31st Jul 2014 | 18:15
Chrome OS jumps off your lap and onto your desktop
Introduction and design
The growing popularity of inexpensive Chromebooks has at least one computer maker asking, "Can the lightning strike again on the desktop?" LG is among the first to test those waters with its LG Chromebase, an all-in-one PC that uses Chrome OS as its operating system.
With a starting price of $349.99 (about £207, AU$376), the LG Chromebase can make for a very attractive option as a personal or family computer system. For starters, the all-in-one PC sports a crisp, 21.5-inch 1080p IPS display.
Standard features include built-in Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, and an Ethernet port. There are also three USB 2.0 ports in the back (two of which will be occupied by the keyboard and mouse), a USB 3.0 port on the side, and an HDMI-in for external devices. The machine is powered by a 1.4 GHz Intel Celeron 2955U processor with 2 GB of DDR3L memory.
It doesn't sound like much, but it's more than enough to power Chrome OS. All of this is topped off with a 16GB SSD, which might never be filled, since the system relies heavily on cloud storage for files.
Given the desktop's extremely low price, coupled with a decently sized screen, it's very tempting to pick it up and immediately dive into everyday tasks, like email and web browsing. The only catch is that (if this is your main computer) you'd have to give over your digital life over to Google. Every app available is obtained through the Chrome Web Store, and any media that can't be streamed through the Chrome browser must be handled through Google Play.
The Chrome experience
Despite its relatively slim hardware specs, the Chromebase is fast. It boots up in just a few seconds, then you can log into your Google account and get right into using it. However, the reason for its speed is very apparent: Chrome OS is about as minimalist as it gets.
The OS employs a very Windows-like interface, replete with desktop wallpaper and task bar, but it's an illusion. Nothing can be saved to the desktop – it's just there for the wallpaper. You can assign different Chrome apps to the toolbar, but you can't drag website shortcuts to it unless they exist as Chrome apps.
Instead, everything is run entirely from the browser, which has a lot of benefits. Namely, since the browser doesn't need a lot of horsepower, the hardware is very inexpensive.
There are plenty of apps available for both work and play. Plus, users can take advantage of Google and Chrome's many cloud-centric features, like browser tab sharing across devices, automatic updating and cloud storage for music, photos and other files. (Google offers 100GB of Google Drive storage for free for 2 years with the purchase of a Chromebase.)
To put a Chrome-heavy digital lifestyle into perspective, word processing and other productivity tasks are most easily handled by Google Docs. That is, unless you prefer – and are willing to pay for – different apps or a Microsoft Office subscription.
Google Hangouts is the video chat app of choice, rather than, say, Skype on Windows 8.1 machines. iTunes is out of the picture entirely, but Amazon Prime customers can still access streaming video and music through its web players. You'll have to upload your music to your Google Play account if you want to use the Google Music Player. Games are also limited to in-browser titles and whatever you pick up from the Chrome Web Store.
While there's flexibility in Chrome OS, which is bound to grow with computing in general trending toward web and cloud-based applications, this operating system simply cannot yet match the versatility of a Windows or Mac system. Additionally, everything is a tab in the Chrome browser. This isn't a huge issue, but I missed being able to organize, launch and manage applications from the taskbar. Especially music player controls.
Chrome OS, and the Chromebase by extension, is clearly designed for users with fairly basic needs. If you're into more instense work that requires a good deal of processing power or specific software, then you're probably better off getting an Apple 21-inch Mac or Windows all-in-one PC.
If you'd rather save a couple hundred dollars and can learn to live with using Chrome and web applications to fulfill your needs, then a Chromebase will work for you just fine. To be fair, there are some excellent Chrome apps out there for basic photo and video editing.
Features, performance and verdict
Similar to the Chromebook, the Chromebase loses almost all usability if there isn't a persistent online connection. That might not be as much of a problem with this desktop, since it houses integrated Wi-Fi and an Ethernet port.
However, if the Internet service goes out, the system becomes little more than a pretty screen. It is possible to download documents to the local drive, and certain apps work offline, but keep in mind that Chrome OS relies very heavily on the cloud. Fortunately, the Chromebase handles USB drives with no problem, and can read NTFS format to boot.
Getting comfortable with the Chromebase
Frankly, the Chrome OS keyboard takes getting used to. There are no function keys. The top row of keys is either replaced by Chrome-specific operations, represented by vague icons, or operate general settings like brightness and volume.
Worse off, the keys aren't all in places that make sense. For example, the refresh key is where F3 would be, not F5 (the refresh key on Windows and Mac keyboards). The most annoying bit of the keyboard is the lack of a caps lock key, which drives a typist like me – who uses a lot of acronyms – absolutely nuts.
Instead, the key is replaced by a Search key, while relegating the caps lock function to Alt + Search. That said, there is no doubt a learning curve here, especially when coming from a Windows or Mac background. It was a long while before I started feeling productive with the Chromebase.
Watching a TV show using Google Play proved to be a less than satisfactory experience, since a one hour program suffered from a lot of stuttering during playback. Thankfully, these issues weren't present while watching YouTube videos or Netflix videos, which is strange, considering how the player looks identical to YouTube.
The rear-facing speakers are pretty weak and poorly placed. I was initially disappointed, because hardly any sound came out of them even after cranking the volume up to max. It wasn't until later that I discovered that there are two sets of volume controls. One is found on the keyboard, which adjusts the sound through Chrome OS. The other on unlabeled arrow buttons beneath the screen, on the thick, silver plastic bezel, which changes the volume at the hardware level.
Even if you overlook how unintuitive that is, the sound comes out tinny and becomes distorted when set too loud regardless. Your best bet is to either stick with headphones or pair the system up to a bluetooth speaker, like the Jambox Mini. (At least that's what I used.)
Digging into the desktop
The screen itself is decent enough, but I've seen better even on budget all-in-one PCs running Windows, like the Acer Aspire Z3. While this LG monitor isn't exactly eye-popping, it is bright, produces a good range of color and doesn't suffer from glare.
The screen also offers two handy reader modes, which reduce the blue light so that the screen looks more like paper, and therefore reduces eye strain. The first mode gives the picture an almost salmon-colored hue. The second is more white but isn't as bright as the normal viewing mode.
After poring through a few chapters of a Kindle book using the Amazon Cloud Reader, I can't say with 100% certainty that either reader mode reduced my eye fatigue. However, returning to normal brightness definitely stung my eyes for a bit. While neither of these modes will stand in for an Amazon Kindle Paperwhite, it's a good function to have.
Another big plus for the Chromebase is the built-in webcam for Hangouts. The picture comes in nice and clear, and even works well in low-light conditions. One potential downside is the fact that there is no microphone jack, so those that like to use headsets for Internet calls will have to use a USB option. However, doing so will take up one of the few remaining USB ports.
Making the switch over to Chrome OS from a Windows or Mac background is a significant culture shock. But, aside from a few quibbles, the LG Chromebase does exactly what it sets out to do.
It's a decent, large screen all-in-one PC that performs well and costs less than a base model iPad Air. The main problem is the sense of minimalism and lack of versatility when stacked up against Windows or Mac systems.
But if you're already a heavy user of Google Docs, Drive, Gmail, and Calendar for your everyday computing, then you're already familiar with the majority of Chrome OS's defining tools. It's just a matter of making the leap and relying on the Chrome browser exclusively to fill your needs. If you can live with that, then the LG Chromebase is an excellent value.