Learning To Love the Chromebook (and Succeeding)

Steve Wildstrom / June 5th, 2013

I have been a skeptic about Chromebooks since Google announced them. What could you really do on a pseudo-laptop whose only native application was the Chrome browser and which depended on an internet connection for most of its functionality. But I avoided sharing my opinion because I had never used on for more than a few minutes.

Now I have remedied that situation and you can count me as a convert. For the past cuple of weeks I have been spending a lot of time with a Chromebook. Not the drool-worthy $1,299 Google Pixel but a humble $250 Acer c710 with an 11.6” non-touch display, 4 GB of RAM, a 1.1 GHz dual-core Intel Celeron, and an almost pathetically old-fashioned rotating hard drive.

A Chromebook is far more restricted than a regular laptop of even a tablet. Without the ability to load standard applications, you must make do with web apps, which are limited both in scope and in functionality. But it is a good 80% or 90% solution, perfectly acceptable for the great bulk of what most people want to do most of the time. The applications and the operating system are both lightweight, so that performance feels snappy despite the modest specs.

Most important for those of use who live in a world where we are disconnected at least some of the time, the key Google apps, especially Docs, work offline. A Gmail add-on, officially still in beta testing, lets you read, edit, and reply to email messages offline.

The Chromebook is very good at what it does well, and for a large number of people, it would be a more than adequate replacement for a conventional PC.

I wrote this post mostly on the Chromebook, much of the time offline. The WordPress editor is not offline-friendly, so I composed in Google Docs, then copied and pasted into WordPress. The image was downloaded from the Web, saved as a local copy, and uploaded to WordPress. In terms of the apps I used, the experience was much like working on an iPad (or an Android tablet) except for the convenience, for writing, of working on a laptop form factor.

I used the image I found as-is. Chrome features a very limited built-in picture editor. Anything more sophisticated would have required using one of a number of on-line picture editors, such as Pixlr. Though it requires a live internet connection, it’s fine for occasional use and designed to be familiar to a Photoshop user. (Oddly, Google does not offer a Chrome version of its own Picasa photo tool.)

But I would n’t want to use the Chromebook to process a large number of images from my camera. It can’t handle the RAW format I like to use on by DSLR and there is nothing–at least that I know of–like Adobe Lightroom for batch processing of photos. And even with a fast internet connection, moving a large number of multi-megabyte photos to and from web servers will get tired quickly.

Similarly, I really wouldn’t want to do much audio or video editing on the Chromebook. I have too much invested in my familiar tools (Apple FinalCut and Adobe Audition) for these complicated chores, and any complicated video editing would be a tedious chore on the low-powered C710.

But this is all a little like complaining that a good bicycle isn’t a Lexus. A Chromebook cannot do everything that a Windows PC or a Mac (of even a Linux PC) can do. It can’t even do everything that a tablet can do. For one thing, the selection of games is very limited though there is, of course, Angry Birds. But it is very good at it does well, and for a large number of people, it would be a more than adequate replacement for a conventional PC.

 

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • JoeC

    Hi Steve – I read with interest as I too highly recommend the Chromebook (also running Acer’s model in the UK). I see Chromebooks as very much a ‘companion’ device to an existing PC, but one that can be used more (and in many instances faster, as there are no programs installed, there are not the nuber of updates and troubles associated!)

    One of its biggest and best uses – in combo with an existing PC – is the ease in which you can log into your internet connected PC, opening and using all and any programs exactly as if you were sitting at the PC’s keyboard. Photoshop, Word, Excel, Outlook – any package installed on the PC can be run from the Chromebook, meaning you can take full advantage of your set-up, wherever in the world you happen to be (network connection required, obviously).

    For me, the Chromebook has ‘outed’ my Android tablet in many ways – and initially ‘dabbling’ with the platform convinced me that my next desktop PC does not have to be the all-singing, dancing (and expensive) box it used to be.

    • steve_wildstrom

      I confess I hadn’t even thought about it, but you can run services such as LogMeIn or GoToMyPC to use a Chromebook as a remote desktop for a Windows or Mac PC. The usual cautions apply: Perfomance is dependent on the speed and latency of your internet connection and you’ll likely have to do some fiddling to make the display work on the small Chromebook screen, but it is a usable option.

      • JoeC

        I use Chrome’s in-built Chrome Remote Desktop App (its in the list of installed/installable apps on the Chromebook). Nothing additional to pay, and easy to install and set-up on client PCs, which show in a list from the Chromebook.

        The display autofits or simply plug into an external monitor via HDMI, giving as large a display as ‘normal’. I also have to say that in terms of speed, it feels almost as fast as sitting in front of the machine. Give it a whirl if you’ve not tried it; just search Chrome Remote Desktop.

