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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.