Google's vision of computing involves tossing your PC or Mac and moving to a cloud-centric, all-Google ecosystem. Call it the Googleplex: a mix of the Chrome OS-based Chromebox PC or Chromebook laptop, one or more Android tablets -- perhaps a 10-inch model for work and a 7-inch Nexus 7 for entertainment on the go -- and a Nexus Q home entertainment system that you control via an Android device. (Scratch the Q for now; just a few days before the first units were to shop, Google pulled the Q due to reviewers' complaints and said it would redesign the device at a future date.)
I decided to test the Googleplex to see if it could replace my PC and traditional entertainment offerings, meaning my cable TV provider's content offerings; I still needed the provider for Internet access. Apple has a similar strategy with its iTunes- and AirPlay-connected Mac, iPad, iPhone, and Apple TV that seems to be popular. So can Google pull off the same feat using Google Drive (what used to be called Google Docs), its Google Play app and entertainment store, Android, and Chrome OS?
The short answer: partially. I really liked the 7-inch Asus Nexus 7 tablet and its Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" operating system. I've long liked my Motorola Mobility Droid smartphone and its physical keyboard, though I've been hankering for an "Ice Cream Sandwich" device, so I used the Samsung Galaxy S III in these tests. But I was less impressed with the Chromebox, a Mac Mini-like headless PC that can't do much. I was decidedly unimpressed with the Q and can see exactly why Google was too embarrassed to sell it.
But the Googleplex is about more than the components. The bigger matter is how well they work together to access, share, and manipulate information and entertainment. The Google environment struggled with some basics of content access and streaming, falling short as my prime media environment.
What follows are the highlights and lowlights of each device, and then of the connective services that transform them from a collection of devices into an ecosystem -- or at least wants to.
Nexus 7: The pleasing entertainment tabletThe $199 Nexus 7 drew me in with its colorful, high-resolution screen and a mostly intuitive interface. For example, I've always been confused about how to close an application on many tablets. But with the Nexus 7's Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean," it's easy to swipe an application away.
But "Jelly Bean" has its flaws, too. Two Android apps I use daily for work are not compatible with "Jelly Bean": The Salesforce.com mobile client does not load, and Salesforce Chatter lacks some capabilities that are available when running in my Droid 4's Android 2.3 "Gingerbread."
The Nexus 7 is designed as an entertainment device first and foremost, even though the regular Android environment lies beneath its initial interface. I focused on its entertainment abilities.
I downloaded a book from Google Play and found the high-contrast screen easy to read both in daylight and at night in low light. But be aware that you will see reflections on the screen that can be distracting. The Nexus 7 weighs less than either a hardcover book or a 10-inch tablet such as the Motorola Mobility Xyboard I tested. That makes the Nexus easy to hold for hours, which avid book readers, movie watchers, and gamers alike will appreciate.
Where it got a bit tough on the Nexus 7 was working with music. Google of course promotes the purchase of music from the Google Play store, but I wanted all of my music available, not just the titles purchased from Google Play. It took a bit of research, but I discovered Google lets you upload 20,000 songs for free from your Windows PC, Mac, or Linux PC. The Music Manager application not only uploads your music, but also monitors your music folders for additions, appending them to your collection in Google Play. I did notice, however, that some of the album art Google assigned to my existing music was incorrect, and occasionally an entry lists the wrong artist.
The 7-inch screen is perfect for reading and social networking. But for any Web-based applications, video viewing, and productivity applications such as Quickoffice, I want a 10-inch screen instead.
Still, it's a great portable media center: I took the Nexus 7 on a camping trip, and the battery lasted all weekend as I read books, listened to music, watched a downloaded episode of "Star Trek Phase 2" (the 7-inch screen is crisp, though, feels a bit scrunched for videos), and played games in my tent. OK, so I wasn't roughing it!
Chromebox: A mixed bag for entertainment and a limited PCThe $329 Chromebox, available directly from Google, is a new entrant in the Chrome OS world: a small desktop computer about the size of a Mac Mini, rather than a laptop like the Chromebooks that have been out for more than a year. It's easy to connect cables for Ethernet and input devices, as well as Bluetooth mice and keyboards.
Display connection options include DVI, composite video, and two full-size DisplayPorts, which some graphics cards and some Lenovo laptops use (they're larger but compatible via an adapter with the Mini DisplayPort cable used in Apple's Macs). A DisplayPort-to-HDMI cable or DisplayPort cable with HDMI adapter are your best options, as they work for both video and audio.
