Chromebox Review: A Ketchup & Salt Affair

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Usability – The Good 

When media outlets first got there hands on Aura, they immediately drew comparisons to Windows 7.  That is only partly fair, because on the surface you’ll see a taskbar on the bottom, with icons that align themselves starting from left to right.  You’ll see a clock on the right, and windows can be minimized and maximized from the taskbar.  These similarities are all superficial.  The actual operation is vastly different when taken as a whole.

I mentioned above how clean Aura is, visually, and there are a number of unnecessary touches that really sell the experience.  For instance, if I have browser windows open and they all sit above the taskbar, the taskbar will be completely transparent.  As soon as a windows passes below the upper threshold of the taskbar, it increases in opacity, for no other reason than to let you know that it’s there, and you won’t be able to click on anything within its boundaries.  The effect, like everything else in Chrome OS, is subtle, pleasing to the eye, and obvious about its intent.  Though it would have been interesting if they had taken this a step further, making only the area around the icons increase in opacity, making the rest of the taskbar area usable as screen real-estate.

The Aero Snap-like feature is nice too, and comes with a little added flair that maybe only gentle mousers will notice.  Instead on the traditional _, + and x that you’ll find in most operating systems–or a stoplight–you’ll find only an x for close, and a little box with arrows pointing toward each corner of the screen.  Like in Windows 7–and modern DE’s for Unix-like systems such as KDE, Gnome and Unity–, you’ll be able to drag the window to the right or left side of the screen and ‘snap’ the window to one half of the screen.  There is a nice tweak implemented here that furthers that functionality.  Based on the amount of force you put against the outer threshold of your screen when dragging, your browser window will snap to a greater size.  I can only guess that the maximum is what Chrome assumes is the optimal width for your active tab.

Lastly, there seems to be an invisible grid that every window will persistently snap to.  Again, this effect is very subtle, but when dropping a window in place, it will shift a few pixels diagonally until it reaches a position that pleases it.  I cannot see the use for it, but it is visually appealing and just adds to the sugar-coating of the whole experience.

Usability – The Bad 

I mentioned above that the experience to be had with Chrome OS is equal parts beautiful and frustrating.  All of the frustration come from using the window manager.  On the surface, it really is gorgeous, but if you put enough salt and ketchup in a turd, it could surely pass as meatloaf.

Opening a new browser window will place the favicon of the active tab in the taskbar in an attempt to symbolize that tab as a task.  Additionally, it will place a heavy white line under the icon itself to show you that it is the active window.  OK, this is fine–so far.  Opening up subsequent browsers will result in the same behavior.  This can get hairy really fast.  Let’s say that you had Gmail open in a browser window.  Now, you open a new tab and travel to Youtube.  The icon in the taskbar now shows YouTube as the active task.  Now, open up another browser with two tabs.  Now you will have to remember which browser windows your inactive tabs are in.  There is absolutely no visual cues that will lead you to your inactive tabs.  This is a massive fail on Google’s behalf.  If you are like me, it is not uncommon to have a couple of browsers open with several tabs a piece.  I typically operate with a minimum of two browsers.  I don’t like using the Chrome multiple sign-on feature, so I typically have my main browser window open and signed in automatically to my personal Gmail address with Chrome.  I use another Gmail address that is attached to The Powerbase.  I use that in a private browsing session to seperate these accounts and the activities that need to be performed with each.  With Chrome OS, which should be for everybody, I find it unusable.  Power users should beware.

On the surface, it really is gorgeous, but if you put enough salt and ketchup in a turd, it could surely pass as meatloaf.

I spoke very highly or the Aero-like snapping feature in Aura above.  Sure, it’s visually impressive, but how useful is it?  When snapping windows to the left or the right, I can use the square button next to the x, or I can simply drag the titlebar, like in Windows 7.  Great.  To minimize, you have to click and hold the square button and flick the window down.  First off, flicking is not a natural motion for a mouse-driven user-interface, nor will it ever be.  If you are forced to use Chrome OS for an extended period of time, you will get used to it, but you won’t be able to grab the titlebar and flick it down.  That is a glaring omission on the part of Google and makes operation of the system inconsistent.  Having this square button to control the arrangement of windows is a broken metaphor that serves no other purpose other than to differentiate Chrome OS from its competitors.

