these chromebooks

Let’s get back to nerdiness. And by nerdiness I mean freshly unwrapped hardware reviews for some new technology. Chromebooks, my friend. I have been using a classy (not Apple classy, but classy) Samsung 5 Chromebook since earlier this week and I’m going to tell you about it.

Before we begin to wax philosophical about the purpose of a Chromebook, let’s take a moment to understand the hardware. A very bright 12.1” screen with a very, very blue tinted LED backlight. The screen color is downright cold and it’s not because of all the blues and greys that Google likes to use in the Chrome interface. They keyboard is springy and clacky (in a good way), and it takes little to no effort to get used to once you accept the massive size of the CTRL and ALT keys. The whole thing is light as a feather and since the hard drive is purely solid state, you’ll have no issue throwing it around. It doesn’t feel as sturdy as a unibody machine but it’s about as solid as plastic construction gets and the components aren’t flopping around inside either.

The trackpad. Maybe I’m just ruined from using the glass trackpads on the Macbook Pros, so take this with a grain of salt: it’s like running your finger over broken glass whenever you want to move the cursor. That wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the windows-style keyboard commands. Pointer tactility aside, it functions not unlike a standard trackpad. Tap to click is not on by default. Apparently the trackpad software was awful on the Cr-48 machines and has improved by leaps and bounds.

And now things I haven’t used but am obligated to mention: two USB ports, headphone jack, totally weird display connector, sim card slot, SD card slot. Most of these ports are covered by those plastic semi-attached tabs that we all had on our cellphones in the late 90s. The power connector feels like something you’d use to plug in your fax machine. Luckily you don’t use it much.

Finally. ChromeOS. Software. The thing Google is good at.

The thing really does start up in 8 seconds. And most of the time it’s just asleep and waking takes one or two seconds. Setup is quick and pulls down most of the Chrome settings you care about (if you use Chrome and have sync on already). They, uh, teach you how to click with the trackpad during setup.

It’s fast. The UI is responsive and pages load as fast as you’re used to in Chrome. It is genuinely strange to be presented with a browser window that you can’t hide, but other than that it feels pretty natural. Most of the stuff you do is on the web anyway, right? YouTube videos play great at 720p in fullscreen mode. They might play better than they do on the Mac. Again, it’s the web. The standard Google apps work flawlessly.

Extensions and apps are compatible with existing stuff on the Chrome web store, so there’s no problem getting Flashblock installed or using that Pinboard extension you’re used to. Those are designed to fit in with your standard browsing experience, no problem there. But there’s still a big gap in applications that provide desktop-like functionality on a cloud-centric laptop. We all know that there are lots of tasks the Chromebook isn’t designed for but developing for the web should be something you can do on the web. Unfortunately, most typing apps are designed for text or can sync to cloud services where viewing HTML content is hard. The web has come a long way in the last few years (more on this another time) and it’s not unlikely that the next Textmate could be an open source, browser-based editor with lots of cloud functionality.

Google’s timing with Chromebooks couldn’t be more spot-on: HTML is more powerful than ever and the abilities lacking on a Chromebook today only make me excited for what web applications developers will create to solve these problems.

Oh, and developers: flip that developer mode switch before you even turn the thing on the first time. Nothing different except… yep, easy access to a command line.

Fri, Jun 10, 2011