Friday, February 12, 2010

Chromium OS

Back in September of 2008, I wrote that I’d downloaded Google Chrome, to give it a try. I didn’t really get why Google had created a new web browser—especially since Firefox already exists; why not just make changes to that?—but I figured I’d try it out anyway. And then I never wrote about it again, but since then Chrome has become my default browser. I use it all the time, only using Internet Explorer when I have to for work, and occasionally using Firefox, but not that often. Why? Two main reasons:

  1. It’s cleaner and sleeker looking than IE or Firefox. Take a look at the screenshots below to see what I mean; Chrome takes up a lot less real estate than the other browsers, leaving more room for the browser window itself.
  2. It’s noticeably faster, especially when it comes to JavaScript. And this was Google’s main purpose in starting an open source browser; obviously all of Google’s sites depend heavily on JavaScript to function, so they spent a lot of time on optimizing the JavaScript engine, to make those sites run faster. Gmail is faster in Chrome than Firefox or IE; Wave is much, much faster, but Wave is a special case, because it’s very much a web-based application, even moreso than Gmail.

    Even preparing the screenshots below was noticeably faster in Chrome than Firefox or IE. (In fact, IE was terrible for this test; opening each new tab took seconds even before I’d loaded anything, plus a few seconds more to load the actual web page.)
chrome

ff

ie
So for reasons of speed and aesthetics, I have been using Google Chrome as my default browser pretty much ever since I first mentioned it, in that initial post. Because all of Google’s applications are web-based, and heavily dependent on JavaScript, they had a vested interest in making available a browser which would render those sites quickly, and provide a good experience to the user while on those sites.

But can we take that a bit further? Why yes, we can—what about netbooks? Those laptop-like things that are cheaper and more stripped down than full-blown laptops, and are only meant for those who want to surf the net? Is there any way we can improve those? Google decided that yes, these can be improved, and they came up with a new open-source operating system, called Chrome OS. (As mentioned, it’s open source; the open source project is called Chromium OS, while the final, Google-branded version that you would see on a laptop, would be Chrome OS. Just like the open source version of the browser is Chromium, while the Google-branded version is called Chrome.) As the name implies, the operating system basically is a browser.

I’ll let Google explain:


What are the benefits of this? The main benefit is speed. When you boot up a netbook running Chrome OS, you’re up and running in seconds. When I say “up and running,” I mean literally just a few seconds between the time you press the power button on your device, and the time that you’re surfing the internet. And I can verify these claims; I downloaded a version of Chromium OS that runs on a USB drive, just to try it out. As I was expecting, it’s incredibly slow overall; the OS wasn’t meant to run on a USB drive like that, and neither was it intended to run on a “regular” laptop, it was intended to run on a netbook, with a solid-state drive, and a very specific set of hardware. And yet, even with the horrible overall performance, when I pop in that USB drive and and press the power button on my laptop, it’s less than 30 seconds before I’m logged on and surfing the net. If I’m getting ready for work in the morning, and want to quickly log on to check my email or something, I can boot up from that USB drive, check my email, and shut down, all in the amount of time it would have taken to see the Windows splash screen if I were booting into Windows. In fact, if my desktop computer (which runs Windows Vista) has gone into sleep mode, it would be quicker to boot up cold into Chromium OS on my laptop than it would be to “wake the computer up” and log back in.

Here are some stats from my laptop, on how many seconds it takes for each stage of the bootup process:

Operating SystemSplash ScreenLogon ScreenAble to Open BrowserReady to SurfTotal Time
Windows XP648105463:25
Ubuntu 95418559
Chromium OSN/A22N/A325

