Monday, January 4, 2016

One Year On - My Experience With A Chromebook

Note: If you don't know what a Chromebook is, this article may not make much sense.  Check out this link  to learn the basics - there are numerous other reviews and articles on the Internet that you can find with a quick search.  Then come back here to find out how using a Chromebook has worked for me!

A little over a year ago I bought my first Chromebook.  I bought the Toshiba Chromebook 2, with an Intel Baytrail processor, full HD (1080p) IPS screen, and 4 gigs of RAM.  This particular Chromebook has been replaced by Toshiba with newer models featuring faster processors, although for the most part I have been happy enough with the performance of the one I bought.  I have written a few blog posts about specific issues I've needed to resolve, and one post regarding my impressions after using the Chromebook for a couple of months.  This is basically an update to summarize a year's worth of experience.  Most of what I have to say will apply to Chromebooks in general, although there are a few points directly related to this model.

Before I dive into the meat, a couple of points to set the table.  I knew what I was getting into.  I have 30+ years of experience with personal computing.  I run, or have run in the past, Microsoft DOS and pretty much every version of Windows, IBM OS2, several flavors or Linux, and have owned a couple of Apple Macs.  I have had several Android smartphones and tablets.  I understood going into this that by design, the Chromebook would be limited to doing things that can be done using a web browser (specifically Chrome), with no ability to "install software" in the sense common with Windows or OSX, and that in some cases I would be learning alternative ways to accomplish things.  I have gone through this in the past with Linux and OSX, and I am no stranger to getting my hands dirty - finding out how things work, looking for solutions, trying new things, recovering from my own mistakes.

Tasks

The Chromebook is a computer designed around the browser - kind of reminds me of that TV commercial about the couple asking an architect to design a house around a faucet, right?  But the Chromebook actually makes more sense, given that so much of what we do is done on the Internet, and the browser does so much more than render HTML.  This section is about common computing tasks, and how I do them on the Chromebook, along with plenty of editorial comment about what I like and don't like about the experience.  

Browsing the web

Given that the Chromebook is built around Chrome, this is THE basic test - if the browser can't handle this we're in big trouble!  Thankfully Chrome does this very well.  And this is the "full" version of Chrome, capable of handling things that don't work well in the mobile browsers found on most phones and tablets.  The version of Chrome on a Chromebook handles sites that use Flash as well as HTML5 for a pretty rich experience.  The one thing most clearly missing is Java - Chrome has great Javascript capabilities, but there is no Java virtual machine on the Chromebook, which may be a limitation in some cases.  

From a performance perspective, Chrome on my Toshiba does pretty well - I often have 8 or 10 tabs open with no issue.  Most sites load up and display rapidly.  There are a few where performance is notably worse - the CNN web site is pretty bad about loading and displaying slowly for instance.  And for some odd reason, a couple of Google's own sites seem to exhibit an abnormal amount of lag - Inbox and Google+ both.  But overall, having a lightweight laptop with a full browser is, for me, far superior to using the web on a phone or tablet.

Email

I have tried to immerse myself in the Google ecosystem as much as possible.  I have multiple Gmail accounts.  I have used both the classic Gmail web interface as well as Google's Inbox.  There's a lot to like about Inbox, though it can take some getting used to.  I have a rarely used Yahoo mail address, but the Yahoo web interface works flawlessly.  My local Internet provider also has a web interface for their email, and again it just works.

Calendar

I am not one of those people that lives in my organizer, but having a calendar with lots of features (reminders, color coding, integration with Email, etc.) is a plus.  Google's calendar gives me all that, but I am using the Sunrise calendar app to access and display the data.  Sunrise integrates with other calendar systems, though I haven't had need to use that.  I have Sunrise on my Android phone as well.  Look for it in the Chrome app store.  The Chrome app runs in a dedicated window with lots of custom controls that make it feel like a full-blown application.

Social Media

Like most people I use a number of the more popular social media sites.  Most have decent functionality through their web interfaces, although a few benefit from special apps.  

