You may have read about the first Google Chromebooks and their arrival. You may also have wondered why all the fuss over some fairly low spec looking laptops. Chances are that’s because you’re not really sure what Chrome OS is all about and, luckily, you’re in precisely the right place.
To be fair to you, the responsibility for the confusion has to lie at the feet of Google itself. The company has a web browser product called Chrome, an OS called Chrome and, just so that everyone’s really clear, an open source web browser project called Chromium, the latter of which, fortunately, has absolutely nothing to do with what you’re going to learn about today. No, this Chromebook is all about laptops specially built to run Google’s Chrome OS which is itself heavily based around the Google Chrome browser. Here’s how it all works.
Home computers are, on the whole, pretty slow or certainly slower than they ought to be. The reason for that is largely that operating systems like Windows and Mac OS leave a pretty heavy footprint or at least they do once combined with all the other bits of software that install themselves on your hard drive with or without your permission. The idea behind Chrome OS and the Chromebooks is to get rid of all that. A lightweight, speedy to boot, portable experience is what Google is promising.
The Chrome Browser
Central to the way that Chrome OS operates is the Google Chrome web browser - the same as the one that you may or may not be using on your PC or Mac as we speak. All of the bits of software that you might normally use on your computer - e-mail client, office suite, video editing, etc - will not be stored and run from your machine but will instead live as web apps up in the cloud, all of which you’ll access through the Chrome browser. As well as the software, the cloud will also play host to all of your data be that normal text files, images, music or whatever you happen to own.
Because none of it is stored on your machine, they won’t bog its operations down and, what’s more, you’ll be able to access all of your data and apps on other computers elsewhere too. Rather a tidy concept but it does have its downsides as well.
With speed one of the headline draws, Google has been keen to impress, and its claims of an eight second boot time and instant resume from sleep, hibernation, unconsciousness, or whatever you like to call it when your machine is taking a break, are rather alluring. So, exactly how the hell do the Chromebooks and Chrome manage it?
Well, it’s largely to do with the way the system’s built with a little help from the hardware spec of the laptops too. Chrome OS has no BIOS - boot firmware who’s job it is to load and start your main OS. It’s the part that you see chugging through the operations in black and white before the blue/green of Windows gets going. Within all that, there are a host of other processes that Chrome completely ditches including hardware detection, separate start and load kernels and boot loaders to go with them, and all sorts of bits and pieces that no one really needs to know about.
Add onto that the removal of a nice big splash screen, to let you know who really owns your computer; all those invisible start up applications, that take an age to settle themselves while you stare blankly at a desktop you can’t use; and even the need for anti-virus software (fingers crossed). Essentially, Chrome OS strips out the lot and replaces your HDD with a solid state drive just to give it an extra boost. We’ll get the stopwatch on it when we have the Chromebooks in for review but it certainly sounds feasible, and what Google claims is that your computer will get even faster as time goes on, but more about that in a moment.
All of the desktop software that you’re used to on your PC or Mac will not work nor exist on Chrome OS. Anything that you want to use will be in the form of a web app which you can “install” on your profile. We say “install” because it’s not really an installation onto your machine but more an association with your cloud persona.
All of these apps can be found in the Chrome Web Store which you can actually access and try out for yourself already via your Chrome browser. In there you’ll find games, tools, utilities, social networking connectors and all the productivity and communications bits and pieces that you’d need in your normal computing life with some of it free and some paid for. Along with the apps, there’s also extensions for the browser itself and themes that you can download to make your desktop a bit prettier too.
Everything you “install” remains associated with your cloud profile and will be accessible as an app grid of sorts the moment you open the Chrome browser, and the beauty of the cloud system is that it’ll be the same software and data no matter which machine you’ve opened it on.
Naturally, the major issue about having your applications hosted online is that you need an internet connection to be able to use them. Fortunately, with HTML5, that’s not always the case and some of the bigger and more important ones should allow you to use them even when offline.
Profiles & syncing
No one expects you to have a series of Chromebooks spread about your life but the Chrome browser will still automatically sync everything in the way of apps, extensions and bookmarks that you choose to add and install wherever it is that you next open it - work, internet cafe, someone else’s machine. By the same token, your Chromebook also leaves space to allow different people to use it as well.
You can use Guest Mode if there’s someone who wants to use your machine while you’re with them. It blocks all access to your personal e-mail and data and it will also erase all the browsing history of whatever they’ve been looking at when they’re done and you sign back in. The other option is if there’s someone in your life who more regularly uses your Chromebook. For them you can assign a separate profile of their own which will load up through the Chrome browser when they use it.
