Sunday, February 6, 2011

Two days with CR-48 - Part Deux

When the excitement at being proud owners of a new CR-48 settled down somewhat, I fired up the device and started working on it, tinkering here and there, testing out the capabilities, poking and prodding - as is my wont. I am going to give away my big surprise finding - having used the CR-48 for two straight days, I was not a happy camper. Comparison with Macbooks (especially the MBA, Macbook Air) was probably inevitable, and several times I had to throw up my hands in frustration (details below). Following is my list of gripes, accumulated over a period of two days. Let me know if you agree with me or not.

Design peculiarities and flaws

  • Strangely bent, L-shaped end of the power adapter that goes into the power port. One advantage of this may be that a sudden yank doesn't dislodge the power cord (as it does in the 'Magsafe' design in Macbooks); but it also makes the positioning of the cord rather uncomfortable, particularly if I sit down to work with the power plugged in.

  • For some reason, the battery doesn't fit snugly into the housing, the edges are not flush. While this is not a huge problem, it is certainly a design flaw that one could do without. As an aside, this is never a problem with the immaculate unibody design of the Macbooks or even other well designed Windows PCs of today.

Performance quirks and issues

  • Upon opening the lid of the fully-charged CR-48, it powered up and the time to the first startup was under 10 seconds - which was fantastic. The signin process with the Google account was a breeze, a few screens including one that connected me to my home Wi-fi network, and I was into the familiar Chrome browser environment, with all my previous browser customizations (done in another machine) intact, down to the Chrome extensions that I had installed. It was one of my best startup experiences, ever. The OS is housed in a 16GB SSD, which possibly accounts for the most of the appreciable speed of startup.

  • To begin with, the Chrome browser was as snappy and efficient as I have come to expect it to be, having used it for almost a year now (perhaps more). However, as I went on exploring, installing various apps from the Chrome Web Store that I'd need, the performance degraded. Not on all tabs, mind you, but on those tabs where I did some heavy duty work - such as flash-based graphics editing, the performance was noticeably slower. However, this was not unexpected, considering that our CR-48 runs on a single core Intel Atom N455 processor clocked at 1.66 GHz with a 512KB cache, along with 2GB of RAM - not the cutting edge of specs.

  • The shared VRAM is 128MB, but I was certainly not prepared for such choppy videos. I tried watching an episode of Saturday Night Live on and the choppiness of the video completely put me off.

  • Perhaps it is just as well that CR-48 does not yet support Netflix (although the reason is less to do with video performance and more with rights management, if I remember correctly). The ChromeOS help pages say that they are working on including 'more media formats' - whatever that means, but no Netflix would certainly be a deal-breaker for me, particularly since we are gradually moving towards online streaming services for our movie-watching needs.

Hardware layout and weirdness

This is probably where my maximum gripes lie. Really, Google? For no conceivable reason that I could see, Google has tried to mimic the keyboard design of Macbooks, with attendant loss of functionality. If I wanted the Mac keyboard layout so much, I would have bought a Macbook or an MBA! Get a clue, Google!

  • Single piece touchpad with the single click button hidden underneath (Yes, just like the Macbook!); the size is fair, and the tap-to-click is pretty responsive.

  • Weirdly, however, the touchpad appears to recognize the use of a single hand as opposed to two hands. For instance, in order to keep my fingers mobile, on S's Macbook, I use the right index finger on the touchpad to move the cursor and my left thumb to click the button, and also to drag things including the vertical and horizontal sliders. Strangely, on the CR-48, it didn't work at all, until I used the thumb of the same hand as the one bearing the index finger. IOW, the operation had to be single-handed.

  • I don't know if it is the result of the above, but selecting any amount of text with the cursor is a pain. It is choppy and often keeps skipping words. I found it much easier and more accurate to simply use the Control button and the arrow keys to select text. Weird.

  • And really, there is two control and two alt buttons, and a backspace, but no delete button (Yes, like the sainted Macbook)? And exactly in a similar manner, one is to use Alt-backspace for the forward delete function? Really? WTF?

  • The worst disappointment was the two fingered scroll function and the two-fingered tap that is supposed to be equivalent to the right click. The two fingered scroll doesn't work. It is nowhere as smooth and sensitive as in a Macbook, and while scrolling long pages (such as in Facebook) it skips back and jumps randomly - such a royal pain! The ChromeOS folks say they are aware of the problem and are working on it. The two-fingered tap to right-click doesn't work either, at all. But guess what. Alt-click brings up context-sensitive menus of the right-click (yes, say it again, in unison, 'Just like the Macbook!')

  • But perhaps the weirdest problem is that of cursor jumping. I have seen it happen in S's and others' Macbooks. While typing long tracts of text, the cursor inexplicably jumps back to random places. Imagine, you are typing your pièce de résistance and suddenly the cursor inserts itself in the middle of the previous paragraph, sundering a word unbeknownst to you, and your next few keystrokes bring up an epic WTF moment. It can be funny once or twice, but it happens every freakin' time, whenever I am trying to type up something; it would even randomly select a bit of text, which would of course disappear with the next keystroke - thank heavens for Control-Z.