        • alpg49

          I run ham radio apps on my XP desktop which require a lot of realtime audio processing. THey simply don’t work when Chrome Remote Desktop is running. Also, Logmein no longer works from my chromebook, and I’m still trying to figure out how I can bring back the good old days when it ran. Probably a plugin “upgraded”. 🙁

      • lemayp

        As JoeC mentionned it, the google Chrome Remote Desktop is a very good solution to access your other devices from your #chromebook. The magic inside of the Remote Desktop is that the communication is done between chrome and chrome, requiring no change to your router configuration or your firewall. It includes it own VPN technology.

        You can use the technology in two ways: to access someone else’s computer, i.e. that user give your temporary access to his computer to perform, for instance remote assistance. Very easy to setup, the other user give you a numeric value that his remote desktop generate, you enter it and the remote desktop application find how to access it.

        The second way is to access your own computer. To do that, you install remote desktop on your computer(s), enabled them to remote access, and when you are ready to access them the application will show them in a list of available computer.

        I access my work and home computers this way. Works from anywhere, no need to be in the same network than the computer we want to access.

        Thanks for your nice article

        -Pierre

  • Quicksingle

    A great option for schools and children in general. The savings for schools by using this, rather than more expensive alternatives, would be a tremendous boost for education funding issues.

    • steve_wildstrom

      Chromebooks vs. Tablets pose a tough choice for schools. It would be wonderful if they could afford both, because the uses are different. Chromebooks lack all the interesting tablet apps that have sprung up, especially for the iPad, and they suffer from the traditional disadvantages of laptops for reading. But they are much better for tasks such as writing, spreadsheets, and creating presentations. But for schools with good wireless internet (still far from a given), Chromebooks strike me as far superior to conventional laptops: cheaper, simpler, much easier to maintain.

  • jerrydaniels

    Hey, Steve! Nice piece and written with a very reasonable point of view. However, I strongly recommend a spell checker or an editor. One of your call-out boxes is even missing a work.

  • blazewon22

    If you had bought the $1,299 or $1,499 version would you still be as optimistic ChromeOS? I think at the $250 price point it is a great device but beyond that?

    • steve_wildstrom

      I can’t say because I didn’t (and to be completely upfront, I didn’t buy the $249 one either; it’s on loan from Acer.) The Pixel is a classic “halo” product, not intended to sell in large volume.

      Personally chose to pay a bit more for a slightly bigger display and something a little thinner and more elegant. I’d probably forego touch, because most web pages are not (yet) optimized for it.

    • benbajarin

      Ohh, this is a great question. I did purchase the Samsung one from Best Buy a few months ago. I’d say the answer to your question is no. With the caveat that Google did not build Chrome with that in mind (pixel aside in that it is designed to do research in public).

      I’m not saying they couldn’t build a product that would command that value, but the current products are not it. Also, my own opinion, is that PCs and that form factor are destined to be on the lower curve, for massive market price points. PCs that are premium are designed for the minority of the market.

    • capnbob67

      This is very much the point. The review basically implies it isn’t a paperweight but as Steve says below, he wouldn’t buy it and didn’t buy this one. From the review it appears adequate for some light production so assuming you really don’t have the money for a real laptop or you crave the style of a faux MBA without being able to pay for it and you really don’t have greater needs than very light production in the few areas there are GApps or web-apps for… it’s OK.

      Basically, a bit of a click-baity title since Steve clearly DOESN’T LOVE it.

      Truthful headlines are boring but they are… truthful.
      How about:

      “Just about getting through a pretty light Tuesday with a Chromebook (while still needing access to my phone/tablet/real laptop for other tasks)”

      • steve_wildstrom

        I was pleasantly surprised by what it could do rather than disappointed by what it couldn’t. I don’t think a Chromebook is for me because it doesn’t fit my workflow (clients want Word.) But in many ways, I would prefer it to my Windows and Mac notebooks. As another commenter pointed out, it is ideal for education, at least in schools with pervasive wireless, And the app situation will only get better as Chrome OS and Android converge.

        • joshalfie

          I think we should be clear what we mean by “education”. For primary students, sure – however, those in high school or studying tertiary a Chromebook is grossly under featured to serve as a viable replacement.

          As a tertiary student I can safely say that one may “get by” on a Chromebook, however, he will not be as productive or efficient if he was using a more mature platform.

          • steve_wildstrom

            I don’t quite understand the argument. The Chromebook woud be unsatisfactory for more advanced students who need to run specialized software not available as a web app or who are doing serious programming. I dont think that describes how most students, at any level, use their computers.

          • joshalfie

            I must respectfully disagree. Just because something can work, doesn’t make it ideal. Students simply cannot be as productive using the Chrome OS and accompanied web apps.

