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June 2011 Archive

Samsung Series 5 Chromebook 23 June 2011

On 5:04pm EST June 21st, 2011, I got an email inviting me to the super exclusive cool club: the Chromebook guru program. Today, June 23rd, 2011 8:05am I woke up to the sound of my iPhone 3G ringing to a certain 800 number. I have this paranoid tendency to ignore most calls, and my half awake zombie state didn’t exactly help my judgement. Fast forward two minutes, I checked my inbox and there was a terrifying Google Voice transcription sitting there in my inbox. That took two minutes because of how glacially slow it is to get anywhere on an iPhone 3G after the deadly error of updating to iOS 4.

Billable to sign for the shipment. You can go to Fedex dot com To track your package is Status, and determine if it is elligible to be held for pick up at a convenient FedEx location yo repeat this information, press any key yank you from Fedex goodbye. It felt oddly incomplete, because it turns out, it was. I listened to the (less disjointed) real message, and it was clear that the first forty minutes of the message was probably omitted, and Google Voice only picked up the small section after the beep. Apparently robots aren’t very good at talking to other robots.

I ran downstairs and checked the door. Nothing was there. I opened the blinds and waited. A few hours later (I managed to build a <canvas> pinball game in the time in between), I heard a sharp knock on the door. I’m not exactly sure of the time because I recorded it all on my iPad and apparently Apple feels that nobody ever cares about when the picture/video was taken and makes it virtually impossible to get that information.


So here it was, a brown box. Delivered by FedEx (Which is what’s called a “syllabic abbreviation” of Federal Express as opposed to the boring initialism UPS which stands for United Parcel Services, Inc.). Just because I can, I’ll tell you that the box was about 16.25x16.25x5.5 inches (my portable tape measure is only customary, no metric love). Inside is yet another box (boxes inside boxes are awesome!), but unlike the Cr-48, it’s not a nice friendly brown box with a jetpack-wearing labrat diagram. It’s a gray box with a picture of what’s supposed to be inside the box. The outer box’s packaging was just crumpled paper, which doesn’t look nearly as nice as the other stuff (I think the Cr-48 came with awesome little packaging peanuts).

So here’s the unboxing. Wait, the box was already opened. And what’s with the small empty green speech bubble sticker on the side? Anyway, the lack of tape probably means that some time travelling ninjas hijacked the FedEx plane in an attempt to rip out the TPM module chip in my Chromebook in order to infect the kernel with a keylogger/filter which replaces all references to time travelling ninjas with time travelling ninjas.

Inside is some nice white packaging foam. It’s neatly packed, and pretty cool. Sadly, there’s only one component wrapped in bubble wrap, the rather useless VGA adapter. Random side note: I think it’s rather interesting that the Chrome OS people decided that somehow a VGA adapter was somehow more important than an ethernet port. I’ve never plugged in a laptop to a larger display, and I don’t imagine that being a primary use case. But it would make sense to enable a web-oriented device to have faster web access.


So I turn it on, and it opens to something about reformatting the stateful partition because of those time travelling ninjas. It doesn’t really bother me, it reboots, I ignore some legalese and click buttons. It updates (which, by the way, took forever), I login the first time and it asks me to take a picture. The camera’s actually a bit nicer and the video isn’t laggy for some reason. This device is noticably faster than the Cr-48. I decide against taking a picture and just select the little erlenmyer flask with bubbling green liquid (presumably this is what gives the time travelling ninjas super powers).

Once again, it reboots. I login, it says wrong password, I try again, realize that somehow it forgot my wifi password, login, and it still says it’s wrong because it’s not done connecting to the router literally three feet from me, and I type my google acounts password again and press enter where it still fails yet again because I’m way too fast at typing, or at least I’ll say that because truthfully I’m not really fast at typing but it wouldn’t do any harm pretending I am because I really feel stupid not thinking about waiting for the wifi network to connect first, and so I stare at that little icon on the top right and then it clicks solid. I login.

