Google CR-48 Chrome Computer review

I recently received Google’s Chrome OS computer, the CR-48. In one sentence, this is the future BUT we are already there (and just don’t know it).

Many of the reviews of the CR-48 discuss the hardware and the software’s shortcoming but from the perspective of a hardcore computer user.  I’ll do something groundbreakingly different (joke) – write a review for the rest of us.  By the “rest of us,” I mean people who spend 99% of their computing time already in the cloud.  They are likely using massively overpowered computers to check their email, Facebook page, and shop on Amazon.  It is likely that the only non-Internet apps you currently use are Microsoft office-type products.  Of course, via Google, Microsoft and others, you can do that in the “Cloud,” as well.

Since I have established that the large majority of users already spend most of their computer time within a web browser, I can commence with the review.

Software

The CR-48 runs a special version of Google’s Chrome web browser.  That is it.  While a somewhat jarring experience at first (since there is no “start” bar or application bar, Google, via a simple and professional intro FAQ shows you how to start using the computer.  At its very basic, you just open up your normal websites.  This is exactly the same as you would do when using any other computer.  You can open new tabs or new windows.  Right now, as an example, I have Gmail, Facebook, Pandora, Google Reader, Hotmail, Twitter, a search page, and WordPress open.  Were I open my home computer (Macbook Pro), I would frankly have all the same pages open and I would be doing the same thing in those pages.

The pages run well albeit a bit more slowly than on more powerful computers.  However, I have to assume that is because the processor is fairly weak (Atom).  I had some trouble with Hulu but YouTube (at least the HTML-5 videos) worked fine.  Flash is obviously an issue but I have read that is being worked on.  The apps that you can use are, in most cases, just a quick link to a webpage.  Not much there, sadly. Install an app from the Chromse store on your home computer Chrome browser and you will know what I mean.

Because the software is only a web browser, the computer is very fast to startup – essentially instant.  Of course, I do not think this is so special since I almost never shut down my MacPro and whenever I open back up the screen the computer is ready to go.  However, since the “hard drive” is actually flash memory drive, everything on that front is speedy.

A few issues: if you want to download things, that will be challenging.  You can download items but you don’t really have control over where they are stored or how they are used.  If you cannot open the file you downloaded within a browser, then you are out of luck.  As an example, I downloaded a Gmail produced zip of a number of .pdf files – Chrome would not open that file. However, if I downloaded each pdf separately, I could open and view them.  The same would go for just about any file.  Probably the largest issue that the Web/Cloud generation (who most of us are now) by living within Chrome would have to do with photos and other self-produced media.  You can connect your camera to the computer via USB but then save your files where? Picasa (from Google) works but is not ideal if you want to save all of your photos (since they only provide a relatively small amount of free storage space).  You would also have trouble with Chrome if you wanted to manage the content of your Apple produced products, which, sadly (and I believe for not much longer) need iTunes.

A few benefits: since you are already living in the Cloud, the CR-48 is just another way to embrace this more fully. No more viruses!!!  Since you essentially cannot download anything, you cannot have a virus (until they start infecting the browser directly).  However, since Chrome is constantly updated by Google, I assume (and hope) that any viri or other dangerous issues will be fixed almost immediately.  Again – you already live in the Cloud.  Why do you need all of your old files?  I dont touch any of them anymore except for my photos.  I still have not found a great, cheap way to view all my media online and therefore need a large hard drive.  However, once a good solution comes out (and there are some already), I could probably ditch the regular computer altogether.  A few more things you already do in the cloud – gaming (Cityville anyone), listening to music (I have gigs upon gigs of music but only listen to Pandora), movie watching (streaming from Netflix, Amazon and so forth…which do not fully work with the CR-48 but probably will in short order).  I even do my reading online – Instapaper, Kindle and multiple websites.

