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.

What Passes For Wisdom at the Scalzi Compound