I’m greeted a page that tells me how to use a trackpad. I go through the exercises to test my ability to do some rather advanced and intellectually challenging tasks such as “Click the circle” and “Move the circle”. I realized that it was probably just a distraction so that Chrome has some time to load all my apps and extensions by the time I’m done with these challenges.

Testing out the speed of this thing, I clicked Angry Birds, which to my surprise actually worked. Though I have to admit that trackpads aren’t great for these kinds of pointer-driven games. I would much rather play Angry Birds on my iPad.

But I guess as a product reviewer, I should probably focus on the hardware first in order to provide a vague semblance of structure and order to this review.


At a glance, the Chromebook is thin (But I lied, it’s not really that thin). Still, it’s quite heavy. It feels heavy and has a really solid build. And it comes with tons and tons of stickers, and that’s pretty spammy, but I guess it has this partially glossy finish that needs protection from ninja fingerprints (oh wait, that’s an oxymoron).

Oddly enough, among the first few things I noticed was that the hinge is a bit weaker than the Cr-48’s. Or at least, when you hold up the device, the lid will sort of collapse on itself under the force of gravity. I think this also happens with Macbooks as well, but it’s a little weird.

Second, is the little chrome logo on the surface has a sort of texture which feels pretty cool. The chrome logo also really bothers me because the colors just feel slightly off. Also, speaking of weird logos, the Samsung logo doesn’t have a (looks up typography terms diagram) crossbar on the “A”, which looks really weird. So it’s more like schevronsung or S^msung or something.

The display doesn’t go as far back as I would like, and with the absence of a protracter, I’ll use my powers of eighth grade geometry (oh wait, no I mean the eighth grade launch of Wolfram Alpha, the last time I ever needed to do math) to determine that the maximum angle is 127.5 degrees (approximately, or 2.226 radians or 4.452 tau-ians if tau day is your kind of thing).

The body of the Chromebook is nice plastic, it’s smooth and pretty hand friendly. The lid is a little weird though, the rim is actually slightly sharp. Not sharp enough to function as a type of improvised knife for murdering people nearby, which a Macbook would suffice at (Anecdote: My leg once started bleeding a lot because it rubbed a little against the sharp part of a macbook pro). But it’s still sharp enough that it feels inconsistent with the rest of the device and to make it feel weird opening and closing the lid. Also, on the lid is this huge terrible shiny bezel. It’s sort of cool for a while when you think it’s sort of cool that you can look at the movement of your fingers while you’re typing a blog post. But it very quickly starts getting annoying and makes the device look cheap. It simply doesn’t feel right in combination with the matte display and the soft diffuse black plastic body.

Sticking cables like USB and the power adapters makes a somewhat loud click, and rather annoyingly it’s nigh impossible to yank the cable out. Unlike the Cr-48 or any Mac, whose cables pop out fairly easily, this device seems to grab hold of the cables and never wants to let go.

I like how the new Chromebook is sleeker and looks more solid. It’s less bland (Once I actually mistook a random black paper folder/portfolio for a chromebook). But it also is less of a total Macbook clone. And when making something less of a Macbook clone basically means adding a glarey bezel and a cheap looking lid, sometimes the blatant clone is better.


I’ve actually never noticed the special browser function keys on the chromebook aside from the volume, brightness and power buttons. I’ve basically never used the full screen button, which I just pressed a second ago and I think this is actually pretty cool. Now I see why OS X Lion has that full screen emphasis. Though for some reason, I can’t leave one page full screened and Alt+Tab over to another non-fullscreen window.

The window switching button, which is more like workspace switching since you only ever have one window open at a time, is more accurately referred to as the “window jiggly button”. Because that’s exactly what it does when you’re on one window, as I’m always on. I guess it’s main purpose is to facilitate those politically incorrect image macros with bad taste about holding F11 in order to make a picture of Haiti (or Japan) shake. It would be a lot more useful if it was a tab switching button instead.

I’ve never used the refresh button, because it’s always easier to hit Ctrl+R and likewise for forward and back, it’s easier to hit Alt+Left or Alt+Right. Same with the search button, I just hit Ctrl+T.