            Dedicated word processing and spreadsheeting software and features native to the OS gives students more power and control over the quality of their work and, in addition, can in many cases save them time (cover pages, equation tools, mind mapping, multiple desktops in OSX, universal copy and paste – try copy and pasting a large table from a spreadsheet to a doc in Google docs).

            It’s great that these cheaper solutions are available – but a higher education students should only consider one if they legitimately cannot afford a dedicated laptop. Unless they are using it in the interim between the class and their desktop computer at home.

            I feel it is a mistake to compare students needs with those of the most basic user. And I believe that the market will also reflect this. We shall see.

          • steve_wildstrom

            We seem to have a philosophical difference here. In my experience, I think students are often better off with simpler technology. I have seen students doing PowerPoint presentations get so obsessed with the bells and whistles that they spend a lot more time fiddling with the software than worrying about the content of their preso.
            And if students need to enter advanced math, they should forget about equation editors and learn LaTeX. It will serve them very well in college.

  • stricsm60

    I’m a veteran (25+ years) lead electrical and computer engineer at a government agency (4 letter) and I take my Samsung Chromebook to work with me everyday for when my computer reboots or loads new software due to the dreaded IT police. This is the greatest thing about the Chromebook; when it reboots, it does so fast. I don’t slow down during the day due to my Chromebook. Admittedly, if I have to review native design files, I have to use an X86 system but the Chromebook does just about everything else I want it to do. For $249 it is a great tool at work.

  • kenroyall

    And we all know we can trust Google with our data. The NSA loves the cloud! Google apps are junk anyway. They are OK for phones in a pinch, but sorely lacking for real work.

    • ddevito

      stay in your mother’s basement for the rest of your life then.

  • RudiXeno

    Initially I was skeptical as well when I started reading up on Chromebooks a couple of years ago. Of course they were considerably more expensive back then. When my Windows laptop started to have issues a few months ago, I started really looking at how I used my laptop. With Samsung offering a sweet Chromebook for $249 I picked one up at Best Buy figuring I had a full 15 days to see how well it functioned for me. After several months, I can say it fits my needs pretty nicely and I’d venture a guess that it probably fits the actual needs of the vast majority of laptop users. For my more in-depth assessment read:

    http://tinyurl.com/Samsung-Chromebook-XE303C12-A0

    This is an excellent, economical alternative that only becomes more attractive as “cloud computing” becomes better understood and more popular.

  • CLM3Chip

    I also was originally skeptical about chromebooks, but when Samsung and Acer released their low cost models in late 2012 (at $250 and $200 in the U.S. respectively), I figured picking one up was worthwhile because the cost wasn’t too high. I bought the Samsung model (more specifically the Samsung Chromebook XE303), due to its lighter weight and longer battery life, back in late January. Like seemingly most people who have bought chromebooks, I’m also a convert. Though most people tend to compare them to Windows and McIntosh PCs because of the form factor, I look at chromebooks as being more similar to tablets, due to how they are used. IMO, chromebooks are vastly superior to tablets, for a few reasons:

    1) includes physical keyboard
    2) larger screen
    3) lower price when compared to most 10″ tablets (and only slightly higher prices than 7″ tablets)
    4) real (i.e. non-mobile) web browser

    (NOTE: I also own 3 tablets, including one with a keyboard dock, so my comments are based on my personal user experience.)

    I don’t see chromebooks replacing desktops or higher-end laptops in the near future (though for some people who are comfortable working entirely on-line and who have Wi-Fi access most of the time, I could see chromebooks as a PC replacements), but they do make excellent second, “casual” computer devices.

    I look forward to seeing future chromebooks that have even lower prices or better specs (mainly in terms of screen quality) at the same price as current chromebooks.

    P.S. This comment was typed on my Samsung Chromebook.

    • Ed Hayden

      I agree with you. I consider the Chromebook a tablet with a keyboard. Just got my Samsung today and it seems like a good tool.

  • Anthony Pirtle

    I already do almost everything I do on my laptop in the chrome browser, from entertainment to word processing and so forth. The only reason I haven’t picked up a chromebook is that the apps selection isn’t great right now, but if and when Google merges Chrome OS and Android, I will say goodbye to windows without a second glance.

  • Emily Luxton

    Hey, I have a Chromebook and a blog which I run on wordpress.com. I’m considering switching to wordpress.org – do you know if that’s compatible with the Chromebook? As I think you need to download some software!

    • Bunni Vaughan Healy

      Emily, if you switch from .com to your own installation of WordPress (which is what you’re talking about) you will need a hosting service. They will install the wordpress software for you. If you want more info find me on facebook. I work with self-hosted wordpress daily. I’ll be happy to steer you toward all you need and tell you how to move the old blog if you want to.

  • cat

    Thanks so much for helpful photo tips

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