Most Read Columns of 2013: Learning to Love Chromebooks and Succeeding

on December 27, 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.[pullquote]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.[/pullquote]

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.