Facebook

The Facebook web site displays and works perfectly in Chrome on a Chromebook.  There is an addon called Social Fixer that I used for a while that lets you tweak various aspects of the site, but I eventually uninstalled it due to occasional bugs - your mileage may vary though, check it out if you want.  I'll mention a Facebook again in the next section.

Google Plus

Lots of people never really seemed to "get" Google Plus, but I like it - rather than focusing on the individual like Facebook, Google Plus is centered around groups of people with similar interests.  The site works in Chromebook, although as I mentioned above the performance seems a tad laggy on my particular model - but not so much as to make it unusable.

Instagram

For browsing my Instagram feed, I have installed an app called Pixta.  Runs in its own window, works well.

Twitter

If you are "on the Twitters", you might check out Tweetdeck - the Chrome app version runs in its own window, has lots of custom controls, and feels like a full-blown application.

Reddit

Like the most interesting man in the world...I don't always use Reddit, but when I do, I use Reditr, a Chrome app that runs in its own window, cleans up and organizes the content, and has a nice image browser.

Voice/Video Communications

Hangouts

In addition to being a very capable instant messenger, Google Hangouts handles voice and video calls nicely.  Not surprisingly it works well on the Chromebook.  It runs in a separate window with a neat little widget that sits out on the desktop.  Voice and video quality are good.

Skype

This is one of the biggest holes in the Chrome arsenal.  Skype is mostly everywhere, so lots of people have adopted it.  Unfortunately, so far it has required a "fat client", a full application of the sort that just isn't possible on a Chromebook.  There is a way to take an Android app and run it in a sort of emulator on a Chromebook and a number of people run Skype for Android that way.  However it really didn't work well for me, probably due to the weak Baytrail processor in my Chromebook.  Microsoft is working on a purely web-based version of Skype that will use the WebRTC protocol, and many have held out hope that this will finally enable proper support for Skype on Chromebooks.  However things are not all that promising - so far Microsoft has only got it working on "full" operating systems that can handle special browser plugins, and even if they meet their goal of being WebRTC compliant it looks like there may be compatibility issues with the codecs Google has chosen to support.  Now like most people, my choice of communications tools is largely dependent on my circle of family and friends and what they are willing or able to use.  I'd have gotten rid of Skype long ago if it were not for my fiancee who lives in Belize.  For her, I have kept my old Android tablet around to handle Skype duties.  Once we're married and together permanently I will be retiring both Skype and the old tablet. 

Facebook Messenger

Like most people I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Facebook.  Regardless, so many people are using the site, and so many have the Facebook Messenger application installed on phones and tablets, that ignoring it would be a waste.  Messenger used to just do IM, but now includes voice and video capability, and it works flawless on the Chromebook.  Audio and video are nice and clear.  This is what Skype could be if Microsoft got its act together, and what Hangouts could be if anyone actually used it.

Notes And Text Editors

For general note taking I use Google Keep.  It's simple, and syncs with my phone.  I know lots of people prefer Evernote which is certainly nice, though I eventually ditched it due to bloat.  Oddly the Chromebook doesn't come with a basic text editor.  There are so many choices on the Chrome app store that you will almost certainly find something you can live with - my choice is Caret, pretty full-featured text editor that supports a lot of stuff useful to programmers.

Streaming Media

Youtube

Not surprisingly works well - it's just the full web Youtube experience.  Video streaming is smooth and looks great (obviously dependent on the original source).  This is a place where the full HD screen on the Toshiba really shines.

Netflix

Netflix works well.  There is a Netflix app which runs in a standalone window, but unlike Netflix apps on some specialty devices and set-top boxes, this is just the web site running in its own window, so there is a complete feature set including support for profiles.  Video is just amazing on the Toshiba.

Hulu

Hulu (I have a Hulu Plus account) works perfectly on the Chromebook.  There's no special app, so it's just the full web experience.  At the risk of repeating myself, the video just looks awesome on the Toshiba.

