Lightweight Linux distributions have grown in popularity in recent years, but few have been as buoyant as Google's Chrome OS. When it debuted a year ago on Samsung and Acer Chromebooks, the web-centric operating system was basically a Chrome browser and a media player linked to cloud services. The open source platform has evolved over the last year, however, and on May 29 Google unveiled a more robust version 19 on Samsung's new Chromebook Series 5 550 laptop and Chromebox Series 3 net-top.
The first-gen Chromebooks sold poorly, hampered by the bleeding-edge, militantly bare-bones OS. Other problems included the relatively slow, Intel Atom processor and relatively high prices.
The new models address these complaints by featuring a more full-figured Chrome OS 19 rev, as well as faster, dual-core Celeron processors of the Intel Core "Sandy Bridge" generation. The Chromebook's Celeron 867 CPU is clocked at 1.3GHz while the compact Chromebox uses a 1.9GHz Celeron B840, said to be up to two and a half times faster than the original Atom-powered Chromebooks.
Early reviews from publications such as CNET and Engadget are not exactly enthusiastic, but they're far more positive than the first-gen response. The new systems are indeed much faster, say the reviews, and hardware-accelerated graphics help. In addition, boot time has now been shaved to seven seconds.
On the Series 5 550 laptop, there's a new multi-touch trackpad, a gigabit Ethernet port, and a DisplayPort. Otherwise, the Chromebook seems much the same, featuring the same, widely praised 12.1-inch, 300-nit matte screen. Other similar features include 4GB of DDR3 RAM, 16GB of flash, a memory card slot, WiFi, and dual USB ports.
The Chromebox adds four more USB ports, a DVI-I port, Bluetooth 3.0, and dual display support (mirror mode only). Customers of both devices now get 5GB free on the Google Drive cloud storage service.
The reviewers' chief complaint is that the Celerons reduce battery life -- from a claimed 10 hours to six -- and the prices are still relatively high. The Chromebox goes for $330 (plus display), while the Chromebook Series 5 550 adds $20 to the cost of the original, at $450 -- or $550 with Verizon 3G. Best Buy and other retailers will now sell the computers, and Google says more vendors will offer Chrome OS devices by the end of the year.
Chrome OS dabbles in the offline world
The reviews are far more upbeat about Chrome OS 19. To meet popular demand, Google has compromised somewhat on its vision of online-only access and a clutter-free desktop, but that seems mostly for the good. Users can now customize the still minimalist desktop with shortcut widgets, as well as minimize and resize windows -- just like a normal distro. The ability to more easily switch between windows and apps builds upon improved multitasking fueled by the faster processors.
Welcome new options include the ability to open a full-screen or normal-sized window without the Chrome browser interface visible. These options let users "open web apps that feel like native apps, with no address bar or browser toolbars," writes David Pierce, who reviewed Chrome OS 19 for The Verge.
Some of these features borrow code from Android, which in turn is expected to adopt the Chrome browser, enabling better integration between the two platforms. Version 19 adds tab syncing with mobile Chrome browsers, as well as support for Microsoft Office file formats, according to Google.
The new release diverges from the earlier cloud-only dogma by offering offline document editing in addition to several other offline functions that have been added over the last year. Cloud purists might balk, but most users will welcome it.
Hundreds of apps are now available, although that's only a drop in the bucket compared to the Android app Smorgasbord. Meanwhile, Google has made Chrome OS more familiar by adding a photo editor, plus Google Plus and Google Music apps, in addition to a revamped version of the original media player.
"Google has ironed out nearly every kink," concludes Pierce. "There are virtually no performance or stability issues, and the only way to give the OS problems is to work really hard to do so."
The conjecture that Google might soon abandon its lightweight computing experiment appears to be unfounded. From the start, Google has said Chrome OS was a long-term play -- aimed at tech enthusiasts, schools, and vertical markets today, and mass market consumers tomorrow. Now, at least, Chrome OS is far more appealing to its initial customer targets, and may inspire some impulse buys from consumers as well.