Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Shiny New Chrome Book

Click on the picture for a bigger view.

I purchased one of the new Samsung Chromebooks for my wife. She primarily uses the Internet and plays Bejeweled, and her HP laptop was acting up. So, given the low cost of the latest Chromebook and how well it would fit her use, I bought one. Happily I soon learned there were several versions of Bejeweled available for the little Internet device, and the transition went smoothly. This was a good excuse to get my hands on the quite affordable little toy and see how it compares to various Windows and Apple products.

Back when the great Microsoft anti-trust trial was underway … and remember it was primarily about Internet Explorer misusing the MS monopoly to eat the competing Netscape Navigator browser … I read the entire final decision. It was about sixty pages and much of it was legal-ese, that language full of wherefores and parties of the first part that lawyers use for a secret code, but the body of the document was very understandable, and I was surprised how well the judge understood the crux of the issues.

What he wrote rang very true to me since, at that time, I was deeply involved in IBM’s OS/2 and the latest version called “Warp.” The judge wrote of an almost insurmountable barrier to entry of new operating systems. The obstacle was all the existing programs or applications written for Windows and how hard a newcomer would have equaling that body of available code. I really thought IBM had a competitor to Windows in Warp, but quickly realized that the feature of OS/2 that let it run Windows programs was going to be its downfall. Why write programs for Warp when it can run Windows programs.

In the final judgment of the antitrust suit, the judge spoke of the Windows ecosystem and the impossibility of new players entering the PC operating system race due to the giant head start the thousands … if not millions … of Windows applications gave to Microsoft. I assumed that, if IBM could not break the stranglehold of Microsoft Windows and all those available programs, no one could.

I was wrong. About ten years later we started a new age of “Mobility.” Led quite conspicuously by Apple whose iPhone and later iPad completely changed the equation, the world has changed. Now we see Microsoft playing catch-up and releasing Windows 8 in an attempt to match Apple and Google, while attempting to keep the original Windows ecosystem relevant.

Of course, we didn’t have to wait for the iPhone to see competition to Windows. Apple produced competition all along in the Macintosh computer system. Remember, the original Mac predates any version of Windows, and it was always Bill Gates’ goal to match what the Mac had. It just took MS a long, long time to do that.

Apple has had several different variations over the years. The iMac experienced a large change in 2001 with the release of version 10 called OSX. This was much more than an incremental release like from Windows 2000 to Windows XP. No, this was an entirely revamped version that lost compatibility with the earlier version 9. Key to this new version was the fact it was based on Linux and the previous UNIX variant produced by Steve Jobs’ former company, NeXT and the OPENSTEP OS.

Also true is the fact that variations of UNIX and particularly Linux had been barking at the heels of Microsoft all along. Many features of DOS and later Windows were copied from that very successful operating system developed originally in the 70’s, although Windows didn’t use UNIX code. What Apple did with OSX was put a nice user friendly GUI or Graphical User Interface on the powerful UNIX kernel. Although several distributions or versions of Linux and other UNIX variants had GUIs, they did not have the elegance of Apple’s version, which followed the original Macintosh leadership that was actually the true genesis of Windows. In other words, Mac came first (well second if you count Xerox PARC) and Windows copied Mac.

Still Apple never had more than 15 — 20% market share, and Windows was still a monopoly, regardless of what the courts ruled. But, as I said, then along came the “Mobile Revolution.” Suddenly all the programs (or as Apple calls them, “apps”) needed to be rewritten for the special needs of mobile devices and the large Windows ecosystem lost a lot of relevance. As mobile merged with desktop, Windows seems to be loosing advantages. Further, as brilliant as the evolution of Windows is … and it is very brilliant as the MS programmers tamed the awkward and unsecure code into some pretty good copies of the Mac GUI, culminating with Windows 7 which is a pretty decent implementation … although it still lacks security … but then OSX isn’t all that secure either … a topic for another note.

During this time of Internet explosion and mobile revolutions, a new player appeared on top: Google. The battle for market share and mindshare now included three giant software firms: Microsoft, Apple, and Google. Google, using UNIX and Linux as a base, created an operating system for desktop computers. This is what we now call the Chrome Operating System. It actually predates Android, which is also UNIX and Linux based and is a copy of iOS, Apple’s mobile operating system (which is also UNIX and Linux based!)

Low cost Linux systems still exist and are popular servers making the Internet possible, but are not very suitable for the average, non-computer science degreed users. Linux distributions or version include GUIs, but they have not caught on like the user interface to either Mac OSX or iOS.

Chrome OS is an operating system designed to work exclusively with web applications. Google announced the operating system in July 2009 and made it an open source project, called Chromium OS, by the end of the year.