Music

I have uploaded my music to Google and the Google Music app works pretty well.  I am not terribly fond of Google Music overall but that's not so much about the Chromebook per se.  Once thing really lacking is an equalizer.  There is a nice app in the Chrome app store called gMusic which handles both Google Music and SoundCloud, and which includes a working equalizer, and I use it rather than the normal Google Music web interface.

Other Steaming Sites and Apps

Pluto.tv is really cool.  The web site works fine, and there is a standalone Chrome app that works well also.  MLB.tv works fine in the browser if you're into baseball.  There is also a neat Shoutcast-powered radio player called Flair that I've had some fun with.

Local File Handling

The Chromebook can handle/display/playback lots of file types.  I'm not wild about the built-in image browser but it works.  Audio files of various types have all played with no issues.  Most video files have played back without issue, but I have found some video files in mkv format where the audio doesn't play.  Based on what I've been able to read this is a known issue.

Office Apps

I use Google Docs pretty heavily, Sheets somewhat less often, and have barely touched Slides.  So far they all work pretty well at handling common file types.  I hear that the online versions of Microsoft's office apps work fine on Chrombooks but have no experience with them.  Note that Google's office apps work in offline mode - while most of the functionality on a Chromebook requires Internet access, some apps have enough client-side code to be functional offline.  You can create and edit Google documents and spreadsheets while not connected to the Internet and sync changes later.

Photos

I upload all photos from my phone automatically to Google Photos; I rarely upload pictures taken with my camera there though, so this is an area where I haven't really embraced "the Google way."  Google Photos' image editing capability used to be functional if sparse, but it's been severely crippled in the past year (supposedly they are adding back functionality over time but right now it's a mess).  There are a number of web-based apps that provide what Google is missing - Pixlr and Polarr being the favorites for most folks - but this is one area where I still depend rather heavily on full-fledge applications on my desktop computer.

Printing

Chromebooks don't support plugging in physical printers, nor do they connect directly to network attached printers in the home or office.  To print you need a printer that supports Google Cloud Print.  Basically the printer is registered with Google and periodically phones home to see if there are print jobs to handle.  From your browser or other Chrome apps, you print to an online queue that holds the job until the printer picks it up.  I bought a Brother laser printer with this capability built-in, and it usually works pretty well.  I blogged about it here.  The only real issue I've found is that the Brother goes to sleep (as you would expect), and when it's been offline for a long enough time, it seems to have trouble reconnecting to Google.  Sometimes restarting the printer handles it; a few times I have had to re-register it with the Cloud Print service.

Storage and Network

Chromebooks come with very small amounts of internal storage.  The expectation is that you will use Google Drive, a cloud storage option.  To that end most Chromebooks come with a generous allowance of storage for one or two years after which you would have to decide how much you need, and pay for it.  Google Drive works just fine (except that my upload speed on my DSL sucks and uploading files bogs everything down badly).  I have Google Drive installed/enabled on other computers and devices so it's a nice way to share some things around.  

Chromebooks come with a full-sized SD card slot.  I have a 64-gig PNY high speed SD card.  It was cheap and works fine for local storage.

Oddly enough, Chromebooks don't come with any built-in ability to mount or browse common types of network shares.  I have a D-Link NAS with a couple of terabytes of stuff on it exporting a SMB share.  I found a nifty app on the Chrome app store called File System For Windows which allowed me to mount the share.  Note that you'll need to "know stuff" to use it - the workgroup or domain name for your network, any necessary authentication, that kind of thing.  But it works.

Peripherals

Chromebooks usually have a pretty standard form factor for laptops - clamshell design, keyboard, built-in camera, speakers and microphone, some USB ports, etc.  Mine has HDMI output via a full-sized HDMI port.  It has two USB ports - one USB2 and one USB3, which isn't a lot, though it's generally all I need.  The layout of keys on Chromebook keyboards is standardized by Google, but the quality on various specific units varies; the Toshiba uses the chicklet-style keys, is decent sized, and I've done quite a bit of typing on it (including this blog post).  It works well.

