Chrome OS Notebook Cr-48 Review: Thoughts for Education Deployments

google chrome os cr-48 notebook
When I recently discovered that Google had resumed sending out Cr-48's, I was being picked up by my wife and we were on our way to our first date night as parents without the baby. I promptly asked,

"Did I receive any packages today?"

She casually replied, "Oh yeah, there was one."

"And...?" I pondered.

"Oh, it just said Chrome on it." Classic, and thus began my weekend, chock full of exploration and excitement over the new hardware initiative from the folks in Mountain View. After a week of playing and a day long conference, here are my thoughts and how they tie in with future education deployments.

Why Chrome Notebooks May Displace Netbooks for 1:1:

Full Keyboard: The typing experience is pleasant as the full size keyboard bests any and all netbooks with anything less than 100%. I did not have to adjust to any diminished size or awkward key placement. Instead, it was typing as usual, as it should be. Students should not have to hunt and peck for keys when writing a paper or performing research. Speaking of keys, I'm a big fan of the special keys on the top row, particularly the dedicated browser back and forward keys, along with the full screen key. And yes, I like that there's no CAPS LOCK key. Other than writing CAPS LOCK, I don't ever type in all caps and neither should our students.

Build Quality: Initial reviews pointed out that the notebook is rather dull in design keeping in mind that the machine is not intended for public consumption. However, I will argue that the rubberized matte look and feel of the notebook is rather pleasant and functional. Not slippery like an aluminum Macbook and unadorned with logos and stickers as PC laptops generally are, the Cr-48 achieves its design aesthetic in that it represents a minimalist machine which is what the unobtrusive Google OS is striving for. With the included sticker set, you do get some customization capabilities, and I wouldn't be surprised if a "Powered by Google" moniker appears on these machines when they are eventually released.

google chrome notebook vs. macbook pro
Bright Screen: Although not as vibrant as an Apple iMac or Macbook display, the screen on the Cr-48 is surprisingly bright and clear. When compared to some PC Tablets and netbooks that I've used, the Cr-48 more than holds its own in terms of brightness and resolution. The fact that it is matte instead of glossy is observable in rooms with strong lighting as well as outdoors. I think this is a smart decision for schools given the amount of fluorescent lighting that is often used in today's classrooms.

Power and Connectivity: Since unboxing and the initial full charge, I've only managed to discharge the battery once in a week. Granted I did not use the machine as my full time computer during the weekdays. However, this past weekend, the Cr-48 made its conference debut, as I used it to take notes and prepare blog posts, all without a hitch. Thus, an impressive display for a standard battery, tons of standby time and enough juice to probably power a few classes' worth of instruction. This is critical when dealing with limited charging options for students in 1:1 environments. Despite some spotty wireless coverage at the conference, the Chrome OS notebook was able to find all available networks and connect with ease. Unlike the often confusing networking icon on PC's, the wireless signal icon in the upper right of the Cr-48 is familiar enough to users of any major smart phone or portable music device.

Bonus: I don't know why it took playing with the Cr-48 for me to realize that the Chrome browser allows for pinning of tabs, but I'm now hooked. What is new and home only to the Cr-48 (I believe) is the feature that the Gmail pin glows (white orb slides by top of pin) whenever there's a new email message. Sweet! On top of that, the speed at which the machine boots up, resumes from sleep, and signing in/out are all as fast as advertised. I will say that the Apple Macbook gives the Cr-48 a run for its money in terms of time from resume, but Chrome certainly wins in all other categories.

Why Chrome OS Notebooks are Still Beta:

google chrome os cr-48 notebook
The Trackpad: Of course, not all is rosy for the Cr-48. The biggest disappointment thus far has certainly been the trackpad. This isn't anything new, as the poor performance has been noted in several other reviews. In short, the trackpad has issues when using the index finger to scroll and then your thumb to click on the mouse. That particular motion has given me many problems, and I just can't seem to get it right despite adjustments in sensitivity. However, I will add this observation: the trackpad is still very usable if you use the tap to click feature. This includes using two fingers to scroll - it works. The problem is that if you've used any Apple multi-touch device, you get spoiled as their trackpad is simply outstanding. Thus, users grow accustomed to the near flawless experience they have when using a MacBook, iPod or an iPad. I assume the Google engineers will have a fine working trackpad in time for release, and this will be important as students tend to get frustrated with a poor trackpad experience (just ask them about those miniscule square pads on their netbooks).

Where did all of my programs go?  The biggest strength and selling point of the Google OS may also likely be its biggest downfall as any 1:1 initiative with these notebooks will require a major paradigm shift for our students. Programs such as Microsoft Office or its free open source alternative Open Office are still included on most netbooks as backups for students when Google Docs is not available or good enough. Thus, the Cr-48 represents a full, no-holds barred commitment to the cloud, and those with spotty wireless networks better brace yourselves. That being said, I can only imagine a world that grows without wires, and the future looks more and more like it's going to be run on servers as opposed to local machines. This is the bet that Google is making, and since they're driving a large part of the ship, I'm confident we'll be able to get there.

What about the specs? Interestingly, I neglected to include the hardware specifications for the Cr-48 notebooks. This happened for two reasons. One, I just plain forgot. Two, and more importantly, it just doesn't matter. Whether the notebook is equipped with a high speed CPU, a ton of RAM, and a huge hard drive simply doesn't come into play with Google's operating system. Although you can get the full detail on specs (and a solid review) here, the so-so numbers and the component brands that make up the Cr-48 don't mean as much when you rely solely on the cloud for usage. This could prove to be another interesting shift in thinking as hardware makers move forward with new products.

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John R. Sowash said…
Your review echoes mine fairly closely:

I am disappointed with the track pad as well, although it is nice that it goes recognize gestures, unlike my other PC's. Apple's track pads are by far the best.

The screen, as you noted, is excellent. I do not like the glare that is always present on my MBP.

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