Saturday, July 30, 2011

Three Days of the Chromebook

For the last three days, I've been trying out the Samsung Chromebook, thanks to a friend who received one at Google I/O. I've been posting reviews on Google Plus, but thought I'd pull them all together here.

Day 1
I've been meaning to try out a Chromebook for a while. The idea of everything-in-a-browser seems intriguing - I pretty much do everything in the browser anyway - and I have also been interested in other features, such as
  • Eight-second boot time
  • Instant wake from sleep
  • 3G connectivity (with data caps, of course)
  • Incredible battery life
  • Elegance - I don't have to worry about installations, managing software, etc.
  • Hardware optimized for browsing
  • Relatively light, small footprint
  • Low cost (though not as low as many netbooks)
Unfortunately, the bricks-and-mortar vendor that carries them, Best Buy, doesn't have any displayed at my local store. But a friend generously loaned me the Samsung Chromebook he picked up at Google I/O.

After perhaps an hour and a half, here were my first impressions.

ChromeOS is pretty much what you expect - the browser is the interface. If you're a heavy consumer of cloud-based software, you'll be fine. Personally, I only use a few desktop applications on a regular basis - including a SQL front end, Notational Velocity (for tricky passwords), and the Mendeley desktop app (which syncs to the cloud; Mendeley has a web interface too). I also have a large number of PDFs that haven't been pushed into the cloud.

For me, then, things are pretty seamless. Once I set up the Chrome apps I usually use - Tweetdeck, Pandora - I got back into the swing of things. In particular, Google Docs - where I spend a great deal of my time - works well and responsively. Basically, the experience is just like my Macbook Pro, except the screen is much smaller.

As a side note, Google Docs is one of the main reasons I'm not interested in an iPad. The GDocs iPad implementation is entirely inadequate for my needs. So is the Android implementation. The ChromeOS "implementation" is just the web app with which you're already familiar.

The other thing about ChromeOS is booting. Eight seconds is pretty short! And accounts are handled elegantly.

The hardware is adequate but nothing to write home about.

I know that people have complained about the trackpad, the lack of a delete key (it has a backspace key instead), and various other things. None of this bothers me.

What does bother me is that the machine is a bit clunky. The Chromebook is much smaller than the 15" MBP, which seems like a behemoth now. But it's bigger than the Air in nearly all dimensions. That means a bigger screen - but the screen is not as sharp. It doesn't mean a bigger keyboard (the Air's keyboard is better designed), but it does mean greater width, length, and depth. And weight - the Chromebook is surprisingly heavy.

As many have complained, the hardware feels a bit cheap. Not as cheap as my old Toshiba netbook, but certainly not to par with either Apple device. Of course, it costs only half as much as the Air. The cheapness itself has some appeal to me, since in comparison to the Air it's a disposable device - sort of like my Kindle.

First Impressions
So what did I think at this point? I was expecting to either love or hate the Chromebook, but at this point, the jury was still out. It definitely has some potential, but I worry that the hardware will hold that potential back. At this point I liked the Air's form factor much better - but of course the Air is twice as expensive.

Day 2
During this second day, the Chromebook began to grow on me. The battery life is remarkable - after 27 hours, the battery had dropped from 97% to 19% charge. I hadn't plugged it in at all.

Granted, I hadn’t been using it nonstop, but I had been doing a lot with it: surfing, editing a paper, moving around citations on Mendeley. For the most part, the experience was almost exactly like my Macbook Pro, with a few exceptions. That’s partly because I moved most of my workflow to web applications a while ago: word processing, diagrams, spreadsheets, email, calendar, tweeting, music, etc. etc.

But some additional issues cropped up.

  • One is that I’ve discovered Mendeley, my citations manager, doesn’t appear to generate works cited pages online. In the OSX desktop app, I can highlight relevant citations, copy, then paste them in APA format into GDocs. With the web app, I can’t. Although that’s not a huge deal - I can do that when I switch back to the MBP - it’s still disappointing.
  • Another is the trackpad. People have complained online about it, and I’m beginning to see why. I’m finding that some horizontal gestures aren’t registering the first time I try them, especially when I click-and-hold (such as when I highlight a text selection).
  • Scrollbars are rather small, making them hard to grab. I might be able to make them thicker, but for now I’m using the two-finger gesture to scroll. It works okay.
  • Speakers are tinny, but I don’t really care about that.
  • I miss TextExpander on OSX.
  • Finally, I still haven’t tried setting up cloud print yet. I’m not sufficiently motivated; I’ll just print from the MBP for now. I also don’t have the dongle to connect to an external monitor.

But let’s look at some of the positives.

