Thoughts On The New Chromebook

This post was written when I was a child, I’m only keeping it here for archival purposes. All of these words should be only taken in context.

The newest edition to the Chromebook line was announced last week.

What’s so interesting about this device is the fact that it is the first readily available Consumer grade ARM laptop. Windows RT was supposed to be the first wave of ARM laptops, but Google — like usual — tried to cock block Microsoft.

The device

The device itself is your generic Macbook Air clone, which similar shades of grey with a black chicklet keyboard. The price is the star of the show, as it has been with the last couple of Google hardware releases (ie. Nexus 7). The build is that Samsung plastic we have all come to loathe love.

The device runs for around 250$ for the WIFI only model, and 330$ for the WIFI plus 3g model. You can tell that this device is being sold at cost, or with very low profit margins, just like the Nexus 7. What’s crazy about this, is that you can get this, a Nexus 7, and a Galaxy Nexus, all for under 800$.

It has a USB 3 and 2 port, which is doesn’t make much sense. If USB 3 is backwards compatible with 2, then why even include a standalone 2 port? It also has a full HDMI out, and a SD card slot.

All in all, your standard run of the mill laptop.

Fragmentation

The ARM part however, brings up a certain word that is commonplace in Android to Chrome OS. That’s right, Fragmentation!

Chrome OS (and by extension, Chrome) has a native code runtime called NaCL, or Native Client. The issue is, Native Client only works on x86/x64, and doesn’t translate over well to ARM without a full recompile. To solve that issue, Google has been working on pNaCL to make Native Client code translate between platforms without having to recompile and have separate binaries and the such.

But to quote the Wikipedia page on NaCL;

When Portable Native Client (PNaCl) is released, Chrome will enable Native Client (by default) for all pages and web apps, including those distributed outside the Chrome Web Store. The first public release of PNaCl is expected in late 2013.

We are in late 2012 you see, so obviously this is a big issue. According to the Chromium Wiki page, a public non-beta release was supposed to ship in March of this year, but I’ve heard nothing to support that.

This consumer facing issues this brings? Netflix doesn’t work, nor will any NaCL apps from the web store, like SSH.

Battery

The device ships with a two cell battery, which is crazy. This is an ARM laptop, the motherboard only takes up about 5×5 inches at the very least. Everything else in this laptop is all battery.

We could argue that this is a cost reducing move, and that Google has optimized the software well enough so it doesn’t really matter. However though, the device is rated for 6.5 hours of battery life.

You know what else is rated at that amount?

The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook. With fans. And an Intel processor.

Having comparable battery life to an Intel laptop isn’t a good thing. It’s pathetic.

Though, to argue with myself, according to a review of the device on Slashgear, this is what they say about the battery.

This Chromebook weighs in at 2.5 pounds and is 0.8 inches thin, working with what Google and Samsung say is 6.5 hours of battery life. It would appear very likely that Google has been modest in its estimation of how long this machine will stay active, even while movies are playing and oddities are rendering. Even with the 46% battery left I’m looking at right now, the machine has nearly 6 hours quoted as being left – and the machine has been out and on for at least 12 hours without need for a charge. This machine has some undeniable standby power abilities, that’s for certain.

If Google is acting modest, and this does actually have really awesome battery life, so be it. But i’m still skeptical about it.

Developer mode, and other concluding thoughts

They have moved away from the physical developer mode switch, citing,

Our partners don’t really like physical switches – they cost money, take up space on the motherboard, and require holes in the case.

It is also now a key combination to get into developer mode, which is,

To invoke Recovery mode, you hold down the ESC and Refresh keys and poke the Power button.

To enter Dev-mode you first invoke Recovery, and at the Recovery screen press Ctrl-D (there’s no prompt – you have to know to do it). It will ask you to confirm, then reboot into dev-mode

The more interesting aspect to developer mode on this device is how it will play with other Linux Distros. I know that Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, and various others have ARM builds, but i’m wondering if things like hardware acceleration will work on it. Or if they have the proper drivers for the SOC.

It’ll be interesting to see how Android runs on this as well, as it is rumored that the Nexus 10(which is also rumored to be released on the next Nexus event) will be using the same SOC as this device.

I can’t wait to get my hands on this device, Chrome OS is shaping to be an actual contender, now that they have killed the silly notion of browser everything. The first consumer facing ARM laptop is going to be great to play with— and hack on.

But, i’m not entirely sure that this will actually get Chrome OS to be a force to be reckoned with, there are still too many holes in this story for most people to really fall in love.

UPDATE:

Seems pNaCL is coming fairly soon (Thanks @sciwizam).