Chrome OS Hands On: What Google's Computer of the Future Is Like

Chrome OS is finally here, in fully realized form, and here's the skinny: It's a fully cloud-based operating system that works inside the Chrome browser, complete with instant-on power and free mobile data support from Verizon.

Chrome OS Hands On: What Google's Computer of the Future Is LikeS

What's Chrome OS, again?

Chrome OS is Google's operating system that works entirely within the browser, meaning you can run it inside any Chrome browser, on any supported OS (like Windows or Mac), or on a dedicated machine. Chrome provides you with access to "folders" from inside the browser, caching apps and documents you need for offline use. Google believes we can do everything with web-based apps that we can do with native apps.

Chrome OS Hands On: What Google's Computer of the Future Is LikeS

How do I use it?

Using Chrome on a dedicated machine begins with an orientation screen that walks your through the obligatory terms of agreement. Then you login with your Google account, if you have one. This will load a handful of default settings, if it's your first time using the software, or it'll preload your old environment if you've used Chrome OS on another machine. Google demoed the setup process, and from beginning to end, the whole affair only took a minute or two. Chrome also supports multiple user accounts, along with a guest mode, which launches an incognito window for users.

There are two areas of Chrome OS which are still in progress. First area is USB support. Google says it's something they're working on, especially when it comes to cameras, but isn't quite ready. Google Print, while still in beta, will be supported within Chrome OS. And if you remember, it lets you print to any web-connected printer, without the need to install drivers on specific machines.

Chrome OS Hands On: What Google's Computer of the Future Is LikeS

How do apps work?

Web apps are able to launch in a full screen mode, offering an immersive experience, and eliminating the feel of typical, browser-based apps. And for you enterprise geeks, there was a demo of a Cloud-based version of Excel running inside Chrome OS, at nearly full speed.

Chrome is becoming more GPU friendly, which means it'll do graphically intensive apps, like games. Thanks to WebGL support, Chrome is able to run 3D scenes in realtime without a plugin. In a demo, Chrome rendered 1000 3D fish in the browser, and full 3D models of the human body, which was fully interactive in 360 degrees. And it was silky smooth.

There are different ways to interact with apps. Some run through the Flipping through the NPR app, you can add tracks to play in the browser, on the fly. You can load the Sports Illustrated or NPR apps directly from the store to interact with news, photos and music. Other apps you can "install," which go into an App folder, which opens in a Chrome tab. Clicking the app launches it in full screen, which connects to the server it's stored on.

Chrome OS Hands On: What Google's Computer of the Future Is LikeS

In addition, Google has put a lot of thought behind their Chrome Web Store—a store for web apps—which will be available later today. Google says its Chrome Web Store is an app store "made for discovery." It looks similar in appearance to the iTunes Store. But everything runs through the browser. It will essentially power the OS, providing a window to a multitude of apps stored in the cloud. So far, Amazon, NPR, EA and the NY Times are all on board with web apps optimized for the Chrome platform.

Many of the early apps right now, especially from the news outlets, look like a platform for experimentation. Many new ideas for the the types of content, and how it's presented are prevalent in these early apps, and is something developers are pushing hard. If done wrong, it could be kind of annoying having every site turned into an overblown, ill-conceived "app," but if done right, this could very well be the natural evolution of web pages. Here are a few thoughts on some of the free apps available now...

-The NY Times app looks alot like the NY Times Reader app, and has an array of customizable skins that changes the feel of it. You can pick a skin make the app look like the website, you can pick one that emphasizes big, colorful pictures or you can browse according to tags. All in all, I like it better than visiting the website.

-EA's Poppit, currently the lone game optimized for Chrome OS, looks and runs pretty smooth. But it's also 2D and even then not terribly graphic intensive. Nothing terribly shocking, but EA says they have big plans in the future for WebGL-based gaming.

-Gilt's shopping app for clothes is a pretty interesting example the gray space these Chrome apps exist in that lies between application and website. It's laid out so that you can add or subtract column-like panels to the window, which you can scroll through horizontally. A new panel pops up each time you launch a search for a brand or product-type. When you leave the app, it remembers what you had open, so you return you dont have to search all over again. It can also send out alerts when new products end up in your search results.

-Sports Illustrated's app is another interesting one, emphasizing it's photography, with big and easy-to-navigate elements. Video seems like it would also work well within this framework, but that's likely a work in process. As is, it's pretty limited in scope. But it looks good!

-The NPR app is all about getting back to the outlet's radio/audio content, which includes news broadcasts, album premieres, and original content, such as the storytelling program Snap Judgment. There's even a nice navigation/player bar that runs along the bottom, with big, prominent buttons. But it also incorporates the print content nicely as well.

-Chrome itself has received a few new tweaks, which includes improvements to speed, UI and security. For starters, Chrome will automatically loading your most visited pages when you type the first letter or two of its URL. Search results will also automatically when you search in the Omnibox. Chrome's PDF reader also has been improved, and is able to load a 2000 page document in seconds.

-MOG's on-demand, music streaming app has a stripped-down and simplified UI compared to its normal website, and this new look is better suited for getting to the music quickly, in my opinion. (Also, DISCLOSURE ALERT, I used to work there)

How's Chrome OS in person?

It's still hard to form a solid opinion for a couple of reasons: First, demos weren't set up to run through the full OS, so I could only get a sense of each app on an individual basis. Secondly, all of the working demos at the Google event were running on OS X versions of Chrome—so the full, lightweight experience of the OS can't be judged.

Here's what I can say: Most of the user experience in Chrome OS apps still seems to be unpolished. Animations and transitions in most of the current apps are a bit laggy/stuttery, even if for the most part, the apps are responsive and well designed. Part of this can be attributed to running on top of a full-blown OS, but in talking to EA's Richard Hilleman, he also said it's just a matter of the HTML5 and WebGL conventions getting completed, which will make graphical optimization much quicker. Once that happens, he believes visually powerful things can be accomplished 100 percent inside the browser.

Large, tile-based navigation seems to be the overarching trend found in most of these apps. Whether it was Sports Illustrated, Gilt, Salon or the New York Times, everything in these apps were organized into easily-clickable (possibly touchable?) squares and rectangles, with plenty of pictures. And when talking to a couple of developers, they insinuated they had touchscreens in mind when designing these apps.

Chrome OS Hands On: What Google's Computer of the Future Is LikeS

When I can get one? And how much?

The short answer: You probably can't. At least not right now, while it's in beta. During the pilot program, businesses and developers can test out the OS on their own reference notebook, the CR-48 by signing up. Oddly enough, the notebook doesn't include function or caps lock keys, but the Intel Atom-powered machine does come with a world mode 3G data chip, flash storage, full-size keyboard, and a fully open OS.

Google says that Samsung and Acer are on board to start selling Chrome-based notebooks by 2011, with more OEMs following after that. Chrome-based notebooks will also support 3G mobile data though, and Verizon is on board as a partner, providing 100 megabytes of free data every month for the next two years. They'll also offer a variety of contract-free plans, starting at $10/month, once the notebooks hit stores. As for pricing of future Chrome OS notebooks, Google says it's too soon to start speculating what partners will charge for their products.