If you don't have such a cable, you can use a DVI-to-VGA adapter to send the video to a television, though the quality is so-so. In that scenario, the only audio output option is a mini headphone jack, which I plugged into my amplifier with a mini-to-RCA adapter. This is not the most elegant audio solution, but it works. For use as a media player, I would prefer optical or RCA audio-out.
The first time I used the Chromebox, I was amazed that it boots in seconds and is utterly quiet. I was impressed with its introductory tutorials that step through basic system use. It is a well-thought-out, friendly user experience. One not-so-impressive surprise was the loud hum I get when the Chromebox is powered off. I suspect it's a grounding issue.
Next, using the Chrome Web Store, I added applications such as Facebook, Salesforce Chatter, Netflix, Hulu, and Pandora to the Chrome OS desktop, which is simply a version of the Chrome browser. The "applications" I got at the Web Store are websites -- cloud services, essentially. A pleasant surprise was that the app icons I configured on the Chromebox were waiting for me on my work PC's instance of Chrome -- automatically because I was signed into both browsers with the same user account. Too bad my aging "Gingerbread"-based Droid smartphone can't run Chrome! And too bad I couldn't find Web apps to substitute for some of my PC's media apps, such as TiVo Desktop.
To play media, I went to the Chrome Web Store and installed Google Play, Google Play Music, and Google Play Video. That allowed access to the same videos I purchased on the Nexus 7, as well as to the music library I uploaded to the Nexus 7 via Google Music Manager. I did not experience any sync or stutter issues as I did with the never-shipped Nexus Q.
The only spooling problems I encountered I can attribute to being a DSL subscriber who is too far from the phone company's central office to get decent bandwidth. I'm not unique in that situation, so it would be nice if Chrome OS could detect my bandwidth limitation and offer me the choice to spool and wait.
I hooked up my 1TB external hard drive to one of the six USB ports. Instantly a screen popped up showing contents of the drive, giving me access to my archives of stored photos, documents, videos, and music. I was able to play both music and MPEG video files on a basic player -- without having to upload them first.
With a DisplayPort-to-HDMI connection, the picture was in full, glorious HD -- but the display ratio was off. The task bar at the bottom of the screen was cut off, the image cropped on both the right and left edges. I could not find any display configuration settings on the Chromebox, and I wasn't willing to change them on the HDTV, given I have other devices connected to it that don't need such an adjustment.
Also, the video relay was not reliable. Twice while using the DisplayPort-to-HDMI cable, the playback halted on the HDTV. But I could still hear the audio coming out of the Chromebox speaker. It was as though the Chromebox suddenly decided the display port was not being used. Power-cycling the HDTV fixes the problem. (For the record, Apple TV users also report occasional drop-offs of their wireless AirPlay connections via an Apple TV when streaming from an iPad or iPhone.)
As for computing outside of entertainment, Chrome OS and the whole notion of Web-only apps can work for everyday personal use such as email, social networking, basic photo editing and album creation, and (via Google Docs) light editing. But Chrome OS and Web apps aren't usable as a tool if you need to run client software such as Microsoft Office (a requirement in most jobs, and Google Docs is not a sufficient replacement for many users), Dreamweaver, Second Life Viewer, and Adobe Acrobat (as opposed to the limited Adobe Reader). The Web apps available simply don't have the powerful features of their client-based cousins.
And on a Chromebox or Chromebook, forget about using peripherals like scanners, webcams, and USB audio devices such as headsets.
Google Play: The content is there, but hard to corralDuring this experiment, I was secretly harboring hopes of cutting my television cable. Using a mix of Google Play, Netflix, Hulu, and TV show websites, I did get most of the content available from my cable provider.
But with no way to aggregate those media sources, it was a chore to find, get, and manage what I wanted to watch. The requirement to pull media rather than receive an aggregated push left me yearning for my DVR. That's something Google should really think about as it pushes the notion of Google Play, Nexus 7, and the rest of the Googleplex as a media hub. That said, Apple needs to address the same issue with iTunes and Apple TV.
The Googleplex's potential is there, but needs more workCan I live with just a Googleplex of Google computing devices? Not quite yet for the home and definitely not for work. But if Google sticks to it, it may get us there.
This story, "Test-drive: Nexus 7, Chromebox, Google Play as your PC and TV service," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.
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