Chrome OS is a Linux based, cloud operating system (OS) designed by Google. Apart from some native installed apps most software – called web applications - and data is stored in, and served from, the cloud via a basic Chrome browser interface.
Its origins are recent – 2009 - with the first Chromebooks appearing in mid-2011 - yet it has a decidedly minimalist, retro 90’s style, Windows look – a static desktop theme, bottom toolbar – called a shelf - with Google app icons and time, battery, and network indicators at the right.
Yet there is nothing familiar about this – no Windows Start Button or Mac home key. Just press the power button and seven seconds later - after you have entered your Gmail account (you must have one) and Wi-Fi password (it will not work without that) - the desktop theme appears.
I am going to retreat to safe territory and look at hardware first.
To be clear Acer make hardware not the OS so I will separate the review accordingly.
The AU$399 Acer 720-29552G01aii appears to be a well-made, netbook style device – precisely what Chromebooks are supposed to be. I cannot say it is better or worse than any other Chromebook. All do a similar job – as a host vehicle for a cloud based OS.
It uses an Intel Celeron 2955U, 1.4GHz dual core, single thread (not hyper-thread), 15 watt, processor. It is quite an expensive processor - $132 benchmark price – and that is interesting when compared with the new, similarly specified Atom Bay Trail – $30 benchmark price - used in full Windows tablets and other hybrids. I suspect Chromebooks will go to Atom sooner rather than later.
Interestingly this Celeron is 4th generation, Haswell based, so it has better graphics, speed, and lower power consumption than previous versions. Of the two other Chromebooks - Samsung use an ARM processor and HP an older Celeron - Acer is the class leader.
It has 2GB of ram, 16GB of storage and an SD Card for memory expansion. By default, data is stored in the free - for two years - 100GB Drive cloud.
The 11.6”, 1366x768, screen, powered by the Celeron’s graphics uses shared system RAM – hence there is lag when doing screen intensive work. It is an average screen appropriate to the price of the unit. It would benefit from 4GB of ram.
It has a USB3.0 and USB 2.0 port, Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi N, full size HDMI out, webcam, microphone, speakers and weights 1.25kg. Battery life - claimed as 8.5 hours.
The keyboard lacks ‘F’ keys – instead these are used for forward and back, refresh and a few system items. Caps lock (shift only), insert, and delete (backspace only) keys are missing – this reflects the browser’s editing capabilities.
I tested USB connections and it identified a flash drive and a WD, 2TB MyPassport. Note that there are very few other native drivers – most USB devices will not work.
The publicity states ‘it has everything you need to watch videos, play games, explore the Internet, and get work done.’
That may be true if you use Google Apps exclusively, have reasonable speed broadband, and have a Google Cloud Print enabled printer.
The Acer 720 is a competent, well made, Chromebook that would benefit from more ram.
Now read on to find out about Chrome OS
USING CHROME OS
I have not used Chrome OS before - it resembles Windows XP desktop without the Win - doh! Decidedly dated!
All apps run inside a basic, naked, Chrome browser – to leave an app click the X box, and to resize drag the window. It is hard to use. For example, the browser’s scroll bar is more a scroll line and has no down or up arrow control. To scroll down left click on the bar and hold down the button – primitive!
The bottom tool bar has icons for Chrome browser, Gmail, Google Docs, Sheets and Slides, Music and Apps reveals YouTube, Calendar, and Camera – to name a few.
Using the Chrome versions of Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, and other apps is like stepping back in time to Word Perfect or Lotus 123 - extensive use of drop down menus and basic features. I initially hated Microsoft’s Office Ribbon interface – now I really miss it.
It opened - via QuickOffice (Beta) - Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files although there was a significant loss of integrity - headers, footers, tables of contents, fonts, Word art, macros etc., were corrupted or missing. I could not get PowerPoint to run as a slideshow. Do not use Chrome OS if you intend to swap documents between other operating systems.
Other apps are available from the Chrome Web Store – you will find Dropbox, Kindle, Google maps and the usual suspects. Google does not reveal the total number of apps there except to state ‘that by mid last year 750 million apps had been downloaded from the Chrome Web Store.” Chromeosapps.org states Chrome Web Store has 33,186 apps and 331 million downloads - that is not enough to sustain Chrome OS as a separate ecosystem.
Many apps - particularly the free ones - are advertising supported and it can be obtrusive especially so in a productivity sense on a notebook screen.
Some native Chrome OS apps can run offline - most require online connection. Unless you are doing a lot of downloading of music or videos or uploading of data or photo’s this should not chew up too much data allowance.
I noticed lag – not significant but remember that almost everything is done server-side. To reassure you I have an uncontended, 100/2.5mbps, 8ms ping, Telstra Ultimate Cable and the latest router – it is not my connection, nor the Acer hardware – although more ram may help. Chrome OS does not provide the same instant response that a Mac or Windows device does.
Now read on about Chrome OS in business use and my summary
No touch – not so good
I have become so used to touch - at least in the mobility arena – that I missed it on a netbook device.
It is only after using the brilliant touch interfaces of Windows 8.x, iOS 6/7 and Android that you understand what I mean. Microsoft has done an amazing job with its Metro interface and the Metro styled apps are consistent and utilise touch beautifully. Chrome OS is a long way behind all three OS.
Chrome OS in enterprise
VDI and application virtualization is supported via Citrix or some RDP solutions although there appears to be some criticism of the responsiveness and reliability of these apps.
I could not test USB based Ethernet support but I understand it may work as long as the device has a native driver. Large-scale use of Wi-Fi in offices may be problematic and Chromebooks have no secure computing platform so it would be probably best to keep them on an isolated guest network.
Printers – USB or networked are not supported except via Google Cloud Print.
I also suspect there is limited remote administration, updating and support capability – although the OS auto-updates.
I would only suggest limited use as a very thin client in enterprise - the non-standard keyboard will not be appreciated by users.
I really want to like Chrome as I think cloud based computing is the way to go. I wanted to make it work and to my credit, and expenditure of way too many hours, I got through a week of use – but …
Windows and Mac power users will hate it. It is a very immature platform, so do not even bother.
Occasional users - you can use Google apps to type letters, do basic spreadsheets and more as long as you do not try to do what you can on a Windows or Mac. For those who just want a basic experience in the cloud it is entirely adequate – if at times frustrating.
I suspect that you may be better looking at Windows 8.1 tablets or similar.