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Google’s Chromebook Makes for a Fine Auxiliary Laptop

In the first installment in this informal series, I looked at how the iPad Air makes for top-notch tech for the roving reporter (see “iPad Versus MacBook for the Mobile Writer,” 17 February 2014). I mentioned briefly in that piece that I’ve also tested a variety of Chromebooks for my work as a technology journalist, and while they don’t quite match the iPad Air for this mobile writer, they are nonetheless compelling for me and for others who need simplified gear for mobile productivity.

Why? As Michael Cohen pointed out in “iCloud: The Anti-Social Network” (6 February 2014), part of Steve Jobs’s vision of the future of computing when he returned to Apple in 1997 was a thin-client, network-enabled system that separates your data from your computer. He said:

I have computers at Apple, at NeXT, at Pixar, and at home. I walk up to any of them and log in as myself, it goes over the network, finds my home directory on the server, and I’ve got my stuff wherever I am. And none of that is on a local hard disk.

At the time, Jobs was talking about NeXT hardware running NeXTSTEP, and Michael suggested that iCloud is the modern day incarnation of Jobs’s vision from Apple. But Jobs wasn’t alone in seeing this future for computing, and since 2009 Google has offered its own take in the form of Chrome OS, running on laptops collectively known as Chromebooks.

These low-cost machines are, essentially, hardware built around a Web browser – specifically, Google’s Chrome browser – and little more.

Many have chortled at this. “That’s not a real computer!” they say. I too scoffed at the concept at one time. Years ago, when I interviewed the members of Google’s Chrome OS and Chromebook team about their vision for the future of computing, I remember privately wondering what they were smoking (though I stated my many reservations more politely in columns I wrote at the time).

Chromebook + Mac? — Yet, improbably, as a Mac guy from way back, I have come to appreciate Chrome OS and Chromebooks for what they are, not for how they compare to the Mac. In fact, because Macs and Chromebooks are radically different kinds of computers, they are far from redundant in my life. They are deliciously complementary, and tickle my nerd bone in different ways.

I need not justify my Apple leanings here. Suffice it to say I feel bliss when editing a work-related video in iMovie on my beloved iMac or readying a deck for a speaking engagement with Keynote Apple’s hardware qualifies as art, and many Mac apps are borderline sublime.

When I’m not using a handful of the Mac’s best-of-breed desktop applications, though, you’ll likely find me in the Chrome Web browser – reading my email in Google’s Gmail, checking my appointments in Google Calendar, filing a story to my editor in Google Docs, and following Twitter in TweetDeck.

Tally up my Mac time for a given week, and the majority of that will be Web-based and taking place in Google Chrome.

I’m hardly an anomaly in this regard. Among average Mac and PC users, Web apps are popular and pervasive, if not quite the norm.

Enter the Chromebook. Since the bulk of my personal and professional computing happens on the Web, using one of these notebooks requires no learning curve and lets me get right to work. As soon as I log in, it’s all there – Gmail, TweetDeck, Autodesk’s Pixlr picture-editing Web apps – exactly as in Chrome on any Mac or PC I’m using. If I configured Chrome in a particular way on my Mac, those customizations are reflected on a Chromebook – and vice versa.

So, while I am a Mac user to the core, I could see a role for a Chromebook in my home and work lives. Since I am not rolling in money and consider two Macs overkill, I could see pairing my iMac with a Chromebook, with the former as a workhorse and the latter as a mobile supplement. I could thus get a bunch of my stuff done on the Chromebook while out and about, and save demanding tasks – such as complex video editing – for the iMac.

Chrome OS — Google’s Linux-based Chrome OS is an interesting animal. Though it was initially all but indistinguishable from the Chrome Web browser, Chrome OS has evolved to take on some trappings of a traditional operating system.

Crack a Chromebook’s lid and you see a Mac-style dock that can be positioned on the bottom, right, or left edges of the screen, along with an app launcher very much like the Windows Start menu, a desktop with the finest default wallpaper selection I’ve seen on any computing platform, and other familiar operating system settings for the display, touchpad, keyboard, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networking, printing, accessibility, and more.

