Some two years ago, Google had a crazy idea: We all spend so much of our computing time on the Web, yet most of the maintenance required by a personal computer has little to do with that — so why not delete the non-Web parts of the PC?
So in 2009, Google announced an operating system called Chrome OS that would weld its Chrome browser to the simplest software needed to drive a screen and keyboard and get online. You'd rely on Web services to store your data and run your applications, and your new computer would be immune to the usual viruses.
The first devices built from those blueprints emerged in June: "Chromebooks" from Samsung and Acer.
A computer that does "nothing but the Web," as Google advertises, can be a strange concept, so I've spent longer than usual trying Samsung's Series 5 3G Chromebook. But weeks into testing a review unit loaned by Samsung — even after software updates from Google have fixed bugs and improved its stability — I still can't see spending $499.99 on this model.
Google's "nothing but the Web" tagline understates the Chromebook's problems.
I like Web-based applications — they let you work from almost anywhere, they don't require installing software, there are no security fixes to download later on — but they do need an Internet connection. And where other computers allow you to work around a lack of bandwidth by switching to conventional programs that can later sync back to a Web application (for example, reading your Gmail through Apple's Mail application), Chrome OS doesn't allow for that.
Instead, it lets you install Web apps, built out of standard Web coding, that can, in theory, run offline. But the selection in Google's Chrome Web Store is frustratingly erratic; many of these so-called apps are just bookmarks by another name.
The Web-app, offline-friendly version of Rovio's Angry Birds is an exception; Google's own Gmail is more typical. It won't provide an offline mode for Chrome OS until the third quarter, even while this Web-mail service still works offline in Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer on "real" computers.
So you're looking at a laptop that only functions while you're on Wi-Fi or within range of Verizon Wireless's 3G mobile broadband (3G-capable Chromebooks come with the thoughtful freebie of 100 megabytes of 3G use a month, with extra data available at reasonable rates).
The Series 5 Chromebook did live up to Google's billing in its quick boot time — about eight seconds to reach the prompt to log into the Google Account it requires — and long battery life, at nearly eight hours of nearly uninterrupted Web use.
But the Series 5's Intel Atom processor looked underpowered; the computer took about seven seconds to display thumbnail images of photos taken with recent digital cameras when I popped an SD Card into its slot. (You can view files off memory cards and USB flash drives plugged into this laptop, but you're expected to upload them to a Web service like Google's Picasa for longer-term storage.)
And at 3.27 lbs., the Series 5 only weighed only an ounce less than the $500-ish Lenovo ThinkPad I bought in June, which is itself no slouch at battery life.
Much of Google's Chromebook pitch, as I saw when I spoke at a cloud-computing conference organized by the Mountain View, Calif., company for government executives this summer, emphasizes how this concept can ease computing for large organizations. That could be true. But for individuals, the Chromebook looks at best an incomplete experiment.
Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery