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Google Chrome OS: A Preview

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Google Chrome OS is Google's new operating system, designed to compete with Microsoft Windows in the netbook market. Chrome OS won't ship a final version until late 2010, but Michael Miller (author of the upcoming book Using Google Chrome OS) got his hands on an early developer copy and has a preview of the new operating system — which looks suspiciously like Google's Chrome web browser.
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Look out Microsoft—Google is entering the operating system market!

Google's entrée into operating systems is Chrome OS, also known as Chromium. Chrome OS is based on Google's Chrome web browser; in fact, the OS interface is almost identical to the browser interface. It's an interesting little operating system, designed to work with the latest generation of netbook computers—and as different as can be from Microsoft Windows.

Let's start with the basics. Chrome OS is a small and fast operating system designed for use solely with netbooks. It is not designed for traditional PCs—notebook or desktop—and will not be available for standalone installation. The only way you'll be able to get Chrome OS is to buy a netbook with the operating system preinstalled. So upgrading your current system to run Chrome OS is out of the question.

As to those Chrome OS netbooks, they're going to look a little different from the notebooks currently available for sale. Google is dictating certain features that hardware manufacturers must include if they want to use the Chrome OS; the most notable of these dictates is that the netbook include solid-state flash memory only, no hard disk storage.

This makes sense when you get into how Chrome OS works—and understand that it doesn't store any applications or data locally.

That's right; Chrome OS is a true web-based operating system. It stores all apps and files in the cloud, on Google's servers, not on your own computer.

That means, of course, that you need to be connected to the Internet to use your computer; if you have an Internet outage or are out of range of a WiFi hotspot, you can't even boot up, let alone access your files. That's a real paradigm change in the way we do things.

This also means that Chrome OS isn't for everybody. If you don't have constant access to an Internet connection, forget it; likewise, if you depend on resource-intensive traditional applications, whether that be Adobe Photoshop or a customized business app, Chrome OS won't cut it.

But if you use your computer primarily online, or if you perform traditional word processing and spreadsheet work that can be done as easily with Google Docs (or similar web-based apps) as it can with the software-based Microsoft Office, then Chrome OS will perform admirably.

Speaking of performance, one of Chrome OS' claims to fame is its speed. Even in its current alpha-release version, Chrome loads at least twice as fast as does Windows 7 on a comparable machine, and Google says it will be even faster when running on a flash-based netbook—7 seconds to load versus Windows' 50 seconds plus.

This speed is due in part to the new operating system being based on Linux, and the fact that because everything is web-based, it doesn't have to deal with loading a lot of background processes. In fact, think of Chrome OS as Linux using the Chrome web browser as a front end; that's as good a description as any.

That's right; the Chrome OS looks and feels pretty much like Google's Chrome web browser. If you were to use the Chrome browser strictly for web-based applications, such as Gmail and Google Docs, you'd get a good idea of what it's like to run the Chrome OS.

Because the browser is the operating system, everything you do has to take place within the browser. That means the only apps you can run are those that are web-based, whether developed by Google or by other companies. It also means that all your data is stored on the web, not on your computer; as with all cloud computing, that's both a plus and a minus.

One other unique aspect of Chrome OS is that it automatically goes online to check the integrity of its base code, as well as check for updates and fixes. This will reduce the effect of viruses and other malware; if your system has been compromised, you can essentially fix it just by rebooting.

So when will this latest and greatest operating system be available? The OS is currently in an early testing phase, but Google is saying that netbooks running Chrome OS should be available for Christmas 2010. Naturally, a lot can change between now and then, but what follows is a look at how Chrome OS works today—and is likely to work on final release.

Getting Started with Google Chrome OS

When you first launch the Chrome OS, you're presented with the login screen shown in Figure 1. This isn't a login to your computer, per se, but rather a login to your Google account. So if you have an existing Google or Gmail account, that's the information you enter.

Figure 1 The Chrome OS login screen

This is important because it means that the operating system, complete with your personal preferences, is now portable. Log on to your account on a different machine running Chrome OS, and it loads with all your preferences, applications, and data. If someone else logs into Chrome OS on your machine, they see their own preferences, apps, and data. Because it's based in the cloud, Chrome OS follows you from machine to machine.

By the way, this also makes your computer next to worthless to any thieves. Because they can't log on to your account, they can't log in to your computer. And because there are no apps or data stored on the computer, all thieves get is a piece of hardware and no valuable data.

Login completed; the Chrome OS now starts up. In the current test version, running in a virtual machine window, it took about 20 seconds or so to load. This load time is sure to decrease come the official release of the operating system.

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