I have been using a Google CR-48 for a few days now. Really, it is quite a piece of kit. The CR-48 is a reference design notebook/netbook for Google's Chrome OS. They have been giving them away, somewhat randomly, to people who apply for them at http://www.google.com/chromeos/pilot-program-cr48.html. If you are a lucky, chosen person, it is completely free. And it will simply show up on your doorstep one day, no pre-announcement. Consider this a break from your Android news, to hear about a different Google operating system.
Look and Feel
It's gorgeous. It is a sleek, beautiful machine that is reminiscent of an Apple Macbook. It is very curvy and minimalist, but you know there is more than meets the eye. It is made of some sort of matte, soft-touch material. Fingerprints are not so much an issue, but specs of dust or other debris seem drawn to it. There is no latch to close it, it just opens and closes pleasantly. There is a notch to get a good grip to open it, much like a Macbook. When you open it, there is a very aesthetically pleasing setup.
The keyboard is of the chiclet-type. This sort of keyboard, common on Macbooks and Sony Vaios, is supposed to be good at preventing food stuff from getting stuck between the keys. This is the first of this type of keyboard I have used extensively.
Also on the note of the keyboard, Google redesigned it. Of course, it is still QWERTY but it has some changes. On a style side, they opted to use lower-case letters on the keys. It feels understated and handsome. In going back to a "normal" keyboard, it feels like the keys are yelling at me. There is no caps lock button. Instead, where caps lock would have been, there is a magnifying glass. This button makes focus on the OmniBar so that the next thing you type results in a Google search. Also, instead of the "F keys" like F5 or F7, the keys above the numbers are labeled with their functions. These keys are esc, back, forward, refresh, full-screen, change window, brightness down, brightness up, mute, lower volume, raise volume and power.
The trackpad also seems to have taken design cues from Apple. It is the largest trackpad I have seen aside from the newest Apple notebooks. It does not have buttons (much like the new Apple trackpads), instead the entirety of the trackpad is a button. For left-clicks, you can either tap or press the whole pad in like a button. It is a multi-touch trackpad, so scrolling is down by swiping two fingers down or up. Right-clicks are accomplished by pressing with two fingers at a time. You can open a link in a new tab by pressing the link with three fingers. I am very particular about the material of trackpads that I use. Two much friction, and your finger gets stuck. Too little, and you don't get the sensitivity you want. This trackpad hits the "Goldilocks medium" really well. You can also adjust the sensitivity of movement of the cursor within the software.
When you first power this guy on, it boots to a setup screen in a matter of a few seconds (less than five). You have to choose how to connect to the internet. Google has been so kind as to give free 100 MB per month for two years of Verizon 3G service with every CR-48. 100 MB is not that much, but if you just want to be able to edit some docs and check your email, it should do. You can also purchase different plans. There is a one-day unlimited pass for $9.99, 1 GB for $20, 3 GB for $35, or 5 GB for $50. These are non-contracted plans. You can pay for any of them whenever you want. Despite the free 3G, you still have to give a credit card while signing up. You can also choose to connect to WiFi and ignore the whole 3G thing.
Once connected, you have to log in to your Google account. You then take a picture of yourself with the webcam to be your account picture. Then Chrome starts up. It magically has all of the customization of the Google Chrome browser on your desktop, minus the extensions.
The first tab that opens up is an introduction to the notebook/Chrome OS. It is absolutely worth reading, as it teaches most of the things worth knowing. I learned a lot of keyboard shortcuts, and little tidbits that I did not know.
It works very well. You would never guess that there is only an Intel Atom under the hood in there. Browsing is very fast, and able to handle many tabs with ease (I tried 20 open at a time and there is no stutter). Even media-heavy websites such as the New York Times and CNN load pretty quickly, not as quickly as my main computer, but definitely quicker than my Samsung Galaxy S.
Performance with videos is better than many netbooks, although not stellar. YouTube and Hulu videos load up just fine, and can stream without stuttering or losing audio sync. It seems the limit for that is 480p. At 720p it was more like watching a slideshow, although the audio stayed in sync. You can not watch Netflix (yet) because Chrome OS is built on Linux, and Netflix does not yet have Linux support. The sound in these videos was very crisp through the speakers.
In all other ways, browsing is just like using Google Chrome on a different computer.
The only pokiness I noticed is when I restarted the computer. I only restarted because I was curious to see how the CR-48 would handle it. I was brought to the sign-in screen with lighting speed, but one I signed in it had to reload all the tabs I previously had open (this is a setting you can change). It was very laggy while it was working on those tabs, but it was back up to speed after it worked through that pile.
While browsing is just like using Google Chrome, most other computers have more to them than just browsing. Chrome OS is basically a web browser. If you want to open a document, you use Google Docs (or the service of your choice). If you want to edit graphics, Google SketchUp or similar are your choices. There is no other software aside from the web browser built-in to this device.
I think the reason that Google included the free service to Verizon is to make it easier to move to a web-everywhere setup. In Google's thinking, you don't need other applications if you have access to the web.
This device is basically a high-spec'ed netbook. It has a 1280 x 800 resolution, 12.1 inch, matte LCD display. It as an Intel Atom N455 1.66 GHz processor. There is an integrated Intel Pineview graphics processor. It has 2 GB DDR3 RAM (did I mention it's fast?) and 16 GB storage space on an integrated SSD. I have not done a battery test myself, but I have read that on WiFi, it lasts over 8 hours with constant use, and over 6 hours on 3G. There is one USB port, a full SD card slot, and a VGA port for connecting to a TV or projector. There is also a webcam, integrated microphone, and headphone jack.
Regarding networking, this guy is a beast. It has support for all types of WiFi connections and encryptions. The Verizon 3G connection is courtesy of a Qualcomm Gobi 2000 chip. This chip contains every 3G modem in use today as well as a slot for a SIM card. What does this mean? You are not locked to Verizon. If you already have a data plan with someone else, you can switch. It's also fairly easy to switch back. There is a Bluetooth module built-in but it is not utilized in this build of Chrome OS, although maybe in the future or if you install a different operating system.
Very. Google was so kind as to put a switch under the battery that allows you to switch between developer and normal modes. In developer mode, you can install different firmwares on the device. Ubuntu (a different version of Linux) has been put on there, with instructions to do this given by Google itself. In developer mode you can also reach a shell client to have access to the whole operating system.
Miscellaneous and Final Verdict
There is a lot of functionality that is not available out of the box. For example there is a file browser and media player that are disabled by default. You can enable these and other "experimental" things by going to typing about:flags in the browser OmniBar (where you type URLs and searches). The only way to access anything on the SSD, SD, or USB stick is by using weird work-arounds.
Unfortunately, Google has no plans to sell these. If you need one, I'd say grab it on eBay.
I had thought that Chrome OS was not ready for prime-time yet, but here it is totally usable. I think I like the machine more than the software on it; it is a very well-crafted device, that looks/feels very sexy. The software is basically the Chrome browser. I like Chrome a lot, and use it as my default browser on my bigger computer. I don't dislike the CR-48. I think it is a really cool concept, with lots of adjustment room. I think that if media-playing and file access gets worked out, I will like it even more. I imagine that over time, Google will continue to develop for it, and so will hackers. This device can only get better as it matures.
I will try to answer questions that are asked in the comments.