Google has dropped the source code of Chrome OS into the wild, so we thought we'd take a look and see if it lives up to the lofty hype that's been placed upon it. Depending on who you believe, Chrome OS could either sink without trace or obliterate Microsoft, Apple and Linux wholesale.
The truth, as always, is neither. Well, not just yet anyway. Chrome is still at a very early stage. It runs, but there's not a whole lot you can do when it's running - other than log in, browse the web, check your battery status, and turn network adaptors on and off.
When you first boot up the OS you'll be faced with a login screen. Put your Google address and password in and it'll confirm them and let you enter the operating system. You'll then be faced with a browser window showing your GMail, and Google Calendar. These work exactly how they do in any other OS's browser window.
Up in the top right, there is a couple of icons that let you access the browser menus, see your network connectivity status (turning on and off wireless or Ethernet, for example) and monitor your battery. These seem to work mostly as advertised, but a few of the menu items - like "options" - are duplicated in the browser.
There's a Start Menu-esque icon in the top left that takes you to a page inviting you to sign into Google Short Links. This didn't recognise our username and password, so we couldn't get any further on this page. It doesn't appear to be treated as a regular browser window, though - we couldn't close or unpin it like we could with the mail and calendar tabs.
Hitting the new tab button, or using the Ctrl-T shortcut, brings you to Chrome's default new tab page complete with "quick-dial" shortcuts to your most-viewed web pages. There's links to themes from a wide range of artists that can skin the OS, though the Google ones are almost universally more attractive than the artist-created ones.
There's also a link to the extensions gallery, though this isn't working at the time of writing - just giving a "Coming soon..." message. By the time the Chrome OS makes it into a full release, there'll likely be a host of extensions to choose from that'll offer a bunch of additional functionality that isn't built in to the platform by default.
We did find a few bugs. Going into the bookmarks manager got us stuck until we created a new bookmark and double-clicked it. That took us back to the browser window. Also, unpinning the mail and calendar tabs with a right-click and closing them took us to a blank desktop that we couldn't access anything from. Only a reboot of our virtual machine fixed that.
For the moment, Chrome OS is pretty much just a browser in a Linux shell. That isn't going to set the world on fire, free or not. It's fast - it boots in just 7 seconds - but it's not exactly functional. Overall performance was difficult to judge, due to running it in a virtual machine, but it didn't seem too painful.
Chrome OS has potential because Google may well be making a play into netbooks and smartbooks in the same way that it has with Android and smartphones. If that's the case, then the fruits of the project could be some way away - Android is only just starting to make waves, more than a year after its release.
Chrome OS is one to watch, but we wouldn't recommend you switch to it as your primary operating system just yet.