Thoughts on the Chromebook

Not too long ago, I was sent a Chromebook as a gift (specifically, this model) and in the weeks since I’ve been using it around the house as something of a casual internet appliance; for example, when I’m sitting in the front room of the house and checking e-mail and other similar online activities. Those of you who read Whatever know that a few years ago I received a CR-48, the prototype Chromebook, from Google; while I enjoyed it (and in fact, still have it), I had some substantial reservations about it. So when this Chromebook arrived, I was curious as to whether this update form would alleviate some of my concerns.

The answer: Yes, and no. Some of my fundamental concerns about Chromebooks still apply; primarily, that unless you have a constant connection to the Internet — and can happily exist within the Google ecosystem of apps and services — you’re going to have a problem. This version of the Chromebook does have the capability for some offline use and storage, but at the end of the day it’s a terminal. If you need a laptop to be anything else, then you need another laptop.

With that said, on a day to day basis in my own home, where I do have a constant Internet connection, and because I do have fairly significant integration with the Google ecosystem — I use Gmail and Google Drive on a daily basis — this little computer works really well for me. One, it’s a nice size (small) and weight (close to nothing) for me to use, and while this particular version of the Chromebook will never wow anyone with its parts and build, for a $250 rig, it’s fine. I wouldn’t mind a lighted keyboard, but I also don’t expect it at this price point. I do love that the OS is “instant on,” in a way that not even current Macs (or Windows 8) can match.

Two, in the two and a half years since I first checked out the CR-48, both Google’s Chrome and app ecosystem have gotten substantially better (I had to give up writing Redshirts on Google Docs because the program was not good enough, but wrote much of The Human Division on it because by then it was), more robust and useful — and I’ve started using persistently online services more commonly. This will be your cue to warn me about the evils of sharing private information and data with Google, etc., who do not care about me and will sell my data to the highest bidder, and so on. This is not a trivial concern in a larger sense; it’s also one I’ve baked into how I use online services and tools. As I’ve noted before, there is nothing about my online life I couldn’t confess to my wife and have her say “yeah, okay, whatever” to, which is my standard for information sharing with Google, et al (not to mention the government — hi, NSA!). This is not to say it ought to be your standard. It’s just mine.

On a day-to-day basis I use Google, Yahoo (via Flickr), Twitter, WordPress, Facebook, Rhapsody and a couple of others. All of these services work just fine via the Chrome OS interface, either through the Chrome browser directly or (more rarely) apps created specifically for the Chrome OS. I also appreciate these days being able to move from one computer in the house to the next without having to carry my work with me; it’s there persistently, so long as the Internet connection doesn’t go out, which it usually does not. There are some things I need  Word, Photoshop or some other heavy duty program for, in which case I have them resident on the desktop upstairs. Otherwise, honestly, the Chromebook is perfectly sufficient.

As long as I’m home. When I travel, I’m not always within range of a wifi signal — or I am but I don’t want to bother paying for it and/or otherwise needing to be online to do some trivial task I want to accomplish. I also sometimes want to do more than absolutely basic things in a portable form. This is why my travel laptop is a bit more of a beast when it comes to power and offline usability. I don’t think that I would have been happy with this Chromebook for a month out on the road; I would be butting up against limitations that would bother me at home, where I have the option of a more robust computer just a few steps away.

So in sum: As long as you know what you have in a Chromebook, and where it is the most useful (at home and/or somewhere that you have a constant, uninterrupted wifi connection), it’s pretty nifty. It’s a solid choice, I think, for a second computer around the house. It’s how I use mine and I haven’t been disappointed yet.

34 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Chromebook

  1. How would that “constant connection” constraint change if you had a 4G phone connection you could tether the Chromebook to?

    I ask partly because I spend a lot of time out where there’s no cellular phone service, so although my phone works for tethering my tablet and notebook, it doesn’t help to speak of. I suspect that your life varies a fair bit from mine in that regard.

  2. lumbercartel:

    I have a mobile 4G hotspot on my phone, which I deploy when I travel and particularly when I’m at hotels that have not wised up to the concept of “free wifi” (I also travel with a portable external battery for my phone because using it as a wifi hotspot chews up the usage time something fierce).

    What I find, however — and one of the reasons I would be hesitant to rely on the Chromebook as a primary travel machine — is that cellular networks are horribly flaky and inconsistent. I’ve had times where my phone was assuring me I had all sorts of signal, where I couldn’t even push an e-mail through.

    Again, the new Chromebooks have offline capability for certain things — including word processing and e-mail — but at the end of the day I’m still wanting a little more oomph to my computer if I’m doing a bunch of travel.

