My Chromebook Experience

As some of you know, I became completely free of debt recently. As a celebration I bought myself a present (no, it wasn’t bought on credit, I saved up) and have been playing around with that present for long enough to get to grips with it. Today I’d like to tell you about my Samsung Series 3 Chromebook.

chromebook

Now before getting into this article any further, I should make an admission. I scoffed at the idea of Chrome OS when I first heard of it years ago. There, I said it. It isn’t like I was alone though. Half the world snorted with derision when Google announced Chrome OS and the original Chromebook, and for good reason too.

The first generation Chrome OS was little more than a web browser with netbook hardware wrapped around it. Outside of the fast boot times, all I saw were downsides. There was no local storage for files so everything had to be done in the cloud. Lose connection and the device became a doorstop as there was simply nothing you could do offline. Now this isn’t meant to take away from what could be done when online with these machines as web applications have come along in leaps and bounds over the past few years. It was more that the need for constant web access to use such applications hampered the device. Chrome OS was a great idea in some fictional utopia where web access always worked and a nearby mouse sneezing didn’t disrupt most wi-fi connections, but in the real world? The real world just doesn’t work that, I’m afraid.

Of course, that was then and this is now. There are still plenty of people in the world, usually the ones who make a living out of knowing better, who think that Chromebooks are still just browsers with netbook hardware. Those people are badly educated on the subject unfortunately. You see, there is a hell of a lot of difference between being built on web technologies and being a browser.

My desktop. Comes with the ability to set the wallpaper, the ability to randomise it, and the ability to change the launcher bar position.

My desktop. Comes with the ability to set the wallpaper, the ability to randomise it, and the ability to change the launcher bar position.

Out of the box, the Chromebook booted up for the first time in exactly 6 seconds at which point it asked me to sign into my Google account and then loaded all my apps and details. After that initial setup which took a total of 37 seconds, I shut it down again and timed it booting. The Chromebook now takes 7 seconds to boot to a login screen and just under a second after entering my password to take me to the desktop. I then timed my Windows PC on its boot up and it took 2 minutes and 33 seconds, then decided updates were needed to the device. At the time of writing it’s still going through those and I don’t expect it to be done anytime soon.

I initially bought this device because writing a book on a phone is impractical (even though I actually did it) and there are times when a full keyboard is much better. When editing the book I did the grunt work on the computer and found that the long boot times got in the way of any inspiration that might have led to better scenes. By the time the computer had booted I simply had lost the train of thought that had excited me enough to want to edit a scene. I later found out that this was a common occurrence for writers and had driven more than a few to choose a Chromebook over a traditional laptop or PC.

Now, you may be scoffing at the boot times of my PC and you’d be right to. It is a piece of crap that was great when we bought it two years ago. Unfortunately PCs aren’t stoic items. With new or updated drivers constantly added and ghosts of files taking up hard drive space, PCs tend to slow down over time until the fastest machines seems to be dragging its feet over the simplest tasks. Not so with a Chromebook as the operating system is kept as light as possible and doesn’t hold onto such things, keeping it as fast as it ever was over years of use.

The file manager. Handles zip files but pretty bare bones. Link to Google Drive files can be turned off.

The file manager. Handles zip files but pretty bare bones. Link to Google Drive files can be turned off.

I mentioned earlier that older Chromebooks had no storage. That was the very first generation of devices, and the ones that have been coming out the past few years have included a 16GB solid state drive. This comes with about 11GB that can be accessed by the user with the rest taken up by the OS and built-in applications. If there’s one area where the Chromebook has come on recently, it’s in the use of secondary storage. Normally Chrome OS works from and with the amount of space on the built-in SSD with the assumption that most large files and music collections will be stored on and accessed from web services rather than on the computer itself. However, Chrome OS is now smart enough to use secondary storage devices too.

Simply plug-in a memory card or USB flash drive and the file manager will open in seconds (again, much faster than it does on my PC), showing a new tab for the attached memory and allowing the use of files from there. As Chrome OS devices have comparatively little on board memory, the use of such secondary storage measures is almost guaranteed for most users. For such a forward-looking device, it’s odd how much this reminds me of the days in the 90s when we would carry our data around on disks to use in any machine. Yes, I was a little ahead of the curve then.

Granted, a Chromebook doesn’t have anywhere near the sort of storage capacity as a regular PC or even most laptops, but it was never designed for the same purposes. This storage is meant to see you through for local storage of a few large files or thousands of smaller ones while you’re offline, with the web storing the vast majority in different services. It also acts as space to hold the packages of application downloads.

The app drawer. Apps that open in their own window may still be web pages but lose all the browser controls. They feel much more like native this way. Packaged apps always open in their own windows as they aren't web pages.

The app drawer. Apps that open in their own window may still be web pages but lose all the browser controls. They feel much more like native this way. Packaged apps always open in their own windows as they aren’t web pages.

