Why I hate the CR-48 (but might like Chrome OS)

March 1, 2011, 9:27 PM UTC

Google’s Chrome OS isn’t as farfetched as it sounds. The underlying concept, the computer and operating system as portals to content in the cloud, seems like an inevitability, really. While a lot of content still resides on hard or solid state drives, all signs point to a day when we’ll rouse a sliver of a laptop from slumber and interact with all our content on remote servers.

Given Google’s (GOOG) track record with cloud-based services, who better to make the next step, right?

I thought as much until my own Chrome OS CR-48 netbook arrived in the mail a few weeks ago. At 4 pounds, the CR-48 resembles a black polycarbonate (aka hard plastic) MacBook without the DVD drive. Even cooler is the total lack of a company logo on the thing – way to be anti-establishment, Google – and the inclusion of decals and laptop skins you could decorate it with. All in all, major points on the design.

But the CR-48’s beauty is only skin deep. Its pokey hardware proves to be problematic from the get-go. Outlets report it totes a single-core Atom processor and 2 GB of RAM, typical parts for netbooks that sold two or three years ago. (Now, if you pick up a netbook at all, it probably has a more capable, dual-core Atom.)

Because Chrome OS is basically a glorified Chrome browser, it shouldn’t be a slow, stuttery experience, but because of the wimpy CPU and squirrely trackpad, it is. The cursor jumps around, pages sometimes load slowly, and more than two or three open tabs can slow work to a crawl. As for video playback? Hit or (mostly) miss. Netflix isn’t supported yet, while YouTube and Hulu are only watchable at their lowest settings, though even then, they’ll occasionally stutter. Adobe shouldered some of the responsibility by admitting Flash wasn’t optimized for Chrome OS yet, but given how badly Flash playback is on my comparable Windows netbook, I’m not holding out hope in that area.

Some will argue it’s unfair to take on the CR-48. It’s a free netbook after all, a prototype that will never see store shelves, and given that, I should give it some slack. And when reached, a Google spokesperson said that performance issues, if any, vary on a case-by-case basis, emphasizing that it’s reference hardware the company will learn from in preparation for when consumer-friendly Chrome OS laptops hit some time later this year.

That’s true, but, prototype or no, it’s hard to tolerate a notebook that won’t even let some users do some pretty basic tasks. Google’s plan with the CR-48 was to show case the OS itself, but the hardware it’s loaded on flies in the face of the proposal that the hardware and web browser be ancillary because it’s hard to forget about hardware that gets in the way of the software. It’s like a Hollywood agent sending over a talented new starlet to glad hand studio insiders hung over and sporting a cheap $20 H&M dress.

I’m knocking the hardware, not the software, which like it or not, should be taken into consideration. In the case of Chrome OS, the relationship Google seems to be striving for is one more in line with Apple’s (AAPL), an almost unprecedented marriage of software OS and hardware. In this case though, the newly-minted marriage seems off to a rocky start. Because demo unit or not, making a strong first impression with thousands of pilot users, which include many in tech media, is hugely important.

That said, when vendors like Samsung release commercial-ready laptops with Chrome OS later this year, I’m sure they’ll have faster, better hardware. And while the OS still probably won’t let me do some things like having two windows side by side for easy multitasking, the rest of it works just fine. Overall, Chrome does a decent job of convincing me, with some personal rethinking of how the computer desktop should work, that I’ll one day go about my work with something like a cloud-based system to power it.

So Google, mission accomplished, albeit just barely. I’m convinced that Chrome OS has potential because I had enough patience to put up with the hardware quirks. But from now on, the CR-48 sits on my living room table, more an interesting conversation piece than anything else.