All about Google Chrome & Google Chrome OS

15 Apr 12 Chrome OS introduces Aura window manager

Don’t look now, but Google has officially revealed their intentions to go after Windows and OS X. Chrome OS 19 has arrived for Samsung Series 5 and Acer AC700 Chromebooks running the developer channel, and the changes it brings may shock you.

Why? Because Chrome OS suddenly looks like it’s much more than “just a bootable web browser.”

The new Aura window manager has landed, bringing with it a number of features that you’d expect from a traditional OS. For starters, there’s the Shelf along the bottom of the screen. It’s set to hide when you’ve got a browser window maximized by default, but you can choose to have it always on top or auto-hide, too, just like the Windows taskbar or OS X dock.

On the left-hand side of the Shelf are a handful of Google-pinned shortcuts: the Chrome icon opens a new tab, and Gmail, Google search, Docs, and YouTube round out the list. Your open browser windows appear next, and the favicon for the currently active tab is displayed to remind you which session is which.

There’s also a small, white grid icon. Clicking it displays your Chrome apps floating above your current wallpaper (yes, you can have wallpaper now, too). As a result, apps are no longer displayed on the new tab page. Instead, it’s flashback time: a selection of eight frequently-visited sites appear once again, and you can rearrange and replace to your heart’s content.

In the top right corner of your windows, you’ll notice two controls: one to close and another to reposition. Clicking and pulling down minimizes the current window, while clicking and pulling left or right splits the screen and snaps to the edge. A plain old click will re-maximize your window.

Although glitchy right now, window borders also sport transparency effects. Artifacts frequently appear when moving windows about, but it’s the kind of growing pain you expect with a developer channel release.

The Chrome OS Scratchpad app has also been re-tooled, and it’s now a bit more like Wordpad. A full array of formatting tools is available, from bulleted or numbered lists to highlighting. As before, documents you create in Scratchpad are quickly synced to your Google Docs storage.

Another cloud feature has been added, this one to the updated photo editor. Photos can finally be uploaded individually or in bulk to Picasa. Curiously, it’s the only option currently available when you click the share icon in the photo editor — Google Plus hasn’t been added yet, though that seems inevitable.

In addition to an updated photo editor, the offline media player has been tweaked, too. Unfortunately while the audio player still worked nicely, the video player crashed every time I tried to load a clip.

Hardware acceleration features have been improved, and overall Chrome OS 19 feels substantially faster than version 18. One thing that really seems to help is that the Chat for Google app is less greedy with system resources than it used to be. Since it wants to run all the time when you’re signed in, a more efficient chat app provides a real boost to the whole OS.

The downside for now is that the update is incredibly unstable. Tabs have been crashing frequently when I switch back and forth, and background tabs often reload when I bring one to the foreground.

Still, with all these new features and tweaks in tow and improved handling of multiple monitor setups, it’s clear that Google feels that Chrome OS is nearly ready to go toe-to-toe with Windows and OS X. The only thing holding them up right now is a lack apps and games that can truly rival the performance offered by their native desktop counterparts.

With NaCl under the hood, however, and access to loads of offline storage via Chrome’s APIs, Chrome apps are going to catch up. When they do, it’s game on.

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