I’m not referring to Google (GOOG) search, Gmail, or Google Docs. Millions of users have already taken that plunge, myself included. I mean day-to-day life within the (largely) open-sourced walls of Google’s ever-expanding product ecosystem. That’s not something I’d ever seriously done before.
There was a brief, angsty fling with the CR-48 laptop last year. (That didn’t end well.) I also cozied up to tablets like the Barnes & Noble (BKS) Nook Tablet and Amazon’s (AMZN) Kindle Fire for a while, but those used customized versions of Android. I wondered, given Google’s irrepressible desire to develop for nearly area of tech — self-driving cars, augmented reality eyewear — whether I could get by using only Google devices for a week.
So with some help from the Mountain View, Calif.-based company, I gave it a try. I shelved my Apple (AAPL) MacBook Air for one of Samsung’s Series 5 Chromebook 550 laptops, traded my iPad for a Nexus 7, gave my iPhone 4 a rest in lieu of a Galaxy Nexus,* and tucked away my Roku 2 XS for the enigmatic Nexus Q. Google had also been kind enough to loan Fortune a Google Chromebox, a desktop Mac Mini-like computer. But given my penchant for taking work home, taking meetings around the city, and the need for an additional mouse and keyboard, I ended up exclusively using the Chromebook. Here’s what happened:
THE GOOD: Android 4.0, running on the very latest devices, is a smooth operator. It’s extremely easy to navigate, and virtually every app I used on iOS — from Nike+ (NKE) Running to Flipboard — is available here, as well. Even better, content shines on the Galaxy Nexus thanks to its bright 4.65-inch screen, which dwarfs my iPhone’s. Catching Hulu or Netflix (NFLX) on the treadmill at the local gym, as this A.D.D.-suffering writer is wont to do, was an even better viewing experience because of that.
Critics threw a lot of praise the Nexus 7’s way, and it’s not really hard to see why. The ASUS-manufactured 7-inch tablet easily eclipsed the Kindle Fire. Yet, between the rubbery, textured backing, the sharper, brighter display and brisk navigation, it was pretty much love at first swipe. Also, because it’s smaller and weighs less than the iPad, tossing it in my bag was no big deal. If there were two small quibbles, one is there’s no 3G or 4G wireless option. I also wished there were more apps tailored for that particular screen size.
THE SO-SO: When I first reported on Google Chrome OS last year, I said the underlying concept “isn’t as farfetched as it sounds.” That’s even more true now, as more and more cloud-based services — Spotify, for one — become popular. With Chrome OS, Google emphasizes cloud-based services over content stored on the hard drive, which in theory, users of Google’s many online services wouldn’t mind. (Lots of people in tech think this is the undoubted future.)
In execution, the first round of Chromebooks proved disappointing, throttled by components so slow watching high-definition video was unbearable. The software wasn’t much better. You could only open one browser window, albeit with tabs.
The second round of Chromebooks are a major leap forward. There’s a desktop-like environment where users can open multiple browser windows and a pane at the bottom with shortcuts to say, Gmail and other “web apps” like Trillian instant messenger. The hardware has been improved, too, so playing video is a breeze and you can have tens of windows and tabs going, no problem.
But those who take the modern computing experience for granted (read: virtually everyone) may still feel sandboxed by this new and improved Chrome OS. Getting around multiple applications still feels unwieldly at times. Many apps still require some sort of Internet connection to work. (For instance, while Google promised offline use of Documents via software update, my own review unit has yet to get it.) Also, the app selection remains pretty poor. Even as I wrote stories, did research, instant messaged colleagues and the like on this laptop, I longed for a full-featured computer — really, any full-featured computer — to use.
THE BAD: Where the Chromebook felt capable yet limited, the Nexus Q proved an exercise in frustration.
At $299, this pricey digital media hub may be made here in the U.S.A, and sure, it’s a beautifully designed conversation starter if there ever was one, but in the end, it proved to be the least useful device in my living room. (Heck, my Nintendo (NTDOY) 3DS does more.) I could access Google services like Google Play Music, Google Play Movies & TV, and YouTube, but that’s it. No Netflix, Hulu, or Pandora (P), all of which you can get on the Roku LT ($50) or Apple TV ($100) — and then some. Even more of a pain, streamed music and videos must be purchased from Google Play, and media from non-Google sources must be uploaded to the company’s servers first before it can be played back.
As someone who cut the cable cord over a year ago, I rely entirely on my computer or Roku box to get content from Netflix, Hulu, sometimes Amazon Prime Instant Video, all of which I should point out are common enough services. Instead, my only option was to buy movies and TV episodes a la carte — an expensive proposition I gave up on after Day Three. And while I’m a popcorn flicks junkie, I could only watch so much of Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, the one free movie, before I grew tired.
For its part, it seems Google is fully aware of the problem: the company postponed the Nexus Q’s official launch indefinitely “to make it even better.”
THE VERDICT: Living in Google’s world, at least the way I did, came with its own unique set of pros and cons. Going the entire week with the Nexus 7 and Galaxy Nexus wasn’t the big adjustment I thought it would be. In fact, I’d pick up a Nexus 7 if 3G or 4G connectivity were an option. Meanwhile, Google beefed up Chrome OS just enough this year to make it a solid alternative for laptop enthusiasts ready to dive head-first into the cloud.
As for the Nexus Q? Well, those LED light shows sure were pretty.
*For work email, I use a BlackBerry, which I went back to on occasion.