Chromebooks are the new beginning. Or rather, the idea of a Chromebook is the new beginning. Just like many people xerox things without owning a Xerox, put things in the fridge without owning a Frigidaire, or Google things without using Google (oh wait, that hasn’t happened, yet), the Chromebook is the first step into a new world of computing that is making many machines anachronisms. Sorry, Microsoft. Sorry, Apple. With the pace of change, Chromebooks may sweep away most new PCs and laptops, and get swept away themselves. Sorry, Google.
After months of research and hoping my MacBook didn’t die, I finally bought a Chromebook, thanks to a Christmas gift certificate. Rather than wait until the anniversary to post a one year report, I decided to step in as people are stepping into the shopping season and produce my almost 300 day report.
The short version: I doubt I could’ve run my business without it for the last 9 months.
The flip side of the short version: I got what I paid for.
For those of you who are just finding out about Chromebooks, skip a lot of the advertising. Chromebooks are inherently simple. Effectively you are using a piece of hardware that is primarily a keyboard, a monitor, and just enough electronic guts to communicate with the web. Yes, they can be equipped with as much power as a conventional laptop, but the basic idea is that everything can happen on the web, and will. Get used to it.
I’m not quite used to it. But, I’m learning. This HP 13 inch Chromebook is not much more than a terminal to the Internet. Granted, with the hardware in this laptop, and no Internet, I’d probably still be in possession of more computing power than almost all of the computers in the Apollo Program. As I use it now, which is how I usually use it, the keyboard is taking my finger motions, transmitting them to some simple input algorithm, sending them along to the Internet, while the machine also displays them on the screen. The details are far more sophisticated, but the effect is simple and essential.
Conventional PC and Mac laptops do the same thing, but they are also incredibly powerful and autonomous. A Chromebook without the Internet can do many things, but a PC or a Mac without the Internet can do amazing things. My jobs do not require amazing computing. They require effective communication, and that can be achieved with words, numbers, audio, and video; things that a Chromebook can readily provide.
My Chromebook is used every day because I work every day. Hours of use. Almost daily travel, sometimes by bicycle. It does almost everything I need done. But, it doesn’t do everything.
Maybe it could do everything, but I have yet to find pragmatic and free solutions for graphics processing, significant word processing, audio and video processing, and storage. When I need to edit a photo, proofread a client’s manuscript, prepare a video for YouTube, or archive my work, I use the Mac. Almost everything else happens on the Chromebook.
Chromebooks are fast, because they are simple. Chromebooks are more casual, because everything can be stored somewhere else. Chromebooks are more convenient, because the loss of one isn’t the loss of data and the machine can be replaced cheaply.
Chromebooks, are not, however, a panacea.
300 days of usage have produced a list of gripes that persist. Better user education, me, would clear up some of the issues, but some are undoubtedly fundamental. Here’s a disorganized list.
- Disruptively sensitive mousepad
- The mousepad is so sensitive that menu picks are picked accidentally. I’ve lost hours of work because the mousepad was trying to be hyper-useful.
- Screen irregularities
- This is probably a result of the bicycle commuting, but too often the screen becomes a harlequin pattern as something reconnects or adjusts. Very disconcerting.
- Chrome OS not installed
- The strangest error message was when it told me the operating system wasn’t installed. A little while later it forgot it told me that.
- Working offline doesn’t save files
- Supposedly, the minimal storage is accessible for offline editing. That sounds awesome and simple and efficient. Except that I have yet to get it to work. There’s probably a bit that has to be flipped but it is hiding, and should be more accessible.
- Necessary to download Drive files to reformat them so Drive can read them
- This is just bizarre. Chromebooks encourage the use of online storage, which for Google is Drive. But, sometimes the Google apps won’t let me save to Drive directly, either for format or whatever reasons. But, if I download the file to the Chromebook, or a USB drive, or an SD card, I can then upload it correctly. Not efficient.