In other words, if you are anything like me, you need a keyboard, a screen, and a wifi connection to do 99% of your daily electronic tasks. End of story.  In that respect, CR-48 is ideal.  It takes out the clutter that you pay a ton for in any other computer and gives you just what you need. In fact, I would say that the CR-48 is a taste of the future albeit one that is already here since you are already spending your electronic life within a browser anyways. Within the next few years, I predict we will see many many more “computers that are simply dumb terminals/gateways to the Internet.”  In fact, what is most likely to happen is that you will connect your smartphone to a larger screen and keyboard and go from there via wifi or 4G.

 

Hardware

I think this is very very secondary to the idea of the CR-48 and what it shows for the future.  However, since the reading public loves to know about the hardware, below is a brief overview.

The matte black (with no markings) and slightly rubberized feel works well.  It is functional and seems like a high-quality build.  Mainly, you do not notice the computer itself – which is precisely the point.  This is about the Chrome software, not the computer technology.  The screen is decent and very usable.  The webcam doesnt seem great but what do you expect?!  The speaker is the same – usable, not great.

The keyboard is just like one of the new Macs — i.e. Chicle keys. I like it a lot (and in fact wrote this entire review using the CR-48.  The layout is very different (i.e. no CAPS) lock key but instead a search key. I could easily get used to that although I do sometimes like responding to long emails in-line via CAPS.  The biggest issue is the mousepad.  It is large.  It does not handle two different touches well.  As an example, when I am typing this, if my palm hits the mousepad, it moves the mouse and clicks somewhere else.  Then, if I try to move it back using my finger but my palm is still touching it, there is major interference and confusion. You also use the mousepad for clicking (the entire area is clickable) – I like the idea but that is a lot of finger touches that the software has difficulty separating out.

A few other notes: the battery life seems great.  It is rated at 8 hours and I feel confident it will hit that mark.  The computer is insanely quiet.  I hate noisy computer (i.e. loud fans) – this thing is silent.  Of course, it has no running parts, is running a low-power processor, and only runs one program so it should be quiet.  It is pretty light and not overly warm on my lap (I have been sitting on the couch for this writeup). My iPad is a bit annoying to hold up for long reading.  I could see myself using the CR-48 instead plus I can actually do my emails or IMs on it while reading.

Anyways – time for dinner and I think this covers things pretty well.  Enjoyable.  Great start Google and a great view of the future when we are all using our mobile phones to connect larger screens and keyboards to the Internet.  I’m looking forward to it.  The cloud is easier, safer (in my view), and always updated.

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Laptop Surgery – installing a new hard drive on my Macbook Pro

My Macbook Pro (~2006 edition) came with a 120GB HD.  At the time, I knew this was likely too small but that I could handle it.  I keep most of my music and video files on an external drive.  Of course, I also have a 34GB Windows Vista partition, which means only ~86GB Mac HD.  Despite careful use of my space, I only have 4GB free.  I cannot clean out any more files but I now no longer even have enough space for automatic updates from Apple.  This is a problem.

Solution = buy a new hard drive and install it on my computer.  This is much easier said than done.  I thought about doing this in the past but decided against it given the potential for error on my part and what that would mean (i.e. broken computer that could become expensive to fix).  The pros of more space did not outweigh the cons.  However, with only 4GB left, the pros have it and my laptop surgery has begun.

Some details about my MacBook Pro: 4GB of RAM (user installed but that was easy), 2.2 Core Duo 2, 128MB GeForce 8600.  Four years of use and it is still fast and runs well.

Installing a new hard drive on these computers is no easy feat.  There are a number of guides out there such as this one from ExtremeTech or this one from iFixit.  Both are pretty detailed but to do a full HD install on my type (i.e. not the newer ones) of MacBook Pro, you are basically taking the computer completely apart.

I write this mini guide to provide an overview of what I did to those who may follow and as a mini-journal.

1. Buy a new HD and a 2.5inch external enclosure – I choose a 250GB 7200 RPM drive.  I think this is already too little space.  Ugh – why didn’t I splurge a bit and buy another 100gigs?  I went for the 7200RPM because I like the idea of making my computer a bit faster wherever possible.  The 2.5 inch external enclosure has dual purposes: 1. use it to copy all of your old HD data to the new drive, 2. put your old drive in it when all is done and you have a new external backup HD.  I purchased both items from Newegg.

