Thursday, April 3

My Thoughts on the Chromebook

Not long ago, I bought a Chromebook. I suppose I was curious about it. My daughter has one issued by her high school and although she doesn't like it, she has been able to use it effectively. My workplace has Google Apps at the core of their communications, so I naturally wondered whether a Chromebook would fit in. Here's what I've learned.

The Hardware

I bought an Acer C720P from where it sells for $299. It's fairly representative of all the Chromebooks. Small, decently made, and inexpensive. The base C720 is $199, there is an upgraded model with a 32GB SSD for local storage that costs $249, and then there is my C720P model that has both the upgraded storage and a touch screen. In hindsight, I hardly use the touchscreen at all, and now that I have seen how easily Chromebooks integrate local file storage with Google Drive storage in the cloud, I'm quite sure that the base 16GB SSD for local storage would have been fine.

If I had it to do over again, I would have bought the base C720 for $199 and been just as happy with it.

Most Chromebooks are like the Acer version, which is to say they use the same hardware as your typical netbook computer. A small screen, 11 or 13 inches, is common. They'll have 2GB of memory, which is plenty. As already noted, there will be some local storage, usually a 16 or 32 gigabyte SSD.

(If you're not familiar, an SSD is a solid state drive, which is a storage device that works like a hard drive but instead of having spinning discs in it uses memory chips. They are extremely fast, very easy on battery life, and they generate almost no heat. The trade-off is size. An SSD is much more expensive than a traditional hard drive, so manufacturers often use much smaller sizes to keep the pricing comparable to machines using the older style storage.)

The keyboard will be cramped, especially on Chromebooks with 11 inch screens, but you can type on them. The Acer's keyboard is a "chiclet" style keyboard, with keys that are separated from each other by a grid. This makes them easier to locate with your fingers, but it makes the keys themselves smaller. Which you prefer is a matter of personal preference, but the fact there is a keyboard at all becomes important later on.

The Acer C720 has a fourth generation Intel "Haswell" processor, which means it is quite fast but still has very long battery life. Video playback on my Acer is smooth and flawless, while my daughter's older Samsung Chromebook often struggles to do the same thing. Battery life is superb, on a full charge I can run for at least 8 hours of actual use. I find that I charge it much like my iPad, which is to say about once a week.

The Software


That's it. Just Chrome. The Chromebook boots up something called "Chrome OS," which is a custom version of Linux that's only there to make your hardware go...and load Chrome. This is both the best thing about the Chromebook and the worst thing about it.

Because all it runs is Chrome, you simply won't have problems with it breaking down from software crashes and glitches. It is the most reliable device you can imagine. It always boots and it always does what it's going to do, and it's FAST. When you only have one program to run, with nothing hogging power in the background, you can be extremely fast about running that one program.

However, there is no Microsoft Office. You can use Office Online, though, and the new versions of Microsoft's web apps are surprisingly good. Word Online can only access files stored in my OneDrive, but I was able to access OneDrive, click upload, then select a file that was in my Google Drive cloud storage, and it transferred directly, cloud to cloud. It could only have been easier if Microsoft worked directly with Google Drive, but we all know that's not going to happen.

You are not running Windows, or Mac OS X. You are running a web browser. This means you have to find "web apps" that take the place of things you normally use. There is a Chrome Web Store that makes this quite simple, but most of the web apps are really just shortcuts to various websites that could just as easily be called up through a bookmark. That cynicism aside, however, there are some really good web apps.

Pixlr, for example, is a photo and image editor that looks and runs a lot like Photoshop. It even supports layers! I use it for editing images on my Chromebook and I'm quite pleased with it.

Lucidpress Layout and Design is a powerful page layout and publishing tool, very close to to Microsoft Publisher or Apple's Pages. You can combine text and graphics, doing precise placement in your documents, all through a web app. There is a catch here, however. There will be both free and paid versions of this service, and you will be limited in the documents you can create using the free version.

We're still in beta now, so the entire thing is free without restrictions. You may find that it requires a subscription to be useful at all, going forward. However, the fact that a desktop publishing program like this runs as a web application is just astonishing.

