Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Two Months In - My Chromebook Experience

Like most folks these days, I want to be able to connect to and use the Internet pretty much anywhere, and that means having some form of mobile computing device.  And like many others, I find that I really can't do everything I want on a smartphone.  Small screen size, the lack of a fully-capable browser, lack of a real keyboard, all of these make certain activities on the smartphone a real chore.  A few years ago I bought an Android tablet with a detachable keyboard, hoping that it would fill the bill, but tablet browsers are still not able to do some of the things a full browser can do.

So it was that late last year I began to look seriously at trying a Chromebook.  In the interest of full disclosure I should tell you that I didn't care to buy a Windows computer, at any price - I stopped using Microsoft products on my home computers 10 years ago, only using Windows now at work where I don't have a choice in the matter.  Plus, to be honest you need a decent amount of computer to make Windows worth having.  You can buy a really cheap Windows computer these days but I imagine the experience is not going to be what I'd want.  Microsoft proudly points out that you can run "real" Microsoft Office and Photoshop on these things, but I sure wouldn't want to.

When I began looking at Chromebooks, the first thing I had to do was get my head wrapped around  the hardware specs - these machines nearly all had slower, low power processors, very little RAM, and tiny amounts of onboard SSD storage.  I learned that Chromebooks have a slimmed-down operating system designed to support online connectivity and to run the Chrome web browser and not much else, which is why they get away with such low powered CPUs and so little RAM, and that the expectation is for user data to be mostly stored in the cloud, which is why there is so little local storage. 
However there are other hardware and design considerations that made most Chromebooks pretty unattractive.  Keyboard quality varies a good deal but is about what you would expect of a really cheap laptop.  Sound is so-so.  Screens are functional but not great - usually small (most models are about 11 inches), and screen quality is not much to speak of.  

For these reasons I eventually chose the Toshiba Chromebook 2 which hit the market late last year.  The CB2 came with 4GB of RAM (on the high side of what's normally available), 16GB of SSD storage (the usual amount), and uses an Intel Bay Trail Celeron CPU (a version of the Celeron designed to conserve battery power at the expense of a bit of speed).  The main reason for picking the Toshiba was that it has a 13-inch screen with a FULL HD (1080p) screen that uses IPS display technology - in other words, this is a Chromebook with a screen that is as good as a Macbook Air.  The Toshiba also has decent audio (although the built-in speakers aren't terribly impressive, but they are not bad either).

I've been using the Chromebook daily since around Thanksgiving last year, though not as my primary computer - I keep it up at work with tabs open to a couple of Inbox sessions, usually a tab open to CNN, a tab for a flight tracking site I spend way too much time on, the Sunrise calendar, and Tweetdeck.  For this type of use, I rarely notice any slowness or issues, except that the Inbox app for connecting to Google Gmail accounts is sometimes a little laggy.

I've used the Chromebook to work on a few word processing documents using Google Docs - the experience isn't earthshattering but it works.

For streaming music and movies, the Toshiba Chromebook 2 has been great.  Honestly I don't use the built-in speakers much, but when I do they provide plenty of volume.  Audio with a decent set of earbuds sounds great.  Video is just fantastic - full screen, 1080p HD streaming video looks phenomenal, especially considering the low power of the CPU.  The screen is gorgeous and compares favorable to much more expensive laptops.

One of the few complaints I still have is that there is no way to scale the UI elements on the desktop separately from the rest of the screen.  Everything is pretty small running at 1080p, and I'm getting to the age where reading glasses are required.  It's easy enough to scale up the text in web pages though.

If anyone has questions regarding my experience using Chromebooks in general or the Toshiba in particular I'd be happy to try and answer.


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