- Basic file information is unavailable, file size, format, etc.
- File sizes shouldn’t matter in the world of cheap storage. Users don’t need to know the details of their files. Not. Let’s assume I know something about computers after using them for almost forty years. I can make good use of the file type, size, creation dates, and specific location. There is work out there that is lost. There are files in my Drive that I don’t understand.
- Download means Save As? No. Download should mean download. So, download but don’t, you know, download it; just download it to the same place it was but with a different name.
- This may just be a Drive or Google Apps thing, but, saving a file as a different format requires a download command. Then, upload back again. Not efficient.
- Google Drive doesn’t update quickly enough for other Google apps.
- Computers are quick, but the Internet is large. It can take minutes for the creation of move of a file in one folder is recognized in another application. Again, a Drive issue, but Chrome is built for Drive, and moving files around shouldn’t cost me or my clients more money.
- Good battery life.
- Ah, but all laptops are getting to the point that they last all day, almost – and don’t try to include the evening.
- Chromebook incompatibilities restrict, though probably not for long.
- Chromebooks do so much, but like early Macs, everyone else’s applications may not be compatible yet. This is an issue with video conferencing. Google Hangouts work fine, but few other options exist.
- Connecting to the Internet old-style, through a cable, required the purchase of a USB adapter.
- Clicking on Drive brings up Drive sometimes. Other times it just brings up files that are already open.
- I’m finally getting trained on this one. If I click on the Drive button and nothing else is open, I get the list of files stored online. If a text document is open, I get it. If a spreadsheet is open I might get it. If I want to get to my files, I can click on files instead of Drive, but that emphasizes the text files and adds a step. To get around all of it I bookmark Drive and ignore the Drive icon.
- Chrome must reload pages if there are too many tabs.
- Chrome, the browser can handle lots of tabs, but clicking on the tab shows that the site probably has to be reloaded, and might not reload the most recent version of the site.
- So light, lifting the lid lifts the computer.
- Because Chromebooks are so simple, they have very few components and are very light. This is very nice for a bicycle commuter. They are so light, however, that simple things like lifting the lid lift the entire computer rather than opening it.
- Camera green light, hack or fail
- Conspiracy theorists enjoy this one. Without being in a Hangout or while communicating with anyone, the little green camera light turned on for several seconds, and then turned off. Cue the Twilight Zone music.
Another version of the summary: If I lost this machine, I would replace it with another, but probably not by HP. Some of the hardware issues are not related to Chromebook but to the manufacturer. I would also be far less anxious than if I lost my Mac. There is a freedom to not storing my files on a chip in a piece of plastic that I can readily drop.
PCs and Macs aren’t going away. Their power is needed, but it will be needed by fewer people every year. The Internet’s power grows. The need to contain that power in a box diminishes.
I do not, however, expect Chromebook’s reign to last long.
Chromebooks got rid of almost all of the fancy electronic components. They are simple, cheap, and light. The biggest things they have remaining are the keyboard and monitor. The most important internal components are wi-fi and rudimentary processing hardware. A smartphone contains many of the same elements, but smaller. The technology exists to project the display and to project the keyboard, and do a lot more as well. Supposedly, by this time next year there will be a smartphone that includes a projector. If it includes two, then something the size of a smartphone can dramatically undercut Chromebook’s size, weight, cost, and utility. The pace of change is accelerating. Chromebooks are racing our way, and may get passed even more rapidly. Investors in MSFT, AAPL, GOOG, and MVIS take note (for divergent reasons.)
Stay tuned. (And shop around.)
PS I’d like to give you the technical and brand specifications for this Chromebook, but I can’t find them. If there’s an “About This Chromebook” section in the Settings, I can’t find it. – Oh, wait. Let me flip this over. Nope. I can tell it is an HP, and that it met a lot of certifications, but I can’t tell you how to buy another one. The marketing department might be upset about that.