I shacked up with Chromebook

Earlier this week, writing for ZDNet, Scott Raymond proclaims: "Chromebooks are dead, they just don't know it yet". He makes a good argument, which I partly agree with regarding Android tablets. I'll get to that later. He also asks: "Why would I want to switch to a Chromebook when my MacBook Air runs OS X and Windows and is at least a pound lighter?" That's exactly what I did -- sold my MacBook Air and switched to Chromebook, which I used for the entire month of August; still today.

Chromebook is an interesting invention, because of the concept: The browser is the operating system -- well, Chrome running on top of Linux. The browser is the user interface. There is no desktop, although file system and local storage are accessible. Acer and Samsung each make two models, both running Chrome OS, one with WiFi-only and the other with 3G, too.


Sharp Edges

To be clear at the outset, Chromebook isn't for everyone, and probably not for most people. Chrome OS has some sharp edges that will bleed the user experience for many, if not most, users. While enjoying the overall computing experience and finding plenty of performance and utility, I couldn't do video editing, and photo editing (using Picnik) requires some sacrifices (such as shooting in JPG rather than RAW). Some Web-based services are either torturous to use or behave badly. For example, AIM is dreadfully taxing on overall system performance and the group messaging service we use here at Betanews reports me as idle when I switch browser tabs. These are minor annoyances I can live with that others wouldn't.

Adobe Flash plugin frequently crashes -- and that's not surprising -- as does Google Talk, which is unexpected. Browser tabs crash too often, as in sometimes on my Chromebook compared to almost never when using Chrome browser on Mac OS X. So there's no confusion: I've been getting Chrome OS updates through the regular release channel rather than the beta, which is an option, so that's not the reason for any crashes. The OS locked up only once during the 35 days I have used Chromebook as primary PC and later the only one.

Benefit: crash recovery. However, Chrome OS recovers faster than any operating system I've ever used. Whenever I've had to reboot, mainly because Flash screwed up something, Chromebook powered off, powered on and returned to the previous state in typically less than 20 seconds. I should emphasize: Returned to previous state, meaning all tabs restored where they were with the writing or other work exactly how it was before the reboot. This amazing recovery capability is one of Chromebook's most differentiating benefits compared to Mac OS X or Windows 7. But by no means is it the only one.

December to September

I first used Chrome OS on Google's unbranded Cr-48 test laptop for 7 days in December. I had another 7-day go round in March, when my MacBook Air failed and Apple Store replaced the five-month old computer. I was so psyched by the quality of customer service, I bought an iPhone 4 that night and iPad 2 the next day, when it went on sale here in the United States. I sold all three Apple products in August, as part of a broader experiment -- to go all Google products and services. Next week, I'll start writing about that Google-only experience -- hopefully. I had expected to throughout much of last month, but typically slow news month August was anything but.

I am using the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook with WiFi and 3G. Basic config: 12.1-inch LED display with 1280 x 800 resolution and 16:10 aspect ratio; 1.66GHz Intel Atom N570 processor; 2GB DDR3 memory (not expandable); 16GB solid-state storage; integrated NM10 graphics; ALC272 integrated audio; stereo speakers (which in my tests deliver surprisingly rich sound for the class of machine); internal microphone; 1-megapixel webcam; WiFi N; Verizon 3G (on higher-end model); headphone/Mic jack; two USB ports; 4-in-1 memory card reader (SD / SDHC / SDXC / MMC); and 6-cell battery (with stated life of 8.5 hours).

This model lists for $499.99 but Amazon sells it for $50 less and the WiFi-only one for $399.99. The Acer model has similar specs but 11.6-inch glossy display; Amazon sells the WiFi model for $349.99 and the 3G cousin, which is backordered, for $429.99.

Crappy Netbook?

Chromebook critics often cite the need for constant Internet connection as reason -- the only one needed -- for why the portable is FAIL. Many of these people have never used Chromebook. We live in the connected era, where most everyone needs a network or Internet connection all the time. Air travel is one of the major exceptions. But even there Chromebook provides adequate offline access to Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Docs, as well as some applications. Hey, you can play Angry Birds if offline, baby.

My Chromebook has a Verizon 3G cellular modem and 100MB free data per month; it's a benefit guaranteed for two years. I have yet to activate the service, because I've always been able to find a WiFi connection. Not once during the last month did I lose one second of productivity because the Internet wasn't available.