It's not all sunshine and roses, however. Chromebooks will not run Java, as Google considers it to be a security risk. It does run Flash, which might seem like a bit of hypocrisy, but you have to remember that Chrome has Flash built in to itself using a sandbox technique that keeps you safe from malicious Flash applications.

Anyway, the lack of Java support can be a problem. For example, LogMeIn Pro, which I use to connect with my computer at the office, uses Java and so it will not run on my Chromebook. (The good news is that Chrome offers its own remote control software, Chrome Remote Desktop, in the Chrome Web Store, that works nearly as well and is completely free.)

I could go on and on about the software, because it's really a mixed bag, but I'll try to summarize. It's nice that you're running the full desktop version of Chrome and not a mobile browser. It's not nice that you're stuck with only the apps that will run in your web browser. It's nice that those apps are getting better every day. It's not nice that the apps you are already using might not be there.

Questions and Answers

I thought perhaps I'd wrap this up by asking and answering the questions I imagine you'll have about Chromebooks.

Question: Are they a computer? Are they a tablet? What ARE they?

Answer: They use the same hardware as a computer but they only run the Chrome web browser. It is the full desktop version of Chrome, which is good, but you don't have access to the tens of thousands of apps designed for a tablet like an iPad, which is bad.

Question: If I have a laptop already, do I need a Chromebook?

Answer: That depends. If your laptop is bulky and heavy, or can't run all day on a charge, then you might like a Chromebook to carry around to meetings. If you were thinking about getting an iPad or other tablet to avoid having to lug the computer around, a Chromebook might make sense.

Question: If I have an iPad or other tablet already, do I need a Chromebook?

Answer: Probably not. There isn't really anything I do with the Chromebook that I couldn't also do with my iPad. Although powerful web apps like Pixlr and Lucidpress won't work on an iPad, there are iPad specific apps that can do the same things that will. If I already had an iPad or other tablet, I would probably spend $100 on a quality Bluetooth keyboard for it and skip the Chromebook.

Question: But if I don't have a tablet, which should I get, the Chromebook or an iPad?

Answer: Aha! Here is the most complicated question for me to answer, but also probably the most important one.

A tablet like an iPad will be better if you want to kick back and read an e-book, watch some Netflix, or play card games. You just can't compete with the library of apps available in the iTunes App Store. Despite the fact that Chromebooks are starting to catch on, there are already millions of iPads and other tablets out there and the app stores for those tablets make it easy for authors to sell their programs, where the Chrome Web Store does not (yet!). So the nifty, cool, fun, aimed-at-the-consumer apps will be for tablets, not web browsers, and thus not Chromebooks.

However, if we're talking about a business case here, I can argue for the Chromebook. You can buy an Acer C720 for $199. That comes with an 11 inch screen, a keyboard, USB ports for connecting mice and flash drives, an SD card slot for reading memory cards from cameras and video recorders, and an HDMI port for connecting to a larger display.

What tablet can you buy that includes an 11 inch screen (or close), a physical keyboard, and all those ports for $200. (I'll spare you the trouble. None. An iPad Air with a nice keyboard is going to cost you three times as much, around $600.)

Some people will insist they don't need a physical keyboard with their tablet. Typing with the on-screen virtual keyboard might be fine when you're entering a website address, searching for a TV show on Netflix, or filling out a form on a website, but it's not useful if you're going to take it to meetings for notes, or answer emails, etc. Even if you don't mind typing on the glass, the on-screen keyboard covers too much of the screen! You're left typing into this tiny little window.

That's the bottom line of the Chromebook: Value. If you buy a base model for $200, it is a great value. At $400, I'd buy a netbook running Windows 8.1. At $900, I'd buy a Macbook Air. If I already had the tablet, I'd just add the keyboard.

But if I needed that very portable second computer to carry to meetings or just around the house to answer emails and check websites, the Chromebook makes sense. If you are a Google enthusiast, already using Google Apps (Gmail, Calendar, Drive, etc.), it makes even more sense. I like my Chromebook. Although it and my iPad do cross into each other's territory quite a bit, they each have their place in my world of tech.

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