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My two months with a Chromebook

I like to try out different types of computers, especially laptops. I’ve needed the portable form factor since I was in graduate school and through the years I’ve tried them all. Since 2001 my main laptop has been a Mac: first the iBook, then the Powerbook, then back to the iBook, then the MacBook Air. Before the Air came out in the 11” size, I even turned a netbook into a “hackintosh.” Throughout these 13 years I’ve also maintained access to a Windows machine because I have research-related data and programs that are not compatible with OSX. But for my everyday writing it’s been a Mac.

Over the last year, though, I’ve been falling out of love with the Mac operating system. I never liked iOS, and as OSX becomes increasingly similar to it my affection decreases. I miss the simpler, more open architecture of the pre-App Store OSX, and some weeks I feel as if the updates are as numerous as on my Windows machine. Unlike a lot of people I don’t hate Windows 8 and I really like Windows 7, but the MacBook Air’s size, weight, and feel has yet to be matched in a Windows machine. Still, my niggling dissatisfaction has meant that as my Air grows older and slower I’m not jumping to replace it with the new model. So what to do?

I ignored Chromebooks when they first came out because I didn’t see the point. My beloved Air was smaller, faster, and more versatile. But then last year Google came out with the beautiful, ridiculously expensive, Chromebook Pixel, and then a handful of inexpensive but attractive models were released by Samsung, Acer, and finally HP (and new models are rolling out this year, including an updated pair from Samsung). At $250-$280, I thought maybe the platform was worth a try. I asked my Twitter stream what they thought and a number of people told me they were finding their Chromebooks surprisingly useful. I then read a bunch of reviews, both positive and negative, and settled on the HP Chromebook 11.

chromebook4

Hardware

I picked the HP over the Samsung and the Asus primarily because it had the brightest screen, the keyboard and trackpad received good marks, and it was almost exactly the same size as the MacBook Air. The 11.6” screen size is harder to find these days, but I really like it as a travel computer. Here are the two machines stacked on top of each other.

chromebook3

When viewed from another angle, you can see that the Air might even be a little bit longer than the Chromebook.

chromebook2

The Chromebook feels bigger and bulkier because it doesn’t have the Air’s wedge shape, but it weighs less (2.26lbs v. 2.38lbs for the Air) and it fits into the sleeve I use for my Air. Carrying it in a tote or backpack feels the same. I find the chiclet-style keyboard easy and comfortable to type on. The keys are a little closer together than on the Air, but my accuracy is equivalent. And the trackpad, which is the worst feature of low-cost laptops in my experience, is far better than I expected. It’s a little rough at first but I became used to it and I don’t bother to keep a mouse handy. The battery life is adequate but not spectacular at 5:30 hours (that’s consistently what I get, not the 6 hours HP claims on its site).  Engadget has a thorough review and a roundup of tech and user reviews. The Verge, which likes it much less than either I and other users do or Engadget does, has a review and a summary of the specs. The screen is bright and sharp: 

chromebook1

Software

But what about the software? A comfortable machine is still only as good as the operating system it runs. Here the Chromebook is both wonderful and limited. If you can manage with the limitations, as I do, it can carry out most of your day-to-day tasks. But it all depends on what you use your laptop for.

If you’re already enmeshed in the Google Borg, the Chromebook is incredibly easy to adjust to. When you open the cover the computer turns itself on and within 5 seconds you have the login page. When you first use the machine you’ll be prompted to log in using your Google account. If you already use Chrome, your bookmarks, saved passwords, and other personal information will be immediately available. Whatever you do through a browser you can do on the Chromebook, using Chrome, and despite the fact that the processor isn’t that fast, everything feels quick and easy. My standard open tabs are Gmail, my RSS feed reader, and Dear Author to start, and then I add whatever other tabs I need for what I’m working on. Right now I’m typing this post in a Google Docs tab and will cut and paste it into DA’s backend when I’m ready to upload it.