There are oddities. That desktop is mostly for show since it is not possible to drag files or folders onto it, although there is some local storage for downloaded files. Fundamentally, Chrome OS is still a Web-centric computing environment despite its Linux underpinnings and desktop-like appearance. This means using only Web apps, not the native or desktop kind. Such Web apps include Rdio, WeVideo, Prezi, Trello, and Basecamp. But forget about installing iTunes, Photoshop, or any other such traditional software.

On the plus side, Chrome OS is a joy to maintain, since there’s nothing to do. There’s no traditional software to keep up to date, and no concerns about malware because nearly everything takes place on the Web (although you can download documents, apps run only in the browser). Chrome OS and Web apps update themselves automatically. Chromebooks thus eliminate numerous IT headaches, whether you are your own IT department or you’re trying to manage hardware for a large organization.

I can even use a Chromebook as a Mac, after a fashion. Apple’s iWork for iCloud, the Web-based counterpart to its suite of Mac-based productivity apps, runs nicely on Chromebooks, even though most such machines have modest hardware specs.

Chrome Hardware — Hardware specs are the rub. Most Chromebooks are pretty puny, with mediocre designs and low prices to match, between $200 and $400. Though they’ve steadily improved in recent release cycles, most Chromebooks remain uninspired and sometimes chintzy machines.

Some Chromebooks are little more than recycled “netbooks,” the now-infamous notebooks that ran Windows but made too many compromises for size and cost to do it well. Certain Acer Chromebooks are virtually indistinguishable from dreaded netbooks of yore, though they boast vastly improved functionality since Chrome OS runs much more efficiently on such modest hardware than Windows does.

Other Chromebooks have made-from-scratch industrial designs, and some of these are nice.

My favorite Chromebook, the 11.6-inch HP Chromebook 11, could be a curvaceous, shiny-white distant relation of Apple’s second-generation iBooks. It features a keyboard similar to those on later-model MacBooks, and includes a shockingly good IPS display roughly on par with that in the current 11-inch MacBook Air. In a nifty twist, the HP Chromebook 11 can be charged using the same kind of basic micro-USB cable used with Android phones instead of a bulky power cord and brick. It has 2 GB of RAM, a 16 GB SSD, and enough battery for 6 hours of use, for $279. It comes in white with a variety of color accents, but I favor the model that comes in all black.

This Chromebook’s downfall, and the reason I decided against springing for one, is its ARM-based processor, whose performance is sluggish, especially when extra demands, such as having lots of Chrome tabs open at the same time, are placed on it. This and other Chromebooks, such as a slightly older Samsung model, are just too slow.

Some Chromebooks hit a sweet spot of elegance, performance, and affordability, though they’re still far from perfect.

For instance, the 11.6-inch Acer C720P Chromebook blends an upgraded aesthetic that is less netbooky with a decent selection of ports — USB 2.0, USB 3.0, HDMI — plus 2 GB of RAM, a relatively generous 32 GB of on-board storage, and a 1.4 GHz Intel Celeron CPU for reasonably good performance and battery life (7.5 hours estimated). It even has a touchscreen, which sets it apart from other Acer C720 variants. This feature combo makes it “the king of budget Chromebooks,” according to CNET, and I am inclined to agree. I just don’t like its murky-looking display and slightly mushy keyboard.

The Chromebook ecosystem is expanding. Want a bigger screen? Certain models from Toshiba and HP now offer 13- and 14-inch displays. Asus and Lenovo are joining the Chromebook party in coming months with consumer models of their own.

And for the corporate executive living in Google Apps, there’s the Chromebook Pixel, a super-fancy model designed and sold by Google, largely to show that just because something is a Chromebook doesn’t mean it has to skimp on hardware niceties. Its specs are comparable to, and sometimes better than, a 13-inch MacBook Pro, with a gorgeous 12.85-inch Retina-equivalent display with 239 pixels per inch behind a touchscreen. I know Steve Jobs said touchscreens on laptops don’t work because of arm fatigue, but for certain tasks while sitting in a comfy chair, it’s pretty good. (And after becoming accustomed to the iPad, how many of us have touched our
Macs’ screens by accident?)