    That said, I would happily take the Chromebook on a day or even weekend trip if I knew that where I was going had decent access and that I didn’t need to do anything heavy duty with my computer.

  3. As an owner and user of an Acer C7 (the $200 one), I will add that in certain very limited capacities it remains useful without an internet connection. Specifically, once you set Google Drive up for offline use and give it time to sync, you can create and edit documents and, I think, spreadsheets offline, and they will sync the next time you get a connection.

    Since I bought it specifically for writing while on the go, this is perfect for me: the machine is small enough to store anywhere I could store a medium-size book or a couple of notebooks (I keep it in an unassuming zipper binder), very lightweight, and, as a writing platform, far superior to a tablet or phone.

  4. Can’t help but be reminded of Air, also known as Air: Or, Have Not Have, the 2005 novel by Geoff Ryman. It is the story of a town’s fashion expert Chung Mae, a smart but illiterate peasant woman in a small village in the fictional country of Karzistan (loosely based on the country of Kazakhstan), and her suddenly leading role in reaction to dramatic, worldwide experiments with a new information technology called Air. Air is information exchange, not unlike the Internet, that occurs in everyone’s brain and is intended to connect the world. After a test of Air is imposed on Mae’s unprepared mountain town, everyone and everything changes, especially Mae who was deeper into Air than any other person. Afterwards, Mae struggles to prepare her people for what is to come while learning all about the world outside her home. When the system crashes, it is as if everyone’s head was a Chromebook, and wifi stopped…

    It won the British Science Fiction Association Award, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and was on the short list for the Philip K. Dick Award in 2004, the Nebula Award in 2005, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 2006.
    Ryman initially wrote a short story for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction entitled “Have Not Have”, which was included in the April 2001 edition. This was expanded into a novel initially titled Air: Or, Have Not Have, and renamed to just Air in all editions since the first.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_(novel)

  5. Is there a way to remotely back up Google docs? Because one of the biggest dangers of relying it (other than the privacy aspect) is that if Google decides that you’ve violated their ToS – whether or not you have – they’ll shut everything down and you can lose everything. All your in-progress writing, all your email…

  6. mgwa:

    Yes, you can download material in your Google Drive (including documents). I don’t imagine it will come as a surprise to learn that anything significant I write in Google Docs I also store locally. Multiple redundant copies of work is good.

  7. If I may posit a suggestion for writing tools on a Chromebook! Write Space is my current driver for “distraction-free” typing. Full-screen typing ala WriteRoom, with a ton of customization in the UI department. I particularly like having a soothing dark-grey on light grey scheme. It’s not a perfect solution, though – it’ll automatically save your work with every keystroke to its own, locally stored database, but for whatever reason, it can’t actually…save your work as an exportable, readable file like .rtf or .txt. You’ll have to copy and paste the text into Google Docs for that.

    Still! It’s a cool little tool, and I’ve found that if people use beta-level technology with potential like this, the developers actually have an incentive to make the program better.

    https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/write-space/aimodnlfiikjjnmdchihablmkdeobhad?hl=en

  8. This model is my Chromebook, my first one. I love it because it lets me do the things I need to do with it, which is mostly writing and surfing to various sites. I take it almost everywhere I go. I also use it to stream stuff from the web. You can connect it via HDMI to your TV and it’s awesome. If want to dip your toes in Chromebook land, this Chromebook is a great place to start.

  9. I’ve had times where my phone was assuring me I had all sorts of signal, where I couldn’t even push an e-mail through.

    Signal strength and actual bandwidth are two very different things.

    I don’t imagine it will come as a surprise to learn that anything significant I write in Google Docs I also store locally.

    You can set your files to sync over your home network with or without an internet connection, including to backup drives. At least I assume there’s a way to mirror files in Chrome OS, though I’ve never used it. There certainly is in Ubuntu and Windows Hate. And Linux boots faster than Windows or OSX.

    I don’t trust the cloud. I rely on a VPN connection with my home web server, the only machine I still have running Windows (albeit Server) these days. I’ve been seriously considering replacing it with a LAMP bundle configured for IPsec. I’ve also been looking at SSH, but I have a hard time trusting anything that enables remote command line access.

  10. I’ve also been looking at SSH, but I have a hard time trusting anything that enables remote command line access.

    You can disable remote shell access and just use tunnelling. If you’re running a Linux system, the wonders of ssh are really too good to pass up. Just make sure you have the security screwed down pretty tight. Don’t allow remote root logins, use nontrivial usernames and decently strong passwords, drop the hammer on an source that tries multiple logins (fail2ban, for instance) and even go with a full-up public key login authentication if you really worry.