Another weird thing is the placement of the Alt and Control keys. I generally never use the alt keys on my desktop computer, but I happen to use it a lot more often here (mainly for forward/back). But it’s also annoying because it still has a mac feel so I want to pretend that Alt is the same thing as the Command button, and then everything’s weird. I liked the Mac Home/End buttons, which I think were Cmd+Option or something. Anyway, I would really want Ctrl+Alt+Left/Ctrl+Alt+Right to work as Home/End.

Just on looks, the Series 5 keyboard looks a bit weird. The letters on the keys feel slightly off center and the words are printed in a much lighter shade of white/gray. I guess this would help the problems I sometimes have with finding the right keys at night (but I haven’t had this long enough to encounter nightime, in fact, it’s still just past noon). I’ve never noticed that the shift key has a sort of connected “ft” arm (I sure hope I’m using these typographic terms properly, and yes, I did just set the word typographic in comic sans ms).

The touchpad is better than the Cr-48’s but it’s still really quite lacking in comparsion to the ones on all the Macbooks. Maybe it’s just software, because I’m so used to three finger swipe for navigating forward/back, and Chrome on Mac’s Tabpose feature is genuinely magical. Also, two finger scrolling should be kinetic, it’s just that much more natural of an experience and makes the device more intimate.


The idea of a Chromebook is very similar to that of a tablet (such as the iPad or a future Chromepad). Tablets are very web, or at least web information-oriented, much like how the Chromebook intends to.

Google has included a rather nice physical keyboard in the device, which shows that they view the keyboard as a superior (and necessary) system for interacting with the web. It’s pretty obvious that the keyboard is great for writing long blog posts, but that’s really not that common of an exercise. Google has to demonstrate that not only is the keyboard useful in certain fringe circumstances, but an everyday useful component.

Google needs to show that the keyboard isn’t just something that gets in the way of interacting with the web, but a useful aid. An emphasis on search; tab search, page search, or web search could do that (and it would be a great use for that Search key). Firefox has a great feature called Type Ahead Find (There’s a chrome extension that tries to do the same thing, but it’s buggy, and sadly Chrome doesn’t sync localStorage state) where you can just type to navigate and click items.

And I don’t think they’ve properly done that. The web is currently still very much a pointer driven world, and the Chromebook touchpad is quite lacking.


Chrome OS is actually surprisingly useless in situations where the user is offline. You might find the adverb “surprisingly” a little confusing, because almost all the other reviewers seem to bring the notion that being useless while offline is somehow intrinsic to the concept of the platform. Like that it’s obvious that anything built on internet connectivity will always be useless offline.

Every Chromebook out there, to my knowledge has a sixteen gigabyte SSD. Sure a gigabyte or two is necessary for the operating system’s function, the kernel, and the other kernel for that fast background feature. Fourteen gigabytes is plenty of space for a cache. Absolutely plenty.

Chrome has the opportunity to basically cache everything it encounters (and the cache itself is already sufficient for offline browsing if it were accessible), and you can load everything from the cache when the user’s offline. Firefox does this, and I have no idea why Chrome doesn’t.

As for Google’s own applications, it’s rather disappointing how long it’s taking them to add offline. The Gears API isn’t too much different from AppCache, and it’s unreasonable to take over a year (basically centuries in chrometime) to port that feature over. But at least there’s an expected date (summer, which, come to think of it is actually pretty soon).


I don’t know why I’m even writing this section. But since I am, let me first write a disclaimer. Chrome progresses fast. A major release every six weeks. Things get fixed quickly. I remember (half a century ago in chrometime) either Larry or Sergey said something about how Chrome/OS is really about a radical shift that rather than having your software get slower (due to bloat, etc) over time, it actually gets faster. Everything here will probably be irrelevant very soon.

The bundled version, which I’m not using since I almost immediately switched to the always-better unstable ones, had some weird properties. Hovering over the wrench icon would give this horribly hideous black-gray gradient background (and really, that’s all I noticed). Unstable doesn’t have any of that.