Chromebook critics also often compare the laptop to netbooks for price, configuration and battery life, arguing that at least netbooks run a real operating system. Oh yeah? So what's Linux then? I would take Chromebook over a netbook running Windows 7 Starter Edition any day. At my daughter's high school, students use netbooks for a required college preparatory class. Considering they also use Google Docs and Search -- and many of them Gmail -- and spend most of their computing time in a browser, Chromebook would be better fit.

Google has a subscription program for schools -- $20 per Chromebook per student per month. Earlier this week, Google spotlighted three schools that signed up for the program. One institution got 110 Chromebooks. For that $2,200 per month, Google provides tech support and Chromebook replacement/upgrades.

Benefit: frequent updates: Google frequently updates Chrome OS, which removes a major administration headache, whether for these schools, businesses or the average Jane or Joe. Chrome OS development is closely aligned with Chrome browser, which is on a fast-track of six-week cycles -- generally with three different browsers at some stage -- during the time. Google has released four browser upgrades this year so far. My colleague Larry Seltzer argues this is a pain for IT; I won't disagree.

But when it comes to Chrome OS, frequent updates are a benefit. I'm not exactly sure the count, but Chrome OS updated at least five times during the last 35 days. Each time, something got better. It's refreshing to get new features and see performance improvements on a regular basis rather than waiting for major updates for Mac OS X and Windows. My Chromebook is better today than it was last week. I can't complain about that.

Switcher's Story

I made Chromebook my primary PC on July 31. Because I was using Chrome on MacBook Air as my browser, moving was about as difficult as flipping a light switch.

Benefit: easy setup. Chromebook boots up faster than any computer I've ever used, in about 13 seconds and 1.5 seconds from sleep. To set up Chromebook, I powered on, selected wireless network, entered Google account credentials and turned on browser sync. Within seconds of that last action, Chromebook synced tabs, web apps and other stuff from Google's cloud. That's it. My mom inherited the Cr-48, and setting it up was that easy. It's a truly amazing benefit. Because of Chrome sync, the experience follows me to other computers or should I switch Chomebooks.

Benefit: guest users. Chrome OS supports multiple Google user accounts and there is a guest one, which is ideal for people who sometimes share their laptop. Say, kids, concerned Arnie or Abby will get your Facebook log in and ruin your reputation? Chromebook lets you log on without giving away your credentials left in cookies or password manager on your friends' accounts.

During my first week with Chromebook, I used it about 90 percent of the time, falling back to my wife's MacBook Pro. It was easier to do some image capture and photo-editing tasks there, for example. I also needed my wife's computer to upload my library of about 11,800 songs to Google Music beta, which took the better part of 40 hours. Now I stream from my own library or from MOG. I spent $7.99 on music last month, a huge reduction from buying. That's the cost for streaming from MOG and downloading tunes to Samsung Nexus S for offline listening.

Following BetaNews' relaunch on August 20, I finally moved to 100-percent Chromebook. There is nothing that I typically would do on MacBook Air I can't on Chromebook. I'll look at this in-depth user experience perhaps in a follow-up post.

Google has done a remarkably good job connecting Chrome OS to its other services. For example, if I receive an email with Word file in .docx format, clicking the attachment opens Google Docs in view mode, and I have the option to edit the document. Another example: In file manager, if I highlight a photo, there is open to "send to Picasa".

But some of the rough edges cut arteries. I recently received some .rtf files that couldn't be opened for editing in Google Docs. WTH? What's more basic than rich text format? I had to open the files on my wife's MacBook Pro in Apple Pages. Another: ZIP files. Unless the Chrome OS update received two days ago changed something, there's clunky support for ZIP files. Say, Google, this is Platform 101 stuff.

Benefit: battery life. One of Chromebook's best benefits is battery life. I typically unplug from power around 4 p.m. and take the laptop out into our apartment complex's courtyard, where there is a set of table and four chairs I bought from Costco. The set is there for public use, but I'm its biggest user. I typically work there for three or four hours before shutting the lid for the night. Chromebook remains unplugged overnight before I resume work, back in the courtyard, around 6:30 a.m., where I stay until the mid-day sun or dead battery drives me out, which typically is between 11 a.m. and Noon. You do the math. I typically have no less than 10 tabs open. From full charge, the laptop claims about 8 hours battery time. That's typically the least I get.

By comparison, the MacBook Air used before Chromebook typically delivered 4 hours battery life, sometimes a bit more. So unplugging on a full charge at 6:30 a.m., the Apple laptop rarely made it to 11 a.m. and more often an hour earlier. By measure of productive time when mobile Chromebook is an exceptional performer. Chrome OS is major reason. Rather than running bloated apps on the desktop, lighter apps or connected services run in browser tabs. If not for Flash's negative impact, battery life might be considerably better even.

