Wednesday, May 30, 2012

New Google Cloud-based Computers Pros/Cons

Story first appeared in USA Today.

Google is mum on how many Chromebooks have been sold since launching the cloud-based computers with laptop-makers Acer and Samsung nearly a year ago. But the machines haven't exactly gone mainstream, with fewer than 220,000 Chromebooks have shipped so far, a modest sum.

Indeed, much of the noise in the portable computing space these days surrounds the "Ultrabook" class laptops evangelized by Intel. When it comes to operating systems, the chatter focuses on Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 or Apple's Mac OS X Mountain Lion.

Yet Google claims to be "very happy" with Chromebook sales to date, pointing out that the computers routinely show up on Amazon's best-seller lists and are gaining ground in education and business.

Google is about to crank up the volume for Chrome hardware and the cloud-based operating system that relies on a Chrome Web browser for practically all that you do. Today, the search giant unveils two models for Chrome, both from Samsung, both with Intel Core processors.
There's the next version of the Chromebook itself, $449 with Wi-Fi only or $549 for a version that adds built-in 3G cellular. Then there's the $329, small rectangular Chromebox that reminds you of Apple's Mac Mini in that you'll have to supply your own mouse, monitor and keyboard.

The machines incorporate the eighth significant update to Chrome software since launch. Such regular software updates are a key feature of Chrome that promises to keep the computers fresh, secure or, as Google's likes to say, "always new" without you having to manually install anti-virus software or anything else. So even folks who purchased a Chromebook last year should benefit.

Those initial Chromebooks were only peddled online. But beginning next month Google will start selling the computers in select physical Best Buy stores in the U.S. as well.

The first Chromebooks were appealing as relatively light, attractive, portable computers that are a breeze to set up and that boot up very quickly. They have good battery life. But there was also at least one critical — some would say fatal — flaw: The computers are largely crippled when you are without access to the Internet. To be sure, we're migrating to a cloud-based era of computing, but folks are still accustomed to installing software and storing stuff internally. Both the Chromebook and Chromebox have 16 gigabytes of internal SSD storage, not very much.

Of course, having gobs of internal storage is beside the point. The latest Chrome computers, like their predecessors, are built for the cloud. You pretty much rely on Web apps, though Google has tried to make the computers more usable when you're offline. In all, Google says, there are tens of thousands of apps in the Chrome Web Store, hundreds that work offline.

As before, set-up is dead simple. You choose your language and network for connecting online, enter your Google (Gmail) credentials and you're pretty much good to go. Your bookmarks and open tabs for Web pages on any other computers you have with the Chrome browser should be synced up. And this time around, though, the Chromebook experience is generally more polished.

With an active Internet connection, you can listen to all the music you have stored in the cloud through a Google Play app; watch movies on Netflix, something not possible on earlier Chromebooks; and stream YouTube videos at 1080p high-definition resolution.

Through a built-in photo viewer, you can perform simple edits (cropping, brightness). And you can do a video chat with up to nine friends using the Google+ Hangout app.

The interface has been redesigned to let you "pin" favorite apps to the launcher at the bottom of the screen — switching among them is easy. Managing all the tabs that opened simultaneously at the top of the screen, however, was somewhat messy at times.

Boot times are even zippier than before. Users arrived at the login screen for Chromebook about five seconds after pressing the power button. The new touchpad is more responsive than the first model.

Google says the latest Chromebook is about 2½ times faster than before, and Chromebox about 3½ times faster.

The Chromebox, has 6 USB 2.0 ports and two display ports and is Bluetooth compatible.

Chromebook has a decent 12.1-inch display and weighs 3.3 pounds. Google says you'll get about six hours of continuous use off the battery, which seems reasonable. Chromebook has 4 gigabytes of RAM and sports a pair of USB 2.0 ports. Also on board are slots or connectors for memory cards, bigger displays and Gigabit Ethernet.

But you can't run a cable to a printer and expect it to work. Instead, you need to take advantage of Google's "cloud print" service, if you have a compatible printer. The workaround if you don't have such a printer requires you to have Chrome installed on a Windows PC, Mac or Linux machine that is connected to the printer.

Google Drive is coming with the next software update, about six weeks away, though it's now available as a beta. You will be able to copy files from a File Manager onto Google Drive or access files from Google Drive and make them available offline on the Chromebook. For now I was able to display Word, PowerPoint, Excel and PDF files. The ability to edit Microsoft Office files offline is promised over the next several weeks as well.

Google is making available a Chrome Remote Desktop app, still in beta, that lets you access and control a remote PC or Mac desktop screen, and even display that desktop full-screen on the Chrome computer.

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