    There’s some pretty heavy-duty iron out there using ssh. It really is pretty much an essential admin tool.

  11. If I go the SSH route I’ll definitely be using key authentication, use ssh-keygen frequently and only exchange on my LAN, and passphrase lock the server. PKI makes me nervous. Root logins are out of the question; I might as well paint a target on the key file. Paranoid? Why yes I am.

  12. That kitty bed looks like just the sort of thing my cats would like. Wonder where it’s from.

  13. The more I read about Chromebooks, the more I miss my Netbook – which had an Ubuntu OS and the Internet.

    I’ve been traveling a lot, both business and personal, lately – so I’m really missing my cats. I was making silly noises at the picture of yours….

  14. Thanks for this quick review! I keep thinking about getting a Chromebook, since I prefer to write on a netbook at home [less distraction possibilities], but I use Scrivener right now, so I’m worried about the hassle of having to feed into my actual computer to access that program.

    I was using Drive for writing, but I found the formatting just wonky as hell when I tried to transfer out of Google docs – how do you handle that? Or am I just failing? hah!

  15. I bought my chromebook about 6 months ago, my Acer was $170 from Best Buy & has a local solid state drive (350GB I believe). This is just my internet device, the choice was a $500 tablet or the chromebook and I do not see the tablet adding that kind of value. I still don’t like the apps for the most part I find google docs cluncky and missing bits I like to use. I am willing to admit some of that may be my fault for not learning more but its easier for me to go to my real work station when I want to work. As a web browser, e-reader light-duty laptop I could not be happier or recommend it more highly. It does not have the “sexiness” of the tablet but neither do I!

  16. I use WordFlow in Chrome (the browser) because it has a “paste as plain text” option. Maybe others do as well, but WF is cheap n’ cheerful and has given me no cause for complaint so far.

    As far as Chromebooks go, my son has the same model and reports it does most of what his much more expensive and tricked out Macbook Pro does. However, I’ve noticed that many people have a problem with Chromebooks that can be summed up in one word – Java. They don’t really want to have anything to do with Java, but inevitably have an application that they’re stuck needing and that requires Java.

    In my case, it’s an online video editor. I could get around it by using Chrome/Chromebook to remote desktop to a machine that has Java, but that would take a lot of the simplicity and pleasure out of “everything in a browser,” wouldn’t it?

    Also, I’m kinda hoping for a mid-range machine from Google, something not hideously overpriced liked the Pixel, but not at the bottom either – an ARM-based laptop in the $500 range with a great screen would be nice.

    Scott A.

  17. Sounds like it would work well for anyone who does a lot of their writing in a coffeeshop or library. Or for a student traveling around campus, as long as they had a full computer back in their dorm/apartment.

    I have an MSI Wind netbook I bought years ago that I still use when I travel. Even though my home computer is a laptop. For very short trips, I’ll be content with my phone.

  18. John seems to go through a lot of gizmos. I have worked in software development for 14 years and most of us keep our pcs/laptops until they stop running. Though I do tend to build my own PC, but Ill keep it for 6 years and barely upgrade it all.

    most of us are like this. We tend not to be too enamored with the latest gizmo. We prefer the command line. I have found this interesting for a while. People who build software and devices generally go out and buy the latest and greatest. I didn’t even get a cell phone until 2007 and only because I need to be oncall for work.

  19. I have worked in software development for 14 years and most of us keep our pcs/laptops until they stop running. Though I do tend to build my own PC, but Ill keep it for 6 years and barely upgrade it all.

    The Frankenputer I’m on right now was built in 2002 and I’ve been running it (with incremental replacements) ever since. That includes the operating system — nothing but incremental upgrades for eleven years. Admittedly, Gentoo makes that pretty easy, but still: 11 years. I don’t see replacing it until desktops become totally obsolete.

  20. This is the model of Chromebook I’ve had for about a month, although I sprung for the version that comes with 4G connection free for 2 years. For what I want to do with it, which is write anywhere and be able to look things up online as I go, it’s perfect–very light, fits in my large but not humongous purse, decent battery life. My main problem is that Googledocs is horrible for very long mss. I like working in one big file so that if I decide to change a name or something I can do a single search-and-replace when I make the decision, rather than stopping to open each damn chapter. But the longer the document, the more out of synch the cursor becomes with the text it’s working on. By p. 300, the cursor and the text are barely on the same screen. Still, that one major inconvenience is more than compensated for by all the other conveniences I get from working on the Chromebook. Basically, simple, cheap, and fast. If I only get two years’ use out of it, I won’t feel shortchanged. But given that I’m not going to have to worry much about system upgrades, etc., I anticipate having this thing for longer than any of my other devices.