The Chrome Store is arguable where the experience becomes the most broken.  At first I didn’t realize how broken it really was, until two things happened.  First, I found an app in the Chrome Store for accessing Google Play.  Foremost, this does not need to be an app.  Lots of things you find in the Chrome Store are just glorified bookmarks, and this is no different.  But it does beg the question, why is there a Chrome Store?  Why isn’t there a Chrome section in the Play store?

Next, I tried a couple of games out.  I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from the outset, and my experience with games on Chrome OS only served to validate my suspicions about it.  Go ahead an install Angry Birds.  It works, because it is a Flash game.  Now, try and install SKiD Racer.  It will happily try to launch itself on your browser until it realizes that it cannot.  So, some games work and some games do not.  Bad idea.  If Google wants to succeed with Chrome OS, it will need to impose an all-or-none clause in its contract with developers.  An average user does not care, or want to be explained to, the reasons why half of the items in the Chrome Store do not work with the Chrome OS.  Fail.

Value

I am not really sure how to approach this.  I’ve been reviewing the top-end, i5 Google I/O edition of the Chrome box.  It retails for $499.  To be honest, there are gobs and gobs of desktop PCs out there in the $499 range that, while not amazing machines, are certainly above and beyond what is offered by this machine.  For $499,  I could have 8gb of RAM, a 1TB HDD, an i5, a decent video card and an optical drive.  I could also have a stereo jack in the back of the system, which is not asking a lot.  Simply put, you should probably pass on this one.

 


Dean Howell

Dean Howell has over a decade of experience with Linux and nearly 2 decades of experience with computers in general. Currently, Dean is Editor-in-chief of The Powerbase and also works for one of the world's largest providers of Linux-based NVRs.

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  • warcaster

    Still disappointed Google hasn’t launched an ARM-based Chromebook/Chromebox yet. Instead they keep trying to push out these overpriced devices.

    • http://www.digifail.com/ Tom Nardi

      That’s an interesting point, it seems like Chrome OS machines are an excellent vehicle to drive ARM into the laptop/desktop market; it’s not like you will be running any x86 software on these things in the first place.

  • Connie New

    What is disappointing is the price point. All the other complaints you can swallow, this is the ideal demonstration of how domesticated the cloud has become. BUT this is available to all by just downloading Chrome. So all you are really paying for is a quick boot to browser, and end up getting a system that collapses without the net, with no optical drives or significant internal storage

    • Gary Maxwell

      Connie makes the same unfortunate observation about a cloud-based device that others make.

      The Chromebox and its sisters–the Chromebooks–CAN be compared to other computers at the same price point; But, to say you get more for your money at the same price with a fat client computer with a full-blown operating system is to miss the whole point of a ChromeOS device.

      While it is true that you can get a lot of the same experiences and features by just using Chrome, it’s not what you get, it’s what you DON’T get.

      You no longer have to worry about system updates or system security. If you learn about the security model baked into these devices, you may find that this feature alone justifies the price.

      Secondly, these devices are for a specific use case: cloud computing. If you live 95% of the time in a browser, why carry along a bloated desktop with all of the peripherals? With more and more apps going to the cloud, and the increase in ubiquitous, mobile computing form factors, it is only a matter of time before PCs become still-required but less used devices.

      Lastly, while the article hit on some pain points, these will all be eventually addresses as the device gets updated. How coll is that?

      • Connie New

        Well no, it is absolutely necessary to compare price points. The issue is this; the assets that you purchase are 1) the hardware and 2) the software. If the software is largely in the cloud (REGARDLESS of all it’s benefits and disadvantages) and essentially dependant on the freely available browser, then the only asset of value is the hardware. The hardware price therefore should be compared with others that offer similar assets. The chrome book hardware is equivalent to buying a conventional laptop, removing the HD and the optical drive and the PCMIA slot and 3D graphics card and the network card…etc and replacing them with a tiny SSD…while replacing the screen with a smaller one. It SHOULD be cheaper.

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