I'm giving up Google Chromebook

My real journey with Chrome OS started with a family trip on July 31. But some journeys come to an end. As much as I like the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook, which I have used continuously since July 31, we must part ways. In a few days I will return to running Windows 7, which is another journey and story to go with it that will get brief explanation here. That is really topic for another post.

My two-month journey to the cloud can offer lessons to Google, which has much work to do yet before Chrome OS is really ready for the masses -- that is unless the problems I observed are specific to my Chromebook (which I highly doubt). The browser-based, Linux OS is still an early-adopter product -- the bleeding edge that cuts quick and sometimes deep. I'm not convinced even Chrome OS should have a future at all. But I can see where Google is going with this thing, particularly following last month's release of Chrome 14 with native code. I'd rather see one Google operating system -- Ice Cream Sandwich or successor running Chrome.

Journey Begins

July 31, I posted to Google+:

While my daughter and friend have fun at Knotts Berry Farm, I'm hanging out here in Buena Park, Calif. For this trip, I brought the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook, which I will use full time during August (that's right, from tomorrow). It's part of my "Going Google" experiment...

I dragged my feet going Chromebook, waiting for Apple to release Mac OS X 10.7 Lion. I wanted to spend some quality time with the new operating system. There's nothing quality at all about my experience, which unexpectedly makes the switch easier. Two weeks after installing Lion, I still don't like it.

Lion reminds me too much of switching to Windows Vista from XP -- there are too many annoyances and compatibility problems. Some quirks: I get frequent permission errors accessing photos (seems like a problem when I exit, say, Preview without closing a photo first and reopen the app later); mail crashes every other day or so (compared to never before); WiFi range from the AirPort router to my apartment building's courtyard is one-third to one-half less compared to Snow Leopard or the Series 5 Chromebook; and many more gripes I'll save for later. Suffice to say, Lion roared, and I ran to the safety of the Google OS laptop.

As I will explain in a subsequent post, Lion is one of the major reasons why I'm going back to Windows 7. I've already sketched out the post in my mind and headline for it, and there will be the usual complaints from the Apple camp about linkbaiting. But the story will be sincere, whether or not they accept it. One other reason, and not the only one: Windows 8 is out in the wild as a developer preview. That's game I need to hunt more now than Lion.

Sky High

Living in the cloud isn't so bad. The air is a little muggy and there are stormy days, but I can't complain about the overall experience. Google has done an excellent job making the sky feel like earth. The surprisingly good integration with Google cloud apps and services is major reason. For example, if someone sends a .DOCX file, clicking the attachment opens Google Docs. I couldn't ask for much better using Outlook and Word -- well, I could. Gmail to Google Docs is faster.

So there is no misunderstanding: You can comfortably use Chromebook as an everyday business PC, as long as your stuff is accessible from the browser and supports Flash and adopted or open browser standards -- of course, you need persistent web connection for most things (but not always as there are offline apps). Most people using a traditional PC would need constant connection, too. Google's tight integration to its services and the surprisingly good choice of third-party web apps are major reasons why Chromebook can be good enough. Chrome OS satisfies all I need to do on a daily basis.

On August 11, I posted to Google+: "Have you got a Chromebook, too? I'm loving mine and would like to collect comments (for and against) for another story at Betanews". There were many good responses, and lots of Chromebook enthusaists, but Antonio Yon best captures the points I want to make in this post:

The best bits about my Samsung Chromebook:

  • 8+ hours battery life.
  • Instant-on from sleep.
  • Only notebook I don't pack the power cord when taking it out for day.
  • Amazing the quantity and quality of web apps from the Chrome store, from cloud9ide to rdio to sumo paint to box . All have become vital tools and replaced traditional desktop applications.
  • Totally portable form-factor

The not-so-nice bits:

  • Chrome OS still missing some key bits (.zip files were natively unusable until current channel release).
  • Memory leaks on certain sites. Google+ and FB seem to be the worse (300MB+).
  • Stuttering flash video at times.

The good news is that all of those things are addressable via driver/firmware/OS updates.

