Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Chromebook Fail

At the end of last week I received my new Samsung Chromebook that was promised to all attendees of Google I/O 2011.

The form factor is very nice. It's light, with a great screen and a very comfortable, responsible keyboard. The trackpad actually depresses when you push it, and it's one of the nice trackpads I've used on a laptop-type device.

I resigned myself to the fact that it really is not a primary computing device. That is, like a tablet, it's an auxiliary device, something you would just use to do lightweight computing, such as browsing while watching TV or in a coffee shop. I actually loaned it to my girlfriend to see if it would replace her aging laptop.

So she called me up the next day and said "How do you change the screen timeout settings?" See, she was trying to cook something new, and had the recipe up on the Chromebook while she cooked. The screen kept timing out.

I didn't know, but when I got onto the device, I checked the system settings, which are very limited. Nothing for screen timeout. Turns out that you cannot change these settings. Here's the info from the Chromebook online help guide:
Your Chromebook screen also automatically turns off if it's been inactive for a period of time. When plugged in to a power source, the screen turns off after 8 minutes of inactivity. When unplugged, the screen turns off after 3 minutes of inactivity.
Yep, that's right. This is hard-coded in and not configurable. In a forum discussing this issue with the CR-48 test devices, testers complained. The response from a Google engineer was basically that they didn't want to add unnecessary complexity to the settings, so they went with default settings that most people would find acceptable.


I'm all for simplicity in user interfaces, but this is not something that should be unconfigurable. As in the above-mentioned use case, if you're using the device for any purpose where you are using it as a reference and are using your hands for something else, a 3-minute screen timeout is going to render it unusable. I haven't tested it for media (music or video), but this might also be a deal-breaker.

What's worse is that they actually got this feedback during testing, but decided to ignore it and release a production device without this setting enabled. Apparently they are selling well on Amazon, though I haven't heard anything about what the return rate is like.

In another forum, I found info about how to toggle the device into developer mode and modify the setting from the command line, though I ran into issues booting into developer mode and could never get access to the shell.

Also, the Chromebook didn't recognize my Droid when I plugged it in to see if I could transfer files back and forth between the devices, which made me wonder how the Chromebook handles driver issues (I'm guessing that in most cases, it just doesn't).

I really wanted to like this device, and approached it with reduced, realistic expectations that it would not replace a computing device with a full-featured operating system. Even with the lowered bar, so far it has failed. The hardware itself is great, but this is my first experience with Chrome OS, and from what I've seen so far they've stripped away too much to make it viable, even as a casual secondary device.