The software: Chrome OS
On the surface, the idea of a web-centric operating system doesn't sound so bad. Browsing the web is a huge part of what regular people do on mobile devices. Services like Google Docs deliver basic productivity features, while movies and music are available for live streaming on the web, and there are plenty of good Flash games out there. If you're willing to do a little digging, you can also find surprisingly powerful web apps—even image editors like Pixlr or Sketchpad.
That was my thinking when I unwrapped the Samsung Chromebook, at least.
The thing is, you can't understand just how limiting Chrome OS is until you sit down and use it. I tried to fire up Netflix, but that wouldn't work. Netflix requires Microsoft Silverlight on the PC, and there's apparently no equivalent plug-in for Chrome OS. Netflix just redirects you to a page saying it's working with Google on Chrome OS support. I headed to YouTube and fired up a 720p video, figuring at least that would work. However, despite running in (presumably hardware-accelerated) HTML5 mode, the player dropped frames during normal playback and turned into a slide show whenever I tried use the controls. Dropping to 480p helped normal playback, but the controls still interfered with fluidity.
Chrome OS has a special video player for playing local files, and it fares slightly better. Frames were dropped on our 1080p MP4 trailer, but the 720p version played mostly smoothly. However, the player software is extremely pared down. The mouse cursor doesn't disappear when the video is playing, and there's no way to loop a clip or set a playlist.
I then thought about using Skype, but that's obviously not available—you're stuck with Google+ for your video conferencing needs. Good luck convincing your friends to switch. Attempting to plug in my iPhone or digital camera also did nothing at all. Chrome OS didn't even acknowledge either device. I guess all the cool kids post photos to Facebook directly from their cameras.
The emphasis on the web is downright oppressive. Chrome OS's sad excuse for a file manager has two directories: Downloads and Google Drive. You can create subdirectories inside each one, but Google apparently didn't think users needed a local "home" folder to store important files. At least you can plug in an external USB drive.
Incidentally, Chrome OS's file manager has a really strange way of handling archives. Downloaded ZIP files mount as if they were separate drives—you even get an "eject device" item in the context menu—but there's no simple way to extract the contents. You've got to mount the archive and copy the files manually. Ugh.
Chrome OS attempts to blur the line between local apps and websites as much as possible, which can get confusing. The launcher and the main app list (which opens if you click that little grid icon) both include shortcuts to Google services like Gmail, YouTube, and Google Docs, but there doesn't seem to be a way to stick your own bookmarks in there. You can only add "apps" from the Chrome Web Store. The problem is that those "apps" are pretty much just websites. The Hotmail app, for example, just goes to hotmail.com. The Angry Birds "app" goes to chrome.angrybirds.com, which loads up and works just fine in Firefox on a Windows PC. There's nothing app-like about either of those things.
Naturally, you're free to add regular bookmarks to the bookmark bar in the Chrome web browser. So I suppose there's a sort of weird caste system going on. First-class websites are featured on the Chrome Web Store and get to show up in the almighty launcher, while second-class websites are relegated to the bookmarks bar. First-class sites can show up in the bookmarks toolbar to mingle with the untouchables, but deep down, they know they're better. They know.
Speaking of settings, I was surprised by how few of them there are. Clicking the "settings" link in the box pictured above loads up the main Chrome OS settings page in the web browser. There, you can change the wallpaper, adjust the touchpad sensitivity, switch time zones, tweak a few web-related options, and juggle Bluetooth devices and Wi-Fi networks, but that's mostly it. There's no way to change, for example, how long the system waits before going to sleep.
The lack of power settings turned out to be a big problem when I got around to testing battery life. I eventually found a workaround, which involved installing an experimental extension called Caffeine. Installation required the following steps:
0) Download the extension from https://github.com/triune/caffeine/blob/master/caffeineV1.zip?raw=true
1) Go to about:flags on your ChromeBook, enable "Experimental Extension APIs", restart.
2) Go to extensions, toggle on Developer Mode, and click load unpacked extension.
3) Choose the folder containing the contents of this file (unzipped).
4) Toggle / DeToggle the menu icon to keep Chrome awake!
The best part? The extension unloads itself every time you reboot. Yikes.
Chrome OS isn't all bad, though. It runs shockingly fast on the Samsung Chromebook, and it looks both pretty and familiar—sort of like a pared-down version of Windows 7. Google has replicated a lot of the window management functionality from Windows, too. You can drag a window to snap it to the side of the screen, for example, and you can double-click one of a window's vertical or horizontal borders to maximize that window vertically or horizontally. (Oddly, though, minimizing windows requires hovering over the maximize button first.)
The OS also has WebGL support, which has exciting implications for future web-based games. Pictured above is HexGL, an in-browser 3D racing game inspired by Wipeout. The gameplay is pretty basic, and it's not very much fun, but the graphics and controls show just how much potential the technology has. It runs pretty smoothly on the Samsung Chromebook, too, no doubt thanks to the Exynos 5's state-of-the-art integrated graphics.
This should go without saying, but there's also something really nice about opening up a brand new laptop and not having to set anything up. You just log in with your Google account, and boom. Your customized browser greets you, as do all your installed web "apps" and Google Drive files. If anything goes awry, you can head to the settings page and run a factory reset. In that respect, Chrome OS may be a good solution for some of the less computer literate among us—especially since a family member can log in with Chrome Remote Desktop to provide support if needed.
The Samsung Chromebook might even be a good option for cash-strapped students. Google Docs replicates much of the basic functionality of Microsoft Office, and it does so with a fast interface and a fairly powerful collaborative editing system. Typing up dissertations, arranging data in spreadsheets, or slapping together simple presentations is fairly easy, and because everything is done in the cloud and backed up with a revision history, there's no need to worry about losing work when a drunk roommate spills beer on your laptop.