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Google Chrome OS lives on with big update, new hardware

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(Read caption) The Samsung Series 5 550 is the newest "Chromebook." It's significantly faster than previous laptops running Google's Chrome OS.

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Google's Chrome OS didn't make much of a splash when it debuted, but it's back with a big update and some new hardware to run it.

Google and Samsung introduced a revamped Chromebook laptop on Tuesday, as well as a new Chromebox – a small desktop computer that also works nicely as a media center. The experience is still aimed at those who do their work in the cloud and don't need a full desktop operating system like Windows or Mac OS X, but Chrome OS has matured enough to be attractive to the average consumer, too.

First, the software. When the first Chromebooks came out last year, Chrome OS got dinged by reviewers who said it was too limited and couldn't handle many kinds of files. This time around, Chrome OS (now on version 19, if you're counting) includes a taskbar and a window management style that's much closer to what you'd find in, say, Windows 7. And while it's still really designed to be used while you're online, constantly syncing your files to the cloud, Chrome OS also offers basic offline file management – and it can deal with more types of files than ever before.

"The Docs team is also in the final stages of a seamless offline mode for Google Docs, which would be huge," The Verge noted. "Offline support is currently the Achilles' heel of the Chromebook, since there's really not much you can get done without an internet connection."

In spite of all these changes, reviews are mixed. The consensus seems to be that while Chrome OS has matured quite a bit since its inception, it's still a niche product. CNET's Bridget Carey concludes that "it's better than the last version, but still not all that impressive." Engadget's Dana Wollman adds that "as Google starts selling more Chrome devices in retail, we have a harder time believing many consumers will be ready to put up with [its] limitations, especially as tablet apps grow more sophisticated."

By contrast, the new Chrome OS hardware is being (generally) well-received. In addition to having a little more power under the hood than its predecessor -- reviewers say both the Chromebook and Chromebox run Google's OS smoothly -- the 12.1" Samsung Series 5 550 also features a better webcam, less-fussy trackpad, and nifty video port that works with HDMI, DVI, or VGA cables. On the flip side, the price of entry is $449 (more if you want a 3G connectivity baked in), meaning that it's more expensive than many tablets and only $50 less than Apple's new iPad.

The Chromebox, also built by Samsung, is cheaper still – just $330 for the pint-sized (7.6 square inches) box. It's fairly anemic compared to other desktop operating systems, but with three display ports and six USB ports it's practically begging to be used as a media center anyway. There's no optical drive, so you won't be able to play Blu-ray discs, but it does have a super-speedy solid-state hard drive and a five-second boot time.

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Chrome OS may not be for everyone yet -- it's still primarily aimed at on-the-go workers who can count on a constant Internet connection -- but it's making strides with these new updates.

Readers, what do you think? Given the relatively low barrier to entry, are you tempted to pick up a Chromebook or Chromebox? Let us know in the comments section below.

For more tech news, follow us on Twitter @venturenaut.

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