Updated: May 20, 2017
Are you ready for the cloud? Are you? Well, um, no? All right, no matter, let's take it one step at a time. To wit, I will showcase CloudReady, an operating system based on Chromium OS and designed to run on non-Chromebook systems. If you'd like to have a simple, locked down, secure and entirely Google machine that isn't a mobile phone or a dedicated piece of hardware, then you might want to give this a go.
I deliberated how to proceed with the test. Use a physical box, because that's the best option? Well, no. I wasn't 100% sure how well CloudReady could handle multi-boot systems like my G50 laptop, so I decided to start with some basic virtual machine testing. That should give us an indication of where we stand. Let us proceed.
CloudReady comes as a ZIP archive. Inside, you get a binary image that needs to be written to a USB rather than a mountable ISO file. This mean I needed to convert this image to be usable in a virtual machine, or download one of the unofficial VM builds.
I decided to do the full test myself. So what you need to do is convert the binary file to the virtual machine hard disk format. In my case, VirtualBox:
vboxmanage convertdd chromiumos_image.bin chromiumos_image.vdi
Converting from raw image file="chromiumos_image.bin" to file="chromiumos_image.vdi"...
Creating dynamic image with size 5691671552 bytes (5429MB)...
Once this step was complete, I generated a virtual machine, with 2 GB RAM, a single core, bridged networking, USB 2.0, PS/2 mouse pointer, and most importantly, EFI boot. This is a curious one, because CloudReady is designed to run on older, less powerful hardware, but then, I do not know how many old systems come with EFI interface. Anyway.
The image booted fine, and you then enter a short setup. Language and such, but most importantly, you need to login with your Google account. You can create a new one, and this means also having a phone, because you will be sent a couple of verification texts, or reuse an existing email. Once this step is done, you will be logged into the "live" CloudReady environment.
First steps & installation
It's a very rudimentary interface. It looks like an ordinary desktop with a bottom panel, but then, your entire world is limited to the Chromium browser and the associated set of Google's cloud-powered apps, including Docs, Forms, Sheets, Maps, and such. Plus, of course, whatever is available in the Chrome Store is there, too.
That isn't such a bad set, but the mindset needed to use and enjoy it is definitely different from the standard desktop approach. Or the mobile one. Some time ago, I did test the Android-x86 fork on my eeePC machine, just to see what gives. There are definite limitations to trying to force operating systems onto wrong form factors, just look at how silly Windows 10 is on the desktop, and how awesome it is on the phone.
I didn't spend too much time playing around. I decided to install CloudReady. This was a simple, quick procedure. First, I did need to add another hard disk (must be SATA), so that CloudReady can actually have an installation target. This meant another reboot, but my credentials were preserved, which means the system does have live persistence.
You can choose between standalone installation - the entire disk will be wiped, which did happen to me once or twice with some Moblin builds, one of the reasons why I'm always a bit wary with non-ISO images - or you can go with the dual-boot option. This sounds like a very nice thing, but it does not answer my question on what happens when you have some sixteen partitions, populated by Windows 10 and 6-7 Linux distros.
After the installation, the system will power itself off. On next boot, your environment will be ready. Now, it is up to you to enjoy it as you see fit, within the limits of what CloudReady allows.
For me, this was a little frustrating, maybe for odd reasons. I could install Flash and codecs, but that didn't feel all that important for some reason. Extra software, now that's an interesting one. I wanted to install VirtualBox guest additions, to improve the default 4:3 aspect ratio, and be able able to use the system in a more streamlined manner. This meant finding a way to execute the necessary files from the mounted ISO. You do have a file manager, but you cannot run the Linux-specific RUN files from there.
I then tried to install a terminal application - the store offers all sorts of games and miscellaneous items that use the particular string, but not a proper console. Next, I read about the developer mode, and that seemed to be way too painful to attempt. You can open a virtual terminal and/or launch a shell from inside Chromium, but without a root or sudo password, you won't be able to make much progress.
This is the norm on smartphones - you do not really have any proper root access, and it works well for systems that are designed to remain in their locked form, Chrome OS included. However, the very fact I was running it on a laptop made me uncomfortable. By design, desktop operating systems are meant to be customizable. You should be able to install and change things. It feels unnatural otherwise.
All in all, CloudReady was pretty, elegant, simple. It did the basics, but then running a browser is hardly an achievement, more of a deliberate choice of using your machine in a very specific way. Performance was more than adequate, but we're talking a virtualized environment, so it's hard to judge properly. There were no bugs or errors.
For people who seek their first dip in the vast sea of buzzwords, CloudReady offers a suitable entry point, with a relatively pain-free experience. The one thing that you will not be able to ignore is that you have limited control over what the system looks and does.
I haven't done any extensive testing, but then, how much testing is really needed to run a bunch of Web apps. The whole idea is to have this cloud-based operating system, with easy, flexible access to your data anywhere you go. So if you judge this from the perspective of a typical desktop, you miss the point.
But that is the point. When I install something on a desktop-like form factor, I expect its behavior to match. CloudReady takes you away from that experience, and the transition is not comfortable. You feel very limited. This makes a lot of sense for schools, for instance, where you do want to lock down the devices, and make them simple for reuse. In a home setup, why would you go for just cloud, when you can have that plus any which desktop application on a typical system? After all, nothing prevents you from launching a browser and using Google applications, side by side with your desktop stuff. It's the same thing.
The notion of reviving old hardware is a bit of a wishful thinking. My eeePC test shows that it gets completely crippled when you run HD content in either Firefox or Chrome. An operating system based on Chromium OS will not drastically change that. It cannot do that. Maybe you will have better performance than having Windows there, the same way I opted for a Linux setup on the Asus netbook, but there are physical limits to what old hardware can accomplish.
And then, there's the whole question of cloud ... Most people might be comfy with this, after having used smartphones for a while, but I don't think this is anything novel or mindblowing. CloudReady works as advertised, it's a very cool concept, but ultimately, it gives you a browser on steroids. Google and Neverware have their own agenda for doing this, but for home users, there really isn't any added value in transforming their keyboard-and-mouse box into a browsing portal. So if you ask me, am I ready for the cloud, the answer is, only when it becomes sophisticated enough to match my productivity and freedom of creativity. And for you, do you want a simple, locked down, secure and entirely Google machine that isn't a mobile phone or a dedicated piece of hardware? The answer is 42.