17 May, 2013
Living on a Chromebook - Day 1
Welcome to my first blog entry on this topic, and in fact my first blog ever. This blog will endeavour to chronicle my experiences on a Chromebook, its pros and cons, my transition to a quasi web-based working environment, and specific thoughts on the model of Chromebook I am using. It is my intention to write, review and publish this entirely using the Chromebook and the associate online applications. Please note that I am not a professional writer (obvious I am sure!) and I am not an IT professional either - simply an enthusiastic and somewhat informed technophile. Please leave as much feedback as you like, but keep it civil and be constructive. I would be particularly interested to hearing your experiences, as well as any questions you may have so that I can then address in a future entry.
So with that in mind, let’s begin!
What is a Chromebook?
Generically a Chromebook is any laptop or desktop (Chromebox) that runs on the google operating system - ChromeOS. These devices are meant to primarily be used when connected to the internet in conjunction with Goggle’s myriad of web applications - from Gmail, to Google Calendar, to Gdrive, and on and on to the thousands google Chrome applications found at the Chrome Web Store. That last bit is the key point - Google OS is all about Chrome, which most people associate with the very popular web browser. ChromeOS is a very basic, lightweight system which gives enough information to the computer in order to give it access to the internet and host some basic functions. This, in combination with only the bare necessities of hardware, allow come Chromebooks to be released at a fair low price.
Yes and no. The experience you get if definitely broader reaching when connected, especially in light of all the new features Google has (and is planning) to introduce allowing many of their popular applications to interact and support each other. But that is not to say you have to be connected all the time to get any use out of a Chromebook. Many applications can be set to work offline and then sync with the cloud when you reconnect. In fact, as I am typing this blog, I am doing so on my offline Chromebook using Docs via Good Drive, which I had set to offline mode last night. Last night, you inquire, but I thought you said this was “Day 1”? Yes, I did get this yesterday, but it was very late and I only unboxed it and set-up my wireless and linked the computer to my Google account. So this really is the first day using the Chromebook for any amount of time, and if you want to be very picky it can still be argued that it is within 24 hrs of getting the computer in my eager hands!
While there are several applications you can use offline, there are some deficiencies when using them. For example, because I am not connected as I am writing this, the document is not being checked for spelling. However, I am assuming that once I connected to the internet again, and open this document to review it before I post it, that it will be checked at that time. (Edit - yes, indeed!) Also, while I can view my calendar, I can not modify it and have it sync once connected - I hope this features is changed in the near future, or that I can find an app that will that will allow me to do so.
Before I get to far along, I will speak to my specific Chromebook. I am using an Acer C7 Chromebook (not the new version, which I do not believe has been released yet) thatI bought from Futureshop for only $229.99 CAD - normally $249.99. Which, when I describe some of the features and possibilities, is an awesome price - at least notionally...time will tell!
Display: 11.6” (1366x768) backlit LED, not a touchscreen
Processor: Intel Celeron B847
Dual Core, each at 1.1 GHz
2 MB L3 cache
RAM: 2 GB SODIMM DDR3, at 1066 MHz
Expandable: Yes. But there is only one slot, so up to whatever single RAM chip you can purchase. I have only seen 8 GB so far.
Storage: 320 GB HDD (not SDD), at 5400 rpm
Graphics: 128 MB Integrated, Intel HD Graphics
Networking: Integrated dual-band wireless (802.11 a/b/g/n)
10/100 ethernet port
Audio: 2x speakers
Other stuff: 1.3 mega pixel webcam
3x USB 2.0 ports
VGA video out
HDMI video out
SD card reader
Power: 2500, 4-cell lithium-ion battery, 4 hrs advertised battery life
Dimensions: 28.5 cm x 20.2 cm x 2.1 cm
Weight: 1.38 kgs (3 lbs)
I am going to skip the whole unboxing thing, there are several great videos on YouTube which go in detail on the process for a range of Chromebooks and the C7 specifically, and I do recommend taking a look at those. I will say that the entire packaging was effective and without any frills. The laptop was well protected, the items and accessories well organized and easily accessible, and it took very little time to get everything opened and set-up.
In fact this is one of the positive features of a Chromebook - ease of setup. You just open it up, turn it on, and log into your existing Google account. Then every app you already use in the Chrome browser, and of course any documents, emails, etc are all immediately available for you to use - sweet!
The laptop itself looks attractive and does not feel cheap at all. This is due to the clean lines, the grey colour (shiny black would have cheapened the look) and yes, even the little bit of weight this laptop has brought on by the fact it has an HDD. All added to the quality feel of this device.
The keyboard is full (for a small laptop, no number pad here) but may be a little narrower than most people are used to. I find that I rest my hands on the edge of the laptop, and that my left hand in particular has a tendency to rest on the corner of the laptop case. This can become uncomfortable after typing on it for some time. The keyboard has “chiclet” keys, which I find have just the right responsiveness, making them delightful to type on. That being said, a few of the key positions are causing me issues. Oddly enough it is not the arrow keys many people are complaining about. Some people have found that the page up and down keys, which are immediately above the left and right arrow keys, get accidently struck when trying to use the arrows keys. I have not have a single issue with this, even when navigating around this document. What has been driving me a little, is the backspace key and the shift key. I also initially had a small issue with the return key, but I have quickly become used to it location and hit it most of the time.
