Google's Chrome OS: Tomorrow's Desktop Today?

By  Operating Systems, Chrome OS, Google

Chrome OS Today

Are we there yet? No, we're not.

When you boot up Chrome OS, which will go very quickly whether you're running it off a USB stick or on a virtual machine, you'll be greeted with a boring login screen. To get in, you'll need to enter either a generic login, if you're using someone else's build, or, if you rolled it yourself, as I did, your own Google ID and password.

Once in, Chrome OS looks -- surprise! -- much like the Chrome Web browser on top of any operating system. Of course, that is exactly what they're trying to do with it. Again, when it comes to Chrome OS, it's all about the browser.

Chrome OS' boring login screen. You'll need a Google ID and password to run it.

Once up and running I found that the basics ran just fine. I was able to ramble about the Web to my heart's content and run Web applications without a problem... right up to the moment when the operating system crashed and left me back at the login screen.

Look familiar? It should. The Chrome OS interface is the Chrome Web browser interface.

You can expect to a lot of that kind of thing from Chrome OS at this point in its development. After all, it's alpha software. Some early teething problems have been fixed though. When you go to the Bookmark Manager, you'll no longer find it a dead end without any way back to the main operating system.

For now Chrome OS also doesn't support much in the way of peripherals. I ran Chrome OS on a VirtualBox 3.0.12 on a Dell Inspiron 530s running XP SP3 with a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E4600 CPU with 3GB of RAM and a 500GB SATA hard drive. Chrome has no trouble finding the basics of hard drive, keyboard, mouse, networking and so on. But, I couldn't do a thing with my USB-attached microphone or Logitech Webcam.

I found more of the same with my Lenovo ThinkPad R61 with its 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor T7500, 2GBs of RAM, and a 320GB hard drive. While I was able to easily boot the system from a generic 4GB USB stick and I was able to use the ThinkPad's built-in 802.11g Wi-Fi and the ThinkPad's TrackPoint, I couldn't use my USB microphone. And, once more, I could count on it crashing every hour or two.

While it was up though I was able to disconnect from the Internet and keep working with the automatically generated local copies of my Google Doc files. Chrome OS didn't like me switching my Internet connection off and on mind you, but more often than not I was able to keep working whether I was on the net or off. Frankly, at this stage of the game, I was impressed.

I was also pleased to see that I could run several applications at once. Usually when you think of a Web browser, you think of working with just what's in front of you at any given moment. But, if you ponder it for a moment, you'll realize that can't work with Chrome. For example, you might want to listen to music from Pandora while working on a document. With the usual operating system you do that by running a media player in the background. Chrome OS needs to play media within its Web browser framework. I'm pleased to report that, while this was also rough around the edges, this kind of multi-tasking did work well for me most of the time.

Want applications? Google OS, and the Web, has your applications for you -- including some that don't come from Google.

Mind you, Chrome OS doesn't run fast. The Chrome browser itself is faster than fast on Linux, but Chrome the operating system is still slower than mud. Again, that comes from being alpha software. No program runs fast at this stage in its development.

So is it worth bothering with? If you're an end-user, the answer isn't just no, it's "Heck no!" But, as a glimpse into a future where 90% of your computing is done on a nearly always connected netbook, it affords a look at a time where computing has become as mobile as our phones are today.

Remember when we all had to have landlines for phone service? We may someday look at our desktop PCs of today and think of them in the same way. While still very much a work in progress, Google Chrome OS is an interesting take on an alternative to our current PC-centric computing ways.

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