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First Impressions of Google’s New Notebook

The Web-reliant Cr-48 starts up in an instant, and comes with “free” 3G. But Google’s online app store needs work.
December 9, 2010

I’m writing this on a Cr-48, a notebook computer running Google’s ChromeOS, a browser-turned-operating system that relies on the Web for almost all of its software. Google held a launch event for the device on Tuesday, and sent one of these devices to Technology Review as part of its Chrome notebook Pilot Program, through which it is testing the device in the field.

The Cr-48 sent to our offices.
Credit: Technology Review

“These days a computer without the Internet isn’t all that useful,” Google writes in the documentation for the device. This device takes that a step farther–it’s all Internet.

So far, the Cr-48 lives up to its promise. Starting it up and resuming after sleep are just as fast as Google has promised they would be. Thanks to its solid state hard drive the notebook doesn’t even make a sound–it just lights up its browser and goes.

Google’s made some brilliant changes to the keyboard, including replacing the onerous caps lock button with a quick search key–taking a clue from some mobile devices.

The netbook switches from one browser tab to another quickly, and there’s a built in “next window” button on the keyboard. Some apps, such as Google Talk, can stay available no matter what tab you’re viewing.

The device also connects to wireless easily, and it comes with 100 megabytes per month of 3G connectivity from Verizon free for 24 months, with an option to purchase unlimited data for the day for $9.99, or to switch to other plans for a monthly fee. Similar systems will likely be in place when the device goes on sale next year. Anyone who’s going to be using 3G heavily will certainly need a bigger data plan. It takes about 260 megabytes an hour to stream Web video, for example.

But there are a few odd moments. For example, Google encourages users to visit the Chrome app store to pick up everything from games to productivity software. But the apps that show up aren’t the ones you need to fill out a computer. It’s surprisingly difficult to find word processing software, for example. Google is going to need to offer a package of apps to those who are accustomed to using Windows machines.

Printing promises to be a trick. Google has a system called CloudPrint that allows you to connect to an enabled printer over the Internet, or to an older printer that’s connected to a PC. Still, those are the sort of gymnastics that could trip up a user who’s not an early adopter.

The device has some unique qualities because of its focus on the Web. I read through the terms of service when signing up, and found that, amid the usual notifications, Google reserves the right to remotely disable or remove any app or extension that it decides violates its developer terms or legal agreements. This means the Web giant can effectively reach out and pluck something off your computer if it thinks its questionable.

Also, if Google disables access to your account, or it gets hacked, you will lose access to your files and other content in your account. That seems like a pretty serious concern.

And there are lines in the terms of service about advertising–Google reminds the user that some of its services are supported by ad revenue, and it may use information stored, queries made, and “other information” to target those ads. It also reserves the right to display those ads to you.

The Cr-48 is beautiful, but it’s worth remembering that using it could have consequences for your data and how you can access it.

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