The Chromebook One Month Later: Tantalizingly Close But Still Feels Beta
This is the desktop on my Samsung Chromebook.
Two things should jump out at you.
1. It’s awesomely reminiscent of Mac OS (but slightly sexier)
2. Why the heck do I have a desktop on my Chromebook?
The answer to 2 is that I shouldn’t, but I have to.
As everyone who’s been reading lately knows, I am an unabashed fan of the idea of ChromeOS and Chromebooks in general. A super light, super quick OS that is essentially just a web browser with a file manager built-in? In a world where most users either do, or could if properly informed, spend all of their time in a web browser, ChromeOS is a computing philosophy that feels perfect. It’s certainly the shape of things to come.
In practice the idea mostly holds up. I’ve used my Samsung Series 5 as my primary machine for the past month and, with very few exceptions, it’s functioned exactly as I’d expected it to. Samsung’s claims of an eight-hour battery life have more than held up; I do most of my work from coffee shops and client’s offices and I haven’t had to pack my charging cable once. In fact, most days I get home and still get an hour or two of use out of the machine before I finally see the low battery warning.
Likewise, the Chromebook’s footprint is nigh perfect. I hate the cramped feel of a netbook, but I also hate the weight and bulk of most laptops. The Series 5 straddles the gap between the two quite nicely. It’s almost as compact as a netbook, but the slightly larger screen and full size keyboard make it feel far less like a toy than comparable offerings from ASUS, Acer and Dell.
Web browsing is terrific; the wi-fi radio seems to have a better range than that in any of the notebooks I’ve used in the last year, which means that, compared to my wife’s Macbook on our home wi-fi network, I get far less signal and drop issues. Occasionally I’ve run into the too-many-tabs= uber-lag issues that others have reported, but with every OS update those occurrences happen less and less frequently.
But the Chromebook does have a few failings. And, unfortunately, the areas it fails at are fairly crippling.
Getting Full Utility Of It Isn’t All That Intuitive
ChromeOS should be the simplest possible UI a person could ask for. You already know how to use a web browser, and Chrome is simpler than most in that it merges the Google search bar and the address bar into one field. But certain things that every user takes for granted as out of the box standards actually require a bit of tinkering to enable.
I do a lot of video chats. Between Skype, Facebook, G-Chat, and the few contacts I still have on Live Messenger, I probably use my webcam for at least 20 minutes a day, everyday. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but when three-quarters of the services you use for a daily task can’t detect your webcam, that’s a problem.
It’s an easy fix; simply disable the default Flash Player in the plugins menu (Pepper Flash) and everything works. But to even learn to do that I had to search around on a couple of forums and then go through a 3 step process that included changing the settings on the Universal Flash Plugin. I’ve heard that the Pepper Flash issue has been worked out in ChromeOS 17, but I haven’t bothered to re-enable it, as it didn’t add any functionality and originally proved to be a pain.
I know my way around a computer and how to do an effective work search. A lot of people don’t and, since this is billed as an out of the box solution for people who aren’t all that tech savvy, the idea that I have to tamper with the default settings just to get the basics working with the services I’m used to is going to be a major road block for most users.
The Apps Ecosphere Is Pure Chaos
I love Chrome. I tell all of my friends to ditch Firefox in its favor on a regular basis. But, most of the reasons I love Chrome are never discovered by those who do take my advice. Google, you have to remember that Microsoft has trained the vast majority of users to see a web browser as just that. A browser. Not a doer. Throwing that Chrome Store icon on the home page is only useful if people understand what it’s for. A lot of them don’t.
Let’s say a Chromebook lands in the eager hands of someone who does know that Chrome has a range of capability not usually found in other browsers. They fire up the Chrome Store and start pecking around for the best options to make their new device as versatile and useful as possible. You need that to happen, so that people will recommend the Chromebook to their friends.
So why, Google, do you not have a Chromebook section in the store? You know what average users are going to want to do with a computer. Why not, in the interests of making the service more user-friendly and thus more buyable, invest a bit of time and resources into a constantly updated list of the very best apps and extensions that the average new Chromebook owner is going to want to install?
People read articles decrying the lack of functionality of this device class. I know that lack is simply mythological; you know it too. Why not counteract the single biggest reason people don’t buy the machine; people telling them what it can’t do, by showing them the very best of what it can do?
Usability Is Limited In Odd And Varied Ways
So we know that we can’t use legacy software like Photoshop or Microsoft Office and, for the most part, decent substitutes abound. But, for example, iMovie works much better for editing large video files than anything I’ve found in the Chrome Store thus far. Since I sometimes have to do video editing, I’d like to be able to use that from time to time. So Google came out with a solution; Chrome Remote Desktop. It’s basically the Chrome version of LogMeIn, except with less latency, which is super impressive for a beta. What’s less impressive is its totally arbitrary but crippling limitation; a connection time limit that can only waived on the remote terminal. That means that I can be happily working away in Photoshop on my Chromebook (yay!) but then have all of my productivity come crashing to a halt when the remote machine I’m working on is prompted to continue giving access permission and there’s no one on the receiving end to give it!
But that shouldn’t be a big deal; there are tons of terrific web apps that can duplicate the functionality of my legacy native applications. For example, Pixlr Editor, which works like a simple man’s Photoshop (and even opens .psd files). Think Gimp,, but without the learning curve. And it’s in the Chrome Store, which means it should be fully compatible with the Chromebook.
But it’s not.
I open a new tab, fire up Pixlr, get prompted to upload a file to edit and….fail. I click the button and the site freezes because it can’t see that I have any kind of local storage. This is an app that is utterly vital to me if I’m going to use my Chromebook to the exclusion of other portable devices, and I can’t upload or save images to or from it.
And this isn’t an isolated incident. It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while I run into an app or extension that works just fine in the Chrome browser on my desktop, but goes cross-eyed and blithers like an idiot when confronted by a Chromebook.
Google, take a look at a list of your top 100 rated productivity apps. Go through that list and make sure that every single one of them works seamlessly with the file storage on ChromeOS. If you don’t you will never be able to market these as an effective and desirable laptop replacement.
So Why Do I Have A Desktop?
Like I said, I have no choice. The few limitations to the Chromebook’s functionality that exist are painfully damaging to my daily productivity, especially the lack of native support for Pixlr. So I installed Ubuntu on the SSD and, when I need to do something that ChromeOS simply can’t do, I switch operating systems. Luckily, because the boot up time is so fast on Chromebooks, switching between the two systems is about as quick as launching a program on a traditional OS. But I shouldn’t have to run two operating systems on one machine in order to get the full functionality of one machine.
Most users either won’t know how to set up a dual-boot or won’t want to and, until, ChromeOS can do everything on its own that my Chromebook can do with a backup OS, it’s not going to gain mainstream acceptance.
Which is a shame because it really would be a brilliantly simple mobile solution for most people.