  • Even the top web-keys on the keyboard don't always work as advertised, especially the forward and back navigation buttons, and most notably, the button that was marked as 'Next Tab' button. I accidentally discovered that if I opened a new page altogether that opened in the next screen, I could use that button to cycle between pages. But why would anyone want to open new pages (instead of new tabs) is beyond me.

  • The device has a 802.11N network card that recognizes both N and G wi-fi networks. There is an option to turn on 3G service from Verizon, which is paid for for two years, but offers only a measly 100MB per month and 10 dollar day-passes. I don't know if I'd ever need that - but I'd perhaps give it a try.

  • The battery life is not bad actually. With moderate usage with intermittent sleep times, the battery on the first day lasted for about 13 hours. Since I can't watch videos on it anyway, I don't have a way to put the battery to test. Next I shall try with YouTube.

  • With the SSD in place and a mini fan, the system is not supposed to generate too much heat. However, the heat that our CR-48 gave out was considerable. I wonder if I was blocking the airvent, which is per se placed at an odd place - the bottom of the chasis.

Software oddities

  • ChromeOS, under the hood, runs on a backbone of an avatar of linux, based on Ubuntu, modified by Google to run exclusively web-based applications. Wikipedia has more information on this.

  • This of course means that there is no support for executable files. Users who are accustomed to various programs on their computers for specific functions will feel the void. However, for me, this is going to be a 'play' device, and as long as I can access Gmail, Facebook and Twitter, and various news paper websites, I am good.

  • This also means that if I could reach the shell/kernel of the OS, all the unix-commands should work to give me complete access to the OS. It turns out that that is precisely what Google doesn't want, at least for the early-adopter CR-48 users.

  • Ordinarily, the users cannot get to the filesystem at all, except to the Downloads folder. This prevents them from storing too much stuff on the small-sized SSD; everything is supposed to be in the Cloud, but it can make it difficult to work with the device beyond minimal net-surfing and email checking and stuff. However... I shall admit that the target demographic, including the MBA users on the go, may not want anything more than this. Google's own Cloud applications are pretty good, and Microsoft recently came out with its own Cloud-based versions of the Office programs - which are excellent.

  • However, strangely enough, many apps are able to access the filesystem. Most apps are restricted to accessing only the Downloads folder, but certain apps, such as the excellent Pixlr (which provides web-based photo editing that is amazingly good) - as well as everybody's favorite privacy nightmare, Facebook - can easily get to the root of the system using a java-based browser.

  • It also means that the files on an external storage device, such as an SD card or a USB stick, can be seen with something called the "Content Browser", but cannot be manipulated or even opened, at least, yet. In fact, the only external devices that are to be supported on the CR-48 are external monitors with VGA connections, USB mice and keyboards, headsets, and microphones, according to a ChromeOS FAQ.

  • For the advanced user, till now, the only way to access the filesystem remains a convoluted hack that involves flipping a physical switch to put the device into something called the 'developer mode', followed by several other steps. Some day when I am feeling intrepid enough, I shall try that out. It is supposed to wipe all data from the system, but hey! This is the ChromeOS, and everything is backed up in the Cloud!

  • The CR-48 comes with very few standard fonts and a host of weird fonts; well, not exactly weird, but they are fonts made by Google for the Droid and so forth. The OS is unicode compliant, and therefore, can run a few foreign language fonts that are supported by Google transliteration. But, overall, the lack of the usual fonts takes a little getting used to.

  • I encountered a very irritating user account issue: secondary user account keeps vanishing. I created a separate account for S with her gmail ID and even took a picture to be used as user account picture. At the next boot, her account vanished. Going to the root, I could still see her account information stored there, but her account didn't show up as an option at boot. I have reported this to the ChromeOS team, but expected time to resolution is anybody's guess.
In the final synthesis, then - sorry, Google! I love you and I use many of your products, which is why I applied for the early-adopter program. I do think the world of Google products, but CR-48 isn't one of them - yet. I shall keep using it and testing it, of course, but it's not ready for primetime. I know, I know, that's why it is being consumer beta-tested by early-adopters and all... But it being from Google, I had somehow expected a better product at the get-go.

I am disappointed. Ah well! C'est la vie.


  1. why no pictures? at least some for the 'design peculiarities and flaws' would be useful. and some while the machine is running...

  2. Pictures are worth a thousand words... So if you have to get a thousand words out, pictures are a very bad idea. Besides, while the machine is running, it looks like just any other laptop with the Chrome browser open at fullscreen. No surprises there.

  3. Alt-click/Alt-Backspace have been STAPLES of modern input methods since before windows. learn too do some computer history research before attributing all of your "WTF woes" too Google being an "Apple copycat". That being said, I do tend too agree with you on the point of the mouse.. it's driver certainly isn't ready for the prime time, but it's getting better.