Also, I was disconnected from my Wifi network three times in the process of writing this. It may be my wifi network’s problem, but it’s never happened to me before. Music Beta is acting buggy and sometimes stops after opening and closing the lid.


The very first impression is always from the hardware. When it’s covered with layers of stickers, that really does sort of subtract from it’s beauty. I don’t want to spend time peeling off six layers of stickers on a laptop already in a bag inside a foam cover inside a box inside packaging inside another box. The hardware underneath all those stickers is pretty nice, with exception to the lid which has a somewhat sharp edge.

The second impression comes from the setup of the software. I guess legalese is fairly standard, so I can’t take points off for that. Updating right then and there hurts the user experience. You can do that in the background. That’s the point. There’s probably some security rationale, but that initial feeling has a big impact on what users feel.

Once that’s done, the user learns that the device is practically useless offline.

Chrome OS feels incomplete. It’s probably deliberate.

Chrome OS is visionary, and part of the idea is that software can improve over time, rather than getting worse over time. Starting with a flawless experience means that there’s only one way to go: down (That’s why if you’ve owned a Mac for any amount of time, the weakest Macbook Air at the Apple Store feels so much blazingly faster). Starting with a terrible experience gives profound opportunity for a great anagnorisis, which wikipedia defines as

a moment in a play or other work when a character makes a critical discovery. Anagnorisis originally meant recognition in its Greek context, not only of a person but also of what that person stood for. This first batch of Chrome OS devices represents the beginning of Google’s great plan, that of instituting the new paradigm of progressive enhancement rather than regression. The deliberately sour experience gradually and noticably improves every six weeks. It’s the equivalent of waking up one day and seeing that your toaster now makes coffee.

This is what Chrome OS represents. It’s not the web as a platform, because any platform can run applications. It’s about what the web represents, a continuous online system where things improve every day, without notice. Change just happens. Updates are silent and computing becomes alive.

Or at least, I want more free hardware.

Why the Chrome Web Store is Bad for the Web. 02 June 2011

Note: I’ve changed a few things that will hopefully make my point a bit more clear

Apple got it right in 2007.

If you’ve read any of the other posts in this blog, you will probably come under the assumption that I’m a devout follower of the Church of Google. Thus it will probably be quite a surprise to read the headline, something which appears downright sacrilegious: it questions the infallibility of the great Google. But I try very hard to maintain some semblance of objectivity and rationality, and this post will be about why I think the Chrome Web Store is bad for the web.

The Chrome Web Store is the applications and extensions gallery for Chrome. It’s Google’s centralized repository and directory for discovering Chrome-related things. Just hearing the name of it, you can probably tell, it’s likely quite inspired by the iOS/iTunes/Mac App Store. It’s not because they aren’t able to innovate (or it might, but I won’t take that view), but it’s probably the result of the huge App Store boom. It’s not that even what Apple did was particularly innovative, but somehow it managed to secure billions of dollars for the company, and all it’s competitors quite rationally want a chunk of it. This however, isn’t about improving the state and future of the web, but rather the indulgence of buzzwords. This post isn’t only about the Web Store, but rather the entire Chrome Applications and Extensions systems. From distribution to installation and the user experience afterwards.


There are two types of installable web applications that exist in the Chrome Web Store: hosted apps, in other words “glorified bookmarks”, and packaged apps. Glorified bookmarks are relatively hard to create, expensive and have no real additional functionality. Packaged applications evade the standardized mechanisms for offline web properties and eliminates many of the advantages of web apps in the first place.

Chrome’s developer overview for creating installable web apps describes the system as a solution to one, rather insignificant, problem. It’s the problem of permissions escalation: some technical detail that hardly seems important. Put simply, it’s that users get annoyed when they’re asked to hit “Okay” to annoying permissions prompts. And so Google’s solution is to invent a certain class of web site which has different security properties, where all the permissions are put into a single prompt.

To users, however, the existence of a web app is a solution to a much different user experience problem: they want to hit nice large pretty icons to go to sites which they frequently visit. But somehow, the solution they opted for creating these large clickable bookmarks is quite terrible. The only user-facing purpose of installable applications is the ability to bookmark with a large icon, something that Apple got right with iPhone OS in 2007.

