CR-48

Hardware Specifications

       CPU: 1.66 GHz Atom N455
       GPU: Intel GMA (Pineview)
       RAM: 2 GB DDR3 (1333)
       Storage: 16 GB SATA SSD
       Display: 12.1 inch 1280 x 800 LCD (16:10)
       WiFi: 802.11a/b/g/n
       Bluetooth 2.1 +EDR
       Cellular: CDMA EVDO (Verizon)
       Battery: 63 Wh Lithium-ion (8 hours)
       Dimensions: 300 mm x 22 mm x 23 mm
       Weight: 1.7 kg

The Future

       Well, Google's idea of the future, at least. The Google CR-48 is considered a "reference device", which is to say that it isn't a retail product itself, but rather the example of what future retail Chrome OS devices should be like. The CR-48 will never go on sale to the public, and is only available to testers selected at random by Google.

As you may have guessed, I was selected as one of those testers in December 2010, and have had the opportunity to test drive both Chrome OS and Google's vision of what a netbook should be. This page will talk primarily about the CR-48 as a hardware device, not Chrome OS itself. If you are interested in Chrome OS, head over to the Chrome OS Research page. You might also want to check out the CR-48 related posts on my Blog.

First Impressions

       The first thing that strikes you about the CR-48 is how plain it looks, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Since the CR-48 is not a retail device, it is blessedly free of the branding, stickers, and other miscellaneous text that we have become so accustomed to on consumer electronics. Every inch of the case is matte black with a soft, almost rubberized texture. It reminds me of the old IBM Thinkpads.

The second thing you will probably notice is how simplistic the design is. The CR-48 only has a VGA port, SD reader, headphone jack, USB port, and of course the port for the charger. Even the original ASUS Eee 701 had more ports than the CR-48. If the CR-48 was a normal netbook, this would be a concern, but with Chrome OS, there is very little you are going to be doing with peripherals on the local machine anyway, so loading it up with USB ports or card readers just doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

The 12.1 inch display running at 1280x800 is easily visible and looks great. The hinge action feels sturdy, as does the rest of the machine. While the CR-48 is a lightweight machine, it doesn't feel like it will break in your hands.

Speaking of hands, the CR-48 uses a "chicklet" style keyboard, which I can't say I am a big fan of in general. While the keyboard is decent enough for the sort of use this machine will be getting, I found it isn't quite as sensitive as I would like; if I start typing too fast, the board seems to have trouble registering all of my key presses.

Under the Hood

       While the outside might give you the impression that Google was just trying to push out a budget netbook as cheaply as possible, the CR-48's hardware specifications tell another story. It is powered by an Intel Atom N455 running at 1.66 GHz, with 2 GB of DDR3 RAM. Storage is provided by a way-overkill 16 GB SSD.

But the CR-48's biggest assets are it's connectivity options. It features dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 2.1, and integrated 3G cellular modem running on Verizon's CDMA network. The CR-48 comes with 100 MB fee data per month for 24 months, but you can also sign up for daily and monthly data plans if the 100 MB just isn't going to cut it for you.

If there is any component of the CR-48 that's lacking, it seems to be the GPU. The Intel GMA chipset just doesn't seem to have the power to play HD videos smoothly, and game performance (in what little games are available for Chrome OS) is pretty rough. Even the most simplistic of games stutter and run at low FPS. This might be something that gets addressed later in an updated driver, but for the time being, video leaves a lot to be desired.

Practical Performance

       The CR-48 is a decently powerful machine for a netbook, and Chrome OS is optimized to be as light and agile as possible. The cumulative effect creates a machine that is exceptionally usable and convenient.

It's clear that a lot of effort went into the CR-48's startup and power management. Startup and shutdown are incredibly fast, but the CR-48's long runtime battery and excellent power saving capabilities mean you won't really have to shut it down very often anyway. You can leave the CR-48 in standby mode for up to a week, and in practical use you can simply leave the machine sleeping in between uses and just put it on charge every few days.

In terms of usability, I found that the trackpad takes awhile to adjust to. The entire pad acts as a button, so clicking is performed by physically pushing down on the pad. This works pretty well, and I have found myself missing the feature on more traditional laptop trackpads. The trackpad also supports limited multi-touch and gesture controls, though these are considerably less enjoyable.

Scrolling is pretty nice in theory: simply drag two fingers down anywhere on the pad. But for some reason, this action is not always detected properly, and sometimes doesn't seem to work while a webpage is still loading. I found in many cases it was easier to simply use the scrollbars rather than wrestling with the scroll gesture.

Right-clicking is performed by pushing the trackpad down with two fingers, an operation that Chrome OS seems to have incredible difficulty detecting properly. Even when the system detects that you have used two fingers to push the pad, most of the time it will pick up the slight movement between your fingers as a motion of the cursor, and take focus away from whatever you right-clicked.

Developer Switch

Developer Switch        First and foremost, the CR-48 was designed to be a research and development tool, not necessarily a consumer marketable device. Accordingly, it has one feature which is unlikely to ever see the light of day in a consumer-oriented Chrome OS device: the "Developer Switch". The Developer Switch is a small switch hidden in the battery compartment of the CR-48 which puts Chrome OS into Developer Mode. More information about Developer Mode can be found on the Chrome OS Research page.

To access the Developer Switch, simply shut the CR-48 down, remove the battery, and look for a small piece of black plastic right next to the battery connector. Removing this piece of plastic will uncover the Developer Switch. Move the switch towards the battery connector to enable Developer Mode, then replace the battery and power the CR-48 back on.

When booting back up you will see an image of a sad CR-48 and a warning about image verification being turned off. Simply press ctrl+D to bypass this warning and continue booting Chrome OS. The first time you boot in Developer Mode, Chrome OS will give you a warning message and wipe the machine back to factory defaults. As all of your apps and documents are stored on the Internet, all this really means is that the machine will forget your Google account and will need to be reconfigured against your WiFi AP.