2. Download and install SuperDuper and Winclone (for those who have a Windows Partition they would like to keep).  Note: Winclone is a bit confusing (and the developer’s website seems to be down) but here is a decent description and outline.

3. Run SuperDuper to backup all of your data onto your new hard drive (sitting in its external enclosure).  Once backed up fully, reboot your computer and load the computer from your new hard drive (the one that is still external).  If it loads, then you should be in good shape to install the new drive.   Do the same backup with Winclone –> Winclone needs some explanation since there is no FAQ or detailed description of how to use it.  Basics: You create an image of your Bootcamp Windows drive somewhere on your Mac hard drive or an external hard drive (I put it on an external drive but NOT my new hard drive).  Don’t do anything else with the image until after you install your new drive.

4. Install the new hard drive.  Here is the scary part — one wrong move and my computer could be fried.  I carefully followed the instructions from iFixit and, as I had hoped, the installation was easier than expected.  Sure, you always have to be careful opening up a beautiful piece of hardware but there is something beautiful looking at everything that makes it work.  I followed iFixit’s instructions, then reversed them and the entire process took about 20 minutes.  Phew.  Now for the real test: turning my computer back on.  Voila, it worked (although it was a bit slow at first).

5. Reinstalling Windows.  Run Bootcamp Assistant and create a new partition.  If you don’t mind losing everything on your old Window’s partition, then install Windows brand new.  However, if you do want the old information, you can once again use Winclone.  However, this time around, click on the “Restore” tab, select your backup image, and then restore it to your new Bootcamp partition.  If you are lucky, this will work no problem (although Windows may ask you to verify that you have a valid copy).

If all goes well, despite the slight trepidation you may feel about opening up your MacBook Pro, you will have a faster and bigger new hard drive.

A few small things I learned:

1. Opening up my computer was not nearly as scary as it seemed.  Me and my computer lived to tell the tale and we are both better for it.  I can now not only play around with the software (which I already do) but the hardware, as well…anyone know if it is possible to upgrade my graphics card (note…that is rhetorical since I am 99% sure the answer is no).

2. Be careful, go slow and be methodical.  Each screw I took out I laid out in a line, in order of when I took it out.  When I had to put everything back together, it was simple to know which screw to use when.

3. Have fun!

Hope this helps.

Picasa Facial Recognition

A few months ago, I downloaded an update to Picasa, Google’s photo organization tool.  The update included the ability to let the system use facial recognition technology.

I spent about an hour going through my photos and pairing names with facing. The system is relatively easy to use and user friendly (i.e. my mom could probably figure it out).  Picasa, based upon the name/face pairing, began scanning the rest of my album for matches.  It found many but I had to close the program.

I just returned from an amazing vacation — San Fran, road trip from Calgary to Vancouver stopping at five of the best ski areas in NA (Banff – Sunshine & Lake Louise, Kicking Horse, Revelstoke (most vertical in NA), and Whistler), then opening ceremonies of the Olympics and Cancun for a wedding.  As one might imagine, I took a lot of photos.

I plugged in my camera and turned on Picasa and WHOA — at some point (when I assume the program was running), Picasa had identified nearly 300 more pictures of me and multiple ones of other folks.  I was impressed, very impressed but a little bit scared (plus it was fun to see where the program became confused — apparently (and not shockingly) my brother and I look similar as do me and my friend Jay.

If Picasa, free desktop program, with a little “teaching” from me, can identify me in hundreds of pictures with different backgrounds, lighting, and poses, imagine what security companies using more powerful technology and computers can do.  I don’t say this because I am scared or terribly bothered by the prospect (so long as it is used in a responsible manner to keep us safe) or that this is really news.  My main point is this — Picasa’s facial recognition technology was impressive and really brought home, right here to my desk, the power of computers and constantly improving technology (Moore’s law…).