Unlike Chromium OS, which can be compiled from the downloaded source code, Chrome OS only ships on specific hardware from Google's manufacturing partners. The user interface takes a minimalist approach, reminiscent of the Google Chrome web browser. Since Google Chrome OS is aimed at users who spend most of their computer time on the Web, the only application on the device is a browser incorporating a media player and a file manager.

Former Google engineer Jeff Nelson wrote the first version of the operating system, code named "Google OS", in 2006. He based it on a Linux distribution and the Firefox browser, as Google's own Chrome browser was not yet available. The impetus was speed. Nelson thought that both Windows and Linux were needlessly slow. His solution was to move the operating system off the hard disk and into RAM. Restarting Firefox, he recalls, "went from about 45 seconds to about 1 second. Browsing a directory in the file explorer went from about 8 seconds to about 0.01 seconds.” Even compiling code became 60% faster, and he could run non-indexed, recursive greps (powerful UNIX search commands) of the entire RAM resident file system in under 15 seconds. Because of the size constraints of RAM, the operating system relied on applications that resided on the Internet and stored user data online. Nelson filed a patent for his invention, titled "Network-based Operating System Across Devices," on March 20, 2009. It was granted in August 7, 2012 and assigned to Google since he had departed the company.

The current Samsung Chromebook Series 3 (XE303C12) is their third generation version of the Chromebook and runs the latest version of the Chrome OS. The physical design the computer seems to have “influenced” significantly by the design of the Apple Mac Air laptop … which seems to be “situation normal” for Samsung, a company that obviously believes imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and seems to “borrow” a lot of ideas from the Cupertino company. (However, Samsung is also known for considerable innovation of their own and is one of the leading hardware companies in the world and a powerful rival of Apple.)

Samsung did not copy the Apple price tag, however. For one thing, a Chromebook is an abbreviated device and not something you would want to pay a high price any more than the purchaser of a bicycle is looking for something in the Ferrari price range. (The comparable Apple Air costs about four times as much … or more.) When you pay top dollar, you want top performance. No, the Chromebook is more of an economical compact suitable for trips downtown, but not good transportation for a coast-to-coast road trip. (On the other hand, low-end Windows laptops, especially the so-called “netbooks” can also be had for two or three hundred dollars … consider them bicycles with a motor. So it is a little hard to see what niche this machine fits in since the price isn’t that unique.)

As my pictures show, the Samsung Chromebook and Mac Air look almost identical. But, what the pictures don’t show, is that the construction of the Chromebook is decidedly “cheap.” While Apple used expensive machined aluminum for their case, the Samsung laptop is enclosed in silver colored plastic. Other features such as the display are not up to the same grade as the Mac’s either. However, it does appear that Samsung invested money in things that really matter. For example, the Chromebook has a USB 3.0 port (in addition to a USB 2.0 port) as well as an SD Card reader and HDMI video output. Apple tends more toward proprietary solutions such as Thunderbolt and Lightning, while Samsung stays more pedestrian.

Sadly Samsung did not copy the magnetic latched power connector used by Apple (although MS wasn’t shy about ripping off that excellent idea for the Surface) and uses a power connector about the size of the lead in an automatic pencil. I prophesy that this little power connector will soon be bent beyond use, although it does appear that damage will be to the adapter rather than the computer motherboard and so may not be as expensive to repair.

You do need an Internet connection to run a Chromebook, and Samsung supplies excellent wireless with all the latest 802.11 a/b/g/n support. You can connect to Ethernet using a USB dongle and, for $75 more, you can get a model with 3G capability. The computer also has the latest version of Bluetooth radio to connect to mice, earphones, and other wireless devices.

Like other mobile devices, the Samsung Chromebook uses a low end ARM processor originally designed for smartphones and tablets, but this does preserve battery life. If you can come to grips with using cloud-based tools like Google Docs and Google Drive instead of regular software and local storage, the Chromebook becomes extremely enticing, especially for writers and students, who may not require much more than Word processing and Web access. The Chromebook is also tempting when compared with more expensive tablets, which don't offer the same level of productive capability of a physical keyboard. The Chromebook has always been a niche product, but at this price, there are plenty of little spaces to fill.

The Samsung laptop comes with 2 “gigs” of memory and a 16GB solid state drive, the latter makes the computer smaller, lighter, and less likely to fail, and which also improves the boot up time. I clocked my Series 3 booting in around 10 seconds, which beats my Air (which also has a solid state drive, although of a much larger capacity) at 15 seconds. That alone is great if you are tired of starting Windows and having coffee, plus a complete breakfast, while you wait for the thing to boot. Restarting after sleep is almost instantaneous. Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!