You cannot install any apps on the machine except those available in the Chrome Store. These apps are basically shortcuts to the webpages. I use Tweetdeck for Twitter, Dropbox, Netflix, and the Kindle Cloud Reader. I’ve also downloaded an epub reader, as well as a pdf reader that has annotation functions. I’ve had no trouble accessing my Yahoo mail account, using my Amazon instant video, downloading my files from the Dropbox website, or accessing OneDrive. The screen is more than adequate for watching videos and two people can watch from different angles (the HP is way better than the Samsung on these dimensions).

Now, obviously, you can’t use your browser unless you’re connected to the internet. The wifi is easy to set up, but what about when it’s not available? There are offline versions of various Google apps (Gmail, Docs, GoogleDrive, and Kindle Cloud Reader), but for the most part you need to be online. That’s not a big deal for me these days, but it’s something you should keep in mind if you’re considering a Chromebook. The HP comes with a 16GB drive and there is a download folder, so you can keep documents and other files on the machine, but you’re going to put most of your stuff in GoogleDrive (and Google gives you 100GB free for 2 years to enable this).

There are apps I really miss, though, and it means I can never use this as my only computer. That’s OK for me because I have a 15” MacBook Pro laptop as my office machine, but it has meant that I have to save some tasks for the office that I used to do at home. The biggest gap right now is with formatted text, spreadsheet, and presentation files. I can type into Word files on GoogleDocs and save them into Word, but there’s a lot of formatting I can’t input and I can’t use the Track Changes feature. GoogleDocs has its own version of viewable revisions, and those are fine for short documents I write collaboratively or edit; in fact GoogleDocs is better because some people I work with don’t have Microsoft Office. But for more complicated text files and spreadsheets I’m stuck. I’m hoping that as Office 365 rolls out, the web-based versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint will have more features, but they aren’t there yet.

There are three other apps I use regularly that I really miss: Tweetbot (Tweetdeck is good but not the same), the Nike app for my FuelBand activity tracker, and Calibre. This last is the biggest deal. I put all my ebooks into Calibre and convert them, so Calibre acts as my e-library. I have access to the files from my Chromebook because I put the directory in GoogleDrive, but I can’t add or make changes without the program.

And, of course, I can’t do data analysis, even preliminary analysis in a program like Excel. Again, I have a work computer for this, but it’s another limitation.

Bottom Line

These caveats notwithstanding, I’ve been surprised at how much I can do solely with the Chromebook. I took a quick trip to California when I first got it and decided to go without the Air, and for the most part I didn’t miss it and enjoyed the simplicity and the fast turn-on/shut-down of the Chromebook. I then took another trip a couple of weeks ago, a longer one, and it was still more than adequate, although my FuelBand’s data couldn’t be uploaded and I couldn’t change its time zone. But I could charge it, which was the important thing.

So who should get a Chromebook? Anyone who wants a light, fast, inexpensive second computer for writing, web surfing, and videos should be pretty happy with it. I have a couple of friends who got Chromebooks for their kids; they are great for schoolwork and the parents don’t worry about replacement cost as much. And since each user has a separate login and there is also a “guest” function it’s a good computer to give to visitors, not just for multiple users in a household.

One more caveat: the HP is the only model that has a dedicated micro-USB charger, and you cannot charge it with any other charger if you want to use it while it is charging (you can do the equivalent of a trickle-charge while it’s shut down with some other micro-USB chargers). And the charger is seriously finicky; I had to return mine because it stopped working. The other Chromebook models have regular pin chargers. But on the plus side, when I returned the machine (I had to return everything to replace the charger), I “powerwashed” it to set it back to the factory default state and I just had to log in and set up the wifi on the new one. It was the fastest and easiest I’ve ever switched computers.

The Chromebook isn’t for everyone, to put it mildly. But it’s a great stripped-down lightweight laptop that lets me do a lot of my daily work, and it’s faster and simpler. I have less distractions when I’m working, and that’s a big deal for me. And farewell to endless updates! The ChromeOS updates automatically in the background and I rarely notice that it’s happening. You don’t have to give your life over to Google — I still have Dropbox and my Yahoo mail account — but you will find yourself using Google more, there’s no question. For me the tradeoff between that and simplicity has been worth it.

