Every time we revisit Chrome OS we ask ourselves “Can we work with it?” As a writing tool, there's no question. The hardware and software limitations of earlier Chromebooks was like slipping blinders on. No distractions, just you and a writing web app. That’s not all you can do with Chrome OS, though; web apps are becoming more powerful and appeal to users because of their ubiquity. Any modern device with a browser can run a web app and offer the same experience no matter the device context. The appeal is currently primarily for developers who don’t have to worry about keeping separate branches of their code updated and optimized on different platforms. As HTML5 and Java progress, the apps built with them will both be more capable, and better able to tap into local resources for compute and data. You could almost imagine a chart that parallels Intel’s “Compute moves to zero” chart, where instead of measuring size, you’re measuring the limitations of browser-based code. So, once anything can happen in a browser, why not live entirely in the browser? Simply put, because we’re not there yet. 

Web app Writer, a very minimalist text editor

Why not Android?

The argument goes something like this: Google has a great browser, and a great app platform, they should combine them in a laptop. Thus, the Chromebook should become the Androidbook. It comes up every time a new Chromebook is announced. It’s an idea not entirely without merit. Android runs on ARM and x86 chipsets. It runs Chrome. It has an enormous stable of apps.  But that all misses a key fact: laptops aren’t phones or tablets. Chrome OS works because the PC is an utterly different user experience than mobile. And Google believes the conceits of a desktop environment can be best served by just one app: Chrome. 

Google SVP Sundar Pichai, introducint Chrome OS at Google I/O 2011

Despite singing this song since the introduction of Chrome OS in 2009, the recent musical chairs at Mountain View has lead many to revive speculation of a future Android/Chrome OS marriage. Andy Rubin, father of Android, is tucked away in some Google skunkworks, and Sundar Pichai caretaker of Chrome OS now manages both experiences. Bringing all of the user facing software divisions under one leader makes sense to me, and not as a harbinger of fusion. During the last 18 months Google has gone through an extensive redesign of all of their assets, trying to bring a unified style and user experience to every product they offer. That experience has been lead by teams in Rubin’s and Pichai’s divisions, along with teams for GMail, Google+ and Search, and all the other products Google offers. But the only division that handles discrete software, and not just services and websites, were Rubin’s and Pichai’s. Bringing those two groups together for closer collaboration makes sense from a design and philosophy standpoint. Merging the very functions of the two into one monolith does not. 
Chrome is about the best web experience possible, no matter the platform. Android is about a mobile software and compute experience that relies on apps and integration with Google services to offer utility. Those are two separate directives, the web and apps, and Chrome OS is the purest distillation of the Chrome experience. Shoehorning Android into the Pixel wouldn’t offer the best of both worlds, it would mean forcing a portrait app designed for a phone onto a really nice notebook. If fragmentation remains an issue for Android developers, imagine what happens if you ask them to design their apps to work on phones, tablets, televisions and notebooks. It wouldn’t be pretty. 

Utility Continued

For many of us, browsing is about communication and consumption. We watch movies and listen to music in a browser. We chat with friends, send e-mails, engage with our social networks and even partake in video chats and telephony through our browsers. And, of course, we read and peruse images. If we’re going to get work done, though, we need to do more than just communicate and consume, we need to do produce. That means opening an honest to goodness application. Right?
Writing has always been one of Chrome OS’s strong points, and in earlier reviews we mentioned that the limitations of the OS actually helped make this an excellent writer’s tool. It’s hard to not write when all you have is a text field. Plenty of writing apps are just a click away, like the excellent Google Docs, Microsoft’s Office 365 and the minimalist Writer. The advent of Packaged apps is opening the opportunities for more immersive apps that step outside of the browser window. Txt is an early favorite, simple but adaptive, and it isn't stuck in a tab. 

TXT>, a packaged app 

Most publishing, web and otherwise, needs more than just text. A few years ago, there was an explosion of excitement around image editing web apps, and everyone and their mother joined the fray, including Adobe and Flickr. Since then, the hype has died down, and the innovation. There are two factors that limit the appeal of these apps. First, there are limitations regarding file size and type. This is mostly owing to bandwidth concerns, both for the user and for the service host. If we had carte blanc to upload all our massive RAW files into an online editor and then edit them and save multiple copies, as we do on our local apps, we would end up with gigabytes of transferred data. So, even on paid apps you’re often limited to a medium sized JPGs, enough for web publishing to be sure, but given that high DPI content has truly arrived this approach is limiting. 
The second limitation is in the apps themselves; they’re just not... enough. Several apps take the wizard approach that you might be used to from the likes of Shutterfly. Upload your images and then make modest edits in an interface that’s simplified and easy to navigate. Great for modest work, not so great if you’re planning on doing some serious editing. Want granular control of an image’s rotation? In Lightroom you grab that rotation slider in the Crop tab and adjust it to your comfort; in several image editor web apps, you’re only option is to rotate by 90 degrees at a time. So, yeah, that’s not going to cut it. There are more feature complete apps, but they come at an almost unbelievable cost: Flash. Pixlr is a great example of a web app with a desktop UI, driven by Flash, though the software itself is still limited to JPGs. So, for now, we’re hopeful for the future of photo editing web apps, but it isn't quite there... yet.

