Hands-On: Google Chrome OS "Aura" User Interface

By Norman Chan

Google is still putting resources into improving its Chrome OS, which now has a window manager.

Google appears to be prepping its Chromebooks for a software overhaul in time for the company's I/O conference in June. The latest developer build of Chrome OS--version 19.0.1048.17--revamps the user interface and incorporates a window manager, dubbed Aura. The window manager is a dramatic departure from the previous design philosophy of Chromebooks--the OS now looks like a more traditional desktop, with taskbar, system tray, snappable browser windows, and even a desktop wallpaper (pre-installed themes come from Mike Reyfman stock photography). The only application you can use is still Chrome, and all file browsing and user settings still occurs within a browser window.

I installed the Dev channel update this morning on our Samsung Series 5 Chromebook, an easy process that only required selecting the build from the "About" section of the Chrome OS's settings menu. This build will only update on Samsung and Acer's Chromebooks--Google's own CR-48 won't get access to Aura until after Chrome 19.

Aura didn't make Chrome OS feel any faster--the OS is still pretty slow by most portable computing standards. Keeping the separate windows all on the desktop, as opposed to in separate "spaces" actually helped me visualize my tabs better. It made me realize just how many tabs I had open, which discouraged me from running more than a dozen tabs at once like I'm used to on an Ultrabook. Active windows don't group together like in the translucent taskbar like they do in Windows 7, Favicons for a new browser window, YouTube, Gmail, and Google Search are installed by default. At the end of the taskbar is a shortcut to a grid of "installed" Chrome web apps, which are more often than note just links to websites. Scratchpad, the built-in word processor, can be used in full-screen or windowed mode.

The interface is very reminiscent of Android Honeycomb, especially the quick-access system settings tray at the bottom right of the screen. Windows make Chrome OS a little more usable, but the system is still held back by slow netbook hardware. That may change in June, when Sony is expected to announce an ARM-powered Viao Chromebook.