Chromebooks – Taking the Plunge

Who owns a Chromebook anyway? Well… me

In October of last year, I received a gift voucher from work for completing 5 years of service. After almost a year, I finally got round to spending it – two weeks ago I bought a Chromebook, namely the HP11 shown below.

Action shots with obligatory coffee mug

Action shots with obligatory coffee mug

Why did you do that?!

There are lots of good reasons not to own a Chromebook. They’re not for everyone. Imagine a laptop where the only available program is a browser, and you’re halfway to understanding what a Chromebook is. My HP11 has no optical drive, so I can’t play CDs or DVDs. The hard disk is a meager 16Gb (as in sixteen, there are no missing zeroes there). Functionality is further limited when I don’t have a WiFi connection.

On the software side of things, I’ll be blunt. Anything you can do in a Chromebook you can already do on another computer just by installing the Chrome browser. But there’s lots more that other computers can do that the Chromebook just can’t.

And yet… I still bought a Chromebook. And not on a whim either – I took the best part of a year to decide on what I wanted to spend my gift voucher on. Why?

Making Decisions

My home computer is a Windows 7 laptop I bought 4 years ago. I’ve come to tire of the endless swathes of Windows updates and ever increasing boot times, so a buying a new laptop has been at the back of my mind for a while now. That said, a new Windows machine means Windows 8 (which I’m no fan of), and a new Mac would mean spending twice as much as I would on a Windows laptop. What are my alternatives?

Here we go again...

Here we go again…

I began to think about what I use my home laptop for. Browsing the web. Sending email. Online shopping. Online banking. Paying my bills. Social networking. I back up my photographs to the cloud. Occasionally, I watch catch up TV services, or dabble with Netflix. These are all browser based activities, so I’m not asking for much in a new laptop when it comes to hardware.

On that point, I’m not a PC gamer (I have an Xbox), so cutting edge hardware has never been a requirement of mine. I began to wonder what hardware I didn’t really need.

I can’t remember the last time I installed software from my DVD drive (I download), or if I’ve ever watched a DVD on my laptop. As for CDs – I converted all my CDs to MP3s years ago and pushed them to the cloud. Nowadays, I don’t buy physical media – all my music purchases are digital. In short, I don’t need an optical drive.

I’ve always wondered how much hard disk space I actually need. My laptop has a 500Gb hard disk, of which I have quite a bit of free space. In the interests of portability, I moved larger media files to an external hard disk and photos and music to the cloud. The idea of having my media confined to a single device now seems archaic to me.

What I actually want is a laptop that boots up and performs quickly for all my regular tasks.

So I started looking at Chromebooks, and began mulling over whether I could live with one.

Chrome – More than just a browser

Yes, the Chromebook is like a laptop that only has a browser installed, but that browser is Chrome!

Apps, extensions and themes galore...

Apps, extensions and themes galore…

A quick browse of the Chrome web store shows you the wide range of free apps and extensions you can add to Chrome, including a full suite of Office Software that is fully compatible with MS Office:

All of the above have a share functionality that allows multiple users to view / edit a document at the same time. The document owner can decide what level of access other users have. It’s a useful collaborative tool makes multiple users sending each other different copies of the same document a thing of the past.

I also recommend the following:

  • Gliffy for any flowcharts, organisational charts, UML diagrams …etc.
  • Save to Google Drive – allows you to right click and save web pages / images directly to your cloud storage.
  • MightyText – pair with your phone and send / receive SMS on your computer.
  • AccessToGo – remote desktop client I use to remote to an Amazon EC2 instance and do my Android development work.
  • Google+ Photos – use to backup and share your photos (Chromebook only).
  • Hangouts – use as you would use Skype

There is a selection of games too, including

No need to run out and buy a Chromebook for any of this – install Chrome on your computer and have a look round the store and install whatever you like!

Point of Sale

After building up a suitable level of intrigue (and seeing the HP11 on sale for a £50 discount), I decided to take a gamble and bought my Chromebook.

I held off on buying any additional storage to compliment the 16Gb hard disk – the HP11 comes with 100Gb of free Google Drive storage for 2 years ($1.99 a month thereafter). There are 2 USB ports, so I can pop in a thumbdrive if I really need one.

Sadly I couldn’t avail of the 2 months free unlimited music at Google Music All Access, as I already have a monthly subscription anyway.

Build Quality

There are some things about the HP11 that stand out straight away as great, some less so, and others things that take a bit of getting used to.

The build quality is superb, and not just superb for the price bracket it’s in. It’s light (just over a kilo), silent (ARM processor means no fans and thus Red October levels of silence), and the keyboard is comfortable and responsive. Interestingly, the HP11 speakers are underneath the keyboard, so the sound comes straight up from there. Sound quality is good too.

Another nice feature is the charger – the HP11 uses a standard USB Micro charger, just like many phones, tablets and other assorted gadgets today. Battery life is pretty good, although I can’t get the claimed 6 hours of use (5 at a push for me). Still, much more than adequate.

