New Chrome OS
29th May 2012 | 19:00
A bold new vision but a familiar feel
It's a brave company that takes on the might of the ubiquitous Microsoft Windows or the cool of Apple's Mac OS which look to have practically sewn up the market for personal computing on laptops and desktops.
But nobody has ever accused Google of lacking guts, and the search giant's Chrome OS is now breaking away from its early teething troubles with a bold new interface that it hopes can challenge the big boys.
The OS still has a range of issues – most stemming from remaining a fairly closed "app" environment rather than a truly open platform and the spectre of offline performance, but discussing it as a viable alternative to Windows for casual users no longer seems so ridiculous.
The concept behind Chrome OS is to have an operating system that is all about being online; built around the popular Chrome browser and utilising the wealth of HTML apps, cloud storage and online docs.
It's certainly an interesting outlook – perhaps one that only Google could have pursued – and it brings every problem that you can envision from such an approach.
It also manages to make many of these seem less relevant in the modern internet and app dominated world and also brings a whole sea of advantages.
Apps vs programs
Let's start with the negatives; if you are a power user who wants a computer for heavy document creation, video editing, photo manipulation, music making and things like this then this is not an option as a main machine.
The app environment has a distinct advantage in terms of keeping things neat and safe, but it comes at the cost of true openness and until programmers find ways to pare down their products so they run in a browser (which is by no means out of the bounds of possibility) Chrome OS is simply not going to cut it for many as their main computer.
But the times they are a-changing – and for millions of people the browser is their main focus, and for millions more the option of having a cheap secondary option that is all about the internet will appeal, and it is these groups that Google appears to be targeting.
Google's Chrome Web Store can definitely be filed under the tag "burgeoning." Although it's certainly not got everything you might want (no official Spotify app, no Photoshop, no Microsoft products like Live) it's certainly got plenty to keep you occupied.
There's no disguising the fact that, until Chrome OS hits tipping point, developers may well not be focusing their efforts on converting their legacy programs for the operating systems.
The second key issue with a cloud computer is that it becomes significantly less useful when it is offline. The computing world was rooted in offline for a long time and we are simply not used to feeling quite so bereft of functionality when we are not connected.
That, of course, is changing as well; modern games often require connections, our documents are often stored on servers rather than locally as offices become more collaborative and our data is often shared rather than hoarded on hard drives.
But a computer being built for online cannot become largely pointless in the still significant portions of our days when we have no meaningful data connection.
Google's Chrome OS has been hammered on this point since its arrival, and although you can laud the company's brave new world, the original Chrome OS suffered hugely in comparison to other computing operating systems.
It was obvious to Google as well, however, and the company has worked hard to rectify that problem. Offline Gmail was a significant arrival for Chrome OS in its first year, but the lack of offline Google Docs has been damning for the whole project.
Google insists that offline Docs will finally arrive in the coming weeks, and it's not hyperbolic to insist that any significant delay on this could prove to be a nail in the coffin of this OS.
Also significant is the fact that Google has started to group offline apps in its Chrome Web Store, allowed copying to the local drive (although it doesn't make this straightforward or obvious) from flash drives, and made sure that you can open files when you are offline.
The files accessible include Office docs, PDF, ZIPs, RARs and movie and sound files.
Everything then syncs back up when you are online, and that will include the recently launched Google Drive in the next rollout of Chrome OS. It should be an elegant system – and it's a shame we'll have to wait to find out just how elegant across the board it is for a few more weeks.
Multitasking and UI
Multitasking was a key problem in the original Chrome OS, something that Google has acknowledged. In fact, the search giant has taken it so seriously that it has implemented the most obvious and, frankly, surprising change to its operating system.
Because the new version of Chrome OS has windows, a task-bar and, wait for it, a desktop. Obviously these arrivals align it much closer to Mac OS and Windows, a change that improves the whole thing no end, but may raise questions about the ultimate direction of Chrome OS.
Starting with the desktop, the latest version of Chrome OS brings a nice pictorial place to host your windows. You can't put shortcuts or programs on it – more on that later – it is just a space to move and resize your various tabs and tasks and display things like Hangouts.
Along the bottom of the screen in the new Chrome OS is perhaps the most significant arrival – a task bar. Not only can you pin your most used apps to this but it displays what you have running already and allows you to bring up an overlay of your apps on the desktop.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that, especially when the app overlay is over the desktop, this looks more than a little reminiscent of Windows PCs or Macs.
It's a little alarming how much this relatively cosmetic change alters the entire feel of Chrome OS. Perhaps it is the familiarity of having a desktop or the fact that we are used to a task bar, but having tabs just didn't cut it in the way that this does.
It's a huge step in the right direction, even if it changes the nature of Chrome OS.
Another welcome change, intrinsically linked to the task bar and desktop, is the new window system that allows you to place tasks and tabs side by side. Taking a leaf from Windows 7's book, splitting the screen is easy with Google's offering using a nifty box icon that can be flicked in a direction to move it and resize it.
Although multitasking was possible in the older Chrome OS versions, this again feels entirely different and catapults this from simple browser to an actual computer. In fact, the Chromebox desktop PC benefits hugely from this if you are using a larger monitor.
So, the new arrivals completely change the UI for Chrome OS, and we can't say that we are mourning the simpler times. The new version feels better rounded and more functional across the board and it was a necessary shift of focus for Google (who insists that it was always in the plan) if they wanted Chrome OS to be taken seriously.
Bootup, viruses and setup
For all the problems of being a cloud computer, there are some huge advantages. First of all Google insists that viruses will not be a problem. With the updates managed server side and the storage more or less in the cloud the company is confident that it can prevent malware ever being a significant problem. It also does away with a need for a lengthy scan which is welcome news indeed.
More significantly, Chrome OS is built to be up and running quickly both on initial setup and every time you press the power button or open your Chromebook.
In fact it's an incredibly elegant system to a point. Setting up a box-fresh Chromebox to the stage where we could browse took us a matter of a couple of minutes. After plugging in the mouse, keyboard, power cable and monitor the box fired up to a log-in page and after joining the network and sticking our Google log-in on (and skipping a tutorial page) we were checking out TechRadar.
When resuming a session it's a matter of seconds to get back online and surfing again. Instant browsing is something that tablet users are used to, but it remains a nice trick for those familiar with Windows PCs.
Joining a network did raise a minor problem; our office guest account has a changing password which means that you can get stuck in a cycle of having the Wi-Fi not work (because the password is expired) and not being able to get online or change the network password.
It's, in truth, a minor gripe and not one that will afflict many people, but it's worth mentioning because forgetting a Wi-Fi network remains fiddly even when logged on, which is a shame for a device that is all about connectivity.
Chrome OS is a huge step in the right direction for Google. The changes to the user interface are sweeping and critical to its chances of being a success and have been implemented well.
The file system remains fiddly and different enough from its competitors to make it a little confusing at first, and offline functionality and the closed App environment remain problematic.
But, in one fell swoop, Chrome OS has become a good deal more acceptable to the mass market and a giant leap towards becoming an acceptable second machine.
The offline Google Docs access and the Google Drive integration are critical updates for Chrome OS, but if we take Google at its word then it is a matter of weeks before this is rolled out.
Chrome OS has been hit with some fierce criticism in its short lifetime – some merited and some mean – but this incarnation answers several of its most difficult questions acceptably, if not perfectly.
You can't help but feel this is the state that Chrome OS should have launched in rather than where it is a year on, but if it improves as much in the next 12 months we may well have a viable new computing system coming to our lives.
Unless it's swallowed by Android before then, of course.