One year after the debut of the first wave, most people still don’t know what it is. The concept sounds cutting-edge: instead of Windows or Mac OS, just run a light browser-based “operating system” that offers access to the full range of cloud-based applications and services, including those of Google’s own capable ecosystem (Gmail, Google Docs, Google Drive, Calendar, and the like). And do it all on a thin and light 12-inch laptop that swaps features (no hard drive, no CD drive) for good battery life.

Indeed, the name “Chromebook” comes from the fact that the laptop is running the so-called Chrome OS — basically an embedded version of Google’s Chrome Web browser. If you’ve used the Chrome browser on Windows or Mac, you know that it asks you to log in, and then it syncs your bookmarks, Google identity, Google Docs, and Google Drive files. The Chromebook works the same way, except there’s no way out of that browser. Apps can run on a Chromebook, but they’re Web apps; they load through the browser.

That’s not to say the Chromebook can’t do anything offline: it can read files and play movies and music anytime. And Chrome OS has gotten better at file compatibility PowerPoint, Word docs, Excel files, ZIP files, and PDFs all load well and look great. You can’t edit documents without first uploading to Google Docs, though. Photos can be viewed and even lightly edited with brightness and contrast adjustments, rotation, and cropping. The files can be resaved or uploaded to Picasa.

The biggest problem with the Chromebook: the hardware’s fine, and the simplified Web-based OS is clever, and even versatile if you don’t mind its limitations. Still, it’s a radically reduced subset of what you can get on a Windows or Mac laptop…or even an iPad or Android tablet, for that matter. Yet, it costs more than a new iPad 2, a thinner, keyboard-enabled Android tablet like the Asus Transformer Pad, or a fully featured 11-inch ultraportable laptop like the AMD-powered HP dm1z.