Chrome OS Aura UI review: first look

3-462x346There was a lot of fuss this time last year over Google’s Chrome OS, but after that initial flurry things have gone rather quiet. Google continues to push out updates, however, introducing offline capabilities for Docs and Gmail at the end of last year, and now the entire Chrome OS interface has been overhauled – available as an update for those signed up to the Chrome OS Dev channel.

Dubbed Aura, the UI enhancements add windowing capabilities to an OS previously limited to maximised web pages, and we’ve loaded it up on a Samsung Chromebook Series 5 to see how much difference it makes to the OS.

The changes are dramatic, and none more so than the addition of a Windows-style desktop and task bar. Click the grid icon on the task bar (the ‘Shelf’ as Google refers to it) that now runs along the bottom of the screen, and the browser window disappears to reveal a grid of installed apps, displayed against a rather fetching backdrop. The new update comes with 20 attractive photographs to choose from (you don’t have to stick to the one in the screenshots) and eight plain colour backgrounds, but you can’t add your own just yet.


That toolbar, meanwhile, plays host to a selection of shortcuts to common functions (new tab, Gmail, YouTube, Google search and Docs) and it automatically populates with links to open browser windows.

There’s also a status area to the right that bears more than a passing resemblance to the notifications area in Android. This shows the time, audio, Wi-Fi and battery charge status, and when clicked it pops up a menu giving quick access to volume, brightness, network and language/keyboard settings.


Now that there’s a desktop there are also windows for Chrome OS to deal with, and in this respect it feels like Windows 7 Lite. Each browser window sports a new, square icon in the top-right corner which, when clicked, un-maxmises the browser window and can be dragged around to snap windows left and right and minimise them. Windows can also be manipulated by dragging on the title bar.


It’s quite a change for Chrome OS, but to what extent does any of this really improve matters? Well, the notifications menu is a good idea, allowing quick access to frequent settings, but beyond that, we’re not convinced. Chrome OS with Aura feels no snappier than it did before, which is to say it’s sluggish and still no replacement for a proper Windows 7 laptop, or even a netbook.

And there are lots of rough edges. The desktop, for instance, seems to provide no scrolling or paging mechanism; as more apps are added, the icons become smaller and smaller, until the maximum of 45 is hit, at which point Aura starts shunting icons off the bottom of the desktop, providing no way of accessing them.


We looked in vain for a way of adding app shortcuts to the taskbar, and the way window snapping works can be confusing: occasionally, when attempting to snap a window to the left or right we found it tricky to get it to do anything other than go to two thirds of the screen, instead of half.

After a day of fiddling we’ve still not worked out how to bring up the Shelf context menu reliably, either. Sometimes a simple single click brings it up, sometimes it doesn’t, and there’s no rhyme nor reason to the way it behaves.

The biggest problem, however, is that no amount of change to the way Chrome OS works from a user interface perspective is going to improve the fundamental problem at its core. With no internet connection, a Chromebook becomes a mostly useless lump of glass, silicon and plastic – and until that changes, Chrome OS will continue to be an interesting, but minor player in the mobile computing landscape.

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