Why I left my MacBook for a Chromebook

(Simon Phipps InfoWorld) The Apple iPad Mini and Microsoft Surface may be dominating the news this week, but I've been fascinated by Google's most recent addition to the Chromebook line: an ARM-based Samsung model running Chrome OS. At $249, the device is probably the cheapest useful mainstream laptop I've ever seen. It follows in the wake of earlier devices in the same range, one of which I happen to have bought for myself about a month ago.

The big surprise: My experiences using a Chromebook for a month have been so good I believe it deserves serious consideration.

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While it's not being talked about in this way, the Chromebook line is probably the most successful Linux desktop/laptop computer we've seen to date. Most of the software on the device is open source and it relies heavily on open standards. The options for updating it yourself are openly discussed, and enterprising hackers have even loaded full GNU/Linux distributions onto it.

The HTML5 road machine
I've not done that; I don't need another hobby. Instead, I've tried to use the Chromebook exactly as it was delivered. I'm now using it for almost everything. I bought the Samsung 550 model with the optional support for 3G data access because I don't want to be dependent on Wi-Fi access. Apart from that, it's likely my experiences would have been exactly the same on any Chromebook, including the new low-cost ARM-based versions.

The setup process is pretty much what you'd expect from a Web appliance. I unpacked it from its plain vanilla box and opened the lid; immediately the Chromebook turned on and led me through a few steps to make it my own. I plugged it in to make sure the battery was able to charge and got started. After I gave it my Google email address and password, it almost instantly downloaded the bookmarks, preferences, and extensions I use on Chrome on my MacBook Pro. It was up and running, and I was productively browsing in just a few minutes.

You'd expect that part to be easy. But I need to be able to write articles, gather research clippings and notes, stay in touch with people, and handle pictures. I was skeptical that the Chromebook would be able to help with these; instead, I figured it would mainly act as the "lounge browser" by the family after I'd checked it out. Indeed, when it arrived I found it gave me great HTML5 browsing -- the cool toys on the Chrome Experiments site worked really well.

Hanging out offline
As it turns out, I got quite a bit more. The device comes with Google's Drive cloud storage service pre-installed, as well as shortcuts for creating new documents, spreadsheets, and presentations on Drive. They all work offline once Offline Mode is enabled in the Drive Web page. Google uses the local storage ability of HTML5, so enabling this mode starts a caching process that makes the most recently used documents available locally. The same applies to Google Calendar and to Gmail; as a result, the Chromebook is just as useful as an Android or iOS device for the basics of personal productivity, even without a Wi-Fi or 3G connection.

There's also an SD card slot, so I experimented with uploading photographs. The experience was identical to that of any other browser: Select the files from the file browser and upload. The file browser application on the Chromebook supports SD cards, USB sticks (via the two USB ports), and Google Drive. The easiest way to manage file upload and download is to drag and drop between Google Drive and local storage in the file browser. With the ubiquity of Google Drive, Google's current offer to Chromebook owners (100GB of storage, free for two years) is very useful.

As for connectivity, I've tried the Chromebook on Wi-Fi, using a cable in the device's Ethernet port and using 3G while traveling (including in the United Kingdom and France). All three have appeared equally useful. There's a short network startup time lag each time the lid is opened, presumably because the device switches off completely to save power when the lid is closed. Getting 3G SIMs in the United Kingdom and France was not too hard, although none of the stores I went to had any idea what a Chromebook was and configuring the right settings was hit-and-miss. All the same, I was able to find SIMs that worked on very reasonable price plans, and I've spent quite a bit of my time enjoying cafe ambience to write this.

Chrome apps close the deal
Since the device is just a browser in a box, there are as many applications for it as there are Web pages in the world. Web pages that have been designed as HTML5 applications are especially interesting, though. The Chrome Web Store is surprisingly populous, and I've found several useful applications.

