Though the official release of its cloud-based Chrome OS is months away, Google has begun a massive pilot program, offering specially-chosen end users, Google employees, and journalists their own prototype Chrome netbooks. Known as the Cr-48 (for the element Chromium 48), these particular 12.1-inch laptops will never be sold commercially, but they offer a very detailed preview of what we can expect from the first Chrome systems when they launch by mid-2011. So what’s it like living in a browser-only PC?
Editor’s Note: Because the Cr-48 netbook is a test product that is not for sale commercially (and never will be), we’re not giving it a star rating.
The Cr-48 won’t be available to consumers and Google has already stated the systems its partners launch in mid-2011 will not use this exact design or hardware. However, there are several things about this test system we found interesting, because they may inspire the final products.
First, we were amazed at how MacBook-like the Cr-48 is in its design. The chassis is rounded and shaped like a last-generation plastic MacBook, its keyboard has the same size, shape, and nearly identical layout to a MacBook’s, and even the hinge, which sites in the middle of the chassis, takes its cues from a MacBook.
We love the black, soft-touch rubberized material that is used throughout the chassis and wish more products were made out of it. Laying your wrists on the soft touch palmrest is a pleasant experience.
At 11.8 x 8.6 x 0.9 inches the Cr-48 is a very comfortable size for your bag or holding on your lap, but its 3.8-pound weight seems a bit heavy for a system this size.
The very isolated keyboard layout provided good tactile feedback and key placement that makes typing on it a breeze. However, you will notice that the keyboard has no function keys, but instead has dedicated keys for forward, back, refresh, full screen mode, change windows, brightness up, brightness down, mute, audio up, audio down, and power on/off. The caps lock key has been replaced a search button, because Google says it wants to discourage all-caps typing.
There are numerous keyboard shortcuts which match those you would find in the Windows version of Chrome. These include such as CTRL + H to see the history, CTRL + W to close a tab, and CTRL +/- to zoom in and out. You can see a complete list of these by hitting CTRL + ALT + ?.
The touchpad does not have built-in buttons, but like many notebooks these days, is itself a button. In our experience most clickpad designs, apart from the MacBooks, are unpleasant to use particularly if you like to navigate with one finger and click with another. The Cr-48’s clickpad alternated between making our cursor jump and stopping it mid-movement. Pinch-to-zoom didn’t work either. As we expected, right-clicking doesn’t do anything. To finish the review, we had to plug-in an external mouse.
The 12.1-inch screen has a 1280 x 800 resolution, which is extremely rare on notebooks these days but a welcome improvement over the nearly-ubiquitous 1366 x 768 panels we see every day, because it allows plenty of vertical screen real estate for viewing web pages. The screen’s matte surface allowed it to provide really strong viewing angles to the left and right.
There are very few ports on the device. On the right side is an SD card reader, an audio-out jack, and a USB port. On the left is a VGA port. As stated above, storage devices and memory cards work for uploading files to the cloud, but do nothing else. We were able to attach both a wired and a wireless mouse to the USB port and both worked pretty well.
True to Google’s word, initial set up takes only a minute or so. After you power on the Cr-48 for the first time, you’re asked to configure your Internet connection by selecting a Wi-Fi network, then you’re asked to agree to the Google EULA, and finally asked to login with a Google account and given the option to take your picture with the webcam so the picture can accompany your login.
When it came to logging in, we noticed two interesting flaws. First, the system did not recognize any Google account we used with a username that did not end in @gmail.com. When we tried to login with our laptopmag.com address, which is a registered Google Apps user account, or with another Yahoo address that’s registered with Google, the system said our account could not be located.
If you don’t have a valid Gmail account already, you hit a bit of a wall at the login prompt, because there’s no way to create one during setup. If you don’t already have a valid Google account, your best bet is to walk over to your nearest non-Chrome OS device, visit Google.com, and create your account there before continuing.