Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Google Chrome Web Store Review: Weather Apps

When it comes to weather apps it usually boils down to the three top contenders: WeatherBug, Wunderground, and the Weather Channel. Before I got a smartphone I used for everything, but the WeatherBug app for Android blows all others out of the water and has become my main source of weather information. Weather Channel has always been rubbish, as far as I'm concerned. Still, here's my attempt at an unbiased review of all three apps in their Chrome permutations.

Weather Underground - This time around, it's Weather Underground that is my least favorite. A quick look at the app page shows it is by far the prettiest, featuring a full-screen shot of some gorgeous weather phenomenon related (I assume) to your own location and conditions. Unfortunately looks is about all this app has to offer. It only displays the time, current temperature, humidity, and wind speed, as well as a 5-day high-low temperature forecast. None of the information is clickable and there is no way to get to a full forecast without going to the regular website. This app also lacks radar, which is essential for anyone really interested in the weather. If you just want something basic and pretty to look at, this will suffice, but if you're more concerned with the weather, keep reading.

The Weather Channel - This is actually a decent app, though it lacks some core functionality and has all the aesthetic appeal of a cinder block wall. It may appeal to Weather Channel fans and folks who want as much information as possible on the front screen, but the problem for me is that "What you see is what you get." Clicking on any links to a detailed description of the weather just opens a new tab to the infinitely laggy In fact, the radar links to as well, and the results are slow and ugly. One of the  points of a web app should be to keep it all in one tab, and if Weather Channel can figure that put, they may be a real contender.

Weather Window Beta by WeatherBug - For the sake of my credibility, I was really hoping this wouldn't be my favorite app, but despite a few drawbacks WeatherBug wins the day again. The app displays all of the information on its home page that the Weather Channel app does, but in a far more visually appealing way. Weatherbug also features a "Weather Window" similar to Wunderground's idea, but in an awkward box in the middle of the screen. The ad at the bottom is also pretty ugly, but it's below the fold on my CR-48's screen so it's not really a hassle.

What it all comes down to for me, though, is the amount of information available and the ease of accessing it. Weatherbug has a week-long visual forecast, but also offers textual descriptions of the upcoming weather as well, all without leaving the tab. It also offers radar in the app itself, and while I wish it were bigger or could be made full-screen, it's still nice and feature-rich as far as radar goes, and a lot faster and prettier than Weather Channel. Weatherbug's app also features web cams, which I've already found indispensable for checking up on driving conditions.

It's still early in the life of the web store, and I think most apps have a "beta" disclaimer somewhere, but the weather apps are off to a pretty good start. Nobody has it perfect yet, but if developers focus more on designing these apps like apps and not just pretty websites, they will go a long way.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Destroy your own Chrome OS Notebook!

Google made nerds around the world cringe when they destroyed 25 new CR-48 Chrome OS Notebooks while filming this video to prove the benefits of cloud-based computing. After all, if all of your data is online, it doesn't matter if your internet terminal is destroyed. Just fire up another one, sign in with your account, and everything is just as you left it!

Well now you can put your own CR-48 through its paces, even if you haven't gotten one in the mail yet. The Google Chrome OS Demolition Lab has just opened up. It's basically an interactive version of the video, showing various demolitions as you ask the lab tech to carry them out. They seem to be taking suggestions though, so if you have a particularly violent end in mind for a CR-48, ask the techie and they might just do it!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Good News, Bad News, and a Challenge.

It's been five days since I put my old laptop away and took up the Chrome OS challenge to do all of my computing via the cloud. It's become abundantly clear that I need to sign up for a couple accounts, one to upload the backup drive from my old box, and one to do the same for work files, but other than that it hasn't been a huge adjustment. And it's been a fun one at that, getting to know and use a new device specifically intended for it. Still, it has its ups and downs.

First, for the good, I'm loving the battery life on the CR-48. I've only been plugging it in at night, and then carrying it with me and using it as I need it throughout the day. Since it goes to sleep and resumes to quickly, I don't hesitate closing the lid when I'm not doing something, and that helps. My Asus has a battery life of about two hours so I feel downright spoiled to be able to use the Chrome Notebook so freely.

Unfortunately I've been having occasional problems connecting to wifi after resuming, and even at its best it takes about 10-20 seconds. Now I'm not going to complain about it, but the whole point is to be able to open the lid and BAM, you're on the internet. Especially if I'm only using it to look something up real quick, I might spend more time waiting to get online than I do searching.