Which neatly brings us to the biggest and most important change for me. Applications can be used offline. There are two sorts of application that have this ability. On the one end we have things like Google Calendar which caches six months surrounding the current date to the device whenever online and can show those to users when no connection is possible. This is useful but hardly a game changer. The other way to do offline capable applications is in so-called Packaged Apps. These are built on web technologies, much as web pages are, but all of the images and coding are downloaded to the device to run as if it were a native application. Any data syncs between the application and the web when the app is online and this allows them to be used offline for however long the user desires. Packaged Apps are pretty new but I already use a few religiously and they have opened Chrome OS up to a whole new set of users. I’m hoping a few more of my favourite services get to work on Packaged Apps for Chrome OS and haven’t been shy in contacting them about it.

I’m currently writing this in the offline version of Google Docs as wi-fi is turned off to conserve battery. When I turn the wi-fi back on again, the changes I’ve made to this document (along with the changes to any other documents, and the creation of new documents) will sync to my Google Drive account automatically.

Having given Docs a good run through, both with my past few posts and typing up my books, I can tell you that it feels as good as Word for the most part. Everything is where you expect it to be and anyone who has used any word processing software over the past few years should feel right at home. Granted, there aren’t quite as many features as you’ll find with Microsofts offering, but I really couldn’t name what was missing without spending a lot of time comparing and listing features that I’ve little reason to use. The important thing is that I never once needed a tool that I couldn’t find and most regular users should find the same is true for them.

So that's how he plans the placement of images when writing a post...

So that’s how he plans the placement of images when writing a post…

So, what do I think of my Chromebook? It’s everything I wanted from it, and only getting better. As applications and processes are sandboxed from the rest of the environment, the device itself is virus and malware free and I don’t have to waste time and money combatting the actions of children who simply want to cause trouble for others and steal from me. Updates to the system download in the background when the device is online (showing only as a white arrow pointing upwards when the download is complete) and install automatically the next time you turn the device on (upping the boot time to fifteen seconds sometimes). Each of these updates brings improvements to resource management, patches any newly found security holes and sometimes adds new features to the device which always feels like a treat. Applications I use offline are useful and again automatically update, informing me if their access level to data changes. This is thin client computing done right as far as I’m concerned, hiding away all those problems I have with PCs and keeping them out of mind and sight.

Still, the Chromebook may not be for everyone. Keeping the OS as small and manageable as it is means that peripheral support is thin to none. Printers and little known brands of mouse from the late 90s are unlikely to work as they still do on Windows which holds onto all sorts of outdated drivers for devices that have long since ceased manufacture. Printers simply do not work with the machine, instead requiring that the print job be sent to a machine that does support a printer, using Google Cloud Print to port the job over (there have actually been some printers released that support Google Cloud Print without the need for another PC). The lack of actual native applications such as those available on Windows does mean that things like Photoshop and Calibre are missing, although there are similar alternatives that will see most people through online. Still, not everyone is going to be suited to a Chromebook and they should be aware of these potential pitfalls before investing in one.

For me, the device keeps me able to get typing at a moments notice, which is sometimes all I get before I need to start hammering away at keys or lose my flow. The keyboard is one of the best I’ve ever used in all my time. The trackpad isn’t quite as good as a mouse, but it does its job for basic tasks. The screen is matte so less shiny and vibrant than most laptops, but doesn’t glare as much or draw as much power either. I find that half brightness is about right for my eyes. The Chromebook is cheap but doesn’t feel it, light enough to carry anywhere and well designed enough that its battery can generally last about nine hours when in use.

In short, I love my new toy and hope that this little post will encourage those who are on the fence about buying one themselves.

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17 thoughts on “My Chromebook Experience

    • Not only is it a viable option for more people, but it keeps becoming more viable. Every six weeks they release an update with new features (sooner for security updates).

      The last couple of updates brought adding your own wallpapers (rather than just the built in ones) or randomising them, while the very latest offered a notification centre (so apps can push notifications of activity without needing to be checked all the time) and packaged app support. The notification centre is barely supported yet but is there for app builders to take advantage of in future. These are only small features but they make the whole experience a bit better and they keep coming thick and fast.

      End of the day the OS graduates beyond just a browser a while back and became useful to me after that. It keeps getting better every update and I love it more every time that little white arrow shows up in next to the time.

  1. “In short, I love my new toy and hope that this little post will encourage those who are on the fence about buying one themselves.” I love mine too! easy to use, and the price is sweet too! enjoy! 🙂

    • The price was incredible for me as I got ten percent off beyond its normally low price. Really made my day to find that Kim had that deal come up in her mobile rewards thing for that day.

  2. There are only 2 major things keeping me from buying a Chromebook (which are rather annoying since I do need a new laptop!).

    1) Skype. Skype is not natively supported. I would happily use Hangouts but alas all of my friends use skype. I know I can use Skype on my phone, but that’s just not a device I want to hold for hours on end while I call international friends! I could install linux OS’s such as Ubuntu, but that will clog the device up and cause it to run slower, so it is indeed a double edge’s sword!

    2) Photoshop. I use this most days, and not being able to have a tool this powerful is very sad.

    I hope that the above do become packaged applications, and once (if) they do, I will be buying a Chromebook within the week!