Sunita has been reading romances since she ran out of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Chalet School books and graduated to Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. Other old favorites include Mary Burchell, Betty Neels, Elsie Lee, and Edith Layton. Among current writers, she reads and rereads Anne Stuart, Tamara Allen, Sarah Morgan, Marion Lennox, Josh Lanyon, and Susanna Kearsley. She blogs as VacuousMinx and tweets as @sunita_p.

30 Comments

  1. Jessica
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 06:30:08

    Thanks so much for this, Sunita. I have a new MacBook Air that I love, but I am looking for something for my mom, who is a PC user. This sounds like what I’ve been looking for in terms of price and functionality. Do you think it would be good for an older person who is not super computer savvy?

  2. Lea
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 07:11:24

    I recently purchased a chrome book and love it. My only question is for authors who want to self pub… Is this the right computer/software. I’ve had people ask before what programs to use and if the google docs is formattable for it? I have no idea because I basically use mine for Internet and email exclusively. Thoughts?

  3. Ana
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 07:35:27

    I teach computer/tech in a PK-8 school and we switched over to Chromebooks, Samsung model at the beginning of the year. I really love it. There are some limitations, the biggest being having a adequate wifi infrastructure in the building, but we have been able to switch to web apps for nearly everything we used to do on our old dying PCs. The key is being comfortable with cloud computing. The machines themselves are easy to use, and maintain. They are light and comfortable to type on. When my personal laptops die in the next few years I will be switching over to personal chromebook and I think they are excellent as kid web computers. If you are a gamer or need to use a high-powered software, these are not for you.

  4. DS
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 08:35:26

    Thanks for the review, I’ve been thinking about a chromebook since I first read about it but have been hesitating because lack of input from users I trust. I’m edging closer to pulling the trigger now.

  5. Sunita
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 08:38:28

    @Jessica: Yes, definitely, as long as she doesn’t use apps that don’t have a web version. I didn’t talk about photos, but you can create albums in Google Drive and there are basic programs for manipulating them. I’d advise getting the 13″ (Samsung has one coming out) or the HP Chromebook 14″ if it’s her only computer and she’s not planning to carrying it around a lot.

    @Lea: I don’t know about creating publish-ready docs. The kind of writing I do requires more than the bare bones that Gdocs and the cloud version of Office provide, but basic formatting is available. Hopefully someone who does know about conversions will chime in.

    @Ana: Thanks for commenting, and thanks for the feedback on Twitter when I was asking around. I agree, they’re definitely not for gamers or anything that requires an app on the computer, but I’ve been surprised at how much I *can* do on this machine.

  6. BHG
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 08:45:37

    This review is ridiculously well-timed. I’ve been thinking about buying a chromebook ever since my beloved Dell laptop crashed. As I’m a little slow when it comes to technology (I still have a flip phone) I was, to put it mildly, a bit overwhelmed when I walked into Staples looking for a new laptop and was met with a barrage of half computer/half ipad/half touch screen… things.

    Since then I’ve been roughing it with an old mac desktop, but the chromebooks have always been in the back of my mind and I’m heading out to Walmart to (hopefully) buy one later today.

    My only question is about the “cloud” — does it cost extra money? Is there a subscription fee? Do you have to save your documents on it, or is a USB drive a suitable alternative?

  7. Jane
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 09:00:25

    @Ana: I’d think that would depend on how well you can code. If a self pub author can do html coding then you’d probably be able to create all files necessary although I don’t know of an online compiler. Graphics might be a problem too although I think there are web subscriptions to the Adobe suite.