The Chromebook Pixel has MacBook Pro-level prices too: $1,299 for a 32 GB Wi-Fi model and jumping to $1,499 for a 64 GB version that adds LTE cellular data connectivity for Internet access anywhere. That’s a lot to pay for hardware built around a Web browser, as many have said. Ah, but use this aluminum slab with its jaw-dropping screen, fantastic backlit keyboard, ultra-smooth trackpad, and Cylon-like glowing lid strip in Google colors, and I guarantee you’ll be impressed. The main lack? A MagSafe-like magnetic power plug to
replace the standard power prong that would let an errant leg pull the Pixel off a desk.

Though the Chromebook ecosystem now boasts a reasonably decent hardware selection, it is not for everyone. Anyone considering such a machine has to ask hard questions.

Most notably, a Chromebook is a nonstarter for anyone dependent on a specific desktop application for Mac or PC. Chromebooks simply can’t accommodate such apps under normal circumstances. There are a surprising number of Web apps available in the Chrome Web Store, including such stalwarts as Evernote, Dropbox, TweetDeck, Angry
, Feedly, HootSuite, and many more. For geeks, there is also a way to install Linux in a dual-boot arrangement with Chrome OS and, by extension, use Linux apps like LibreOffice, GIMP, Thunderbird, Skype, VLC, Spotify, and Dropbox (Lifehacker has a nice list). The Chromebook Pixel is particularly good for this. Such an arrangement is feasible, but not likely
for average users.

Also, Chromebooks are far more Internet-dependent than other computers. You pretty much have to have Wi-Fi (or cellular data service, which is built into some models). Chromebooks do get a bad rap in this regard; a number of apps, such as Gmail and the Google Docs word processor, keep working absent an Internet connection, and the Chrome Web Store even has a category for offline-capable apps. But think twice about a Chromebook if your circumstances include lengthy time off the Internet grid, although it’s also true that even traditional computers are notably less capable when disconnected from their Internet lifelines these days.

Yet, as I mentioned earlier, in-browser computing is a viable option for many users whose needs are modest. I’ve forced myself to live within Chrome OS for long periods of time, and have run into shockingly few deal-breakers. I can’t perform every task and solve every problem the way I would in a regular desktop environment, but I invariably find workarounds.

Web Productivity — One of the areas I’ve run into roadblocks with is photo editing. When I’m on a Chromebook, I’m cut off from familiar desktop apps like iPhoto, Aperture, Google Picasa, and so on. This used to be a big problem, but then a funny thing happened: Web-based image-editing tools came of age. I have tons of options now. Google’s Google+ social network has a photo section with browser-based editing options that have grown in sophistication, partly due to a tech infusion from Nik Software, a Google-acquired company famed for its Snapseed mobile photo-editing apps and pro-level plug-ins for Aperture, Photoshop, and Lightroom.

Autodesk has rocked my world with an array of free Pixlr-branded photo-editing Web apps, ranging from its Pixlr Editor app with functionality mimicking if not matching that of Photoshop (perhaps the Mac app Pixelmator is the closer equivalent), to the streamlined but capable Pixlr Express and the Instagram-like Pixlr-o-matic. Pixlr Touch Up is a special case, a new breed of Chrome-browser and Chrome OS app that behave very much like a desktop app. On a Mac, it appears a standalone window and not inside a
browser window – it even gets its own Dock icon. On a Chromebook, it makes Chrome OS all the more desktop-like in look and feel, which I love.

I’m massively productive on a Chromebook. Though the iPad Air is my favorite mobile-reporting device, Chromebooks work well for me too because I’m a heavy user of Google services, including the Google Docs word processor I use to write and submit almost everything. What’s more, my St. Paul Pioneer Press employer and its New York City-based Digital First Media owner recently migrated employees to a DFM-branded version of Google Apps. Our tech coordinator in the newsroom now hands out PCs to reporters going on away missions, but I’ll bet he’ll move over to Chromebooks for that in the near future.

This is an increasingly common scenario. Students, especially those in K-12, have begun using Chromebooks in a big way as scads of U.S. schools and entire districts have migrated to the inexpensive and nearly maintenance-free Chrome OS. Chromebooks accounted for 19 percent of mobile computer purchases in the K-12 market, according to recent Futuresource Consulting findings. The figure was 1 percent in 2012, while PC purchases slid from 47.5 percent in 2012 to 28 percent during last year’s third quarter.

