Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Review of Aura for Chrome OS

I’ve been playing with the Samsung Chrome OS notebook for work and so far it hasn’t really impressed me.

The concept is interesting — a netbook that’s optimized for Google services. There’s no need for a large hard drive because everything is in the cloud. This old Chromebook commercial is part of what got me excited about the concept:

Conceptually, the idea works to a point. You login with your Google credential (once the WiFi is configured as a guest) and you’re off and running. If you happen to have saved your Chrome/Chromium browser settings to your Google account, which I had, your browser is instantly configured and familiar.

Which is good, because the Chrome OS is just a browser. Nothing else. That’s your UI. And it’s weird. Because just about every other computing device in the world gives you more than a single window to work with.

The experience was so dull and predictable that I toggled over to the developer’s channel, where Google is trying to provide more of a traditional desktop experience.

Aura, the new desktop concept for Chrome OS, isn’t innovative, but it’s familiar. I think it’ll make a lot more sense to users. There’s a launcher area that lets you open applications, even though, as before, everything just opens in a Chrome tab. There’s also a taskbar with settings, since I imagine not everyone realized they could control their entire systems settings through a browser wrench:

The new Chrome OS app launcher and taskbar

The need for the launcher sums up Chrome OS pretty well. It’s supposed to be the essence of simplicity, but the simplicity requires a fair amount of background knowledge about the OS and about managing files and applications via the cloud. A fairly technically accomplished, knowledgeable user can totally ignore the launcher, but would a technically accomplished, knowledgeable user be content with an OS that’s just a browser?

Who is Chrome OS for?

My suspicion is the launcher, which can be summoned with Ctrl-caps lockmagnifying glass, is a recognition by Google that Chrome OS is too unfamiliar to average users.

A lot of the Chrome apps seem designed to give users a hook into familiar services. As a result, many Chrome OS apps can be pretty disappointing. The Dropbox app just opens up Dropbox in the browser. But there’s no actual automated syncing, which is kind of a huge part of Dropbox’s appeal. With cloud apps, the argument might be that there’s nothing to sync since there’s nothing on the local machine. But I imagine some people want an automated way to move stuff they download to their Chromebook up into their Dropbox account. And the presence of a Dropbox app implies the presence of the service. But really, the app is a bookmark, as are many of the Chrome “apps.”

Having said that, I love the Scratchpad app. It’s a simple text editor that supports light formatting but that syncs against your Google Docs account, placing everything in a Scratchpad folder. I find Google Docs horribly laggy to work with, across operating systems and browsers, but Scratchpad is quick and responsive, plus it opens up in a separate window, letting me Alt-tab between the browser and the text, which is about 95% of my workflow.

screenshot of Scratchpad in action

Opening non-cloud-based files still isn’t as easy or as simple as you would think. RTFs don’t open because they’re not a supported file format:

screenshot of RTF not opening

.docx files are supposed to open but I couldn’t get one to open in Aura, although it could be a temporary dev channel bug (Netflix on Aura also didn’t work, which seems to be a dev channel problem, but not a stable one).

There’s also no Java within Chrome OS, which isn’t a deal-breaker but is inconvenient. For instance, I often screencast via the wonderfully simple Screencast-O-Matic, and that doesn’t work on Chrome OS. There are some screencasting tools in the Chrome store, but it seems silly to have to abandon something effective and familiar that works on every other computer I use.

Aura is a huge step forward for Chrome, but it still feels miles behind modern desktop experiences. It’s still hard to do things that are relatively simple on Windows, OS X, or any Linux desktop. And keep in mind that GNOME 3 and LibreOffice provide Google Docs integration, while still allowing users to use a full-blown desktop. Cloud integration is pretty much a given on modern devices. Aura isn’t providing anything that isn’t available elsewhere.

In fact, Aura still requires the user to think about what they want to do and then figure out how to do it within the constraints of the Chrome OS. Compare that to GNOME 3, where I click the meta key, type the application or file that I want, and it launches. It’s a huge, huge difference in user experience.

The Aura interface is workable, and the Samsung hardware is nice — the keyboard is great, the machine is light, and the screen is a decent size. But the price is around $350 (more for the 3G model). That’s a lot of money to spend for a netbook that won’t bend to the user’s will. I bought a refurbished Dell for around $200 a few years back, threw Ubuntu Netbook Remix on it, and had a netbook that was way more flexible and functional than Chrome OS will be by the time Aura moves to stable. And there’s nothing Chrome OS can do that any netbook with a browser can’t do, except maybe run Netflix.

Chrome OS is just OK until you factor in the price. Then you’re paying a lot of money for a machine that’s going to be challenging for most users to work with, at least at first, put possibly forever, depending upon the commitment and expertise levels of the user. And users already well-versed in cloud services are going to be able to re-create all of the functionality of Chrome OS on much cheaper hardware.

Aura’s a big improvement for Chrome but it’s still not enough. If Google doesn’t want to dramatically improve their OS, they might want to focus on cheaper hardware. At $350, it seems hard to justify what you’re paying for. But if Google and its partners could figure out how to bring in something at around $200, it might be something more people would be willing to work with and around.

The challenge of Aura, and the Chrome OS in general, is that it’s too expensive and basic for experts and too complex and expensive to users not accustomed to working in the cloud. Until Chrome figures out its audience, or simply gets much cheaper, it’s going to have a tough time attracting users.

Right now, it’s a long way from the disposable netbook imagined in that early Chromebook commercial.

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Notes

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