  8. miztrniceguy
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 09:05:46

    My daughter has been using a Samsung Chromebook since Feb as part of a pilot with her 5th grade class. She likes it and it has been really useful for her. My take on it is that they fall between an Android tablet and a full laptop for functionality. It all depends on a persons needs. I don’t have much need for real computing on the go, so my Android tablets are fine. I have the original Asus Transformer, which has been sidelined since I got my Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet and my kids got their own Asus Memo 7″ tablets from Santa. My NOTE meets my portable computing needs. I have a new laptop, but it isn’t really portable. It IS, but it is heavy since it’s an Asus Republic of Gamers G750. It is almost as powerful as my home-built Asus-based desktop, only having a slightly slower processor. It has Win 7 Pro on a SSD drive and starts in under 15 seconds from on to be able to open Firefox. So they are complete polar opposites since one is very limited but very portable and the other has no limits to it’s capability, but is barely portable, only being limited by it’s weight. For ME the Chromebooks no sense, because I already have devices that “can’t do that” not to mention my wife’s iThings with the same issue of “you can’t do that” (altho she really likes her 4 with Retina display I recently got her). Also my research indicates my laptop is a great candidate for a Hackintosh (yes I capitalize it) but I don’t need to since I did that to my desktop already with OSx Mountain Lion.

    Great article Sunita.

  9. miztrniceguy
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 09:09:24

    Also, Windows 8 will not live i my house. I just updated our XP computers to 7 and I paid extra to customize my new laptop with 7.

  10. gin
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 09:10:49

    I got a Chromebook (cheapest, smallest model, by Acer) a few weeks ago, because I had some trips planned for this year, and I wanted to be able to do some basic internet stuff (checking email, etc.) and some work (writing, no spreadsheets or anything complicated). I don’t usually travel much, so I didn’t want to invest a lot, but I wanted something easier to write on than a tablet (mine doesn’t have a plug-in keyboard), and light enough not to be a burden (my ancient laptop is at least ten pounds).

    I love it. Light enough to carry easily, even with arthritic hands, and it does everything I want it to. I do need to do a little prep before traveling, making sure the documents I want to work on are in cloud storage and the right format (I usually work in WordPerfect, so I need to save things in Word to be compatible with googledocs), but that’s not a big deal for the type and amount of travel I do. It might be annoying if I traveled every week or on short notice..

    At home, I’ve found it convenient for quick email checks when my main computer is off. I can power down my desktop system at the end of the work day (saving energy), and then if I want to go online for some reason later, the Chromebook boots up/down so much faster than my desktop.

    Like others have said, I wouldn’t want it as my primary computer — too small, and I do love my WordPerfect, which isn’t an option on the CB — but it’s great for when I’m away from my desk. I’m looking forward to taking it out on my deck this summer, assuming those of us in the northeast ever get a summer this year.

  11. theo
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 09:27:40

    I bought the DH a Samsung Chromebook when my old Toshiba he was using to surf the web, read emails and such finally bit the dust completely. To me, it’s more a tablet with a keyboard and it functions quite well overall, but, and please don’t everyone tell me how to do this because it’s been months now…we can’t print from it. That ONE time you need to print just ONE page cannot be done, even with my cloud ready Brother printer. I’ve had to route the Chromebook through my laptop using the laptop as a server so the Chromebook can print. This means when I shut down my laptop, his ability to print is gone.

    I’m not the only one who has this problem. There are posts after posts on Google as well as hundreds of other sites complaining of the same thing. It was a very poorly planned part of the Google system and judging from their responses, they aren’t looking to change it anytime soon. And you can’t use Android apps on it. There are no apps you can use to print from a Chromebook. You just have to hope you’re one of the lucky ones who can get the printing option to work. If you can’t, you’ll have to save whatever you’re trying to print to Google Docs and then print it from somewhere else. Or use Google’s optional method with another laptop involved like we’ve had to.

    Had I known this when I bought it for him, I’d have gotten him an inexpensive Toshiba. *sigh*

  12. miztrniceguy
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 09:35:44

    @theo have you contacted Brother support for help with your Cloud-ready printer?

  13. theo
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 10:27:33

    @miztrniceguy: Contacted, (not exactly a responsive customer service department btw) researched, poured over help forums til my eyes could take no more, tried everything suggested, nada. I said in my previous post that I’ve tried for months so please don’t add another suggestion to the hundreds I’ve tried. When he needs to print something now, I find it online and print from my laptop. That’s our only choice. And no, I’m not buying another printer either. I just won’t buy another Chromebook.