Apple got it right.

I love those four words in that order, it feels so sensationalist and rebellious. But before the Cult of Apple leaps on that statement, notice the wording “Apple got it right”. It doesn’t strictly mean that whatever Apple’s doing now is right, just that what it did is right. In fact, that’s exactly what happened. Apple got it right, then made it different, and Google made it wrong.

First, we need to recall the distant year of 2007. It was quite a while ago, and I won’t pretend that my memory is that great. But it was a long time ago, a full year before the first beta release of Google Chrome. The iPhone was released with it’s plethora of eight apps and no ability to install more. The App Store didn’t exist, and the closest semblance was the for jailbroken devices (Cydia came later). A few months later, Apple released a series of updates, and Steve Jobs signaled what he believed to be the future of iPhone applications: The Web. It doesn’t come surprising that Apple’s Mobile Safari was and likely still is (more or less) the best browser for any mobile device.

The important aspect is the way these web applications were installed. You went to Mobile Safari, and browsed around. You found a web app, and you used the web app the way the web was intended. No installations, you just navigate to a URL and start using it. You find the app useful and/or awesome, and you “bookmark” it. But, instead of actually doing the browser “bookmark”, you hit the button right below: “Add to Home Screen”. It asks you for a name for that application, automatically prepopulated with the document page title. You hit “Add”, and you now have a nice, shiny icon on your home screen. You can hide the browser chrome and it becomes indistinguishable from the normal native application experience.

That app icon is just an image URL specified with a single meta tag. It’s totally decentralized in every way, and represents the openness and simplicity that simply makes sense for this platform. All a developer needs to do to enable their web site to turn into a fully fledged web application is to add a <link rel="apple-touch-icon" href="/customIcon.png"/> in the head section of the page.

Contrast that with what Google requires: creating a Google checkout account, entering credit card information, navigating to the Chrome Web Store page and clicking several links in the footer in order to navigate to the page where you have to pay $5 for creating an app, create several icons, copy the manifest.json template and editing some values pointing to the icon locations, going to chrome://extensions, enabling developer mode, adding the unpacked app to make sure that it works, then going back to the original directory, zipping it up, and uploading it to the Chrome Web store, where you have to write a description, add screenshots, reupload an icon, publish, wait ten minutes, and then spam the internet with that link and edit your site’s code to point to that page. It’s an awful much to go through in order to just create a bookmark.

Apple turns evil.

This subtitle is intentionally misleading. I don’t really think Apple’s evil, but that loaded four letter word is much more concise than the more appropriate phrase “Apple adopts a new platform and shifts ideologically to favor a system which is ultimately in conflict with and entirely inapplicable to the web in its current state or in the foreseeable future”.

Apple’s prescience of the power of the web was sadly a bit anachronistic. The web technologies that would enable their vision were not yet ready. The second browser wars haven’t really even begun, and the jailbreakers, despite handicaps, still managed to develop that platform more than the officially sanctioned web developers could. Browsers were too slow, hardware was to slow, there weren’t enough features, not enough could be done, and the paradigm was not well understood.

Apple followed the lead set by the jailbreak community and launched their own native application development and distribution system: The App Store. It was a hit, and soon became a super huge buzzword. It an all that it represented: centralized one click micropayment driven mobile advertising funded indie developer weekend novelty apps.

Google gets it wrong.

So there was an App Store craze, and everyone wanted one. So it logically follows that Google built an App Store. But the web had no notion of apps. There were web applications, but they weren’t rigidly defined as apps. This is where Google got it wrong. The Chrome Web Store needed to sell apps, and had to create a dichotomy out of the web in order to do so. It created a distinction between web apps and websites where none had existed and shouldn’t have ever existed.

The false dichotomy.

Steve Jobs said that on Mobile, people want Apps, not websites. Before blindly mimicking the concept of apps on another platform, one should probably explore why users like apps over websites. It’s because the mobile app offers a _better mobile-optimized _interface to whatever they’re doing.

