I'm not sure if anyone besides me remembers the part of Google's official Chrome OS commercial that poked fun at the "rolling hills of green" desktop that's become a Windows cliche, but uh, hello, rolling hills of green. To be fair, this wasn't the default desktop background, but it was at the top of the list of options, and I thought it looked nicer than the default.
Anyway, this is more or less what you'll see when you load up Aura for the first time. So there's a desktop, great, but what can you do with it? Well, as of now, practically nothing. I can't even figure out how to set any kind of icons onto it. As far as I can tell, it's just kinda there. What it does do is provide a background space for managing windows. Chrome windows are no longer forced full-screen; you can click and drag them around the screen just as you can in a more traditional OS. See that row of icons down at the bottom? That's called the "shelf," and it functions the same as the Windows task bar. It disappears by default when a Chrome window is maximized, but it can be set to stick in place at the bottom of the screen, then identical to how Windows handles it.
As you can see (right), the status icons in the lower right of the screen are clickable to reveal a rather nice and clean-looking pup-up UI. Volume and brightness are managed here, as well as shut down, sign out, and locking functionality. The classic Chrome wrench can also be found here, which opens up a tab and lets you manage Chrome's settings as you'd expect. Clicking the time and date brings you to the timezone management screen, which seems kind of silly, as opening the Google Calendar app would have been much more useful.
As far as I can tell, that's about all there is to see here on the new and extraordinarily useless desktop. It's OK that the desktop is useless, though, as it's easily ignored completely, just pulling up the shelf now and then for access to applications.
Within a maximized Chrome browser window, things go back to almost exactly how you'd remember them. The only noticeable difference right off the bat is that there's now a little box and an X in the top right corner where the battery information and clock were previously. Similarly to Windows, this is how you'll manage your Chrome window. The X closes the window and every tab inside, while the box will either maximize the window or shrink it into a smaller window depending on what state it's currently in.
One of the more interesting features of this new UI design is this "little box," as it's more functional than you'd initially think. If you click and hold on the box (see above image), little arrows appear in each of the four directions. Dragging just to the left edge of this tiny box will force the entire window to fill the left half of the screen--the same functionality that Microsoft brought us with Windows 7. If you drag to the right, it moves to fill the right half of the screen. If you move up, it will expand the window to fill the entire screen. Moving down will minimize the window to the shelf. This is pretty much what you get in Windows 7, except you're not dragging all of the way to the edges of the screen to make it happen; it's just a small gesture within the little box in the corner. It's a small touch, but it seems like the natural evolution of the system that Microsoft designed, which was already extremely simple and useful. It's much easier to use than the previous Chrome solution.
As can be seen above, the file manager interface has been improved, and it looks nice. It has more of a Google Docs look when in details mode, but can also display thumbnails.
While I'm talking about the file manager, I should throw in another interesting feature that I discovered: there is now a built-in document viewer. No longer are you forced to upload documents to Google Docs just to read them, which is great! While uploading to Docs isn't the most painful process in the world, it was more work than I'd like when I just want to quickly open a Word document that was emailed to me, or that I have on a thumb drive. Opening a document strait from the file manager will open a Google Docs-esque interface and allow proper saving to Google Docs, or you can simply view it and avoid cluttering your Docs list.
Heading into the settings menu, one of the things I went looking for right off the bat was an option to set reverse scrolling. Apple uses what they call "natural" scrolling on their laptops now, and that just mimics a touch screen interface, in which you drag up to scroll down a page, and vice versa. This just is more natural to me after using touch devices for so long, so I'm glad it's an option now.
So Chrome's more awesome now, right? Yeah! Let's all jump on Google+ and have a Hangout party! We can play pictionary! It'll be awesome! Well, sadly, it's not perfect. This being a very early developer build of Chrome OS, there are some downsides.
To me, the most glaring flaw in this latest version of the OS is the complete lack of sleep functionality. One of the best features of Chromebooks are their instant resume from sleep, but, uh, my Chromebook doesn't seem to want to sleep anymore. Closing the lid does nothing. I suppose I can just turn it all of the way off instead, as it does still boot in about 9 seconds, but it's just strange that the sleep functionality would be busted. I hope that's fixed in an update sometime soon.
|This is as far as the G+ notification window will open.|
Overall, considering how far out this is from hitting a stable build, I'd say that Aura is actually pretty nice. I'm sure that all the details will continue to be ironed out as this revamp approaches launch on the beta and, following that, the stable build channels of Chrome OS.
Initially I was concerned just with the concept of windows within Chrome OS. I'm still not convinced that this is the right direction to take this OS. It was nice to have something that was different from everything else, ya know? Perhaps Google feels that they need to make their OS more appealing to a mass market with the next generation of Chromebooks, as well as the desktop equivalent Chromebox, looking to launch in the coming months.
For now, I remain cautiously optimistic.