I got a Chromebook (and I might return it!). Here's my review:

Last week, I received the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook with 3G. I've since opened it, played with it, and packed it back up in its box while I figure out what to do with it. It worked ok, but I came away as uninspired as ever when it comes to things that rely solely on the cloud. I did like some things, but ultimately I can't find a single advantage that this device gives me that I don't have with another device already. The usual suspects have done their teardowns and unboxings and such, so I'll skip most of that. What follows are my thoughts on my first experiences with the Chromebook.

The Experience

I know it's "more" than this, but it's essentially Chrome running on netbook hardware (Chrome OS), and "netbook hardware" means that it's borderline underpowered right out of the box. When watching videos on YouTube or Hulu, they're sluggish to start, especially when switching to full screen or scrolling. Ultimately, though, the videos run just fine. Both are using Flash, which is built-in. Google announced back in January that Chrome would not support h.264 video (which is weird, because h.264 works today), so Flash was the only way to go with YouTube, even though they have h.264 video available for iOS devices.

Other websites behaved just as you would expect...after all, you're using a laptop that boots to a browser. I mean, if it didn't do that, then what's the point? The Google Web Store is available to get you started finding cloud apps, which are just links to Chrome-enhanced versions of websites. I'm not disputing their status as "apps," but I do want to point out that you can visit http://chrome.angrybirds.com/ from any browser that supports HTML 5 and play Angry Birds online for free. Chrome gives you the ability to play it offline, but offline is another discussion entirely. 

Everything is done in tabs, it seems, although there are some extensions that apparently don't need them. Still, tabs doesn't feel like a natural way to manage a desktop, cloud-oriented or not.

Inserting an SD card into the slot brings up a file browser in a tab which is a bit rough around the edges, but usable. I used a digital camera card, and when you browse to the pictures you can view them or upload them to Picasa. I don't see any other integration options, but that's fine for me since I use Picasa. You still need to be more savvy than the average user, though, because the pictures are buried in the camera's folder structure. A user used to more friendly options like iPhoto or even regular Picasa would probably get confused.

I then inserted a USB stick, and it launched a new tab with the contents of the USB stick in it. The problem is that it also changed my SD card tab to the USB stick file listing, too. Like I said...rough around the edges. I tried opening a few files on the USB drive. Here's the results:

FLV Unsupported File Type
TXT Opened in tab
MP3 Played in a local player
ZIP Unsupported File Type
JPG Opened in tab
PPT Unsupported File Type
AVI Unsupported File Type
MOV Works in local player (h.264 even, with AAC Audio)
PDF Opened in tab
DOC Unsupported File Type
XLS Unsupported File Type

To be fair, I didn't expect FLV files to work, but ZIP files are common, let alone all the MS Office-based file types. The least I expected for those was to automatically upload them into Google Docs and open them there. Also, the fact that the media files played in a local player says something to me. If even Google isn't making you do everything in the cloud, then why bother, especially with certain things that make more sense to keep local, like...

Printing

You can't print without associating your computer with Google Cloud Print or buying a special cloud-enabled printer from HP. To me, this is just one more headache. Not that I print very often, but unless you know this ahead of time and have everything set up, you're pretty screwed when you want quickly print off tickets to the game or a boarding pass or something.

Instead of printing locally to a local printer, I need to ensure that it's somehow associated with Google Cloud Print, that my Google account has access to it, and then I have to rely on many more moving parts (the network/internet connections of the Chromebook, printer, and the associated computer). Yes, it works, and it's kind of cool, but large jobs, PDF's from hell, and so on loom large on my list of "What if's."

Windows Apps

I tried to find the Citrix Receiver app, but didn't have any luck coming up with anything that worked. There are a couple test apps out there, but they appear to work only with certain development environments.

I did have some luck with Ericom's AccessNow though. If you've got an HTML 5 browser, you can visit http://demo.ericomaccessnow.com right now to log in to their test environment. AccessNow actually isn't using RDP, but a new protocol that Ericom created called HTML Display Protocol (or HDP). The demo environment was a bit sluggish, and I'm not sure if it's related to the new protocol or if maybe the demo running from overseas, but I plan on taking a deeper look at AccessNow in the near future.

Here's a quick video of the AccessNow HTML 5 client in action:

Wrap-up

Ok, so it does most of the things I expected of it, spare the integration with file formats. I guess my expectation was that there would be a readily available solution for most situations, and the device/OS would suggest them to you rather than having to go find them out of the box. If I'm a regular user, I want it all to just work, and right now it's not like that even if you are online. I haven't even mentioned offline, mainly for two reasons:

  1. It's sort of a known thing - if you rely on the internet, nothing works if you're offline
  2. Angry Birds works offline if you use Chrome (any Chrome, not just Chrome OS on Chromebooks), so we know things CAN work offline. Google was supposed to have Docs working offline early this year, but has apparently pushed it back until later in 2011. It's coming, so I'll give them a break on that.

From an enterprise perspective, I can see the allure of a dumb-ish device that can connect to web apps and Windows apps alike (via Citrix Receiver or Ericom AccessNow), but I really feel like those people should be looking at thin clients or zero clients instead of $500 laptops (or netbooks) with nothing but a browser installed. There are use cases, I'm sure, but like the iPad and the Nirvana Phone, I don't see this as being one of those things that going to take the enterprise by storm.

Maybe things will change as Chrome OS, HTML 5, and the Cloud gel a bit, right now in June 2011, I don't see any real value to a Chromebook when there are over 200 laptops on TigerDirect.com for less money that can do everything a Chromebook can (spare the long battery life, which is nice) and more, including connecting to VPNs and running apps that require IE. 

Someone is bound to say "That's not the point of a Chromebook!," and to that I'd respond with "Then why was Google on stage at Synergy showing off one of these things?"

Another group is going to argue the TCO side, saying that Chromebooks offer lower TCO, to which I'd respond that Chromebooks are not thin clients. There is currently a major gap between the users and their applications, unless almost all the applications come from the cloud. So while you may spend less money on the endpoint, you're still spending money to support those users who need to have their apps in the cloud by moving your apps to the cloud. It's like buying an electric car. Yes, that car is spewing less carbon into the environment, but that coal-fired power plant down the street has to work that much harder to charge your car every night. There's no free lunch.

The bottom line for me is that this thing is boring and expensive for what it does. If I don't send it back, I'll send it around to some other coworkers that want to check it out, but it will not be taking a place among the many devices at my house that get used on a daily basis.

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