Google polishes Chrome OS, but is it enough to entice buyers?

We revisit Chrome OS with Samsung's newly-released Chromebook, the Series 5 550

Google launched the Chrome OS in late 2010 and has continued to update it despite lukewarm reception by the public toward the platform's model: a browser-centered OS running on a lightweight, minimally-spec'd notebook meant to be used with an always-on Internet connection.

Samsung just released a new top-of-the-line Chromebook, the Series 5 550 and the first so-called "Chromebox," the Series 3. The Chromebox is a mini-PC in a case that's similar in size to the Mac mini. You connect your own keyboard and mouse to it, and separate monitor, but otherwise it has most of the same specifications as the Series 5 550: both Chrome computers have Celeron CPUs, 4GB RAM, 16GB on-board flash memory storage, and come installed with Chrome OS, V.19.)

We've been running the original Chromebook, the Cr-48, so we were familiar with the product line when he tested the new models.

Because the hardware and software are closely wedded together in a Chrome computer, you really can't evaluate the hardware without first examining Chrome OS itself.

A more traditional look-and-feel OS

Previous iterations were essentially the Chrome browser running atop a Linux kernel. Aside from having a file manager, image viewer, and media player, it was no different than a web browser. But in this case, you were locked into full-screen mode, and there was no familiar desktop user interface to exit to. Though it could be argued that there were advantages to the extreme simplicity of this design, it probably felt constraining to most users accustomed to a more traditional OS.

In the latest version, Google has added standard OS UI elements, including a desktop (with changeable wallpaper), resizable browser windows, and a taskbar along the bottom of the screen, dubbed Launcher. The Launcher and desktop do help give Chrome OS a more "open" feel when you interact with it. In actuality, these are superficial re-arrangements of app icons and shortcuts, but they do prove themselves to be handy for quickly accessing your often-used web apps.

The Launcher

Clicking the Chrome icon on the Launcher bar opens a browser window, as you'd expect. Clicking this icon again will open a blank tab in the browser. Other icons on the Launcher include those for Gmail and Google Docs (now referred to as Google Drive), each of which will open a browser tab to these web services when clicked. (An icon for Google search will launch a separate browser window that for some reason doesn't support the ability to open tabs within it.)

In prior versions of Chrome OS, a blank tab displayed icons for web apps installed on the OS. Starting with Version 19, you access your installed apps by clicking the Apps icon (an image of a 3-by-3 grid) on the Launcher. This takes you to the desktop where shortcut icons for the apps installed on your Chrome OS computer are presented in a grid layout for you to click to launch.

I don't feel that clicking the Apps icon on the Launcher bar is as convenient and fast as opening a blank tab that in prior Chrome OS versions listed your installed apps, but this might just be my personal preference. (The number of clicks for either way is the same.) So this change may be subtle to most users.

You can remove (un-pin) most of the icons on the Launcher by right-clicking. You add (pin) new icons by going to the Apps desktop screen and then right-clicking the icon for the web app you want pinned onto the Launcher bar.

Moveable and resizable browser windows

The functionality that truly is new to the Chrome OS user experience is the ability to minimize, resize and tile browser windows. Clicking the icon of the image of a square that's set to the upper-right of a browser window expands the browser to fill the entire screen (and over the Launcher). Clicking it again will resize the browser window back to smaller dimensions and reveal the Launcher.

To minimize, you either click and hold the square icon and pull down, or click the browser window's icon on the launcher. Clicking, holding and sweeping this icon to the left or right will size down the browser window and tile it in that direction. A browser window can also be resized by clicking and dragging the edges of its frame (horizontal, vertical or corners). Thus, you can have multiple browser windows open, and can resize and rearrange them as needed.

View documents in tabs

The Chrome OS file manager (which runs within a browser tab) supports PDF and Microsoft Office documents -- meaning, when you double-click on any such formatted file, it will be displayed in a browser tab for you to read. This convenient feature worked with all the Office files I tested on it. It supports DOC, DOCX, PPT, PPTX, XLS and XLSX documents.

Image viewer and editor

Double-clicking an image file in the file manager opens a slideshow viewer within a browser tab, and from this application you can perform basic editing to the picture (including auto-adjust its levels, crop, rotate). However, the slideshow viewer lacks a magnifying tool for you to zoom in on your image, or view it in its actual size. It scales a large image down so it can be seen in its entirety within the display screen.

