chromebook will be capable of. This is a) a developer / QA machine designed primarily for people to help Google find bugs in what is still essentially a beta operating system (although a darned good beta), b) it's FREE! Google paid for 60,000 (!!!) of these and is GIVING them away, and c) it's going to keep getting better as Google releases frequent updates to Chrome OS and probably the Cr-48 hardware drivers.

    If I have to return to my desktop, or better yet my Logitech Revue Google TV, to watch movies, the Cr-48 is still a tremendously handy beast to have around for the other 90% of what I need to do.

    • http://www.anivision.org Xcom923

      I understand that I was just wondering on the video since nobody mentioned anything about it in any review I've seen. I'm totally into being a beta tester (I'm currently a trusted tester for google....I'm still not sure why I don't have a Cr48 since I still test out buzz features)

      • Ellett

        Actually the people commenting on this Android Police blog have been pretty reasonable. If you look at some of the other Cr-48 review articles and blogs, it's like people expect the Cr-48 to be a shining example of what a Chrome OS machine can possibly be and complain bitterly when they can't watch their 108p movies and store gigabytes of files locally. They're missing the point of the Cr-48 entirely, and some are missing the point of Chrome OS as well.

        I'll be really excited to see what commercial Chromebook products look like when they come out in 1Q-2Q2011 but if Google cleans up the rough edges on Chrome OS and the Cr-48 drivers I probably won't feel the need to trade up for quite a while. The Cr-48 is a VERY functional device and I hope Santa brings you a present from the Googleplex soon.

  • Barbara

    Yesterday I just requested three of the CR-48s for my two partners and myself to work on the nonprofit that we run. Since we all work out of our own homes on completely different systems and platforms, and I'm the only technically savvy one of us, I'm really hoping that this will help us to collaborate MUCH more efficiently on our np work. I hope Google chooses us! I take it that none of you who have received yours were contacted beforehand?

    One big question I have is storage... whether there is or will be a way to save files in any fashion -- either on the CR-48 itself or to an external hard drive. I realize that the whole point of this is to work on the Internet and store files out there, so there's a different paradigm here altogether. It's like entering an entirely new culture and learning to live in a new way. It should be VERY interesting to try this all out, and I really hope that it will help my partners and I to get MUCH more connected and effective.

    I'll appreciate any comments from you more experienced users!

    OH! One more question: IS there a caps lock key anywhere? I understand it has been replaced by a search key.

    • http://www.anivision.org Xcom923

      There are plenty of ways to store files in the cloud all ready, I do know that Microsoft has something like that. From what I understand there will be a file system but as it was mentioned earlier Chrome is very much a beta OS and they don't have that out yet. I'm pretty sure for most everything you need to do you don't even need storage (if you work in the cloud) The only thing I can think of is if you have a file that is not currently in a format to be read online that needs to be converted...

      but now that I think about it if documents or Power points are emailed to you I think google automatically converts them.....so NVM I guess you could use your email as storage with chrome.

    • Ellett

      My wife is part of a team working for a non-profit doing work on artificial intelligence. She and her co-workers do all their work using Google Docs. They have most of their spreadsheets and word docs set to be accessible and updateable by all. It's very productive, since two or more people can edit a document at the same time and everyone sees everyone else's updates immediately, literally keystroke by keystroke. They have yet to find a need to store anything locally; in fact that would be a step backward.
      If you want to save copies of your documents at particular stages, you can write a Gmail message, attach the file and keep the message as a draft, or you can email the message to another Gmail account that takes its Gmail and sucks it into a local POP3 client. To date, my wife's team hasn't felt the need to do any of that.
      Chrome OS will almost certainly have a file system that can access external memory devices such as USB drives, which is what you want if you want to do local backups. The file system will probably let you access storage on the Chromebook's SSD, but that;'s really contrary to what Chrome OS is all about.
      And you're not tied to Google, although I'm a dyed in the wool fan of Gmail, Google contacts, Google docs, Google calendar, Google voice etc. Chrome OS works with the Microsoft cloud-based products for example. If you're a small business, check out Google apps. For $50 a year or so per person you get several benefits over and above the no cost Google applications.

  • Will2713

    I had a message in my gmail inbox I guess about a month ago asking if I wanted one. I replied he'll ya, or the equivalent.

    I don't have one yet, so I have to be content w/ my jail broken iPad, touch, gummy jar droid x & rooted froyo Eris.

    • Will2713

      No, not the inbox. It was an invite to fill out an application when I opened the chrome browser.