Having said all that, peripheral devices can make a big difference in capability.  In addition to the printer I mentioned above, I have used these peripherals:

Mouse

The trackpad on the Toshiba works pretty well - there are some nifty two and three-finger things that you can do which I had fun discovering.  Still, I like a mouse when I'm sitting down where I can use one.  I have an inexpensive Logitech mouse (M325) which uses the Logitech Universal Adapter.  This adapter is a little plug - doesn't seem right to call it a dongle - which goes into a USB port (mine stays more or less permanently mounted in the USB2 slot) to provide wireless connectivity to peripherals.  One of the neat things about it is that you can use it with multiple Logitech devices - keyboards, headsets and so forth - and there is less muss-and-fuss getting things paired than with Bluetooth.  There's a Chrome app for managing the Universal Adapter, and the mouse itself works well.

Sound

Laptops aren't usually known for great sound.  The Toshiba was billed as having superior audio circuitry designed by Skullcandy.  Audio from the built-in speakers is decent, although not outstanding, and as expected the bass in particular is kind of lacking.  This means that for really enjoying music, movies and so forth, some sort of headphones really comes in handy.  My go-to solution is a nice Bose headset with comfortable in-ear buds and a microphone.  With these the audio is outstanding.  I tried a Logitech Bluetooth headset (HBS-800) but really didn't like them much - I found the fit terribly uncomfortable and the audio quality poor.  I also have a Logitech headset that works with the Universal Adapter, though I mostly use that on my main desktop computer.

USB/Ethernet Hub

I wanted an option for wired ethernet.  I found several,  all with similar designs and which appear to be made in the same Chinese factory.  The one I chose plugs into the USB3 port, gives me gigabit wired ethernet, and gives back 3 USB3 ports.  It works well, no drivers required.

Miscellaneous Items & Wrapping Up

Google introduced a neat capability to have Android phones and Chromebooks keep each other unlocked.  Basically the idea is that if you have unlocked your Android phone and are sitting within Bluetooth range, you shouldn't need to manually unlock your Chromebook, and vice versa.   Obviously this solution will not be acceptable to all people in all circumstances, but if you primarily use your devices at home or in a secure office, it can be a nice time saver.  Getting it working was a little tricky - I blogged about that here - but it's pretty cool.

Another big development that caused quite a buzz in the Chromebook world was Google's introduction of a capability to run Android apps on the Chromebook.  In theory (and no doubt for some people in actual practice) this solved the issue of the missing Skype application for Chromebooks, and other apps as well.  My own experience was not terribly impressive, however.  The process of getting an Android app on the Chromebook is a bit more involved than installing something off the Chrome app store (with the exception of a small number of "official" apps Google released).  And when you do, be aware that they're running in an emulation layer that necessarily means performance will be compromised - if your Chromebook's processor isn't up to snuff, the app may run unacceptably slow.

So...after a year of using my Chromebook, how does it stack up?  Let's be clear - the Chromebook is not my only machine.  I still have an iMac on the desktop, and still use a Windows machine for work.  I still have an Android phone that goes with me everywhere.  But I use the Chromebook surprisingly often, sitting next to my work computer for personal use, couch surfing, etc.  It's been with me through airports and on planes, the homes of family and friends, hotel rooms, you name it.

First, from a sheer usability perspective, this thing is awesome.  I'm love having a real keyboard and a high quality screen.  These things can be had with tablets, but the other thing I have is a real web browser, such an important tool for interfacing with the web.  Browsing, email, banking, communications, office work - it's all there, and with very few exceptions (Skype, I keep coming back to that) it just works.  

I surprise myself sometimes with how much I use my Chromebook  - especially for video streaming!  I've got a perfectly good Roku attached to the TV, but I really enjoy watching Netflix and Hulu on the Chromebook.  Maybe it's my eyes going on me, but having a super sharp screen up close really works well for me.

Other than Skype, what's missing?  Games.  Oh there are games aplenty on the app store, just mostly not the sort of thing I want to play - I spend way too much time in Guild Wars 2, my Steam account is pretty much bursting at the seams, and almost none of it would translate well to a web-only experience.  We may get there one day - you can do 3D in a browser (although it would choke my Toshiba), and with faster Internet in the future we might be able to pretty much do away with big, locally installed games.  But we aren't there, so it's a waste of time to worry about it.