Media playback

In the file manager, clicking audio files will launch a player that pops up over the lower-right corner of the screen. This application looks slightly more sophisticated compared to older versions of Chrome OS, but remains sparse with a minimal feature-set. Nonetheless, it does what it's supposed to well, and launches quickly. It supports audio files in M4A and MP3 format.

Clicking a video file will open a tab inside which it will play. The Chrome OS browser supports AVI and MOV video formats. Like the audio player, the available controls for video are minimal (it's just "play" and "pause" with a slider and time marker you can click on and drag along a timeline, full-screen mode, and volume). Playback quality depends on the processor speed of the Chrome computer's CPU, naturally.

Copying files still a challenge

A big issue with the file manager of Chrome OS remains unchanged in the latest builds: it still isn't possible to easily copy files from a Chrome computer's built-in flash drive to an external/attached memory storage medium, and vice versa through the file manager. It is doable but in an in-elegant manner -- you right-click on the file, choose Copy, then click the drive you want to transfer a copy of the file to, right-click and choose Paste. The Chrome OS developers should finally implement a more intuitive means, such as a drag-and-drop interface, to do this.

Google Drive is baked into Chrome OS' file manager (at least in the Version 20 beta). Your Google Drive account appears as a folder icon in the left pane of the file manager, but you can only delete and open files stored in it. Again, you have to use the awkward copy-and-paste method to move a file individually in your Google Drive folder to your Chrome computer. Frankly, you're better off just using the Chrome browser, because the Google Drive site gives you easier, direct ways to transfer files from your account to your computer and vice versa.

Performance

Despite the additions to its UI, the overall performance of the new Chrome OS feels fast. I didn't experience much in the way of noticeable slowdowns while using the Series 5 550. This Chromebook handled my clicks, drags, moves and resizes throughout the OS smoothly and quickly. I would have a dozen or more tabs open at once in a browser window -- as music played from my Google Music account in one -- and there was rarely a problem in performance.

A major factor in this is probably because of the processor that's used in the Series 5 550 (it runs on a 1.3 GHz Celeron CPU, while previous Chromebooks came with less-speedy Atom CPUs). But the Version 20 beta that I installed on my trusty Cr-48 ran surprisingly well -- snappily even. (A 1.66 GHz Atom powers the Cr-48.) In fact, the latest Chrome OS build I tested on this old-model Chromebook seems to run faster than Version 18.

Some slowing happened when playing high-definition video on YouTube: starting with Version 19, Chrome OS supports 1080p video playback (previous versions blocked themselves from playing higher than 720p). YouTube videos of a few minutes in this resolution played decently set at full-screen, but longer running clips generally resulted in dropped frame rates and choppier motion.

A few thoughts on the Series 5 550 Chromebook's design

The size of the Series 5 550 Chromebook falls between that of a lightweight notebook and Macbook Air or Ultrabook. Now it's certainly not bulky. Yet considering that its technical specifications are bare bones, you'd think it'd be as small, or as thin, as the latter form factors.

The resistance of this Chromebook's individual keys might feel too rigid for some people -- my fingers felt a little tired during long and intense durations of typing. I preferred the "looser" key resistance of my old Cr-48's keyboard. (Or, maybe my fingers had become used to the Cr-48 keyboard over a span of 18 months of use, and would also similarly adjust to the Series 5 550 keyboard over time of frequent use.)

Google's experiment

The recent changes to Chrome OS bring it closer to a more familiar OS experience for the user, but most of these additions are cosmetic. What matters about Version 19 is the ability to move and resize windows, and, more importantly, how the OS' performance has noticeably improved.

A more pressing issue is that Chromebooks still cost more than other low-end notebooks (which have better technical specs, and run Windows). Chromebooks are on sale at five Web sites, including Amazon and Best Buy. On Amazon, the Series 5 550 is selling for $450 for the Wi-Fi version and $550 for the 3G-equipped model. The Series 3 Chromebox is selling for $330, which could be considered price-challenged for a bare-bones mini-PC running what many would think of as an outdated CPU (Celeron, even if it's a 1.9 GHz in the Series 3).

Google and the few remaining makers of Chrome computers really have to find ways to reduce the prices. (Google has recently said in public that it may seek ways to subsidize the costs of Chrome computers through Internet providers and the carriers of mobile data.)

As it nears its second-year anniversary, Chrome OS remains a curious experiment. It's definitely a usable solution for cloud computing, and Google appears committed to it, improving it on a frequent basis. This OS is still worth keeping an eye on as it evolves -- but at what price users are willing to pay for a computer running Chrome OS remains its greatest challenge.

Wen is a freelance writer. He can be reached at howardwen@gmail.com.

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