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Opinion: The biggest features missing from Chrome OS

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Opinion: The biggest features missing from Chrome OS

In need of some spit and polish

When Chrome OS was announced in July 2009 it was a bold idea that traded the ever increasing complexity of PC OSes and traded it all for a robust web browser. The idea behind it all was a simple, lightweight operating system that would run most all of it's applications through a web portal. By running practically all programs through a web browser this allowed manufacturers to build devices with a modicum of processing power and memory compared to a system running Windows or OS X.

After a few early stumbles these low-powered Chromebooks, Chromebases and Chromeboxes have matured over the years. Now Chromebooks are all grown up; Acer announced its biggest unit yet with a 15.6-inch screen while the Samsung Chromebook 2 pushed the envelope on budget design and engineering.

While the hardware has stepped up, how far has Chrome OS come along in the same five years? As I recently found out, not very far at all.

I would be wrong to say there haven't been any new features added; a three-finger swipe expands a Expose view of your open windows, Google Now cards trickled down from Android to Chrome along with a handful of apps, plus Google added multi-user support in September 2014

Despite these small changes, the cloud-based OS and its web apps have remained relatively the same in the last five years. At the same time, we've seen some stark revisions to desktop operating systems including Windows 10 and OS X Yosemite. Google still has some big gaps fill in with Chrome OS. Here's what I found missing after living in the cloud for a week with the Acer Chromebox CXI.

Chrome OS

Chrome OS

A new look

Comparing these two images of Chrome OS circa 2009 to its modern counterpart, it clear not a lot has changed. It might just be personal preference but I feel the UI could certainly use a bit of spit and polish.

It doesn't have to compromise the spartan aesthetic of Chrome OS either. Google could simply add a few more Android Lollipop material design inspired animations and icons to spruce things up visually.

At the same time it would make sense for this always web-connected operating system to send more periodic updates. Google Now cards could pop up as they do on Android Wear, notifying users of information pertaining to their location and recent searches. As it stands Google Now notifications only show me that I've taken a screenshot and to remind me of an upcoming meeting, but it fails to notify me when I've received an email and messages.

Chrome OS

An expanded app store

When I first visited the Chrome OS app store last March, it was in a sad state of affairs. The digital marketplace was a mess filled with unofficial Spelunky and CounterStrike clones ported over to the cloud-based OS. Other apps and games, meanwhile, only existed to spam you with advertisements once you've downloaded and opened the software.

After revisiting the store in the last week, things have improved. Android apps ported over to Chrome OS have bolstered the app store, and there are games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope. Meanwhile, there are a few more useful productivity tools such as Mint, Wunderlist and Evernote.

Technically these are only neatly presented wrappers over what are essentially pre-existing web apps, but it's one good step towards making Chrome OS better integrated with mobile devices. I hope Google will continue expanding its app store offerings so Chrome can truly compete with Windows and OS X.

Gaming and photo editing on Chrome OS?

New functionality that's not in beta

Chrome OS it's great for web browsing, streaming media, and everyday computing, but going outside of these typical tasks gives Chromebooks a bit of trouble.

Take image editing, for instance. There are a few useful tools already on the app store, including Photoshop Express and Pixlr image editing software for artists who need to work in layers. Adobe's Project Photoshop Streaming is another step towards expanding the capabilities of Chromebooks by adding RAW image editing on the cloud, but it's currently limited to beta.

Chrome OS

While most Chromebooks are outfitted with Intel processors capable of working with these uncompressed image files, Adobe's software isn't made to run on Chrome OS. By streaming the application, I was able to edit the image as if I were working on my Mac or Windows machine, toggling settings and seeing the live changes.

It's amazing considering that all the heavy duty image processing is being piped over to an Adobe server miles and miles away. However, the Photoshop Streaming projects currently only exists as an incredibly closed beta. First users have to be enrolled in a Creative Cloud subscription and be a qualified Creative Cloud education member before they can even get to applying for the selective beta.

It's great that Google is experimenting adding a small sprinkling of Android apps and supports the Photoshop Streaming beta, but Chrome OS is going to need more full-fledged features to make itself stand out. Especially after both Apple and Microsoft adding collaborative cloud-based features to their respective iWork and Microsoft Office 365 productivity suites to steal back some Google Drive users.

More video codecs please

Native video playback is one of the niceties that Google baked into Chrome OS's built-in file browser and it works beautifully for AVI and MP4 files. However, throw a MKV video Chrome OS' way and Chrome simply won't play any audio. Furthermore the operating system won't recognize files encoded in WMV at all.

You could download PLEX and transfer your files to a media server, but streaming media isn't feasible option for users stuck on a flights spanning more than ten hours. There are few devices that last as long as a Chromebook, and some more robust video support would go a long way to making extended travel bearable.

Steaming gaming is all the rage these days, why not browser gaming? (source: Maxmium PC)

Browser gaming that should already be here

Bastion and From Dust stand out as two shining beacons of of browser gaming. Unfortunately they're also the only two games that are actually available in the app store.

Browser gaming seemed like a great promise in March 2013 as Firefox added support for both the Unity 5 engine and Unreal Engine 4. Since then, any sort of developments in the browser gaming front have simply disappeared, contrary to the ever increasing popularity to streaming gaming with services like PlayStation Now, Steam's built-in streaming technology, Windows 10's Xbox One streaming and Nvidia Grid.

With streaming games becoming a bigger part of the console and PC world, Google should be capitalizing on this chance to make Chrome OS it's own gaming platform.

Chrome OS

Coming back to earth

There are plenty of advantages to using Chrome OS-powered device. They're often more affordable, lightweight and hardly ever get hot compared to a system running Windows or OS X. The simplicity also makes the OS a great choice for anyone who just needs to get by with a basic computing suite or businesses that need to equipping employees with a full suite of productivity software for next to nothing.

Still the operating system could use a bit more polish and functionality. In a week of living with the cloud-based OS, I found myself repeatedly running back to my Mac and PC to play games, watch media, accessing a FTP and a host of other tasks that you simply can't do on Chrome OS. If Google can patch these holes in it's operating system, cloud computing could truly take off.

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