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Google Chrome OS: Pre-Release Review

Google’s Chrome OS: Putting Everything in the Browser Window

Think about how little you may be using your personal computer's hard drive anymore. Unless you keep a music or video collection, or store your e-mail locally instead of using a Web-based service like Gmail, you might not use it at all.

With that in mind, Google has developed Chrome OS, an operating system for laptops that does just about everything inside a browser window. As a result, forthcoming Chrome OS laptops from Asus and Samsung due later this year will be lightweight, low-maintenance and, most of all, inexpensive. Google's chief executive officer, Eric E. Schmidt, has said the target price range will be $300 to $400 for a model that's not a flimsy netbook.

I've got a prototype Chrome OS laptop, supplied by Google, which is not available for sale. Called the Cr-48 -- the name is the chemical symbol for an unstable isotope of the element chromium -- the matte-black notebook boots up Google's Chrome browser in seven seconds, and reawakens instantly from sleep. It has no hot, spinning disk drive because it doesn't need one to hold the small Chrome OS operating system. Sixteen gigabytes of solid-state memory do the trick.

The Cr-48 weighs less than four pounds and runs silent and cool. To stay connected to the Internet, it packs both Wi-Fi and a Verizon 3G account that includes 100 megabytes per month of free data. There may be different options when the real products go on sale.

The prototype has two nice nerdy touches. One is the matte screen, rather than a glossy one, much better for reading and writing text instead of watching video. And there's no Caps Lock key, because YOU DON'T NEED TO SHOUT ON THE INTERNET.

But can you really live inside a browser window all day and night? For many, the answer is yes. There are Web-based versions of just about everything these days. Plus, Google has created a Chrome Web Store full of apps that install inside its browser. Many are free. Some even work without a live Internet connection. By adopting a do-it-online mindset, you can perform just about any task as long as you're connected.

Use Gmail, Hotmail, or Yahoo for e-mail. Edit and review Microsoft Office files on the company's Office Live site, or switch to Google Docs, which should work offline by the time Chrome laptops are available. Manage your personal finances on Mint. Edit and store photos with the free Aviary Photo Editor app. Build your music library on Grooveshark, Pandora or one of many other apps. Make phone calls using Google Talk.

To upload and download personal files, you can plug a disk or thumb drive into the Cr-48's USB jack, or pop in an SD card. Many mobile phones will also plug in as USB drives, so you can get your pictures off your phone and upload them to Aviary, Flickr or Google's Picasa.

What can't you do? There's no way to sync your phone's contacts to Chrome OS. And for now, printing is tricky. You have to use Google's Cloud Print service to connect to a printer plugged into another computer. HP plans to sell printers this year that will let a Chrome laptop print directly.

Compared with a Windows laptop, a Chrome OS model will offer one big advantage: price. The Windows license for a laptop can run over $100. For a $400 computer, that's a big part of the cost. Also, the much simpler operating system is likely to be virus-free and require little maintenance. It updates itself periodically over the Internet. And there aren't many system configuration options to mess with, reducing another source of anxiety.

For people whose sole major computing task is uploading pictures to Facebook, a low-price, browser-only laptop that can upload and download files to plug-in storage devices seems like a cost-effective option. Without a disk, or long boot times, it's more relaxing to use, too.

Will these things sell? I think that, like netbooks and iPads, they'll need to go viral and become a consumer fad if potential buyers are going to overcome their doubts that they are somehow not getting a real computer.

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