My two months with a Chromebook

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.

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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.

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

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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: 

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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.