Chromebooks: Reliable and affordable

I recently purchased a Google Chromebook. Chromebooks are different from traditional computers because they run on the Chrome Operating System (OS) and the central focus is the browser. Internet connectivity is thus quite important. Another distinction is that installing native apps (local programs) is not possible ( by default ). The hard drive and amount of memory are also much smaller then computers that do focus on native applications.

I knew about these restrictions but also about the numerous benefits such as reliability, boot speed and low cost. I am a professional computer programmer who needs to be able to use a lot of different applications and so set so set out to see what I could accomplish on a Chromebook both as a travel computer and for day to day development needs. To accomplish this, I wanted to get my feet wet without breaking the bank. I purchased the HP 11 "Daisy Spring" model which is almost a year old now and on the lower end of Chromebook price points. I figured if the experiment failed, I would be down a modest $300. If it succeeded, I could upgrade and pass this one along to a relative.

There are more variants of electronics and computers now then ever. When I consider that my first modest laptops ten years ago were over $2500 and that this Chromebook (though a thin client, connected mostly to the internet) cost the same as an early iPod purchase, it is very apparent how much cheaper processing power is now. There are all kinds of interesting to just awful designs now too. Swivel, pull apart, attach a keyboard, touch screen hybrids, etc. There are also a lot of modern UI designs now. I really do not like the confusing nature of the Windows 8 interface. I am not an Apple fanboy. I prefer Linux and Chrome OS is based on it, so a Chromebook seemed like a good choice.

The first couple things I noticed about the physical Chromebook were that it was tiny, attractive looking and super light. The 11" screen I bought is admittingly smaller than the 14" I now prefer (and the one time size of 19" I would get for a laptop). However, as I am around computers a lot and for work, I know that the Chromebook or any other laptop will never be my primary device. I will use a desktop, dual screen setup, with mouse and keyboard when programming - it's just faster and more productive. I will send content to a television or monitor if viewing for long periods of time. So this is not much of a restriction. Being extremely light is much more important. The screen is bright and has a good viewing angle. The number of keys is less than a traditional laptop but there are lots of shortcuts mapped and a handy way to bring up an overlay displaying them. The keys are failry large though and spaced like 'chiclets'. This model has no USB 3.0 or HDMI port, which I do want. However, this model is a trial and other models do offer these features. Some models offer a touch screen in addition to the keyboard as well.

Getting acquainted with the Chromebook took a bit of time. As you would expect, Google has put together some top notch documentation and so the learning curve is made smoother. Advanced touchpad gestures are used - which I know have been around for some time and on Macs - and were the hardest to learn for me though quite cool. The speakers are decent for a model of this price. Plugging in the machine uses a custom microusb adapter. This is neat because I can use the same adapter for my Nexus phone. The battery life for this model is low - around five or six hours. Recharge times are fast and some other models provide double the battery life. A couple other pluses are how cool (temperature) the machine stays compared to other laptops I have had, and that because it is a Solid-State Drive (SSD), there is no fan and no fan noise. The SSD drive also helps make the boot and file input/output (IO) lightning fast.

I tested basic browsing, available web applications, etc. The available programs on a topic range from good/full featured to modest to non-existent. For example, there are some lightweight cloud based development environments. But what if I want to run some files from a command shell, make some changes and then interact with github. Out of the box there are a handful of shell commands available. These are through a browser tab (called crosh) and the most useful one is the ability to SSH to a remote server. But what about if I want to run a SQL server or use the Unix/Linux commands that I am used to? It became time to tinker with the machine.

Thankfully, Google has setup a "developer mode" which (paraphrasing) "...voids warranties, is less stable, secure, blah ...". When you use this mode though, you can access a full BASH environment by typing 'shell' in crosh. When you do this you can run a script called 'crouton' that lets you install Ubuntu linux, use the apt package manager, etc. I ran into some issues with graphical programs and the chip used in this model, but for my purposes it was not a game changer. There are lots of blog entries like this one that go through all the steps of setting up crouton and a dev environment.

With crouton installed, in theory you can install intensive linux programs and IDEs. You could also install and run windows applications with WINE (windows emulator). This does not mean that you should. Apps are shifting more and more towards the web. So if you can find a popular, comparable application offered on the web with some offline support, switching over sooner than later when desktop apps become endangered species is the way to go IMO.

One major issue with the developer mode is that everytime you restart your computer (not just 'unsleep', but an actually power on/power off, or an update restart, etc) you see a scary warning screen that you are in developer mode. As of this writing, a series of two keyboard commands will switch you back to non-developer mode. This will also completely wipe your computer back to the factory settings, removing local data. There have been stories of children, spouses, pets, etc accidentally doing this much to the chagrin of the Chromebook owner.
There are apparent BIOS workarounds that I do not wish to try. I can also understand that this might be for liability reasons. But I think that Google should set some type of option to not along this easy of a factory wipe.

In summary, my experience with the Chromebook has been very positive for the past month. It is what it is. My wife and I have used it while travelling. And at 2 lbs, it is convenient to pack in a carryon bag at an airport and fire up Netflix while waiting. Or I can do some online research and save it locally and go over it while flying, write some notes, check gmail offline. I can use the developer mode shell and crouton to do some on site work. The machine is not going to overtake my desktop computer but is a nice complement. It is also ideal for casual computer users who have no need for command shells or fancy native programs. It could possibly be useful for older relatives that have a tough time logging in to email, Facebook, uploading pictures, etc. Though I have not tested this theory yet.

I plan on getting a newer model sometime next year.