  21. I did part (the rest was handwritten) of two NaNoWriMos on my CR-48 and had no complaints (I’m not quite the professional writer that John is, but it made me happy).

    So, Mr. Scalzi, it seems like you have a CR-48 you aren’t using… I was also a test pilot, until the screen on mine seppuku’d. If you are looking for a good home for yours, I’d be happy to take it in and walk it every day.

  22. My problem with Chromebooks is lack of access to the Google Admin console to set policies that is available to businesses and schools. Why can’t the rest of us individuals get access to that?

  23. I love my Chromebook (same as in this photo; mine is also frequently infested with a handsome black and white cat). Most of my use is at home where I have all the wifi I can eat, and thus can wander about the house. The thing is incredibly lightweight, and the battery life is very good.

    I surf the net, email, socially network, watch video, video chat, do a little processing of words, and even keep stuff on the internal hard drive — yes, it does have space inside, I downloaded this year’s Hugo nominees and a number of other stuffs, and am not near full up. Plus it has an SD card slot, USB, and HDMI for all your other needs.

    There are, of course, a bazillion apps you can get for it, although the suite it comes with is pretty darn good.

    And the always-on, they are not kidding. I had to boot up the old Windows laptop last week and it seemed to take a geologic age compared to the 5 seconds ol’ Chromey here takes. I’d forgotten.

    It is the best second computer you could ever have. For people who don’t play non-browser games or write code, it will do you fine as a first computer. The real keyboard is a big advantage over tablets of comparable or lesser screen size.

  24. I agree that Chromebooks make sense for users that spend most of their time on the web, as a 2nd family computer, in schools, etc. But what if you want to do some work from home, and your company uses Windows applications (like MS Office)?

    You can use a product like Ericom AccessNow, an HTML5 RDP solution that enables Chromebook users to connect to Terminal Servers and/or VDI virtual desktops, and run Windows applications or desktops in a browser tab.

    There’s nothing to install on the Chromebook – just connect to a URL and enter your login name and password.

    For an online, interactive demo, open your Chrome browser and visit:

    http://www.ericom.com/demo_AccessNow.asp?URL_ID=708

    Please note that I work for Ericom

  25. Instant-on is nice. I fondly remember my Atari 520ST from back in the late 80′s. That was instant-on also, although obviously not a laptop. The computer was up and running before the monitor had warmed up enough to display a picture.

    The problem with that machine, and someone tell me if the same holds with current incarnations, was that upgrading was a royal pain. Instant-on means the OS is written in hardware–the eeprom chips–so it wasn’t easy to do, nor did Atari provide weekly (or oftener) updates like we expect these days.

  26. But is the mouse better? That’s the thing that kill the CR-48 for me, it’s just a terrible track pad.

  27. RE: Backing up Google Docs (mgwa).

    I use a service called CloudHQ which can sync entire cloud stores or mix-and-matched portions thereof. It does it on their own servers (you authenticate them like any other cloud-linked app) so it happens in the background.

    It supports syncing between Drive, SkyDrive, DropBox, Box, GMail and even Evernote, with optional 1-way/2-way plus optional deletions.

    There are probably other such services, but what grabs me about this one is the way it can (again optionally) format-shift Google Docs (into .docx, .xlsx) as they are replicated into or out of Drive.

    I also use a Samsung ARM Chromebook and it means I can write in Google Docs then continue editing the same document as a Word file on the Macbook Air, knowing that my changes get synced back into the original Google Doc.

    One other neat thing is that my Lumia 720 backs up my photos into SkyDrive whilst my HTC One backs them up into DropBox, but via CloudHQ they all appear in a ‘Recent Photos’ folder in my Google Drive without me having to do anything – and as a live sync so I can manage them there and have deletions replicate back!

    Oh, and if any of them shut my account down (it happens) I have redundancy.

  28. The day I got my Samsung chromebook was the day I loaded a “proper” linux onto it. Research “crouton”. All the issues about having to be connected disappear.

    I use ChromeOS 90% of the time but switch to an encrypted crouton/xfce4 if I want to do secure stuff.

  29. What do you need Word for? I work for a large retail chain and haven’t used it in years. We use Wiki for documents. The only Microsoft product I use is Outlook.

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