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.

Amazing Internet Customer Service

Every purchase that I can reasonably and logically make online, I do.  Shopping online is cheaper, more convenient and provides invariably more information than other forms of shopping (i.e. reviews, full product details, etc).

However, shopping online has one usual downside — lack of customer service.  You save money but you receive less service in return.  I recently learned that this is far from the truth.

Tires: A few weeks ago, I purchased new tires for my car.  People in my building thought I was crazy since it seems like a product you could not buy online.  Not only did I find a much wider selection of products but also also better prices.  There are a myriad of tire sites.  I chose DiscountTireDirect.  As with any mature 2010 online site, ordering was simple.  A few days later, thanks to free shipping, my tires arrived at my doorstep.  The tires looked a bit offsize but they are far from my specialty and I assumed the order was correct.  I took the tires to the gas station for installation and, it turns out, they were the wrong size.  I immediately called DiscountTire.  Their initial response was that they sent precisely what I ordered, which was true (so it said on my order form).  Of course, I argued that their system must have messed up somehow as I followed instructions to the letter (i.e. choose your car yr, make, etc).  They said they would replace the tires for no charge (despite the slightly higher price for the correct tires) but I would have to pay the $60 shipping fee to return the tires.  I was pissed.

A few hours later, prior to me accepting their offer, they called back.  David, the DiscountTire rep, said that they had just changed their policy and would provide free shipping on all returns.  I immediately accepted.  David sent me prepaid UPS shipping label.  DiscountTire sent out new tires a day after receiving my return.  Well done.

I thought that was the end of my tire saga except today I noticed a bubble in my tire.  I immediately called DiscountTire and they pulled up my account.  I briefly explained the issue (bubble in the tire).  Without any argument, Andrew, my new rep, said that he would send out a replacement tire right away.  That was that.  Wow.  No cost to me.  Great customer service and now a customer for life AND a customer who has told anyone and everyone who will listen that, if they need new tires, they should use DiscountTire.

Flowers: Valentines day is important when you are in a relationship (even if the girl says they don’t care).  I was traveling for work/pleasure and missed V-Day so I ordered flowers via 1-800-Flowers.  As anyone in the North East US knows, the area was walloped by major snowstorms.  1-800 Flowers sent the flowers on time.  However, given the storm, UPS claimed they could not deliver the flowers (despite the roads being cleared by V-Day…shame on your customer service, UPS, since you said it was an act of God and you could not do anything or help me in any way.  The flowers finally arrived at my girlfriend’s place four days after V-Day).  When UPS essentially ignored my pleas for help, I called 1800Flowers.  They immediately apologized for the problems (even though they were not their fault).  They asked me if I would like to re-send the same flowers (or other ones) for no fee.  I did.  They then offered me an extra $20 gift certificate for the hassle and this was not even their fault.  Impressive.

What did both of these companies gain by their fabulous customer service?  They gained the following (which can be powerful on the Wild Wild West (aka World Wide Web) where the power of one opinion can be multiplied — 1. a positive review from me on this blog (and elsewhere if I have the time), 2. a loyal customer for life (and one who will tell others about my experience), 3. avoidance of a negative review, which can be very costly.  High quality customer service pays!

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!

Why I went back to Firefox — Feedly

In my previous post, I spoke about why I left Firefox for Safari.  The basics — Firefox ran too hot for my liking.  Safari is better optimized for my Macbook Pro.

However, a few weeks ago, I read about a program that has “forced” me to go back to Firefox.  It is called Feedly.  It is an add-on for Firefox.  Scoble and Louis Gray have both spoken about it, which piqued my interest.

What does it do?  Generally, it aggregates all of your feeds and creates a magazine like digest of those feeds.  However, it has another function that makes it worth Firefox abusing my computer’s fans.  Feedly Mini sits at the bottom right hand corner of my Firefox screen.  Feedly Mini essentially turns every web page into a Google referenced page.

What do I mean?  I can share any web page or article that I read through my Google Reader shared items feed.  I can email it using Gmail.  Feedly also ties into some other great web 2.0 programs, which I rarely use.

Feedly is great for me because my reading habits are not just confined to my 250 RSS feeds found in Greader.  I read many other websites such as the Nytimes, Cnet, Techmeme, WSJ, WashPost, etc.  I prefer to read over these general sites because they open me up to greater variety of information than I would otherwise gain from my more directed and specific RSS feeds.  Until Feedly, I was never able to share (and, why I really like Greader, it allows me to save these feeds) the articles that I read outside Greader.  I would read many great articles that were quickly forgotten.

With Feedly, these articles no longer go through my head and then a few days later, leave it.  I have a record of my favorite articles that is kept for posterity (or for however long Google is around).

Feedly is not available for Safari so now I am back as a Firefox user.

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…

Firefox 3 versus Safari processor usage

For those still in a hole, Firefox 3 has launched.  All the reviews talk about its better memory management.  I have 4 Gigs of ram and, frankly, don’t care about memory usage.  I do, however, care about processor usage.  The more my processor runs, the hotter my computer becomes (and the more electricity I use).  The hotter it becomes the more my fans run.  The more my fans run, the noisier my computer becomes.  I hate noisy computers and I don’t want to replace my fans [if they break from overuse].

Firefox 2 was a relatively heavy processor user (with a bunch of add-ons running).  My MBP’s fans routinely ran at around 2000 rpm but would spike higher fairly frequently.  With Firefox 3 out and the newest version of Safari, I tested the two side-by-side.

My very unscientific test (note, I really dont have time to do more than a cursory test at the moment) reveals that Firefox 3 (with a few add-ons) tends to use less of my processor.  I now run at about 1800 rpm.  In safari (with no add-ons), I run at around 1900 rpm.

Post-bar, I will do more testing and figure out which browser reigns supreme in processor usage.

Fiance is done with work.  Time for bed.

Surfing the web from the couch

Have you ever found yourself wanting to join the family in the living room but you can’t because you are tied to your office computer?  

If your answer is “yes,” then you have two solutions: 1. use your laptop.  Unfortunately, they get hot.  2. Setup an all-in-one computer, such as the iMac, on your living room coffee table.  

I moved last week and during the move, I became one computer richer as I now have access to my fiance’s 20 inch iMac.  As we only have one desk with room for one computer (mine right now), we needed a place for her iMac.  The only other flat surface with easy access to an outlet was the coffee table.  

Boy am I ever glad we don’t have a second desk.  I love this setup (unfortunately, she is not so happy with the “look.”).  With a wireless keyboard/mouse and a lower resolution (to enlarge the font), I can sit on a comfortable couch and surf the web/email/blog with abandon (and save my back from desk chairs).  

As an added bonus, minus hooking up a computer to a TV, this is an ideal way to watch all of your favorite web videos from Hulu/youTube, and could negate one spending money on an Apple TV/Netflix Roku box or something similar.

For those with families and whose lives center on the living room, this setup is even better (so long as you can secure the power cord).  If you spend a lot of time in an office but still need to go online when home, this is a great way to do it.