Google is taking two different but related approaches to the operating system space with Google Android and Google Chrome OS. And this month Samsung is coming along for the ride by launching new devices running each operating system. The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook is an 12.1 inch laptop running Chrome OS with prices starting at $430, while the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is a 10 inch Android tablet with prices starting at $500.
Samsung has loaned me one of each for review purposes. I’ll have more details about the design and performance of each device as I put them through the paces. But right now I wanted to take an opportunity to look at two devices that exemplify Google’s two approaches toward the OS. You can check out my unboxing video for more details after the break, but let’s take a look at what Google is trying to do with Android and Chrome.
Android has taken the smartphone world by storm over the last few years by offering an alternative to iOS which lets you run a combination of native and web apps while synchronizing your data in the cloud with Google’s calendar, contact, email, and other services. This year Google launched a new version of Android designed to bring a similar experience to tablets with larger displays and fewer buttons.
Chrome OS, on the other hand, is basically an operating system designed to do one thing: Let you get to the web browser as fast as possible. You boot a laptop running Chrome OS in under 10 seconds. That’s not how long it takes to resume from sleep. That’s how long it takes to go from completely powered down to already on the web. But while laptops with Chrome OS (or Chromebooks as Google likes to call them) look like ordinary laptop computers with a keyboard, touchpad, and display, the operating system is very different because you can’t install and run native desktop apps. You can “install” web apps which hook into the web browser for enhanced functionality — and when you install a web app in Chrome OS it will also show up on your Windows, Mac, or Linux computer running the Google Chrome web browser. Also, some data can be stored locally so you can run apps when you don’t have an internet connection.
Overall, both Chrome OS and Android offer ways to interact with apps, the web, and your data. Both feel like operating systems designed for companion devices such as phones, laptops, or tablets that compliment a primary computer rather than replacing it — but I wouldn’t be surprised if Google envisions a future where Chrome OS and/or Android replaces the standard desktop operating systems we’ve come to love and loathe.
There’s a lot of overlap between Chrome OS and Android, and I wouldn’t be shocked if one day the two operating systems merged. But for now, Google insists that Chrome OS is for laptops (and eventually desktop computers) and Android is for smartphones, tablets, and Google TV set-top-boxes.
Right now, this leaves consumers with a choice between two different styles of devices designed to run Google software. Android tablets have become ubiquitous in recent months, but the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 stands out from the crowd in a big way by being the thinnest and lightest 10 inch tablet around. It weighs just 1.25 pounds and measures less than a third of an inch thick. It feels much better in the hand than the 1.6 pound Motorola XOOM, for instance, without necessarily feeling cheap.
The Galaxy Tab 10.1 runs Android 3.1, which is the latest tablet-friendly version of Android. There’s a small, but growing number of apps designed specifically for Android tablets, but most Android smartphone apps scale up to fit the 10.1 inch, 1280 x 800 pixel display on a device like the Tab reasonably well. Some apps are better than others though, with text or images looking puny on the big screen.
The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook, on the other hand, doesn’t have this type of software compatibility issue because it’s only really designed to do one thing – run a web browser. As long as a web site works properly in Google’s WebKit-based Chrome browser, it works properly on Chrome OS, and it’s increasingly hard to find web sites that don’t support Chrome.
Google designed Chrome OS based on the idea that the browser is the most important piece of software on most people’s computers and it’s the thing we spend the most time with. It doesn’t hurt that almost all of the services Google offers that bring in revenue for the company are web-based.
By focusing primarily on the web browser, Chromebooks like the Samsung Series 5 can boot quickly and avoid malware easily since little data is ever downloaded to your local storage and even the data that is stored on your computer can’t easily break out of a sandbox to cause any real harm. Web apps are always up to date, because as soon as the web page is changed, it’s changed for everybody, so you don’t have to constantly install updates on your system, and Google can push browser and OS updates to all users as needed.
I’m a bit skeptical that a Chrome OS device could replace a traditional laptop for everyone, but if you’re in Google’s target audience of people who spend most of your time on a computer interacting with a web browser, it might just do the trick. I am someone who fires up a web browser first thing in the morning and then leaves it open all day, but I still like having native apps for certain functions such as editing audio, images, and video. I also prefer native desktop media player software most of the time, but that’s a habit that Google Music, Grooveshark, and internet radio services are starting to break me of. I’ll be curious to see if using Chrome OS for a while helps break me of any other habits and dependencies or if the whole experience just proves frustrating.
I’ll have more details over the next few weeks, but for now you can check out my unboxing and first look video below.