  • I use Evernote compulsively for research and writing. I've added it to the Chromebook launcher so that it starts full-screen at startup. While I wish it had an offline mode, I've still found it the perfect workspace for the Chromebook.
  • Life without Twitter would be unthinkable (follow me at @webmink), so I've "installed" TweetDeck, which appears to be identical on all platforms.
  • I've installed an offline-capable code editor, ShiftEdit.
  • To manage my servers, there's a secure shell (SSH) extension to Chrome that works well and even allows me to use key-pairs for login.
  • I'm not big on games, but I have Suduko, Angry Birds, and Cut the Rope for idle moments.
  • I have a number of e-books (all DRM free), so I've installed the Kindle app, which also works well offline and can manage offline books.
  • Google has regrettably and inexplicably poor support for OpenDocument Format, the standard used by many of the world's governments, so I've added InstallFree Nexus for LibreOffice. This allows me to have a full copy of LibreOffice in a browser tab.

Switching between these full-screen apps and the tabbed browser is easy: There are dedicated keys on the Chromebook keyboard for it, along with browser keys (back, forward, reload, search) and controls for screen brightness and audio volume. The keyboard has a handy pop-up map (Crtl+Alt+/), and there are a large number of shortcuts for browser and device functions. For example, it's easy to take screenshots, to look at the task list, to cycle through browser tabs, and so on. The trackpad is nice and responsive, with support for common gestures and a clickable edge for those preferring a mouselike feel.

Skirting the limitations
I can't do everything on the Chromebook, but fortunately it comes with Google's remote screen-sharing application, delivered as a Chrome extension with a helper application for some platforms. I've added this to the family's Apple computers, and I am able to remotely screen-share from anywhere in the world, using either a secure code they give me via phone/IM or for one or two using a password. I've been able to remotely edit LibreOffice documents, manage my photo library, and copy documents to Google Drive or Dropbox. I've been experimenting with using VirtualBox sessions remotely but so far have not been able to add them to my remote systems list.

Printing was the other area that worried me, but that too has been surprisingly easy. I've allowed the copy of Chrome on one of the computers to access printers on our network using Google Cloud Print, and it's now as easy to print from the Chromebook as it is from any of the other computers. As a bonus, I can queue print jobs from anywhere.

The audio and video support is good. Google Hangouts works well for voice and video chat, Google Voice provides easy telephone calling, and the device has great loudspeakers, so music and videos are enjoyable. I've installed Google Music Manager on my desktop machine, and it's made my music collection available in Google Play; I can play anything any time on the Chromebook. I have some Skullcandy headphones with a built-in microphone to use for both communications and music. Naturally, YouTube is supported, as are a number of TV applications, which work well.

The battery life is excellent. I rarely need to connect the charger during the day, despite heavy use, and the device is small and light enough to fit in an unobtrusive messenger bag. One oddity is the video connector. Samsung and Google have chosen to use the Displayport connector (not the same as Apple's mini display port). The Chromebook does not come with adapters for this strange connector, so I had to search for them. I've used the HDMI adapter to watch a music webcast and found it gave good screen resolution, as well as delivering the audio to the TV. I've also bought a VGA adapter to connect with projectors and a DVI connector for monitors in the office.

Great for Google geeks
What's missing? My device has no Bluetooth, but that's included in the new ARM Chromebooks. Apart from that, I'm happy with my device. I had expected to carry a "proper" laptop as well when I was traveling, but I've found the Chromebook entirely adequate. Adapting to it requires a slightly different mind-set, an experience on the same level as switching between Windows and Mac or Ubuntu Unity.

It also requires a willingness to fully embrace Google's cloud services if you're going to get the best from it. But I was already a heavy Google user on my other computers and I've become very comfortable with it. Indeed, I've researched, written, and filed all my stories on both ComputerworldUK and InfoWorld from it for the last few weeks.

It reminds me very much of the experience of adjusting to thin client computing five years ago; the Chromebook is essentially a thin client laptop. I can imagine it fitting easily into a corporate environment, especially using the administrative control features Google sells for business users. Businesses open to using a thin client desktop should be evaluating Chromebooks and Chromeboxes -- they are today's open source equivalent of yesterday's proprietary thin clients and Sun Rays.

I didn't think I'd replace my MacBook Pro with a Chromebook, but the truth is my old Apple friend has been sitting on the end of its Kensington cable in the office for weeks now, occasionally acting as a printer server or a remote application server but otherwise gathering dust. We'll see how long that lasts, but for now it's true: I left my MacBook for a Chromebook.

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