Four years ago I bought a Toshiba Portege M200 off eBay. The Portege was a neat little machine, one of the early twist-and-flip Windows tablets. It was relatively light, relatively fast, and was well built. Unfortunately it didn’t have a CD-ROM drive, would only boot from certain select external USB CD-ROM drives (which I didn’t have) and needed a specific Windows disc (which I didn’t have either). After a while I ended up wiping it and loading Ubuntu on it. I wanted to use it as a simple Web terminal, especially for National Novel Writing Month. It was passable, but difficult to use and maintain, and eventually was lost underneath a pile of junk.
Ever since, I’ve been looking for a simple, lightweight machine to write blog posts with. I use a MacBook Pro for my workhorse computer, but it lives tethered to a big monitor and big keyboard on my desk. Disconnecting all those cables, dealing with a half dozen app windows that suddenly resize and are in the wrong place is enough of a pain that I just don’t do it. I wanted something lightweight, something with a great keyboard, ok screen, wifi, easy maintainability and great battery life.
Fast forward a couple of years, and Google has introduced Chrome OS, a managed Linux OS built specifically for running Chrome and accessing Google services. It’s designed to run on minimal hardware, and a couple of manufacturers have put together stripped down machines with Chrome OS on them.
Samsung put out one last year, an 11.6″ machine that runs $249. It’s designed to be disposable, but it’s been the best selling laptop on Amazon since it came out. A month ago I broke down and bought the first one off the truck at my local Fry’s.
The 11.6″ Samsung Chromebook weighs in at a svelte 2.5 lbs, and looks like a plastic MacBook Air. It uses the same dual core ARM processor that powers the Nexus 10 tablet. It seems snappy enough for web browsing, which is essentially all the machine does. It boots from a 16 gig SSD, which means there aren’t any moving parts. The machine has 2 gig of built in RAM, with no expansion option.
The screen is… not good. It’s a matte 16×9 LCD, and has a crazy low resolution. The pixels are so big that it’s almost… retro, and you can see faint lines between them. It makes me feel like I’m living in a late 90’s romantic comedy when I use it, which has a cool vintage sensibility, in a way.
The keyboard is where this machine really shines. It may not be as good as the keyboard on my Macbook Pro, but it’s big enough and good enough for serious typing. This is the third blog post I’ve written on it, and haven’t had any complaints or issues at all with 2,500 word posts. The caps lock key has been replaced by a search key, but you can apparently switch it back in the OS control panel.
The sound isn’t great, it has some small speaker vents under the palm rests, but that isn’t what you buy this machine for. The chipset’s graphics are fast enough to decode high def video, so YouTube works just fine. I haven’t watched any TV episodes or movies on it, but since you have Chrome OS you won’t be running Quicktime or VideoLAN Client. It’s only going to support HTML5 video. No Flash. There’s a combo microphone/headphone jack on the left side, so streaming video and audio should work just fine. There’s a simple webcam above the LCD, but the machine doesn’t really have enough horsepower to run it. It would work for a simple Google Hangout, but in the little testing I did, the frame rate is low.
The computer also has a pair of USB ports (one USB 3, one USB 2), and an HDMI port, though I’m not sure why you’d use it. It has an SD card slot, so theoretically I suppose you could plug your camera’s memory card in and upload the photos to Picassa. It has built-in WiFi, and there’s a slot for a SIM card, as the laptop comes in a model with 3G wireless.
It’s a strange thing, using a computer that only runs a web browser. Most people would consider me a power user. I have a pretty customized setup, I use Terminal on my Mac all the time, I write little shell scripts to test things, I’m regularly in Photoshop or Illustrator tweaking this or that. I use a lot of non-web applications, and I’m always flipping between them. Not so with the Chromebook.
When you startup the machine it asks you to login to your Google account. That’s it. You can login as a guest, and access the web, but it’s very, very, very tied to your Google account. The mail button opens Gmail, the files button opens Google Drive, you get the picture. The integration if you’ve bought into the Google ecosystem is pretty amazing. Just type in your email address and password and voila, all your stuff is there.
You can’t install Apps on it that don’t come from the Chrome store. There are options for installing an entire chrooted xwindows environment with something called crouton, but you have to switch the machine over to development mode. Using development mode isn’t as simple as a key press. When you switch from managed to development mode the entire machine is wiped and the development image is downloaded. Any tweaks you’ve made, gone. You have to hold down a special key combo when you start the machine, and I’d be leery of just handing the machine to someone else. I want the Chromebook to be essentially disposable, so no dev mode for me.
There’s a pretty decent SSH client in the Chrome OS store, so you can open multiple SSH tabs, and do whatever development work you need to do on a server elsewhere. It’d be nice to have a really limited shell to test bits of python code, but I see how that’s a slippery slope. Give them an inch, and suddenly it isn’t a fully managed experience anymore. The SSH client is nice, supports colors, and is supplied directly by Google.
The machine comes pre-loaded with a cloud-syncing Google Drive app, and you can run Gmail offline. It’s really built to be connected, though, so this isn’t a machine you’d want to take on a long trip with no internet access. The WiFi seems good in my limited testing around the house.
As a web browser, the machine works well. The 16×9 screen isn’t really well suited for reading long articles, but two finger scrolling with the trackpad works well enough. You can run Chrome full-screen, which gives you enough space that it doesn’t feel cramped. I’ve heard that if you open more than 20 or so tabs the machine will run out of RAM and you’ll need to reload those tabs when you go back to them. I haven’t run into this problem, but I’ve read that they’re considering turning on disk-swap, which will help alleviate those issues.
This particular model runs a dual-core ARM processor, while other models come with Intel chips. HP, in particular, makes a 14″ model with a Celeron. I played with one, and it feels much more like a real laptop. In the end I wanted an ultraportable, so the Samsung was the obvious choice.
When comparing the Chromebook to other computing experiences you inevitably end up looking at cheap Windows 8 laptops, Android tablets and iPads. When I was standing in Fry’s there were 3 options under $300, one an AMD 15″ Windows 8 laptop, one an Intel-based HP Chromebook, and then this ARM based Chromebook. The Nexus 7 is the same price, the iPad Mini’s less than a $100 more, and the iPad Retina and Nexus 10 run $200 more.
I’ve found tablets to really shine as media consumption devices. That’s what I use my iPad for. The retina screen is great for reading articles and news. For my money, you can’t really beat it for that purpose. Windows 8 machines, and the cheaper OS X machines higher up the price ladder are way better at media production. You can run Word, or Google Docs, or Write. You can install software on them, you can customize your experience. You can run databases, instant messenger apps, chat clients. Switching between apps is easy, as is pounding out an essay or blog post.
The Chromebook really sits in the middle. It’s way easier to write a blog post on than an iPad. Web browsing and tab switching is probably faster, if not as fluid. Copy and paste is a little easier. There aren’t nearly as many native Apps as the other two options, but if you just want an ultraportable machine to write with, something that forces you to focus on the writing, and minimizes the distractions, it’s a $249 dream.
I was really hoping that Samsung would update the 11.6″ Chromebook at Google I/O, maybe bump it to a quad-core processor, but that didn’t happen. In the end I decided that for $249, I could deal with obsolescence. If something better comes out that I just have to have, I can easily pass this machine down to a cousin or kid. It’s the kind of machine I’d give my mom. There just isn’t much you can break, and it’s great at what it does. Plus, at $249 I don’t feel like it’s a sacred object, like my Macbook Pro. In fact, I fully intend to plaster stickers all over it.