Photo editing app Pixlr, driven by Flash

So, you can write, but not do pictures. Video? Not quite yet. Development? That only requires a text editor, right? We thought about a variety of work flows and almost all ended with users putting the included Chrome Remote Desktop to use, to boot up some missing app or function. Even web developers would find themselves hampered by the inability to test IE or Firefox compatibility, and by the limited number of browser based IDEs rolling out. In the end, what we felt comfortable with remained writing and consumption. Those experiences are great, truly, but utility remains a sticking point. It may be time for Google to step-in and start to develop their own advanced productivity tools. Provide a powerful imaging tool and this becomes a powerful web publishing device. Provide the ability to emulate different browsing environments and we might see developers flock to Chromebooks.
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  • karasaj - Friday, May 31, 2013 - link

    What other objectivity can you have than display analysis, battery life, build quality (even still moderately subjective), and performance? Heat and noise I guess, which is normally included in laptop reviews, but considering he can't actually run HWmonitor, and it's also probably hard to actually load up the machine with a super heavy workload, there's not much he left out.

    If you don't like the subjective parts, skip them. Subjective qualities at the expense of objectivity can be bad, but he hasn't sacrificed that really.
  • nunomoreira10 - Friday, May 31, 2013 - link

    Those color (target and actual) diagrams are great!
    Please do so again on future displays reviews
  • frakkel - Friday, May 31, 2013 - link

    Finally - Someone who understands that we are not using our notebooks for watching 16:9 movies day long. To see a more square format is very much welcome. Now I will just wait for Haswell and then I will buy.
  • internetf1fan - Saturday, June 1, 2013 - link

    Wider screens are better for productivity as you can fit multiple documents side by side. Going back to 4:3 displays really hurts how I work because of lack of space.
  • leexgx - Saturday, June 1, 2013 - link

    we are not talking going back to 4:3 that would be silly, we are talking about website friendly 16:10 screens

    not many people use the side by side feature in windows 7
  • seapeople - Monday, June 3, 2013 - link

    Not many people use graphics cards, either, so why not just get rid of all those?
  • twtech - Friday, May 31, 2013 - link

    Remember the dot-com boom of the '90s, when the internet was supposed to take over everything? And then it didn't, and all these startups went bust, but it still had a significant impact, which continues to grow today?

    Right now, people are saying, the PC is dead, tablets are the new king. We've heard this mantra before. Notebooks, netbooks, consoles vs. PC gaming, everything new was supposed to kill the desktop PC. And along the way, those things have taken some marketshare when those devices were actually the more appropriate tool for the job.

    If all you had was a hammer and nails, but now you have a screwdriver and screws as well, some of the times when you previously used nails, now you'll use screws instead. If you put the usage of nails on a chart, maybe you'd say that they were "dying", and that usage of screws is the future, since of course it was growing from zero. Well, we know that both types of fasteners have their preferred uses. And tablets may replace PCs for certain uses - the use cases in which they are genuinely better. But there would be no sense in trying to use a tablet for things the PC is naturally better at.
  • Crono - Friday, May 31, 2013 - link

    The PC isn't dead. We're just in a transition period where tablets are becoming a very popular form factor of PCs. Anyone who wants to create content knows that a base iPad isn;t going to do you much good unless you have the right apps and preferably a physical keyboard. That's why the Surface and Surface Pro are the right direction, I think, though everyone agrees Haswell is needed to bring better battery life. Hybrid and convertible tablets or ultrabooks - whether they are Android, Windows, or iOS - will be key for the next few years... until we start getting scrolls. ;)

    Personally, I would love a 10" x 12" x 0.2" OLED flexible scroll computer with a display that can become rigid when completely unfurled from a thin computer core/column.
  • rwei - Friday, May 31, 2013 - link

    Odd that you yourself note the unfavorable comparison to the 13" rMBP, yet your review gushes with enthusiasm for the Pixel. I love shiny, beautiful new gadgets as much as or more than the next guy, but your praise seems excessive.

    I more or less took away from this is that the Pixel is cool because it makes for a really nice and shiny typewriter, and wow look it's evolving really quickly to the point where it's slowly approaching the level of basic functionality that other systems already deliver.
  • Arbie - Saturday, June 1, 2013 - link

    rwei - I agree with you completely.

    And there is a weird parallel between the design effort put into this overdone $1400 browser box and the writing effort put into this overblown, wordy, and just so artfully crafted treatise on it. Is this all a joke of some kind? I got through a couple of pages and couldn't take it any more. If you gave the author an enema he could fit in a shoebox.

    As for the computer, the only thing it's ideal for is to make the Surface RT look like a success. Maybe it makes sense as an investment collectible, considering that they're only going to sell two or three. Nothing worthwhile here.

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