No More Hard Drives: My Chromebook Has Landed, And The Clouds Have Never Looked So Fluffy
Posted by The Walrus
After months of training myself to rely entirely on web apps for my daily computing, the main event has finally arrived. With the help of one of my wife’s co-workers, who has the distinct advantage of not being a Canadian resident, I now have a Samsung Series 5 Chromebook in my hot little hands.
It is awesome.
I’ve read a lot of very mixed reviews of this device over the last few months, mostly from tech sites that seem to have forgotten that different doesn’t mean bad. There’s been the expected histrionics over the lack of on-board storage, the loud but erroneous squawking about the limitations of web apps, and the constant refrain of, “Why would I pay $350 bucks for this, when I get a low level laptop running Windows for the same price and then do everything from a Chrome browser anyway?”
Rubbish. All of it.
For those who aren’t aware, Chromebooks are a six month old notebook offering from Google, meant to compete with traditional desktop OSs like Windows or Mac OS. Except, not really. They’re actually something entirely different. And that’s where the problems with adoption of this technology have come into play. They shouldn’t be competing with traditional laptops; they’re an entirely new device type.
Chromebooks look like laptops. The Series 5 has a design and build quality that are reminiscent of a slightly smaller Macbook. They have all of the normal features you’d associate with a laptop. Screen, keyboard, ports, slots, trackpad, etc… But they are decidedly not laptops. It’s best to think of them as a very sexy portable version of one of those dumb terminals people used to work from in the late 70′s. The hardware is simply a portal to the web, rather than a place to host software. As such, we’re given a very thin client operating system in the form of Chrome OS. Chrome is…well it’s the Chrome browser, tweaked to allow for rudimentary file management and local media playback. But Chrome has never really just been a browser, which is probably why it’s managed to gain 25% market share over the last 3 years. Chrome is an operating system disguised as a browser. Through the use of extensions and web applications that mimic the functionality of native software, Chrome turns browser tabs into productivity applications. And it is very, very good..
So if Chromebooks are a portal, and Chrome OS is an operating system, then the real “computer” here is the web itself. The browser becomes a way to shape the web into something meant for productivity rather than just consumption while the hardware simply shapes the performance and duration of that productivity.
So let’s talk about hardware for a second. The Samsung Series 5 is a very nice looking machine. It has a 12.1″ form factor, which makes it just a bit smaller than the 13 inch Macbook Pro. I make that comparison mostly because it has far more of an Apple aesthetic to it than that of a PC. Beautifully rounded in all the right places and sporting a full size button-less touchpad, it also has a heft and texture that make it feel like a far more expensive machine than the $350 USD that I paid for it. Some of the features that accompany that hardware are a ridiculously long-lasting battery (at the time of this writing I’ve been working steadily for about 5 hours and I still have 38% power remaining) almost instant wake from sleep, and a boot up time of around 8 seconds. Comparing those conveniences to the comforts you’d receive from a similarly priced Windows netbook and the hardware starts to look a bit more valuable. My only complaint so far is that, with only 2GB of RAM, performance has felt sluggish the odd time. An OS this thin really shouldn’t lag at all, unless running multiple videos, and there have been a few times today when the Series 5 felt under-powered.
So, hardware mostly good.
The real test here is the software. Can the average person get by using only web apps and online storage? I’m leaning towards mostly yes. Today I edited several documents in Google docs, cropped and annotated some images, watched a few streaming videos (performance was a bit laggy if I tried to watch anything over 720p) did some design work for a Facebook page and typed up this article in WordPress. I also dipped into my book collection using the Kindle Cloud app, listened to music using my uploaded collection on Google Music and played a bit of Angry birds. For anything more complex (at one point I wanted to download a few files over bittorrent) I found an excellent remote desktop extension and performed the task through the browser on my iMac at home. I would say that, if you’re a standard user, (browsing, office productivity, communication, social media, and media consumption) then a Chromebook could very easily replace a conventional laptop as your primary portable.
With one caveat.
You have to have persistent internet. Because everything you’ll do on a Chromebook revolves around web use, you have to be reliably connected. I’m lucky enough that my mobile provider has an unlimited data plan so whether I have wifi access or not is moot. If you don’t have good internet access, I’d say steer clear. That being said, considering how much of our average computer use depends on online connectivity, I’d make the same recommendation when speaking about any computer purchase.
If you’re a power user; if you have to do intensive media design work of any stripe, or work in an Enterprise environment or you’re a hardcore PC gamer; I’d say this probably isn’t a machine for you.
Web apps will get more prolific, the variety and quality of available tools will increase and we will all eventually move to this style of computing. It makes sense; I don’t need to install antivirus on this machine, I don’t need to worry about running out of storage space, and, when I inevitably upgrade a couple of years down the road to a Chromebook 2.0 (if it ever gets developed, adoption of this platform was utterly ruined by Google’s fumble of the marketing) setup of the new machine will be as simple as logging in with my Google credentials and all of my customizations and preferences will carry over.
My recommendation (so far) is this; if you don’t know whether you can get by on the Cloud alone, try it. Spend a month doing as much of your work as possible using just a Chrome browser. Familiarize yourself with the extensions and apps available and see if you can wrap your brain around the notion of never storing anything locally again. If you find, at the end of the month, that you haven’t really had to switch back to native applications all that often, then a Chromebook is probably going to be a good fit. You won’t be able to beat the battery life and overall system performance for the same cost, so you may as well jump into the experience. If, on the other hand, you find yourself consistently cursing and reaching for your Windows or Mac laptop, then it might be awhile before the Cloud has what you need to transition.
But keep trying anyway; eventually, this will just be the way things are done. May as well learn how to play in this sandbox early.
And Google, please, next time you’re going to market a brand new concept to people and you don’t want the tech pundits to ruin it for you, maybe try to launch it with a few less limitations in play. All of the file extension, file browsing and offline app issues people complained about when the Chromebooks first came out have been mostly fixed, thanks to an incredible update schedule, but you should have known that people would, you know, want some familiarity right out of the box, and you didn’t give them that.
About The WalrusI am the great and powerful They. I know...well, apparently everything and I'm more than willing to prove it by...telling you stuff. Also, I make a mean quiche.
Posted on December 28, 2011, in Operating Systems-You're Not Necessarily a Mac Or a PC, Product Reviews, The Cloud and tagged Chrome, Chrome OS, Chromebook, Chromium, Cloud, Cloud Computing, Google Docs, Linux, Mac OS, Samsung Chromebook, Samsung Series 5, Web Applications, Web Apps, Windows. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.