    • Fully powered photo editing is one of the shortcomings of the device, granted. Unless you need the more powerful functions then there are image editors available that use the power of the web, such as Pixlr. Sadly these tools aren’t up there with something as specialised as Photoshop, but the do the job for most people.

      As for Skype, I don’t think it will happen any time soon. Microsoft are losing ground to Chrome OS and Skype isn’t a weapon they’re willing to give to the opposite side.

      A lot of people will tell you to dual boot with Linux, but I’m totally with you about clogging the device. On top of that you have to run in development mode to do that and it opens the device up to all the problems Chrome OS normally shuts out. To my mind telling people to do that is the goto of people unwilling to admit what they’ve spent money on has deficiencies.

    • Photoshop is likely to always be a problem for any alternate platform.

      As for Dual booting Mik, It doesn’t touch the original OS on the device at all! I would most likely have a dual boot anyway as Chrome OS just doesn’t have the tools I need! 🙂

      • You misunderstand.

        In order to add another OS to a Chrome OS device you have to change it over to a developer friendly mode so you can install it and change between them. One of the side effects of doing this is that the security of Chrome OS effectively switches off leaving you with all the issues you would have on other OS. Then there are the security issues of having another OS that is less secure running and able to have viruses and malware running at a system level.

    • Not an idiot, Aadil, and far from an amateur. I know it’s not running at the same time. You’re misunderstanding me. I haven’t mentioned hybrid operating systems at all, so I’m assuming you think I think that I’m talking about a script running on Linux that would affect Chrome OS as they both run together or something. I don’t, for the record. Perhaps I’m not explaining well enough or we’re approaching from different directions and missing the understanding point.

      This device and all Chrome OS devices have specific hardware requirements and this means that running another OS is more “throw and pray” than “hit and miss”. As a result there have been specific distros put together that work with the hardware that is common, and the vast majority who boot into another OS are using one of these distros. Knowing this you can see how easily something can be tailored to these homegrown distros.

      Now, with a script tailored to a Linux distro that has access to the system files of the device (and not simply the current OS) it is possible to change the system files. It would be a piece of piss from there to download a whole new compromised build of the open source Chrome OS that waits to install the next time the device is turned on. Now that is an extreme way to so things, and obviously I had figured out how in seconds in getting it because I’m a super villain at heart, but it is possible. Much more easy would be to change the registry files slightly so that the user has no protection or things like keyloggers are downloaded and run as an extension without any trace. Perhaps the web store gets swapped with a copy that only has corrupted apps. Perhaps the sign in screen copies your password and username and sends it somewhere else. Anything is possible when you can modify the system files as you can change exactly what is verified at boot, and that’s what I’m talking about.

  3. For every person I see that gets a Chromebook (or a Chromebox for that matter) my smile keeps getting wider and wider =] it’s good to see how people are opening themselves up to something different, while others are “afraid” of ingenuity.

    I’ll keep on reading 🙂 Congrats on your new Chromebook! And welcome to the club 😉

    • I’m what a lot of people would call the perfect candidate for this. Ever since the mid 90s I’ve been doing with my phone what most people weren’t able to do with their computers and, as a result, I’ve found that desktop PCs tend to have more drawbacks than things in their favour.

      Chrome OS pretty much gets rid of those problems for me. Once it was offline capable it was the logical choice.

  4. Interesting concept, for which at the beginning, I didn’t think it will have much success. I am glad that I was wrong 🙂
    I was reading what you and Aadil were writing about security and possibility of hacking or stealing the device. My opinion is that there is nothing 100% secure (hell, not even 80% if you ask me; also we could all read about Prism recently, eh?) but every password is as secure as you make it; every device is as secure as long as you keep your eye on it. Laptops could be stolen and once unattended there is no way you can protect the data on it. I think we should learn to live with that and find the ways to protect data (and hardware, after all) in given circumstances. That might not be enough but there are ways.

    • While that is true Darko, I must accept the fact that Chrome OS is so far the only OS to resist attempts to hack it at various annual hacking and security conventions!
      Even the most secure Linux distros have been hacked at these conventions, but Chrome OS is still resisting attack!

      • That part is pretty impressive and mostly comes down to the secure boot process and sandboxed processing. Security is important to me as is the need to have it without having to regularly spend money on it. What? I’m Irish, we’re practical.

        I never enter development mode or put the device on the development channel because there are, admittedly minor, risks to that which I’m not willing to take.

    • I wasn’t a believer in the first place either. The devices were revealed to the world as simply a browser, its extensions and a little laptop running them. It was netbooks all over again but without the ability to run Windows programs. With no storage and an insistence to run everything on the web it simply didn’t make sense for most users.

      For this review I had the web turned off after the first paragraph and all changes were kept in an offline copy of the file. When I turned it on again the file synchronised with the online copy, uploading all changes. It was seamless. The small. Amount of storage in the device is perfect for managing files, if not keeping loads of media on there. There are some with actual hard drives instead of SSDs and these have hundreds of gigabytes worth of space at the expense of being slower, noisier and more battery intensive. I had no need for media on the device (I use the web for that or an SD card with a playlist if I want to be offline) but did like a long battery life and silent running so went with this model.

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