Google Chromebook Review: Caveat Emptor

A review of Google's release of Chrome OS on Samsung's Series 5 Chromebook. Includes a full scope review of use cases, pros and cons, and recommendations.
Google Chromebook Review: Caveat Emptor

Google Chromebook Review: Caveat Emptor

Look, in the sky! What's that black slab falling from a 12th floor office? It's a netbook! It's a browser! No, it's a Google Chromebook! Over a year of work has been logged by Google's developers to the Chromium OS Project, which was used to adapt their Chrome browser to function as an operating system. At the beginning of last week, my hopes were higher than my expectations; now, that relationship is reversed.

Overview

As a Google Chrome, Apps, and Android user, I had high hopes that the Google Chromebook would provide a great user experience and would demonstrate a new layer of innovation in the cloud and mobile marketplace. I have tested the Chromebook for a week in a variety of settings, experimented with different use cases, and have come to a bleakly optimistic conclusion.

Integration, Longevity, Replication: A Few Pros

Similar to Google's model for its mobile operating system, Chrome OS integrates very well with Google's web-based services. A decent portion of my week exists in Gmail, Google Calendar, Docs, and Wave. The Chromebook manages to handle these very well, especially the awkward properties of Google Wave's user interface. Google Talk also has a constantly running background process so whenever I am online with the Chromebook, any new messages would pop up at the bottom of the screen. However, this integration is possible for anyone that uses the Google Chrome browser, available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

As a commuter, the Chromebook offers 7 hours of battery life between charges with the display at its full brightness. Its longevity and ability to sear my eyes with its powerful LED backlighting positions it as a contender for literal fieldwork, where outdoor lighting environments and absence of powercords begin to winnow the pack of laptops. Another hazard for laptops in the field and corporate workplace is accidental damage, leaving them behind, and theft. With the Chromebook, all or some of your data can be sent to the cloud, allowing you to login to any Chromebook or Chrome browser and recover your bookmarks, preferences, passwords, and apps. This proved to be a very successful feature last Friday when I threw my Chromebook out the window of our office to the concrete of Times Square below.

WebEx, Offline Use, Printing: Even More Cons

As with any praise, there must come some (constructive) criticism, and the Chromebook receives scoops of this for every teaspoon of praise. As we continue to rely upon web-based meeting services like WebEx, GoToMeeting, and ThatOtherConferenceService.com, users must be able to have access to meet with their peers easily. All of the major services provide meeting spaces based on client applications, none of which work with Chromebooks because they require either Windows or Mac operating systems. Without the ability to meet on one of these services, the Chromebook will not be successful; the worst part for Google is that it is up to the conference service providers to migrate to HTML 5 web apps.

Another deficiency is the Chromebook's reliance on Internet access. It is not a secret that Chrome OS is just a browser on a stripped down Linux build. Without access to the web, the Chromebook is slightly more useful than a paperweight (I was able to play Tetris going under the Hudson River). If this ultramobile device is supposed to be something that companies or universities provide their employees or students, it will not work when they are flying to a client site or sitting on the quad without WiFi access. All of this means that Google Docs does not work unless you have Internet access, and is plainly scary to use when you have intermittent coverage.

Printing is the third largest failure. Google's Cloud Print is still in beta, requires a user to have Google Chrome installed on an actual computer with a printer configured, and is specific to that user's Google account. This is not a scalable solution for companies or universities, and is even difficult to work with as a person that uses their Mac at home and work, with printers at each location. The unfortunate reality is that we have not transitioned to a fully paperless work environment, and will unlikely get there within the next few years. Printing is a must, and it has not been well documented how this will work for those firms that opt to use them for their workforces.

Use Cases, Recommendations

While testing, I tried to ponder some use cases for the Chromebook. My thoughts lead me through inside and outside salespeople, field technicians, interns, and students. Each one of these cases has a cheaper, faster, and more scalable solution: Windows netbooks. Almost any existing Windows netbook is as cheap, if not cheaper, than the Chromebook. They have the exact same hardware specifications as the Chromebook as well (an Intel Atom processor, 2GB of RAM, 2-3 USB ports, a external display port, SD card slot, etc).

My argument for the Chromebook with my associates was reminiscent of the Battle of the Alamo, where I embody the Alamo. Even with all my attempts to defend it, the Chromebook simply cannot beat the price of standardizing cheap Windows (or more expensive Mac) laptops across your workforce. These laptops are true computers, and can handle functions that exist outside of a web browser.

Going forward, my use case for the Chromebook will be occasions where or when I would not want to take my MacBook Pro; these places would include the beach, pool, or a picnic, or occasions when I need just a web browser and full keyboard to last me for the weekend. If I had children, it would be a great starter laptop for them. The bottom line: I would not recommend the Chromebook to clients at this time.

Conclusion

Even though this review has been largely negative, and lacks support for the Chromebook, it does come with a glass-half-full chaser. Chrome OS and Chromebooks have been available for a little more than 1 month for the public, and Google's leasing program has not started yet. All of the quirks with the device and "operating system" have been well documented across the blogosphere, and Google is working to provide offline access to their services and to get more developers creating offline-usable HTML 5 web apps.

The adoption of this new technology reminds me of my annoyance with the iPad during the few months following its launch, and yet it is something that I rely upon heavily today after numerous firmware updates. I do not doubt that Google will provide updates to Chrome OS and will start fixing some of these issues, but for now I will have to live with its limited abilities.

As always, if you are interested in learning about the Chromebook or have comments regarding my post, feel free to comment on our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ArkusInc or contact me via Twitter @RogerMitchell.

Disclaimer: no Google Chromebooks were damaged, destroyed, or otherwise bludgeoned in the production of this blog post or during the week of testing.

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