Android or Chrome OS?

My big problem with Chrome OS is Android. Why have both? Android 3.x Honeycomb is visually more appealing than Chrome OS and there are many more useful apps. Do you really need one when you've got the other? I think not. Of the two, I would choose Android on a tablet over Chrome OS on a laptop, assuming all functionality was equal -- and it's not yet. The browser is the key.

Scott Raymond writes: "Apparently the WebKit folks are working to consolidate the source code for WebKit and Chromium. The end result of this would be that the browser on Android tablets will eventually be replaced by a Chrome browser...if we had the Chrome browser on an Android tablet, why would we want a Chromebook? For the price of a Chromebook you could pick up an Android tablet with a keyboard that connects via dock or bluetooth. You would have the same functionality, plus the added capabilities of Android".

I agree. The Android tablet gets my vote over Chromebook, much as I like it -- rough edges and all.

I'm now debating what next? Should I continue using Chromebook through end of September (even longer), or switch to something else? While I've found using Chrome OS satisfying enough, I expect Microsoft to release some kind of Windows 8 beta around September 13, when the BUILD conference begins. Returning to MacBook Air is an option, which would let me run Mac OS X Lion, too. That's new enough to deserve more of my time, and perhaps a review. There are also plenty of enticing Windows laptops worth trying and reviewing. I'm taking suggestions for makes and models, if you've got one.

Another option is to go Android tablet solo, even if just for a week. I replaced my mainstream laptop with Chromebook. Could I do the same with, say, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 (which I have) or the Motorola XOOM (which I don't have)? I'm itching to find out

Photo Credits: Joe Wilcox

32 Responses to I shacked up with Chromebook

  1. macu says:

    The Asus transformer eee pad with keyboard gives 16 hours. You would think only the Samsung and the Xoom  existed judging by a lot of tech sites, obviously the Asus is not glamourous enough despite getting excellent reviews across the board.

    • Anonymous says:

      I'm hearing good stuff about the Asus Transformer too by users. 

    • audidiablo says:

      Furthermore Asus invented the netbook btw. Asus EEE PC 4G... But hey that had a real OS with functionality and you could put windows on it like I did. Chrome anything sucks.

  2. Hugo Castro says:

    I second the transformer. Please take it for a week and tell us all about it.

  3. Matt Plemmons says:

    I have been using my chromebook exclusively for 3 months now ... while there where some question marks in the begining ... frequent updates have remedied most buggyness and with the onset of offline gmail, calendar, and docs I see this product really blooming. 

  4. Avatar X says:

    You are really forcing yourself to like the chromebook Joe. I could tell from your retelling.  If you are going to try a new Windows machine, i recommend trying out the top end Series 9 from Samsung. I was able to play with one for 2 hrs and without it being tuned for me -- As i tune everything i use -- It is an amazing Windows ultraportable that not only has nothing to envy from the equivalent Macbook AIR, but that i think is actually superior.

  5. cool_guy says:

    I like Android but I hate Chrome OS. I cannot justify giving up all my privacy to some company on the Internet, never. I cannot justify getting 'some company' to dictate how things will be in the cloud environment.  Not just that but your personal data is exposed to crackers and rogue employees and this is the Internet, once something goes out, that's it. It cannot be stopped. Literally! It's out there, it cannot be reversed. A cracker or a rogue employee might have gained access to your personal files and you won't even know it! You think you are safe and you just hope your data is safe but you can never be 100% sure.

    If you really want to use the cloud so you can access your data from anywhere, the best thing to do is create your own cloud with some third party CMS that will let you manage things. Not just that but you have no control over how things will be. This means you might have used feature X for a period of time then all of a sudden the feature goes missing and there is nothing you can do about it!

  6. Anonymous says:

    ChromeOS is not necessary.

    I'm still waiting for a Phone/Tablet/netbook hybrid. We have the Phone/netbook hybrid Atrix, Photon, and Bionic from Motorola (Google-owned now... hint hint). We also have the Tablet/netbook hybrid Eee Pad Transformer from Asus.
    Someone just needs to put it all together already!!

  7. So google couldt not develop a real OS, and offers a browser instead, and still it crashes?

    That sucks.

    • Joe Wilcox says:

      Tabs crash, Hector. Hit refresh and tab restores to previous state. It's an annoyance that creates a bad impression more than it's a productivity problem. If the whole browser crashed (and therefore Chrome OS) or the tab reloaded freshly instead of where it was before the crash, that would be a productivity problem.