I agree. The three main benefits I see, and one may surprise people convinced that a cloud OS laptop is impractical: Instant-on, long battery life, and Internet connectivity. Switching to Windows 7 is going to be painful, because I will lose instant-on. Once you have the capability on a laptop, you can't easily go back (think candles versus electric light bulbs). I easily get more than eight hours battery life from the Series 5 Chromebook. But the Net connectivity is amazing -- like Google worked to overcompensate for possibly losing it.

This machine easily and quickly finds WiFi networks. When none is available, there is backup -- Verizon 3G radio with 100MB free bandwidth per month. What a lifesaver that was for me during Microsoft's BUILD conference. Many journalists couldn't get a stable WiFi connection during the keynotes. On Day 1, I sat next to a European journalist using an ASUS Transformer -- right the Android "Honeycomb" tablet -- with keyboard. It was a slick setup, but he, like many others, couldn't get WiFi. I turned on 3G and liveblogged the event.

Days later, that 3G radio allowed me to work from the vet's office after my daughter's cat got run down by a car (the big fur ball survived and is recovering remarkably well). Instant-on allowed me to flip the lid and write, close it to answer the vet's questions and resume work quickly.

But there are fundamental performance problems that make Chrome OS feel like beta software. Google Talk crashes several times a day, as do some third-party plugins. Flash is a killer (crashes helluva lot), and I'm convinced it's a major source of browser tab crashes, sometimes maddeningly slow performance and complete browser UI crashes. This kind of behavior is simply unacceptable in a shipping, commercial operating system and creates a bad user experience. Instant-on is great, persistent-on is better.

I haven't tooled up and tested for memory leaks, but I can feel something dragging performance -- noticeable at first by slow load times in browser tabs -- that inevitably ends with Flash, tab(s) or the whole UI crashing. Fortunately Chrome OS restores all work -- I've never lost anything -- but there should only be occasional need for the capability. I see daily problems.

Returning to Earth

September 2, I posted about my first month using Chromebook. I fully expected to continue using the laptop for many more months. Right now I've got a loaner from Google and Samsung that is due back October 7. I had planned to buy my own Chromebook to replace the loaner. But in the month since that post, I've grown increasingly frustrated by the aforementioned beta-like, performance problems -- then there is the growing sense of urgency to get back on Windows in preparation for version 8's beta and release cycle. Mainly, for these reasons, I will not buy my own Chromebook as planned.

Something else: I'm convinced that Google shouldn't continue with a two-operating system strategy. The search-and-information giant already is working to combine Android 2.x for smartphones and Honeycomb for tablets into Ice Cream Sandwich for both. Chrome OS should be next. The advantages are stupendous. Chrome as Android's browser, say, would make web and local apps available. It's the right thing to do.

Then there is the copycat problem. Apple and Microsoft can offer fast, instant-on versions of their operating systems with the browser as front end (the capability exists in Lion today). So Chrome OS could face stiff competition from incumbents.

Then there is look and feel. I actually enjoy using my malfunctioning Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 (it can't accept firmware updates) more than Chromebook. Big benefits, like long battery life and instant-on, are there already. Meanwhile, the user interface is fresher and more modern. The browser is a tired motif -- something Microsoft understands and corrects in its delightful IE10 presentation in Windows 8 Developer Preview build. But Android doesn't have Chrome, as good as is its browser.

In a fitting transition then, I'll pack up the Chromebook for return later today and use Tab 10.1 for a few days as my primary PC, while waiting to replace it with a Windows 7 system.

I really will miss Chromebook. I've grown quite attached over the past two months. Font rendering is superb, and like Windows 7, outclasses Mac OS X. The browser motif works, although I will admit to a good week's adjustment -- as new muscle memory patterns set in for different habits. The going Google experiment continues in other areas (although I really don't like Gmail), and it's long past due time to write about it -- but the experiment goes on without Chromebook (sigh). Perhaps if I was just working for myself and not writing about tech (where there is need of platforms to test stuff on), I would keep using Chromebook. Or if I couldn't recreate the basic experience using Chrome browser on Windows 7.

It's a bittersweet goodbye, but some journeys end so others can begin.

Photo Credit: Joe Wilcox

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