The touchpad has also been driving me nuts. I tend to keep bumping it with my hands while typing, causing many an accidental deletion. It's also a little too difficult to press and hold for dragging and highlighting.

If it seems like I'm nitpicking, it's only because I feel like they've done a great job on the most important aspects of the OS and the CR-48. It's fast, easy to use, and since I already have a Nexus One and a Google account that spans many of the web utilities I need, it's been very natural. However, there is still at least one hurdle to leap.

I write a weekly HTML newsletter for Gaia House that we send out to about 700 people. Fortunately for me, since we work on the University schedule, I have a few weeks to figure out how to accomplish it via the cloud.

The current process goes like this: I write the newsletter in HTML using Bluefish. Once it's edited and ready I use an FTP client to send it to our webserver. Then I use the "Insert HTML" feature of Thunderbird to send it out to our Google Group. Thunderbird was the only Ubuntu app I found that could send emails in HTML format, and figuring out how to do that without legacy software will probably be the hardest part. Suggestions are welcome.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sweet Chrome Chicago

I suspect the reason behind Google's very generous offer of 100MB/month Verizon 3G for the Pilot Program is a simple one: Even if you have wifi at home and work and most of the places you go, there will still be times when you can't get online, namely for the 20 seconds or so it takes to locate a hotspot. Let's face it, the device is pretty much useless without an internet connection, and I think they just want people to be able to log on if they haven't had a chance to get the wifi password yet.

Still, I was instructed to kick the tires on this sucker, so I'm currently posting from Highway 57 N on the way to Chicago. I'm getting 3 bars and it's still pretty snappy. Even Facebook is loading as fast as it does at home.

I can't help but be reminded of Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day, typing on his laptop while his dad drives into Washington, and somehow he's connected to the internet. "One day I'll be that cool," I told myself, and what do you know.

Before I pack things up again (I get carsick), I want to mention that I left the old Asus back at home and I've taken my CR-48 on the road with me as my only computer. If this isn't a good test of one's abilities to cut ties with legacy software and commit to the web, I don't know what is. I'll let you know how it goes!

Friday, December 17, 2010

The First 24-ish Hours

Old obsession, meet new obsession. 
Well it's been a full day or so with my new machine, and I swear I slept at some point in there. It's been exciting, diving into the cloud like this, and I'm already experiencing many of the benefits and drawbacks.

It's worth noting that I've been using an Asus G1-S B2 as my main computer for two or three years now, and despite its age, the 2.40GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and GeForce 8600M GT GPU can handle pretty much all of my web, entertainment, and graphical design needs with ease. In fact, many of my daily habits and much of my work revolve around it, and I've undoubtedly taken its performance for granted. The CR-48's comparatively weaker 1.66GHz single-core Intel Atom will take some getting used to if I am going to try to use it for all of my home and work computing needs, but that's kind of the point.

So after waiting for an agonizing few hours, the little orange light turned white and I powered up my new toy. Despite the advertised 10-second boot time, which I've found to be accurate, it was actually only about 4 seconds before I was setting up my account. The process was simple -- maybe a couple minutes -- and by the time I was done I had all of the apps, extensions, bookmarks, and the theme I've been using on my old laptop. Literally, it took less time to go from off and cold all the way to "Oh hey, here's my entire web experience," than it takes to make oatmeal. Score one for the Chrome team. 

they know i never use caps...
There are  obvious pros and cons to the device, most of which have already been pointed out on several other sites. So instead of going over the ubiquitous stuff, I'm just going to talk about the good and bad I've experienced so far.

The Keyboard is one of the most noticeably different aspects of this notebook, with the missing CAPS key being the part getting the most attention. Personally I rarely have use for that key and I like having a New Tab button so close to home row. However, I'm disappointed in the lack of a Home, End, and especially a Del key. I do a lot of editing and I use all three frequently enough to have been hindered by their absence within ten minutes after setup. The lettering on the keys is also too dark to see very well at night, so users with complicated passwords will be squinting.

Other than those hangups though, I'm a big fan of the keyboard. It's roomy enough for my hands to type comfortably and the keys feel and sound pleasant to press. The row of browser buttons along the top is cool but I've yet to get into the habit of actually using them, so I'm trying not plug in a mouse. The touchpad is good but still inhibitive enough, as they all are, to make me want to find shortcuts.

The Chrome Web Store launched recently and, as I mentioned previously, I've already been through it to try this app and that. I plan on posting regular reviews of specific apps later on, but there's still something to be said about the whole Chrome Apps experience.