From a product perspective, this is just one more reason for me to migrate away from my native Mac Apps such as iPhoto and iTunes in favor of free software (via download or cloud).  I already like Picasa much more than iPhoto and it constantly has news features added for free.  The latest version of iPhoto also has facial recognition technology but I would have to pay for the update (specifically $80 to Apple here).  Why pay when I have a better, free (and constantly updated) alternative?  Same goes with iTunes (I’ll save a rant for later) but simply put — iTunes is slow and bloated.  Pandora and the slew of free alternatives is better, cheaper, portable (i.e. via the Cloud and an Internet connection) and does not tie me to a platform/program.

Moving to the “Cloud”

I recently wrote a post about my favorite programs for the Mac (here).  While writing it, I realized how outdated it sounded.

The reason: a very large percentage of the programs that I now use live in the “Cloud.”  The “Cloud” as described by Walt Mossberg in today’s Wall Street Journal (here), is a combination of nebulous server farms around the world that store your information and run your programs.  The programs that I run which do not live in the cloud, either could or soon will.

When using my personal computer, I spend 95% of my time on the internet and in the “Cloud.”  That means I am running everything via a browser (in my case, I prefer Firefox).  The “programs” I run via the “Cloud” include Gmail, Gtalk/AIM, Google Reader, GoogleMaps, Bing shopping, WordPress, NYTimes, WashingtonPost, Techmeme, and Pandora.  “Programs” is in quotes because these are not really programs as much as they are websites that run programs and provide relevant information.  When I am at work, I may spend ~30% of my time in the “Cloud” because I spending the rest of it using Microsoft Office.  However, my company could easily choose Google Apps and/or Zoho Office to replace Microsoft Office.  Except for Excel, I have found Google Apps to be as good as MS Office.  When it comes to collaboration and email, Google easily beats Microsoft.  For the price (i.e. free for personal use and $50/yr for enterprises), Google Apps is a no-brainer.

Microsoft is slowly and grudgingly moving in this direction.  They are in no rush as this could destroy their business model but competition is forcing their hand.

For a company (and personal use) the metrics/ROI for moving to the “Cloud” are too hard to pass up.  The programs are just as good.  They are more robust (due to automatic updates).  They are available anywhere in the world with an internet connection (and even offline).  They are priced right — 1. cost of use is negligible (i.e. free), 2. computing resources are minimal (i.e. only a computer that can run a browser), which lowers hardware expenditures, and 3. IT costs are minimized.  A personal example of the ease of the “Cloud” is when I coaxed my mother to move to Yahoo Mail (I had my reasons but it was a mistake but that is another story).  She used to have major issues with her email.  Now, no issues and no phone calls to me. The same goes for IT Help Desks in a company. The PC, as a truly personal computer, is slowly withering away (see Forbe article here).

With 2010 only a few hours away, here are a few predictions of what the “Cloud” means for the future of computing: 1. Everything becomes easier but slightly less secure, 2. computer prices will continue to drop because you will not need to buy a powerful new computer.  One of the most power-hungry applications, gaming, is heading to the “Cloud.”  In 12 months, so long as you have a fast broadband connection, you will be able to play even the most hardcore games via the “Cloud.”  3. Content rental/streaming continues its fast growth.  Netflix streaming, movie rental via Amazon and others is quickly becoming a major force.  Its growth will only continue.  Why buy a movie for $15 when you can rent it for $3.  You can watch it again every few months for another $3.  If you watch a DVD fewer than 5 times, then renting is the way to go.  You can also watch it on anything with a screen (who will continue to need a DVD player built into their computer?).  4. Music streaming overtakes music buying.  I have many gigs worth of music in my iTunes folder.  How often do I listen to it?  Maybe once a month.  How often do I listen to Pandora/AOL Music?  Daily.  How much do I pay?  Zero.  Louise Gray had an interesting article on this topic here.  5. Mobile — this is the biggie that stands over all of the other predictions (and is not so much a prediction as a statement of fact). See below…

