Though we have no way of benchmarking the Cr-48, our experience shows that performance was adequate for surfing the web and switch tabs, but weak when doing anything that involved a little bit more power, like playing video. As stated above, the webcam video was choppy and audio degraded a great deal just from putting the chat window in a background tab.
At present, the Cr-48 does not cut it as a media machine. The Flash plug-in crashed frequently throughout our use, YouTube wouldn’t let us even attempt to play video at higher than 480p, and even standard def videos were extremely jerky on both YouTube and Hulu. Netflix watch instantly doesn’t even work, because it needs the Microsoft Silverlight plug-in.
Though we don’t know exactly what Atom CPU is inside the Cr-48, we can’t blame the hardware. No Atom-based netbook has ever played video this poorly. We have heard that Adobe is coming out with a new version of Flash for Chrome OS that is designed to improve performance.
However, we were able to play music that we streamed from Napster.com and sound quality on the internal speakers was decent.
Because you can’t stop the Cr-48 from going to sleep after only 3 minutes of inactivity, there was no way for us to conduct an automated battery test. However, in our use, the netbook lasted a very long time on a charge. We used the system for about 6 hours, with a few minutes here and there of letting it sleep, and watched the battery percentage drop from about 90 percent to 28 percent. So we have every reason to believe Google’s estimated endurance of 8 hours.
One of the most highly-touted features of Chrome OS netbooks like the Cr-48 is their built-in 3G cards that come with some free data, courtesy of Verizon. The cards are Qualcomm Gobi devices so they support all kinds of networks including GSM-based systems in Europe and Asia, along with AT&T or T-Mobile here in the U.S; a SIM card slot sits underneath the battery. Verizon Wireless, uses HSPA technology so its account is tied to the Gobi card itself, not a SIM. The carrier is offering Cr-48 users a special contract-free plan where they get 100MB of data free each month (with no obligation to spend a dime at all), one day of unlimited access for $9.99, 1GB for a month for $20, 3GB for $35, and 5GB for $50.
Verizon doesn’t specify an overage fee for these prepaid plans so we imagine that, once you reach your cap, the device just stops transferring data. One great thing about Chrome OS’s Wi-Fi bar is that, while you are connected to Verizon, you can always see the amount of megabytes you have left for the month by clicking on the 3G bars in the upper right corner of the screen.
The first time you try to enable the 3G service, Chrome transports you to Verizon’s site for a sign-up. There you must select one of these plans (including the free one) and enter your contact information and a credit card number. Even if you select the free plan, Verizon requires your card number and e-mails you a receipt for $0.00.
Oddly, right now there’s no way to change your plan until you run out of data. So, if you’re on the 100MB plan and you know you’re going to need a $9.99 unlimited day, you must wait until you’ve used up your first 100MB.
Certainly, Verizon’s 3G service is worth what you pay for it. We saw speeds up to 2.9 Mbps on the download and .9 Mbps uploads using speedtest.net. That said, by the time OEMs ship real Google netbooks in mid-2011, they will be remiss if they don’t include a way to access Verizon’s 4G LTE service.
If you hit CTRL + P in Chrome OS, you will be prompted to access Cloud Print, a new Google service that allows you to send print requests over the Internet to another computer that has a printer attached. That other computer must be running Chrome 9 browser, which is currently in developer preview mode which means that it’s not even at beta level. We installed Chrome 9 on a PC and enabled Cloud Printing and saw that indeed we could send commands over the Internet to our printer.
However, Chrome 9 browser was so buggy that it wouldn’t work with our scroll wheel and we quickly uninstalled it. We’re sure that Google will soon rectify this problem. That said, the Cloud Print feature seems a bit strange, because it requires a Windows PC to work; there’s no way to print from a Chrome OS netbook directly. So it’s unclear what would happen if someone’s only computer ran Chrome.
Underneath the battery, tucked away in a crevice is a tiny white switch that enables “jailbreak mode.” In theory, this mode is supposed to allow developers to go in and make modifications to the OS. If you position the switch in jailbreak mode, then reboot you’re prompted to insert a recovery USB stick that will reinstall Chrome. If you insert anything but a recovery USB (that you can create with help from Google.com), the system won’t boot so there doesn’t appear to be a way to load alternate OSes onto the Cr-48 or even to boot off the USB port.
A Google rep, however, told us that by hitting CTRL + D on the recovery screen, you could launch a developer mode of Chrome OS that would “blow away your current [OS] image.” We haven’t tried it yet.
While the Cr-48 is a fascinating device, it’s clear that both this system and the Chrome OS are not yet ready for primetime. However, we have no doubt that obvious problems like the sluggish Flash performance, the inability to create a Google account from the sign-in screen, and the odd way it handles minimized windows will probably be resolved by launch. What we are left to wonder is whether Google will relent at all in its attempts to hide the file system and other inner workings of the computer from the user.
After using Chrome OS for several hours, we’re struck by how many things we simply cannot do in it right now. We can’t do anything offline, even edit Google docs. We can’t place two windows next to each other to compare their contents. We can’t copy files to or from external devices; we can’t use Skype.
All of that said, Chrome OS netbooks have the potential to be good content consumption devices, provided you’re comfortable with all your content living in the cloud. Google’s vision is to replace all local software with web apps, but they have a long way to go before the world is ready, if ever, to do anything and everything in a giant browser.