  8. Ricardo says:

    Joe must have earned a good amount to market Chromebook... Specially with such a long missive.

    A browser that crash all time? IE? No, Chrome on Chromebook. lol

  9. Anonymous says:

    Joe, you can avoid using an AIM client by adding user @ aol.com to Google Talk. I stopped signing into AIM a while back and can still talk to my AIM buddies through Google Talk.

    Also, as of this week (they're still rolling it out) Gmail and Google Docs are available offline.

  10. evan2k says:

    "Chromebook powered off, powered on and returned to the previous state in typically less than 20 seconds"..... WHAT?????. My "bloated" Windows 7 tablet (lenovo x200)  boots faster than that...

    • Joe Wilcox says:

      Previous state means all apps where they were with all the data as it was in memory before the reboot. That 20 seconds also includes time to log in typing password. 

      • evan2k says:

        OK. I can't beat that. But you are only booting a brower. Comparing apples to apples, that's the equivelant, of restarting Internet Explorer...just teasing you...

  11. Jay2016 says:

    You can't run any apps that are worth the time.  Lets see I can't run any of my games, Microsoft Office so I can't work from home, Development tools, and don't forget utilities.  Best yet my wife says why buy something that is trying to mimic something else you already have. Nuff said bye bye.  I am not paying top dollar that gives me 50% of what I already have. Get better or get out is my motto.

  12. Hermes Mai says:

    Can your Chromebook run HD flash? Run .mkv movie files without a hiccups? Install Steam?
    Use Bitcomet?

    The answer is no.  And you are overpaying for those components.

  13. Thanks for the write up about the Chromebook.

    I've got an Asus TF101 running Android Honeycomb, and it does rather occur to me that if it has

    a) Chrome as a Browser; and
    b) The ability to switch users

    I would have all the benefits of Chromebook, plus access to apps and a nicer interface.  

    I don't mind not having the ability for multiple user support (and why would you a phone), but it would be nice on a tablet/book to be able to say to someone:  "log into with your Google credentials and have a play".  

  14. Dave White says:

    One of the things I dislike about Chromebooks is that they only do web. For me that isn't really acceptable, as I do more with my PC than just go on the web. However, most of the tech journalists and bloggers I know actually like and use their Chromebooks. It's almost as if this class of product was targeted specifically at you. "You", in this case is a class of people who exist only on the internet. Your life is the web. It is where you exist, and the means by which you exist.

    Something like the Chromebook must have inherent appeal to such a group of people. Guess what? You're the ones who review the hardware and make recommendations to us users who do more than just live a web existance. Therefore we come away from such reviews with the (false) impression that such devices could fit within our "more than just online" existance perfectly.

    Interesting, isn't it ;-)

    • Jon McLaren says:

      you searched for chromebooks to get here, don't get on his butt about blogging about what you wanted to read about.

      Besides everyone has said chromebooks aren't for everyone. but for the people who use mostly just the web it's great.

      Personally I used to use microsoft office and all that jazz, it was slow at times, and kept getting more confusing because of their stupid ribbon layout.  Google docs kept getting better and better. Sharing is easier when your files are already online and I tend to have to do that so I've switched to Google Docs as my Office suite I have Open Office installed currently and I've never even used it. I've owned this computer for 2 years. 

      I'm a Gamer, a graphic design student and a web developer. I've found most of the things I need are all online. I have photoshop CS4 and am going to upgrade to CS5.5 but honestly I don't NEED to. There are plenty of great image editors out there. Pixlr is a good example. There are even good video editing apps. The one thing I haven't personally seen is a replacement for Adobe After Effects. 
      I personally will trade my adobe master collection for the lower quality web apps that exist out there. Why? because it means less expensive hardware for me, no more purchasing $12,000 software, and I can get the same job done with those apps. Yes I miss the adobe apps when a web app doesnt have a certain feature I like but honestly for the price and the speed a chromebook wouldn't be bad.On the gaming end of it, there are ways to hack a Chromebook to run OnLive which to me is an acceptable trade for games since I also have an Xbox 360(written on an Alienware M11x Laptop 8 gigs of ram 2 TB HD, NVidia gfx card) Yes, I can live with a chromebook, easily.

  15. There's a new ubuntu comming up too :=)

  16. Anonymous says:

    Good review. A Cr-48 has become my primary computer (followed by Linux netbook and a G5 iMac). People arguing that Chrome OS doesn't do X, Y, or Z are missing the point. A small car can't haul 8 people or tow a 3000 pound trailer, like an SUV can. But, a Honda Fit meets 99% of my needs, and can park in places an SUV owner can only dream about. Similarly, the Cr-48 does most of what I want to do, although with fewer instability problems than you report — stability has improved quite a bit in the past 60 days.

