Google just released a new version of its Chrome operating system with fancy tweaks to online computing services like word processing and video — all designed to make it faster, more functional and easier to use.
It’s an open question whether the changes are enough to make Chrome, which is also the name of Google’s browser, more than a marginal player, but the system is impressive, and designed to work seamlessly with Google products like Android phones and the (still-underwhelming) Google Plus social network. It is also clearly pointed at Microsoft, just as Microsoft is preparing to introduce Windows 8, one of the biggest changes to its operating system ever.
The Chrome operating system is designed for lightweight computers known as Chromebooks that require an Internet connection to obtain access to most applications.
“People participate in ecosystems,” said Sundar Pichai, who is in charge of the Chrome project at Google. “If you are a Chrome browser user, an Android user and a Gmail user, a Chromebook is a more natural experience than a Windows 8.”
Most of Google’s changes will be available to people already using computers running Chrome, since Google can change things online. Some, like hardware-accelerated graphics for faster scrolling, or a better trackpad on the Chrome laptop, require a new machine. The first of these, from Samsung, has also just been announced. It is about the size and weight of a MacBook Air, and starts at $449.
The Air starts at $999, but is a well-regarded and powerful machine that does not require you to be online to use it. Google is making more strides in that direction. In about two more weeks, Mr. Pichai said, you will be able to write offline in Google Docs, or Drive, as it is now called.
“We really wanted to show how productive you could be with this device,” Mr. Pichai said. “By default you will be able to get the last 100 documents you were working on. When you go back online, it will resynch with your files and update everything.” You can also “pin” certain documents, no matter how old, so they are always available.
It is also possible to open and work on anything from Microsoft Office, including Word, Excel and PowerPoint, without converting it to the Google version of those products.
In order to inspire software developers with what the graphics can do, there is a special hidden feature: press the control, alt and shift buttons together, then the refresh button, and the screen spins, even while playing a video.
There is also a new Samsung desktop, the Chromebox, starting at $329, that could be attractive to schools and businesses looking to provide a lot of people the same kind of machine.
The prices of both new Samsung devices undercut even most low-end tablet and desktop machines.
Previously the desktops and laptops were only sold online, but next month they will also be offered at some Best Buy stores. That could be a big shot in the arm for a machine that has probably sold in the tens of thousands.
Acer also makes Chromebooks, but does yet have machines with the new hardware. Mr. Pichai said other manufacturers, which he did not mention, would be selling their versions of the machine in time for the Christmas season.
Another new Chrome feature, still in beta, enables customers to get access to their PCs and Mac computers remotely. The screen of the remote computer appears on the Chrome machine, and the distant computer can be manipulated from Chrome. The other computer has to be on, though it can be in screensaver mode.
“Companies are excited about Chromebooks, but have legacy applications they want to keep,” Mr. Pichai said. “Now, if you have a legacy Oracle expense app, you can put it somewhere and have it accessible on Chrome.”