The Chromebook Series 3 doesn't exactly have a standard keyboard. It's still a full-size QWERTY keyboard, but the layout has been tweaked by Google to optimize the Web-based Chrome experience. The Caps Lock key is replaced with a dedicated search button (you can still Caps Lock by pressing Alt-Search), and F1-F12 have been replaced with Chrome-specific function/hotkeys (Escape; Web specific Back, Forward, Reload; Full Screen; Next Window; Brightness Down/Up; Volume Mute/Down/Up; and Power switch). The Delete key has also disappeared, with the Backspace key pulling double duty (to delete, just press Alt-Backspace). There is no equivalent to the Windows or Apple key, just wider Ctrl and Alt keys, which will actually get plenty of use, as the Chrome OS offers a lot of keyboard shortcuts. I found that Chrome's keyboard navigation was both fast and intuitive. If you came to the Chromebook from a Mac or Windows PC, you'll find that many of the same shortcuts and key combos work.

After booting you are presented a typical GUI screen complete with a picture show desktop. Several beautiful scenic views are provided or you can load your own picture of your playful hound rubbing his back on the carpet or your newborn baby.

However, similar to Google search, the screen interface is decidedly minimalistic. Dedicated icons in the lower left corner of the screen pull up Gmail, Google Search, Google Drive, and YouTube. Like Windows Start — Programs, the final button produces a list of programs. The selection of apps can be added to by download from the Chrome Web Store, and includes Google Calendar, Google+, a calculator, camera (which uses the Chromebook's webcam), and Chrome Remote Desktop, which lets you access other PCs remotely through the browser. The last is a workable (albeit slow) solution to Chrome users who want to either access their primary computer and software, or who need to do some remote troubleshooting for a relative. In an effort to expand the usefulness of these apps, Google has also added offline capability to Google Drive and Gmail, letting you access at least some of your stuff when WiFi isn't available. Further apps and extensions can be found in the Chrome Web Store, with thousands of offerings, many for free.

The computer comes with free access to 100 GB of storage on the Google (Google Drive).

There's also a basic file manager in Chrome OS, but the key word here is basic. Plug in a USB flash drive or SD card and it will pop up a list of the drive's contents, with an interface that looks much like Gmail or Google Drive. Documents and PDF files are opened using Chrome's in-browser document viewer, while photos are viewed and edited with Chrome's lightweight image editor. Music and video files are opened with Chrome's media player, but Google expects most media to be streamed over WiFi (using apps like Google Play Music), and for robust cloud-based editing tools (such as Aviary and Creative Kit in Google+) to be used for extensive media editing. A Chromebook is not the solution if you are looking for a computer to run Adobe Photoshop, but then I would say the same of the Mac Air … at least a MacBook Pro is needed for that kind of heavy bit crunching.

Weighing only 2.5 pounds, the Chromebook Series 3 is extremely portable, while still offering a large enough screen and keyboard to use without feeling hemmed in. Despite the slim body and complete lack of cooling fans, the system never got particularly warm during my use. The display measures 11.6 inches diagonally and yields 1366 x 786 resolution, the same as the Mac Air and the Windows Surface R/T. The screen is backlit and relatively sharp and clear, although even the old Mac Air has it beat and it certainly is not a Retinal display. Still it is very adequate for your coffee shop Internet fix and you can browse pictures of your friend’s new grandbaby quite well.

The Chromebook Series 3 ditches the Intel Atom and Celeron processors used in the previous Chromebooks and Netbooks in favor of Samsung's Exynos 5 dual-core ARM processor (1.7GHz). This is a trend I expect to continue as mobile processors become more powerful and long battery life becomes a key specification.

The large touchpad works very well. Like Apple, it is physically pushed down to click, and I prefer it to most touchpads I’ve encountered on HP and IBM laptops, but not quite as responsive as the Mac’s, although it does emulate the modern multi-finger functions pioneered by Apple.

Bottom line is it is a fun little computer you could carry around with you and not be continuously paranoid you will either drop or have stolen a piece of hardware worth as much as a used automobile. No, you won’t find many cars for only $250 these days … at least cars that actually run … and this little runabout gets around quite nicely … as long as you only want a trip across town.

My main complaint is, like many other computers based on Linux (including Apple’s), they’ve completely hid the Linux away. Here I was ready to “sudo” and “ls” and all I can do is “click.”(Mac OS does have a terminal window for those who need a command line fix. I haven't found such an animal on the Chromebook, although there may be one on the Web Store. Think I'll check that out.)

Currently there are some limitations. I understand that Netflix won’t work on this processor (although Samsung is working on that), but Hulu works fine, as does Sony and Amazon video. I haven’t tried Netflix … I prefer my Apple TV for that.

Seems to me that, if you have kids, and you want to keep their peanut butter and jelly covered fingers off your thousand dollar plus computer equipment, this little plastic box might be just the ticket. There are a ton of games available for the Chromebox and it might be worth $250 to have some quiet time in the house. The average family with three-and-one-half computers never has to share. Actually, Acer has a Chromebook for only $200. Soon they may be giving them away in Cracker Jack’s boxes. Me, I might wait for the “Chromewatch.” It had better do Netflix though. Say … what time is it?

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