    With Chrome, OS maintenance is forgotten. A couple of months ago, I spent over a day setting up a brand new HP laptop for a friend, mostly downloading an endless stream of patches and security updates, rebooting, downloading some more, rebooting, etc. It was an unpleasant reminder of how unpleasant an experience it is to set up, and keep any Windows machine running. When I finally finished, my friend had a Win 7 machine with a dual core processor and 4 gb of RAM that still took 2 minutes to boot, and she said that for most tasks, she still preferred her little Acer netbook running Linux Mint with an Atom processor and 1 gb of RAM, because it was so much faster than Windows.

    I travel a lot by motorcycle, and the Chromebook makes a perfect travelling companion, with long battery life and, for the odd time when no Wi-Fi is available, 3G data connectivity without paying extra for a monthly plan. I have never used up the entire 100mb monthly 3G data allocation. 

    All that said, I can't imagine a Chromebook being my only computer, but what it does, it does well.

  17. George Ou says:

    Asus Transformer even with the keyboard is lighter than the ChromeBook yet it gets 16 hours and it's *always on* rather than 15-second on for the ChromeBook.  A device like the Transformer was what Google should be promoting because that is the future.  The ChromeBook is a huge step backwards by comparison.

  18. Joe Wilcox says:

    One benefit I didn't mention, because it's specific to the Samsung Chromebook: Matte finish. That allows me to easily work outside, something that's much, much more difficult with most laptops or even tablets. I tried working outside this morning with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 -- very difficult even in the shade.

  19. I think yours is a pretty good review. I also feel like all/most reviews, this is written by someone who's in the journalism industry and requires PCs for heavy media editing.

    The crashes that you mentioned, were they mostly on Cr-48? Note that's supposed to be only a test version. Also, editing video or RAW pictures, etc., seems to be in the realm of 5% of the users?
    The Chromebook is a great thing in further advancing web technologies and bringing all applications online (finally). This is the future (a lot of that is already true today, which is why Chromebook is here already), together with cloud computing (it might already sound like an old term but it's actually merely starting). It's just like we don't need a power generator at each company or home nowadays. Also in the 21st century, you should not need to be an IT expert in order to use a computer; it's so passe.

    Android or iPhone as an OS, they are fundamentally no different from Windows or MacOS; that's just an extension of the 20th century. It kind of regressed in the trend that had been to write only web based applications. The fact is, I don't want to be able to install offline applications, with all the maintenance hassle (and maybe also security risks) that involves.

  20. sd.green says:

    Frankly for all the hype on these google want a bees, I will stick with AMD or INTEL based systems. S/W is so much better and the hardware is lightening years ahead. Android is a linux derivative that really has no power. Mainstream Linux is a thousand times better.

  21. Tenoq says:

    It only takes 30 seconds for me to get back to my browser window with all the tabs if I randomly hit the reset button on my Win 7 PC.  I think the extra 10 seconds is worth it for infinitely more speed and functionality, don't you?  And I said "hit the reset button" because it doesn't crash, so you're just talking a hypothetical. :p

  22. So this is what happens when you can't get a girl.  Sad.  Replace your penis with a USB port yet?

  23. And yet you Google evangelicals seems to forget Google is the data mine that wants to know everything about you, and will steal you data without thinking twice.  If they are running around cracking WiFi points with their maps cars, what do you think they will get from you with their software on your computer and your search habits on their servers?  I mean, if you don;t care about this, by all means, enjoy yourself.  I'll read about you in the first google search for 'sheep'.

  24. zandra says:

    i really dont regret buying a chromebook. i still have my old desktop but noticed i havent been using it anymore since the chromebook arrived. and it's mainly because of the fast bootup and the 8 hrs battery. even on standby mode which i do a lot, the battery life is superb. there's value in speed and convenience. it's true that 99% of my computing consists of simply browsing. for those who are not like me, then this is a good companion gadget to your desktop pretty much like a tablet. i chose between a tablet and a chromebook and i chose the chromebook. 

  25. Anonymous says:

    I can access the downloads page but the only thing that shows up is
    "save file as", but it is only showing the link and not the actual file.http://www.buzzfeed.com/kerrysejimili/perfect-radiance-42jb

  26. I liked your review..you put it on the line and really used the product as it is intended. My question is about the apps..? How do you feel about them ? Is their growth potential ?

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