Websites aren’t generally designed for mobile, they are often slower, and can’t make use of persistent user interface elements like a tab bar. Apps aren’t popular because of the existence of the App Store. It’s because there’s additional value provided in having those apps, that users use the App Store to get them.

However, web apps, just like websites are optimized for normal computers. Web apps are no better than web sites, and when web apps really have nothing to provide, their respective web stores are useless.

One purported reason for creating the distinction between apps and websites is to give developers the opportunity to charge for the application in the web store. But why should the ability for an author to receive money for his or her respective works be exclusive to web apps? Why not all web sites?

While it’s quite clear that if anything meant to supplant a desktop application and is built for the web can be considered a “web app”, nearly everything else exists in a sort of gray area. Facebook, Twitter and the other social networking are predominately content focused, but have some app-like characteristics, and so they could be considered “web apps” too, despite how there aren’t really desktop equivalents. But what about sites like the New York Times? Pure content sites would logically seem to be the farthest one can go from the concept of an “application”. It’s clear that any web site can be considered a web app.

Since anything can be considered a web app, the Web Store is a mere directory of a certain number of websites. It’s a limited subset of the internet with terrible discoverability properties restricted only to sites where the owner (or a particularly devout fan) is willing to pay $5 in order to allow a subset of users to bookmark the site. It’s proprietary, no other site can have quite the same properties as the web store because Google has the Web Store URLs hard coded into chrome somewhere. Searching in the web store really isn’t that great either, with no ability to search reviews, no pagerank, no search operators, no ability to search within the content of apps. You would figure that if Google were to clone a subset of the internet, at least they would get search right.

This closed, exclusive and excessively tedious process for creating mere bookmarks attacks some of the web’s traditional benefits and ideals.

Packaged applications.

The above sections dealt with how the “glorified bookmarks” are useless and downright harmful. There is a second class of applications which are similar to the former in that they also get a pretty large prominent and clickable icon, but different in that they actually provide functionality that is different from mere ordinary websites. Its virtues include that they tend to work offline and have the ability to do certain things that normal web apps can not do. However, it pretty much stops there.

Packaged apps work offline, but their mechanism evades the standardized system of HTML5. Rather than promoting the use of standards, they promote the use of a proprietary and nonstandard signed zip package.

As they’re “packaged”, they aren’t really “true” web apps, because they don’t actually operate in the scope of the web. They are much closer to desktop apps, practically. They have no URLs, and thus can’t be linked to, evading the very first two letters in HTML and HTTP: “HyperText”. One of the greatest things about web sites is that they can be linked to, and they almost always share that universal identifier to share with people. It’s universally accessible and one of the few things that actually enables intra-site interoperability.


While the “glorified bookmark” class of applications, which make up the vast majority of the Chrome Web Store, can be quite easily fixed by implementing something akin to the iPhone OS home screen web apps, the “packaged applications” are a bit more interesting. They are the source of that problem which the applications system was meant to resolve: permissions. In the current state, there is no system for handling multiple permissions on the web, aside from flooding the screen with infobars, when even that only partially works. What the web needs is a user friendly, informative, and useful system for giving additional permissions to web sites.

Along with that, the Web Store handles the selling of applications. Accepting money is a two part process, consisting of authentication and payment. Browsers should handle user identity, since they have the resources to do it right, in a nuanced, secure, efficient and user friendly way. Once that’s done, payment would be a logical extension to that. A developer could drop in a Google Checkout widget to have one-click in-app-purchases by tying into the secure browser identity system.

The Chrome Web Store should be reduced to a community maintained directory of useful web applications, something like a wiki, and there shouldn’t be a $5 fee to add applications.

Some people have expressed the idea that the Chrome Web Store is useful because it allows Google, a trusted party, to take down dangerous or malicious applications quickly. And while this is true, note that the Web Store is not actually the sole means to install chrome applications, and a malicious party would most likely exploit those alternate channels, and the only way to combat those is to institute a sort of Kill Switch, much like the kind that iOS, Kindle, and Android already implement.