  • The guest login is great. You log in as a guest, so you’re not logged into your Google account and Chrome runs in private mode.
  • The file manager (Control-M) is minimal - just enough to view files. I assume you can also launch and delete them, but I haven’t tried.
  • Installing Chrome web apps is exactly the same as it is in Chrome on my MBP. Very easy. I installed Pandora and Tweetdeck with no issues.
  • Waking from sleep takes exactly the same amount of time as the Macbook Air - nearly instantaneous.
  • Although some have complained online about the Chromebook’s screen - they say it’s not visible at different angles - it seems fine to me.

Now some interesting differences.

  • On the MBP, I defrag the disk, clear the cache and trash, and do a full backup every other day. This takes a while. On the Chromebook I’ll never have to do that.
  • On the MBP, I get an alert at least once a week telling me that I need to upgrade something - printer support, some part of the OSX system that I never use, etc. On the Chromebook I’ll never have to do that either.

Bottom line, so far I’d found the Chromebook to be almost entirely workable for what I’m doing. I don’t think I could use it as my only computer - at least not until Mendeley allows me to generate works cited pages in the web application - but for most uses I honestly can’t tell the difference.

Day 3

The third day of the Chromebook test hasn’t yielded a lot of news. It continues to be a good lightweight computer that allows me to access most of my services. In fact, I’ve only opened the MBP a couple of times - once because the Chromebook was charging.

I had expected to feel a little claustrophobic because the Chromebook only gives you the browser. Where’s the shell, the desktop, the widgets? But so far I haven’t had that feeling at all. In fact, I like not having all the cruft that comes with a full desktop. It makes for a cleaner, more focused experience. In this way, ChromeOS seems almost Apple-like - it takes away some of the choices that we have come to expect, and it does this for the sake of guiding the experience and guarding the machine’s performance.

Speaking of Apple, I’ve been comparing the Chromebook to the Macbook Air in this series of reviews, but in terms of price, it’s in the same league as the iPad. Why not compare it to the iPad? Bottom line, I don’t think they’re the same class of device at all.

Yes, they both restrict your user experience sharply, and in doing so, wring better performance out of hardware that would choke on a fuller-featured OS.

But with the iPad, you mainly interact with apps whose interfaces are simplified and focused. Web browsing is also simplified, and you get the less-featured mobile apps rather than the full-featured web apps you would access on the deskop. For instance, if you try to use Google Docs on the iPad, by default you get the mobile app, which is quite underfeatured. You can click through to the full app, but it works poorly in my experience.

The iPad has a rap for being a consumption rather than a production device. I think that oversimplifies things, but there’s some truth to it: the iPad is not well set up for text production, which is the majority of what I do. The soft keyboard is not tactile and takes up valuable screen real estate (just as Android tablets do). I haven’t tried the iPad with a keyboard, but I don’t think it would solve all of the issues I worry about.

The Chromebook, on the other hand, is all about the web. So you get no local apps to speak of, but full-featured web apps. For instance, Google Docs works on the Chromebook in all its glory, as do the other web apps. Between that and the keyboard, the Chromebook is just fine for text production and serves as a substitute for desktop browsing.

This brings me to a question that seems to plague a lot of commenters, but has a very obvious answer. Why has Google produced both Android and ChromeOS? Android follows the iOS pattern, assuming low levels of text production and restricting default interaction to apps and the mobile web. ChromeOS is for accessing the full web, and therefore substituting for desktop apps. Perhaps the two sets of OSes (iOS and OSX, Android and ChromeOS) will merge at some point, but for now, the two sets are meant to cover different sorts of devices and different patterns of consumption.

So: Can the Chromebook substitute as a primary computing device? I think that even for me, it would be a bit of a stretch - although it’s close. That’s primarily because I can’t generate citations with the Mendeley web app. But I could see it working in computer labs, offices, and other settings that don’t involve complex applications.

On the other hand, it would make a great travel device. It’s lightweight, the battery life is fantastic, and the 3G option means that you wouldn’t have to rely on the vagaries of WiFi. It does everything I need in a travel or personal device. And, importantly, it’s cheap enough that I wouldn’t be devastated if it were lost or stolen. I could almost see myself buying it as a secondary, personal device for home and coffee shop use.

That “almost” is key. Although I enjoy the device, I haven’t fallen in love with it. And I am cheap enough that I don’t want to buy a mid-level computing device whose main function would be to fill in between my Macbook Pro (where I write my papers) and my Android phone (where I consume the majority of my web content). I’m not on the road enough to make another device desirable at present. But if I were, I would give a hard look at the Chromebook.

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