Wednesday, April 1, 2015

ChromeOS getting an update

I was among the first to order when Google released the Chromebook, an ultra-portable low-cost laptop that instantly connects you to the Internet. The idea behind the Chromebook is that we don't really need to store things locally anymore. Instead, we use the Cloud for email, documents, collaboration, video, and pretty much everything we do. So the Chromebook's goal is to get you online as quickly and easily as possible, and connect you to those Cloud services. As suggested by the name, the Chromebook comes pre-loaded with Google's Chrome web browser.

Google's Chromebook uses a desktop environment called "Aura." It presents a somewhat simplified desktop experience, where all applications actually run inside the Chrome web browser. For example, clicking a "YouTube" icon actually launches in a new Chrome browser tab. Frequently-used programs can be added to the desktop, or you can browse other applications by clicking the Applications menu icon. Other desktop functions (clock, wireless network connections, battery indicator, etc) are displayed in the lower-right corner. While there is no "bar" or "panel" like in Windows or MacOSX, the Aura desktop appears to do the same by the way it displays icons and desktop functions.

It's no secret that I love the Aura desktop. I find it has good usability! My wife has a Chromebook and loves it. I use a Chromebook at work about half the time, and it's great. The Aura desktop has a simplified look that is both easy for new users and flexible for power users. Aura provides very good usability: The desktop is familiar to both Windows users and Mac users, and the desktop functions more or less like the desktops on these other platforms. Since (almost) everything in the Chromebook runs inside the browser, programs share consistent behavior. The Chrome designers have done a great job of making web apps easy to find and launch, and settings easy to search and update.

Overall, if the Aura desktop were available on a "stock" Linux distribution and had the ability to launch local programs like LibreOffice or a terminal, it would be a great desktop for most folks.

So I was particularly interested to read an article recently from Hot Hardware that ChromeOS is getting a makeover with material design and Google Now support. I really should update my Chromebook at work to use the Beta channel, so I can try it out.

As reported by Hot Hardware: "New in this version is Chrome Launcher 2.0, which gives you quick access to a number of common features, including the apps you use most often (examples are Hangouts, Calculator, and Files). Some apps have also received a fresh coat of paint, such as the file manager, seen below. Google notes that this is just the start, so there will be more updates rolling out to the beta OS as time goes on."

And here are the screenshots:

It's hard to make a heuristic usability evaluation based on two screenshots, but I think I can make a few fair comments here:

As always, I like the clarity in the presentation. Even though Aura doesn't use a traditional "menu bar" or "application bar" like GNOME's top bar or XFCE's launcher, it's easy to see how to launch different applications. The first screenshot shows a number of GNOME Apps icons, and I only have issues with a few of them (Google Calendar's icon looks like a shopping bag to me, for example). In the second screenshot, you can see icons for Chrome and Files. In the lower-right, you can find the clock, wireless status, and battery. Overall, the icons are clear and accurately represent the action.

I love the clearly defined window "tab" in the Files app. When the app is in "windowed" mode, it is a convenient place to "grab" the window to relocate it, and provides icons to minimize, maximize, and close the window using standard icons.

The Google Now screenshot provides only content, so I'll focus on the second screenshot instead. The Files app provides a basic menu bar that I find quite usable. There's a clearly define "breadcrumb" navigation trail in the upper-left, and the upper-right has a search menu and an application menu. I dislike the mixed use of the "three lines" menu with the "three dots" menu. I don't know what each of them does. But overall, this is very clear.

I also appreciate the bright, happy colors used in Aura. No dark, moody colors here. Aura's use of bright blues at the top of the windows would likely reflect feelings of "sky." Especially so because the blue is limited to the top of the screen.

But oh my—the wallpaper! The wallpaper uses muted colors, but is still garish. I don't know if I should blame Google for this (was it the default desktop wallpaper?) or the reviewer (did they pick this particular wallpaper?) but either way, I would have preferred a happier, calmer image.

I'm pleased to see this example of good software usability. Although Aura isn't open source software,My bad. Aura is open source. See comments, below. -jh it's important to note positive examples of usability so we can learn from them: what worked well, and what could be improved.
Chrome icon: Wikimedia
screenshots: Hot Hardware


  1. Aura is actually completely Open Source. While there are a few bits of proprietary software in Chrome OS (most notably the Google and Chrome branding, and the Flash and Netflix plugins), the entire Aura UI is Open Source. You can find all the source for it in the Chromium and Chromium OS repositories.

  2. I didn't realize that Aura was open source. That's good to know! It would be interesting to see one of the major distros include Aura as the desktop in one of their "spins."

    If I could use Aura as my desktop, and could launch local programs like LibreOffice and a terminal, I'd be very happy.

    I'll edit the post to strike the "Although Aura isn't open source software" note. Thanks.