  14. miztrniceguy
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 10:43:46

    @theo Ok I was just asking.

  15. Willaful
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 12:35:43

    My husband bought a chromebook because the only backpack he could find for his outsize laptop cost $200! He uses it for business trips and has been happy with it, but its screen recently broke for no apparent reason.

  16. Darlynne
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 13:00:44

    When the announcement about XP was made, we had to decide what to do with all our desktops and netbooks. We looked at the Chromebook and determined that we didn’t trust Google enough, not with privacy, not with the unexpected changes they’ve been known to institute that make (now former) Google users like me nuts.

    Linux Mint 16 to the rescue: Xfce on the Dell desktops, Cinnamon on my netbook and life is good, better in many ways. Two of the big reasons for going this route was that Calibre has a Linux version and the LibreOffice suite is quite robust. For now, I still need an XP partition because the Kindle, Kobo and BN desktop applictions don’t run on Linux, but I can live with that until I figure out how to make it all work.

  17. Sunita
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 13:43:14

    @BHG: You will get 100GB of cloud space (server space) from Google free for 2 years. You can also use a flash drive (the HP has two USB ports) and you have 16GB on the computer for storage.

    If you use other web-based services, such as OneDrive (Microsoft) or Dropbox you also get some free space from them, but for the Chromebook Google Drive is the default backup. Prices have dropped and will undoubtedly continue to drop, so by the time you free deal is up it probably won’t cost much to keep whatever you are using the cloud for.

    @miztrniceguy: Thanks, Mr. NG, and thanks for commenting! I’m glad you made the tablet/Chromebook comparison. I agree with you that ChromeOS is between Android and a full-fledged OS. In some ways it is less flexible because of the browser rather than app system, and for a lot of people a tablet is just as good or better. I used an iPad for about a year for PDF reading and for writing, and while it worked well (loved the battery life), I really wanted a bigger keyboard. Also, I prefer the clamshell form factor when I’m sitting and writing with the computer on my lap. But that’s totally a personal preference.

  18. Lostshadows
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 13:45:48

    Thanks for the review. I’m currently using a slowly dying, hand-me-down netbook and was wondering if a Chrome machine would be a good replacement. This has actually been the most helpful, to me, review I’ve seen.

  19. Sunita
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 13:48:51

    @gin: Your experience is very much my experience. I need either a desktop or a powerful laptop as my work computer, but I don’t need that 24/7, and I really like the stripped down functionality. What for some people is a hindrance is actually a help to me, especially when I’m writing. I don’t turn on Freedom or some other web blocker, I just close tabs. And I really appreciate the lack of updating. Between Mac and Windows machines I feel as if I spend half my life waiting for updates to complete/restart, especially if it’s a machine I’m not using regularly.

    @theo: I’m sorry to hear about your printer problems. I had a very good experience with Google customer service when my charger stopped working. But I swear that printer-computer relationships have been ceded by the Forces of Good to the Forces of Evil. I’ve had printer problems with every printer and ever computer (and every network) I’ve ever had. Even the Apple “genius” guys couldn’t solve one of them.

    I can’t speak to this issue myself on the HP because I don’t have a cloud printer yet. I’m getting one when we go out to California for the summer, but that’s a few weeks off.

  20. Sunita
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 13:58:21

    @Willaful: Ugh. That’s like my charger problem. What a pain. It is the downside of cheaper machines, I guess.

    @Darlynne: I went through the privacy issue two years ago when Google changed its terms. I tried living without GMail and I just found it too difficult. I gave up Chrome then, and I thought really hard about whether I was willing to go back, especially since I’ve taught a course on privacy issues since then, so I’ve thought a lot about how the sausage is made.

    I’ve dealt with the issue in two ways. First, I spread out my stuff across companies. My mail and search are Google but my phone is not. I don’t use Apple’s cloud at all. I use Twitter but only link it to 2 apps, I don’t have a Google+ account, and I don’t use Facebook at all. Of the different information-harvesters, I actually “trust” Google the most because their business model will suffer the most from privacy breaches, in my opinion. Apple is the worst, from what I have read; they provide cloud services and encourage their customers to use them but their security is terrible (by industry standards).