Google has goosed this Chromebook-in-education trend by giving school administrators juicy notebook-leasing deals, and working with manufacturers like HP and Lenovo to create education-exclusive models that aren’t available for consumer purchase.

Chromebooks work wonderfully in the classroom for a number of reasons. Many budget-strapped schools were already using Google Apps, so Chromebooks fit right in. My 15-year-old son uses Google Docs for all writing while chatting non-stop with his classmates in Google Talk. He’s not alone; TidBITS publisher Adam Engst’s 15-year-old son is similar, relying on Google Docs because it makes school assignments available from any handy computer at school or home, and maintaining communication with his friends via Google+ and Google Hangouts.

A Chromebook is a requirement for none of this, of course. My son works mostly on a MacBook Air. But if I need that Air, I hand him whatever Chromebook I happen to have on loan for testing – I’m using the Acer C720P now – and he’s fine, though he sometimes gripes a bit about the lack of Apple polish. And since modern education focuses so much on collaboration, Adam’s son often uses a Chromebook in tandem with his aluminum MacBook so he can work on one screen and discuss the project with classmates on the other, Google-style. iPads may be the hottest thing in education, but they don’t work as well as Web-based tools for the kind of collaborative work and multitasking that today’s teens need to do.

Chromebooks are also taking hold in the consumer world, logging good sales rankings on Amazon. When I drafted this article, Chromebooks from Samsung, Acer, and HP held four of the top five spots in Amazon’s best selling laptop list, with a MacBook Air model in 12th place. The specifics have changed a bit since, but Chromebooks still feature strongly.

The Chromebook doesn’t have as much of a foothold in business — at least to the extent the iPad does — but some companies are embracing the Google notebooks. Here in the Twin Cities, a big manufacturing and construction firm called Egan Company moved 140 of its 800 employees to Chromebooks not long ago. Egan is working on the massive Central Corridor Light Rail project connecting the St. Paul and Minneapolis downtowns, and it needed to equip its foreman staff in the field with mobile computers. The low cost and ease of dealing with broken hardware is compelling in certain fields, and having LTE
built-in is a boon when working in temporary offices.

Such business case studies remain relatively rare, but with Google Apps in the workplace taking off, I think it’s only a matter of time before the Chromebook as business computer becomes a threat to the Windows hegemony. Microsoft certainly seems spooked, with a “Scroogled” TV spot mocking the Chromebook as a “brick” because of its supposed Internet dependence. The Redmond giant, rumor has it, is even planning to cut the price of Windows by 70 percent for makers of lower-cost PCs, the ones that would compete most directly with low-cost Chromebooks.

I’m sold on Chromebooks. If my employer issued me a Chromebook tomorrow to go with the iPhone 5c handsets it has handed out to me and my colleagues, I’d have everything I need to do my job without needing to visit my desk. That’s quite a switch from the days when my office was standardized on Microsoft Exchange, and I felt deprived when telecommuting and cut off from key desktop tools like the Pioneer Press-customized versions of Microsoft Word and Microsoft Outlook. (I quietly rebelled at one point, long before Google Apps was a glimmer in Digital First Media’s eye, and started writing and filing all my stories in Google Docs and auto-forwarding my Exchange email to my personal Gmail account. My editors, to their credit,
didn’t say a thing.)

I noted in my previous article that the iPad Air is my ideal reporting computer partly because it combines writing and photo-shooting functions. A Chromebook isn’t very good for the latter, but my iPhone can handle that part. For the rest — writing, photo editing, even light video editing — the Chromebook works splendidly.

And a Chromebook is about a third to half as expensive as an iPad Air. For this reason, it’s likelier that a Chromebook than an iPad figures into my professional future (the iPad Air I’m using now is an Apple loaner that will have to go back). For what the Chromebook does, it’s a steal. I’m just waiting for the budget hardware to get a bit better, or perhaps for the Chromebook Pixel-class hardware to drop in price. In fact, Google and its partners appear to be aiming for a middle ground with low-cost hardware that has the decent — if not extravagant — specs many wannabe Chromebook owners demand. I’ll wager that’s my Chromebook.

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