Giving over all of your data to store up in Google’s cloud space is something of an all your eggs in someone else’s basket kind of risk. The first thing to note is that all of it is encrypted, so even if the Big G’s system is hacked, heaven forbid, it should be hard to decipher anything that’s in there. You’re just going to have to trust them with that.
At your end of things, Chrome OS is built from the ground-up to keep malware and viruses at bay - the first to do so say Google. The company has taken a “defence in depth” approach with multiple layers of protection; the idea being that if some malicious code gets through one level, there’ll still be plenty of other layers standing in its way.
Sandboxing is another technique Chrome employs to keep threats at bay. Each application, web page and browser tab works in isolation within its own environment. What that means is that if you do happen to land on a web page stacked full of nasty business, it’s not free to get through to the rest of your computer, and, in the event of a tab or app crashing, it won’t take the whole browser down with it.
Finally, there’s also something which Google calls Verified Boot. Verified Boot is a system which automatically scans your machine every time you start up looking for corrupted files or anything that’s been tampered with at all. If, for whatever reason, malware has managed to infect your machine, then Verified Boot should be able to detect it and then repair itself from a known back up or download one if not available. And just in case you’re worried about the data that’s stored on your machine in terms of cookies, downloads and cache files, that’s all encrypted as well in apparently tamper-proof form.
If all else fails, there is a hardware recovery mode button which should take you through an emergency restore process. With your data all “safe” in the cloud, that should mean no lost photos, e-mails and the like as well.
Google’s promise that your Chromebook will get faster with age is all about how Chrome OS updates itself every time it boots. It won’t prompt you to download or install these updates, it’ll just check and do it itself in the background. Naturally, all of your web apps will automatically update themselves in the cloud as well. The theory behind all of this is that while Chrome OS develops, it should get smoother and quicker. However, chances are that laptop will become knackered or obsolete eventually and its own hardware will become the limiting factor, but there you go.
Speaking of the hardware, to begin with, it’ll be Samsung and Acer launching the first Chromebooks available across US, UK, France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain and Italy from June with other countries to follow. The spec is very much of large screen, high powered netbooks with dual-core Atom processors and 16GB of SSD storage.
You get USB and SD card ports as well as a 3G option to go with the Wi-Fi that will come as standard. The final key ingredient is “all day battery life” which is as low as 6.5 hours on the Acer model, so worth paying attention to Google’s definition of a day.
You will be able to use peripherals with the Chromebooks but not everything. Those will include USB storage, mice, keyboards, external monitors, projectors, headsets, headphones and microphones. There is an issue, however, around printing.
Chrome OS won’t recognise a hard wired printer but will instead work with Google’s Cloud Print service which sends your request to print over the Internet instead. If you have a Cloud Print ready ePrinter, then you’re in luck. Otherwise you’ll have to rely on sending the message through to a printer that’s attached to an internet-connected Mac or PC in your location. Not ideal.
The Chromebooks will retail from around £300-400 depending on the options you choose.
The Google Chrome OS and Chromebook system is all very well and good in theory but there’s also plenty of problems with it as well. Despite the security set up, there’s quite a lot of trust required on the part of the user. What with Sony’s recent transgression, it’s a highly topical and sensitive issue and giving up all you own to one large cloud service is a lot to ask.
If you can get yourself over that, what might stand in the way is not being able to use all the normal desktop apps that you’re used to. Instead, it’s a matter of having to choose what the developers manage to fill the Chrome Web Store with. Doubtless, that will grow soon and you’re bound to be able to find an equivalent for just about everything but, even if you do, there’s still the connectivity issue to get around and the fact that you'll need other machines to run your high-powered games.
3G is far from ubiquitous in any country and terrible when you’re on the move. Sure HTML5 might be able to solve the problems for some of the bigger apps but not all the developers will have it sussed out and it will be a pain when you can’t access your data and you software when you want to.
Finally, there’s the problem of peripheral support. It’s going to take a while for your hardware to come as Chrome-ready and some of it might never be at all, especially if you consider devices like cameras that might come with their own software they want to install. You’ll have to hope it gets sorted in the web apps instead.
All that aside, though, Chrome OS and the Chromebooks are certainly an intriguing prospect. Time will tell how willing people are to switch over to it. Are you?