Second, the stability and relative safety of ChomeOS is just a breath of fresh air.  I've been on the beta channel almost the entire year, which means I get updates a bit more frequently and in theory get to experience new features a little sooner than folks on the default stable channel.  I've not ever had an issue.  When the new OS is delivered, I reboot and in ten seconds I'm up on the new OS.  I am fairly computer savvy and know what sorts of things to avoid when using the web - I don't click on crap that will install new search bars and such.  Still, it's a comfort to know that I can perform a powerwash and have this computer back to a stable factory config quickly and easily.  Traditional viruses and malware?  Just non-existent.  I'm certainly aware that there is no such thing as an unhackable computer, but Google has worked to harden the OS and they work with hackers to try to proactively break and then secure things.  

My Chromebook is light, and even at 13 inches quite easy to carry around.  Battery life just rocks - I easily get 8 hours plus on a charge.  

In short, with the exception of games, Skype, and some limitations on things like photo editing, my Chromebook does every thing I want to do, and does everything well.  Every computer is a compromise, yet I rarely find myself wanting for something bigger, faster, or with a normal OS - most of what I have had to give up is stuff I didn't want anyway (instability, bugs, malware, painful patching) and what I have gained has been so much more.  

My verdict?  Chromebooks are winners.  My specific model, the Toshiba Chromebook 2 with Intel Baytrail Celeron processor, while not the fastest thing on the market, is a solid performer.  I have no reservations recommending either one.

7 comments:

  1. Awesome !! It's a winner for me too.

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  2. I have one of the originals and it is a solid worker for me.I have it mounted to a large screen monitor and it is a great,clear view.

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    1. My desktop has a pretty large screen and so I rarely hook up my Toshiba to anything external, but a couple of times have plugged the HDMI output into my TV, and it looks really nice. As for the built-in screen it is truly gorgeous - I'd just like to have the ability to scale up some of the UI elements.

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  3. I have one of the originals and it is a solid worker for me.I have it mounted to a large screen monitor and it is a great,clear view.

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  4. Hard to beat a device that actually gets better over time. I own 2 CBs and an Macboook. The Macbook seldom, if ever gets used and only because it's staring at me in the corner hooked up to an external monitor.

    I can truthfully say, I like using GoogleApps (sheet,docs,slides) far more than desktop alternatives. Transparently using the cloud has made me completely device agnostic. I that a new thing??? Device agnostic??? If not, it is now.

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  5. Great article which reflects my thinking as well after 2 years with my HP 14 Chromebook. The only "missing" function I have is for managing my banking/finance. I used to use MS Money years ago and then moved to KmyMoney when I swapped to Linux 7 or 8 years ago. I therefore run it on Ubuntu via crouton on a USB in my Chromebook quite happily.
    A word re printing. HP printers can use a couple of Apps from the web store (HP Print for Chrome is one) without going through the rigmarole of Cloud Printing - connects via the wifi LAN. Additionally Polarr and Pixlrr work well for me for photo editing (amateur level although I used to use Photoshop a long time ago).

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  6. Hi James,
    I am too trying Chromebook on a Toshiba 2. My goal is to switch completely to Chromebook and replace my main Windows desktop with a Chromebox. I also experienced the same problems with Smartlock (paired with my Nexus 5x) and followed your instructions but it still doesn't work.
    I am a real estate agent and all the softwares that we use in our job are working fine. At first, I worried about how Chromebook handles pdf but I found a very good app that works great with pdf: the name is Kami. You can edit, anotate, merger, extract pdf.
    Printing with cloud print works very well and the integration with Google drive is fantastic. My only concern is about the scanner. My office is paperless and everything is scanned. I am waiting for a good scanner that can be used over wi fi. Now that the sales of Chromebook are higher than the Macbooks sales, I am sure the scanners makers are working hard toward wireless scanners and we will see soon several brands on the market.

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