    But obviously, everyone has to make their own decisions.

    ETA: I’ve used a few different Linux distros over the years and like the platform quite a bit. From what I understand, Mint is very user-friendly these days, and if I ever put Linux on a Chromebook that’s probably what I’d go for.

  21. Sunita
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 14:02:34

    @Lostshadows: You’re welcome! I’m so glad it is helpful. There are a lot of “my week/month/6-months with a Chromebook” posts out there and I read them all before taking the plunge. Just avoid the comments (or skim them for the occasional useful info), because they seem to bring out the fan wars even more than your average tech story.

  22. miztrniceguy
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 14:03:32

    @Sunita if you still have a Note phone and want to print from it then look at Samsung Cloud Printers. I don’t know if it has changed, but last I knew you could only print from Samsung Android devices to a Samsung printer. I cannot print from my Note tablet to my Brother printer, even using the Brother Android App. If that isn’t a factor, I would look at Brother cloud enabled ones. My Brother MFC is not on the list, but since my daughter only has a Chromebook as a loan from the school it doesn’t matter. All our laptops (3) and desktops (2) connected wirelessly without issues as did my Asus Transformer.

  23. Sunita
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 15:13:15

    @miztrniceguy: Thanks for that info. i hate buying printers because there are so many variables and I never manage to incorporate all the right ones in my decision making process.

  24. miztrniceguy
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 15:15:39

    @sunita Happy to help ;)

  25. Ana
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 15:28:23

    @Sunita: You are welcome.

    @miztrniceguy:

    We print from our Chromebooks at school all the time. The trick to it for us, and to register both “classic” and cloud ready printers to a google cloud print account using a regular/traditional computer. Once those printers are assigned to the google id, we have been able to print easily. We have only run into problems when trying to share those printers.

    @Jane , I think you meant @Lea: , but I do know that a few months back I stumbled onto blog posts about writers using chromebooks to write and looking around for Scrivener alternatives and someone suggested using Scriptito for those on Chromebooks.

  26. Lindsay
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 17:14:58

    Thank you for the review! I’ve been eyeballing laptops for conferences and continuing education and it’s nice to hear that this would likely meet my needs. The weight is such a big plus, too — my last laptop was a 10lb beast so I haven’t had a real portable computer in… ever.

  27. Black Velvet
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 23:52:24

    Sunita, I was glad to read your review. I too recently received a Chromebook for my birthday (less than a month ago). I had been considering one for the past year, but wanted to wait until the Haswell processors had been added to the latest updates before I purchased one. Luckily, the friends who bought mine were listening when I was telling them about the features I was looking for. I have an Acer C720P and it has a touchscreen and while I never thought I would use that function, I find it really handy for demoing things to people easily. Also the full sized hdmi port makes tv plugin much easier.

    Like many people have mentioned above its not a main pc, but it makes a great, throw in the bag and travel/let people borrow/let the kids use computer. I like to take mine to the any coffeeshop. There’s always wifi and I can get some things done.

    Once again great review of both the chromebook itself and chrome OS.

  28. My two months with a Chromebook | Isupon
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 09:39:33

    […] I like to try out different types of computers, especially laptops. I’ve needed the portable form factor since I was in graduate school and through the years I’ve tried them all. Since 2001 my main laptop has been a Mac: first the iBook, then Read full article […]

  29. Jennifer
    May 10, 2014 @ 01:41:36

    I love my chromebook. I recently sold a Windows 8 computer I purchased only a few months ago. I have had a Macbook since college but the switch to the Google ecosystem was easy. I don’t miss a thing.

  30. Sunita
    May 10, 2014 @ 09:55:09

    @Jennifer: Thanks for chiming in! I’m 6 weeks further along with mine and I can’t believe how much I use it. I agree the Google ecosystem is user-friendly and for short documents I’ve found that collaborating is easier than it was with Word.

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