But the left shift key (which is the one I normally hit) is small and looks like it was split with the right half of it being used for the backslash key. (Note, this does not appear in the photo linked above. I think this may be a regional thing.) So I find I am hitting backslash often when I mean to hit shift. But it is getting better quickly, so I suspect it mostly my hands learning the layout, as it is for any new keyboard. This is the same issue I am having for the backspace key. It is just a little higher and to the right than I seem to expect, and I tend to strike the equal or square bracket keys instead.
But in favour of the keyboard is a feature unique to the C7 - integrated F-keys (F1 to F12). Chromebooks typically do not have F-keys and in fact most do not have a dedicated caps lock key. What they have in place of the F-keys are some Chrome specific functions (back page, forward page, refresh, full screen or maximize, and next window) and some options which are normally function options on traditional laptops (increase/decrease brightness, increase/decrease/mute sound, toggle WiFi\). Acer has dual functioned the Chrome specific keys, returning the F-keys (which some program need, as do other operating systems - more on that later) and moved the search key down by the space bar, allowing for a dedicated caps lock key. So all-in-all, a very nice looking and functional layout, and I expect that if I move my hands so my palms are resting fully on the smooth area provided, that most of my typing issues, and certainly the minor discomfort mention, will be resolved.
The touchpad is a single touchpad that has left and right mouse button integrated and is responsive to multi-touch. This is taking a little for me to get used to, but this is because I have either used a dedicated 3-button mouse, or a touchpad with dedicated/separate buttons. I think if you are a mac user, this will be a seamless transition. For the rest of us, it won’t take long to get used to the way the Chromebook is set-up. In fact I am quickly learning to love the ease and efficiency of this design.
The Chromebook comes with a quick-start card that shows how to use the touchpad, but also takes you through a simple on-screen interactive tutorial when you first start the system up, which make learning the features very quick and painless. In brief - you can touch anywhere and slide your finger to move cursor, as well pushing down anywhere on the pad is considered a left click. To right click you simple do the same, but with two fingers at the same time. Scrolling is accomplished by sliding two fingers in the direction you want to scroll, and drag a drop is done by “left clicking” on a icon and then (while still “left clicking”) using another finger to swipe/drag it to the new location and then let go. Simple, and functional.
On to the screen - 11.6 inches seems like more than enough real estate so far. I have surfed my normal web pages, opened documents and spreadsheets, and played a few simple games without feeling cramped. Now, I have been using a 10” tablet (TF201) for some time, and this may be why I am happy to use 11.6” - but honestly it seems to be a good fit for the resolution, and I think most people will find it more than sufficient. If you need to have multiple screens open at once, maybe then you will feel pinched, but you can always send the video to a larger monitor or TV screen if you need to.
Smooth and quick! I have not seen anything lag, hesitate, or crash yet. All web pages download quickly, and native applications are snappy to open and react. The benefit of such a lightweight OS is apparent, when you see the machine boot from cold in less than 20 seconds, and wake-up from sleep in 2 seconds. I love this feature. I have not done any benchmarking, but may do so in a later post, at the very least I will continue to note my impressions of how the computer runs under various configurations. This will be especially interesting when I try to install another “full”, standalone (ie not reliant on the web) OS - Ubuntu.
Perhaps one of the most criticised points of the C7 is the battery life. It is advertised at a merger 4 hrs, which is really short when compared to most traditional laptops, and even against other Chromebooks. But this is due in part to the fact that the C7 is running a HDD (plus the fan) and not a SDD - but I will live with that, because this is exactly why I bought the C7, other than the sweet price-point, because I have the option to store much more locally (like movies and music - remember Google TV and Music do not work fully in Canada) and eventually once I am feeling adventurous, I can install another OS.
So is it really a short as 4 hrs? Well I have been using this off and on since last night. I put it asleep at 100% charge and have not plugged it in today. I have been surfing the web earlier when I was home, and have been writing this post (intermittently) throughout the morning at work. I would say, I have use the laptop for at least 2.5 or so cumplative hours on the current charge. As the moment I am 38% battery, which it tells me will allow me to work for another 1 hr and 38 mins. So I think that the 4 hours is probably accurate. That being said, it just occurs to me that I have left the WiFi active even though there is no signal around for me to use. I expect that means it is actively “looking” for a connection and if I had turned that off immediately, it may have extend the battery life.
For me I will mostly be using this computer sitting at home, or sitting at work. Therefore I do not anticipate worrying about charging the battery, I have an outlet readily available and for those times when I will use it in location where I can’t plug it in, it will normally be far less than 4 hours.
All that said, it easily had enough power for me to casually explore the laptop, as well as write this article at around 2400 words. So I am pleased.
Well that is a fair amount of information in one go, and there is much more I could get into, but I will leave it here for now. Next (and not necessarily the next day) I will go into the some more features most likely leading off with the applications and integration into daily life and use. I hope you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment, add/follow me, and share this post.