At the time I write this, there are just over 1,400 apps on the market. While this is a paltry amount compared to Android's 60,000+ app market, it's already doubled its offerings in a little over a week since it opened. Unfortunately I've found a ton of them to be fraudulent, nothing more than a link to a popular site, and these apps are always authored by someone other than the site they are for. Hopefully the Chrome crew will take some lessons from Android and keep a slightly closer eye on things.

In the meantime, I've found a dozen or so apps worth installing. Some of them work far better for me than they did on my old laptop (Clicker.TV), some of them are buggy but hopeful with a little development (Weather Window Beta by Weather Bug), and some of them don't work for me at all. For instance, for the second most popular app on the market, the NYTimes app app was surprisingly unusable. All in all though, the store is promising, easy to use, and I can't wait to see it fill up with more official apps.

The Overall Speed of the CR-48 is generally good, even impressive, and that's how Chrome is supposed to be: A new tab with my apps listed takes about two seconds flat to load, though the Omnibar loads instantly. Pages come up quickly as well, with the only caveat being the incredibly laggy scrolling until they are fully loaded. Grooveshark runs and streams quickly and smoothly. I even tried out the webcam with Google Talk video chat and it was fast enough to enjoy.

Unfortunately it just doesn't have the power to tackle some fairly necessary and common jobs -- the poorly edited pictures in this post are evidence of that. Advanced Image Editor by Aviary runs so slow that the cursor always lags, it's just a matter of by how much. This makes the finer maneuvers like Free Select a true pain in the neck to attempt and makes me miss GIMP something fierce. Low-quality video plays without any problems, but you can forget about watching last Sunday's Simpsons in any HD format. Word², one of my favorite Chrome apps, is just fast enough to be playable and just slow enough to change your mind.

This isn't everything by a long-shot, but it's a good enough start and there will be more to come. At the very least, the CR-48 convinced my girlfriend to install Chrome on her Macbook, import all of her bookmarks, and sync it to her Google account so she can use my new toy too. 

If you have any questions about the Chrome Notebook Experience, feel free to ask.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Strapped In for Launch

The box, complete with assembly instructions.
Hamsters Away! In case you've been offline for the last few months or have something better to do than follow Google's every move and breath (I don't), they recently launched the Chrome OS pilot program by mailing out thousands of CR-48 Chrome Notebooks to lucky hamsters such as myself.

When I first applied for the program, it was with the intention of using my CR-48 as a work computer. I'm the Assistant Director at Gaia House Interfaith Center in Carbondale, IL, and since we already use Google for our mail and calendars, I was curious just how far we could push it. Would it be possible to do my job entirely on the web? That temptation alone was enough to get me interested, and it ensured that I would be putting the thing through its paces.

However, I didn't have high hopes for my application to the program, or perhaps just didn't want to raise any. I figured everyone and his brother would apply. So in the meantime I decided to toy with the challenge of entirely web-based computing. I hopped off the fence and made Chrome my default browser, imported some bookmarks, went shopping in the new Web Store for apps, and synced the whole thing to my personal Google account for good measure. I've always loved the speed of Chrome but it was beginning to show itself as useful, indispensable even, to the kind of lifestyle I'm living.

Somewhere along the line I heard that the Chrome Notebooks would be capable of logging in from different accounts. Long after I had renounced the possibility of even getting one, I fantasized about what it would be like to use the notebook not just as a work device, but as my main device. Could I not just work, but also live in the cloud? It's going to take some getting used to, perhaps some sacrifice, and definitely some ingenuity, but I'm going to give it a shot. Or at least I wanted to. And then I checked the mail.

Charging up before waking for the first time.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty I have to mention the great sense of humor with which this project is being manged. You may have already seen the hilarious video where they destroyed 25 notebooks to prove the advantages of cloud computing and just how handy the Chrome Notebook's insanely fast load-times can be. But the laughs keep coming.

When I applied, I got a message saying, "We will let you know as soon as possible if you are chosen for the pilot program." However, I didn't have a clue until I checked the mail and found my new toy, and the Christmas-like effect it had was surely intentional.

Now, this is the first pilot program I've been a part of, and maybe they're all this fun, but something tells me it has more to do with Google's fun approach to business and technology. Not only was the packaging hilarious, but the included literature was all tongue-in-cheek and entertaining enough to hold my attention while I waited for my notebook to charge. Well, at least for a little while.