startup time

Note that these stats are actually skewed a little bit, because I have encryption software on my laptop; when I boot it up, I have to log onto the encryption software first, and then I get my boot loader which lets me choose Windows or Ubuntu. (The USB drive bypasses all of that, and just boots right to Chromium.) I did my Windows and Ubuntu timings from the time when I was at the boot loader, after I’d logged onto the encryption software. So there are two important impacts to this, in terms of these numbers:
  1. Since the hard drive is encrypted, Windows is running a bit slower than it otherwise would have. It’s not actually that bad—I’d been expecting it to be slower, when I had to install the software—but based on my memory of how it behaved before the encryption software was installed, I’d estimate that we could probably shave 30–45 seconds off of the total number for Windows XP, if the drive wasn’t encrypted.
  2. Contrarily, this means that these numbers don’t include the initial hardware loading time in the Windows and Ubuntu stats, which they should, but do include them for Chromium, which they shouldn’t (since Chrome OS wouldn’t normally have that phase of startup on a real netbook). So the Windows and Ubuntu numbers should be a bit higher, whereas the real numbers would actually be lower for Chrome OS. (See the demo videos, such as the one below, where they show someone booting a netbook cold into Chrome OS; it really is just a few seconds.)
Interestingly, I was surprised to find that Ubuntu actually shuts down a bit quicker than Chromium:

Operating SystemShutdown Time (seconds)
Windows XP58
Ubuntu 911
Chromium OS16

shutdown time

So how did they get it so fast to boot up? Again, I’ll let Google explain:


Incidentally, if you’re interested in more videos on Chromium, see the Google Chrome Channel on YouTube.

Now, I’m already seeing people around the net who are questioning the need for this OS, but most of the arguments against it show that they don’t understand the intent behind the operating system. Actually, it really means that they aren’t behind the idea of a netbook in the first place; at most, they might like the idea of a cheap, less powerful laptop, but they don’t get the whole netbook concept. Remember, the netbook was never intended to be your primary computer; it’s meant to be a secondary device, for lightweight internet-based stuff, not the only computer you have. If you’re only going to buy one computer, make it a desktop or a laptop and put Windows or Ubuntu or something on it; but if you’re also going to get a secondary device, for browsing or bringing with you to check your email and Facebook from Starbucks, then make it a cheap netbook. If you can get behind that concept, then you can start thinking about whether Chromium OS would be a good operating system for that device; if not, then your arguments against Chromium OS aren’t against the OS itself, but the actual concept of the netbook.

Here are the two most common arguments I’ve seen against Chrome OS, and my rebuttals:

“The whole operating system is browser-based? What if I want an image editing program, or a video editing program, or an IDE? I can’t do everything on the internet—computers have to do things other than just browsing the web!” You’re absolutely right, but netbooks aren’t intended to be the only computers you’ll ever use. If you want to edit photos, or create movies, or write computer code, use your desktop or your laptop for that. That’s not what netbooks are intended for, and it’s not what Chrome OS is intended for. (This argument really boils down to, “if Chrome OS can’t do everything, then it’s useless!” which is just silly.) But if you just want to get on the web, and check your email or check your stocks or catch up on your news or burn a few hours on Facebook or the myriad other things people do online, that’s what a netbook is for. And for the situations where netbooks are useful/intended, Chrome OS is a great operating system for that netbook to use.

“What if I don’t want all of my data on the cloud? What if I want to control my data?” Really, this argument is a variation of the first one; if you’re not the type who has your data on the cloud, then Chrome OS isn’t for you. But are you sure you don’t already have your data on the cloud? Maybe you’re not using Google Docs or Google Wave, but don’t you use Gmail, or Hotmail, or Yahoo mail? Or Facebook? For that matter, I bet even your email acount from your ISP, and even your corporate mail servers, have web-based interfaces that you can access. I have ten email addresses that I can think of off the top of my head, including my work addresses, and they’re all either web-based, or accessible by the web. But set aside the idea of having your “data” on the “cloud,” because it just clouds the issue when you start thinking in terms of information and data. The real question is: How much of your time do you spend browsing the web? You can use a netbook running Chrome OS and never touch a Google site like Gmail or Google Docs or Google Maps; if you’re in a situation where you just want to browse the web, and that’s it, that’s what netbooks are for, and, again, I think Chrome OS is a great operating system to use for that netbook. For anything else, use a real computer, and by all means, don’t use a browser for everything.

So that’s my longer-than-necessary post on Chromium OS. A lot of this post focused on speed, rather than the features of the OS, but that was on purpose, because speed is the main driving force behind Chromium OS. It is, after all, as close as possible to being just the Chromium browser, with as little “operating system” as possible getting between you and the internet.

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