Mobile is one of the main driving forces / enablers of the “Cloud” (plus, of course, cheap fiber/broadband, massive and low-cost server farms).  Why is mobile a driver?  Your phone is not powerful enough to truly be smart (even if it is a “smartphone”).  However, when plugged into the Internet, a cellphone/smartphone becomes nearly as powerful as my laptop.  On my phone, I can do 99% of the things I can do on my computer such as send, receive, and write emails or documents.  I can view just about any website, read books, and listen to streaming music.  My phone is my GPS device (even though my current, terrible BlackBerry 8800 has its GPS disabled by Verizon but triangulation thanks to Google works well enough).  I can make restaurant reservations via Opentable and so forth.  My next computer purchase may only be for a screen and a keyboard with a USB cable plug for my phone.  With everything in the “Cloud,” the phone becomes just another device to connect.  It enables the “Cloud.”

I am excited for the future…welcome to 2010!

Top Mac Programs

This post goes out to my long lost Indian friend Azeem “the dream” Zainulbhai.  Come back to the US sometime soon!

When I last saw Zeemer, he had finally taken my advice and bought a Mac.  He said, “Adam, now that I have a Mac, you have to tell me your top 10 programs that I need to download.”

Side note to my application choices: I don’t like to spend a lot of money on programs.  There is too much great free choice out there.  With that said, I never steal or download illegal programs.  If it can’t be had for free, then I either pay or do without.

Without further ado:

1. Firefox – I go back and forth on this.  My previous posts showed a newfound love of Safari.  Safari never saved my open webpages, didnt work well with Feedly, had an annoying bookmark manager, didnt work with all the sites I tried, and does not have many ad-0ns (come on, Apple, get with the program — isnt the iPhone App store one of the strongest points about the iPhone?  Couldn’t the same be true for Safari?).  With Firefox 3.0, the processor overuse extra heat (and subsequent) fan annoyances are drastically reduced.  Firefox 3.0 seems to be nearly on par with Safari for processor/memory use.  I dont care about speed so much as I care about heat and noisy fans (no desk means very hot legs with a computer on them).

2. 1Password – for a person who lives much of his computer life online (and cares about security), remembering all my passwords becomes a challenge.  1Password remembers my passwords and is secure.  A lot of other people have recommended this program.  I held back.  I finally “bought” it when there was a one week special to receive a copy for free (legit deal, don’t worry).  I jumped at the chance.  For anyone reading this (and who uses more than two passwords/log in names online), get this program.  If you are lucky, 1Pw will offer the program for free again sometime this holiday season.  If not, buy it.  Worth every penny.

3. AppDelete – this used to be free but then an upgrade forced me to choose — do I pay or do I do without.  I paid.  It is worth $5.  What it does: it really deletes programs.  In a Mac, you can drag an app to the trash and most of its associated files are deleted.  However, a few lingering pieces stick around.  Over time, your computer will become filled with old random programs.  On a Mac, this is not nearly as bad as on a windows PC.  However, it does happen.  AppDelete stops it from happening (mostly).  I want to keep my computer feeling fresh and ready to go.

4. iStatpro – great way to keep track of what is going on inside your Mac.  I personally enjoy a detailed view of what is going on with various programs (and why they are overheating my computer).

5. Perian – this is the “Swiss Army Knife” of Quicktime components.  It allows Quicktime to play just about any format out there.  Until I started this Snow Leopard cleaning, I forgot that it was installed.  Then again, I have not run into any video issues for a very long time so I guess this is working.

6. Mint.com – great way to track finances.

7. Feedly.com – Makes every webpage into something you can tag, track, and share.

8. Google Reader/Gmail/Google Maps/Bing – I use these more than anything else on this list.  If you don’t know what they are, then I can’t even begin to imagine how you find this page.

9. Desktoptopia – way to keep your desktop background fresh and interesting.  This program automatically switches between hundreds of different photos they keep in their system.