The screen is 11.6″, which is huge for a tablet, but smaller than what I’m used to with a laptop. The loss in screen space means that while perfectly usable, webpages appear more cluttered than I’m used to – there’s less padding on screen and a bit more scrolling to do – but to be fair, I do work with twin 24″ monitors at work. I’m wondering if I should have spent a little bit more on a HP14, but I like the size and weight of the HP11. A happy medium would be an external monitor to allow me to avail of greater screen space, although I can’t take that with me on the move. I could use a Chromecast to cast my HP11 screen to a TV, but I wouldn’t be able to run the TV on a different resolution to the monitor. Physical size aside, the screen sports a 1366 * 768 resolution and it just shines. It’s a beautiful thing.

Shiny!

Shiny!

The trackpad is taking me some time to get used to. Coming from a Windows laptop, I’m used to a trackpad with left and right buttons, just like a mouse. The HP11 has no such buttons – tap with one finger to left click and two fingers to right click. Use two fingers to scroll, or swipe with three fingers to see all open screens. If you’re a Mac user, this is all second nature to you. I do have a free USB port to attach a mouse, but I think this is one that I’ll persevere and get used to.

Ready, Set, Go! Well, sort of…

The HP11 will boot in 7 seconds (I haven’t left any zeroes out there either). This is light years ahead of my Windows 7 laptop. The reduced hardware set and solid state hard drive means that the processor has less to do on startup.

That said, the first time I started up, I was told that the latest version of Chrome OS was being downloaded and installed – this took around 5 minutes. Chrome OS will always stay up to date and silently download updates in the background, which are installed on reboot.

Existing login on left; new user login on right

Existing login on left; new user login on right

Users log in with their Google account (you have one already if you use GMail, but you can create a new one from the sign in screen if you want). If you use Chrome on other devices (I have Chrome on my work laptop, home laptop and my Nexus 4 phone), all your bookmarks and settings are synced. For me, I can start typing up a document on Google docs at work and then finish it off at home on the Chromebook. I could even proofread it on my phone on the commute to work the next day.

Simpler still – I take photos with my Nexus 4 phone, which backs them up to the cloud. When I log in to my Chromebook, they are there for me to browse, edit, download to USB, set as wallpaper…etc.

I can remove and add users to the Chromebook as I like. As such, anyone with a Google account can sign into my Chromebook and use it as it were their own (note they cannot see files from other accounts on the same Chromebook). When a user is removed, all their details and settings are scrubbed from the machine. Potentially, this makes reselling easier, but I’m not selling mine…

Going off the Grid

Time to get to the elephant in the room. Without an active WiFi connection, Chromebook functionality is heavily limited.

That said, several apps offer offline capabilities (all the office software listed above have an “offline mode”, which will merge any changes into cloud documents on reconnection).

However, Chromebooks have their full potential when they are connected to the internet. This is a cloud centric machine after all.

But then again, without an internet connection, my Windows 7 laptop can’t do most of the things I use it for anyway either…

Chrome OS and Android L

I’m pretty excited about the upcoming “L” release of the Android OS, particularly its’ integration with Chrome OS and the new unified look and feel between the two platforms.

Material design goodness will unify Android and Chrome OS interfaces

Material design goodness will unify Android and Chrome OS interfaces

A new proximity API will sign you into your Chromebook automatically if your Android phone is nearby.

Phone notifications will now appear on the Chromebook – no more missed calls or urgent SMS because I had headphones in at the time of the call.

But the biggest news of all if the capability to run Android apps natively on the Chromebook. The Chrome web store is good, but the Google Play Store is much bigger and better, with a lot more choice and a lot more games (perhaps Minecraft fans will be able to get their fix). I’m keen to see how this pans out as this could take Chromebooks to the next level.

Horses for Courses

You may be reading this and asking yourself “are Chromebooks for me?”.

Maybe they are. Maybe they’re not. As an everyday computer for home use, the HP11 is great. I use Microsoft Office 365 at work, so I’m still able to access my email, work calendar, Lync messenger and OneDrive storage on my Chromebook. I can create MS Office documents online also. Of course, I can fill in my timesheets and holiday requests too.

I have a few options when it comes to doing development work – Codenvy is a browser based IDE for developing and deploying apps to the cloud, but it only caters for a limited set of languages (there’s no .NET languages unsurprisingly) – as hinted earlier, one solution is to remote onto a virtual machine. I do this for Android apps that I write from time to time; in this way I pay for development functionality on a “pay as you go” basis, rather than paying for all the necessary hardware in an upfront one-off cost. I haven’t tried gaming on a VM yet, but have a feeling it won’t be great.

In short, while Chromebooks aren’t for everybody, I would say that they are for most of us.

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3 responses to “Chromebooks – Taking the Plunge

  1. I picked up a Samsung Chromebook off ebay a wee while ago and love it for sofa browsing. I’ve taken it out and about and find I can still do everything I need with the offline mode. One other website to add to your productivity tools is http://www.mindmup.com for mindmaps

  2. Pingback: Taking Matters into Your Own Hands – Android Apps on Chrome | Tech, Racing and Everything Else

  3. Pingback: Space Exploration | Tech, Racing and Everything Else

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