In an unexpected move, I recently traded in my beloved iPhone 4 for a Google (Samsung) Nexus S Android handset--mostly to escape from AT&T but also to try something new and see whether all the fuss about Android made sense or not.
You may be wondering what this has to do with the Chromebook. See, after the Google ecosystem wrapped its inviting arms around my cellular life, I became interested in what else Google has to offer us mobile warriors, and remembered the much talked about Chromebook.
Although I really wanted one of the newer, more powerful units--which run the same OS, Chromium, I was able to snag one of the original research units: the CR-48. A fellow geek on Craigslist was selling one for a song, so I feel pretty lucky. I'm mentioning this because my review is going to mainly focus on the OS rather than the hardware, simply because you can't really "buy" a CR-48 retail... and besides, the newer ones are going to be faster.
What IS a Chromebook, anyway?
The Chromebook, which runs Google's Chromium OS, is essentially the definition of a "cloud computer." It only runs web-based applications and has a very minimal operating system environment. In simpler terms, it's a computer whose operating system is basically an extended version of the Chrome browser.
Why would I want a Chromebook?
Even though it's not a "fully featured" Windows or Mac computer, there's lots of reasons why somebody would want to own a Chromebook.
First, the battery life is outstanding. With the CR-48, I was getting 6+ hours of battery life during full use, and that was with my Nexus S connected, running a 4G hotspot, and charging off the Chromebook's battery. Pretty impressive.
Second, the Chromebook is convenient. Starting up the CR-48 takes only 11 seconds. That's 11 seconds from completely powered down to in the browser window. The new Chromebooks promise a startup time of around 8 seconds. Plus, putting the computer to sleep is as easy as closing the lid--and starting it back up takes approximately 1 second from sleep status. It also has the advantage of size. Given that the Chromebook doesn't have an optical drive, it's light and thin.
Third, the Chromebook is stable. Without all the complications of modern operating systems, it's not often you'll find a crash. During weeks of use, and on work days heavy use, I only experienced one crash.
Finally, the Chromebook is supported. By this, I mean that you aren't buying some orphaned piece of technology or an abandoned OS. Chrome (and by extension, Chromium) is widely supported with hundreds (maybe thousands) of extensions and add-ons that can essentially turn a browser into a desktop-type experience. Chromium is getting frequent updates all the time and is based on one of the fastest browsers available.
So, what's it like to actually use a Chromebook?
This is the real question. Regardless of fancy specs, fast startup times, or long lists of features, if it isn't useful in daily life (for work or for play) it's just a brick. Gladly, I can report that the Chromebook does a splendid job of fielding a wide range of both personal and professional tasks.
Web Browsing: The Chromebook reigns supreme in this department. When the Chrome browser is essentially the face of your operating system, browsing the Internet is the core experience--and the Chrombook delivers. There's not much to say, really--for all but the heaviest, super-30-tabs-open-tons-of-videos-streaming browsing, my CR-48 kept up with aplomb, although a bit slower than a non-Atom based laptop. Plus, your Chromebook will sync its bookmarks and extensions with the Chrome browser on your desktop, so it's seamless moving from one machine to the other.
Documents and Spreadsheets: You would expect that Google Docs would be integrated well with the Chromebook, and you'd be right. Google Docs works flawlessly for creating, saving, and sharing documents in the cloud. Even huge, multi-tabbed spreadsheets with lots of data didn't have any trouble on the outdated CR-48, so I can only imagine it's better on newer units. In other words: You don't need Microsoft Office.
Video Multimedia: The Chromebook can handle any media you would throw at the standard Chrome browser, e.g. Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and so on. I was able to stream full screen video from Netflix on the CR-48, albeit with some slowdown, but new units should have no issues. So, for personal use, the Chromebook could make a great portable video device.
Streaming Audio: Depending on the site you want to listen to, the Chromebook has no problem streaming Internet radio. It will even show a cool little popup window to control the station in some cases. I like Soma FM and YourMuze.
Email: You will check your email on a Chromebook exactly the same way you'd check email in a browser--if you're a Google fan, most likely through Gmail. There's no multi-address client, though.
Where the Chromebook Falls Short
Of course, the Chromebook and Chromium OS isn't perfect, and it can't do everything, so it's good to be aware of what you're getting into before you give one as a gift this season.
FTP: I couldn't find a native, secure way to connect to remote FTP sites. For my role as a web community manager, this was kind of important. Fortunately, my Nexus S has AndFTP, but if you need to remotely connect to servers that may not have a web based interface, this is important to be aware of.
Music Management: Unless you're using Google Music, Pogoplug, or some other cloud-based music management service, the Chromebook is NOT the device you'll be using to sync and store your music. It just isn't designed for that, and wouldn't have enough local space anyway.
Image Editing: While the Chromebook does have some basic tools you can use, such as Aviary and others, it's not Photoshop. Not at all. Not even close.
Gaming: Sure, you can play flash and web-based games, but mark my words, this is not a gaming machine. There are developments that may bring more console-y games to the Chrome browser, but it's by no means a full-fledged game terminal... yet.
Specialized Apps: If you need to use any sort of specialized Windows or Mac application in your work, you're out of luck. Chrome extensions and web based solutions are all that apply here.
Is the Chromebook right for you?
The Chromebook is ideal for people in certain situations and certain usecases.
The Cloud Warrior: Do you do everything in the cloud? Then the Chromebook is a sure bet, since you're accessing most everything you use through web-based file storage and web-based tools.
The Web Worker: Do you do most of your work online? Maybe you're a freelance writer, blogger, or community manager. If so, much of your work happens "virtually" anyway, so the Chromebook is an ideal, efficient solution for your work.
The Casual Browser: Need a no-hassle, easy to use browsing machine to use at home or remotely--primarily for surfing the net? No better solution than a Chromebook.
The Computer Illiterate: Does Grandpa need something to check email from his kids without the hassle of BSoD's and kernel panics? Chromebook to the rescue.
Can the Chromebook replace a traditional laptop?
No. Chromebook cannot do everything a standard laptop can. However, that doesn't mean it isn't useful or even superior--it just means that it's right for certain people and not for others.
However, I'd highly recommend it due to the many advantages, if it fits in with your workflow or personal needs.