10. Rapidweaver – This is a super easy way to create great looking websites.  I have minimal html skills (or none…) but I needed to create a site for my charity (www.adoptacoral.org).  I tried iWeb but quickly ran into its limitations.  I received Rapidweaver via one of those package deals (can’t remember the name now).  It took a little bit of time to learn but once I did, I was up and running pretty well.  Of course, the powers that be at my charity decided to turn over the web design duties to a pro who has time (my main job plus my life things in the past year sort of got in the way).  However, while the site was up, it was awesome (in my mind).  If you aren’t a pro web designer but don’t want to pay someone, this is a good program to use.

11. BOINC Manager – this is a program that allows you to donate your idle computer time to charity.  It essentially cuts up major jobs that need supercomputers into small pieces that can be handled by your computer.  I sometimes let it run but I also have a thing about excess heat and fan noise so this is run much less often than it should be.  Donating computer power is one of the easiest things I could do.

Random ones that are great but that I rarely use:

1. Sitesucker – great for the road warriors out there and any programs that don’t run Google gears. explain…

2. Dropbox (and its cousin my Microsoft – Sync)

3. TimesRead – Okay, I never use this one but I saw it when I was cleaning out my computer.  It is actually good.  I may start using it.

Networking Fiend

I moved into a new place in May.  It is a new building and every apartment is wired with CAT5e ethernet [rather than phone lines].  The builder put in telecom routers.  Despite my best efforts, speaking with the ethernet subcontractor and a number of electricians, I could not set up a network. What did I do?

I took down their telecom routers, I cut and crimped my own ethernet wires and then hooked them up to one of the three wireless routers I have in the apt.  I now have a beautifully fast ethernet network (30Mbps down and 2Mbps up).

As one would imagine is required with a good network, here is what I have hooked up to it:

1. Xbox 360

2. Tivo HD (and now have Tivo Connect setup with my network so that I can view my photos and listen to my mp3s).

3. Vonage

4. Wii (using my Tivo’s wireless G network card — I did not think it would work but it did, right away).

5. Old laptop computer, which is hooked up to the TV via S-video (doesnt look great but I am working on that) and using wireless keyboard/mouse.

6. Two other computers hooked up wirelessly.

Phew…

What happens when Apple is no longer cool?

With the launch of the new iPhone rapibly approaching, a thought has popped into my head — what happens to Apple when they are no longer as cool or counter-culture as they used to be?  Will its legions of hardcore fans, the ones who stuck by Apple through all of those tough years (and the new people who are joining the train now), want to continue to eat every scrap Apple throws their way without complaint?

People are lining up throughout the world to be the first to get their hands on the new iPhone.  From everything I have read, it is a great phone but if you already have an iPhone version 1, version 2 isnt so much better.  The most important part of this launch is the App Store and that is available on iPhone 1, as well as 2. Why are people lining up?  Why so much hype (in every newspaper in the world)?  Because it is Apple.  What happens when they stop being the golden Apple?

I loved my Apple when it was only one of a few around town.  I was part of the Apple crew and I bonded with people over my Mac.  Sure, it is a great computer with great software but it stood out because it was an Apple.  Heck, just today someone asked me questions about it and whether they should buy one.  This person came to me because he saw I had a Mac.  I can’t imagine someone doing the same if I was using a Dell.  My problem was this — I didn’t want to tell him to buy a Mac.  I wanted to say, “no, dont buy a Mac.”  I didn’t want the people not already in the Apple group to join.  I wanted my Mac to be exclusive.

Apple no longer is exclusive.  It has gone mainstream.  I still love my Mac but it is no longer the same sort of love and devotion that I used to have for it.  “Everyone” has a Mac.  It simply is not special.  Will this hurt or help Apple’s business?  What happens when Apple’s every move is not as closely tracked and people don’t care.  I don’t see people lining up for any other product launches (except video game systems and that only happens once every five or so years).

Too many apples too much of the time makes one sick of Apples.