My life with a Chromebook

I needed a laptop.

This was tough for me to accept. I’ve been pretty insistent recently that I could do everything I needed to do with just my iOS devices. I mean, that’s a big part of what Writing On Your Palm is all about. But now that Kathleen and I have launched Taledancer, I knew I needed more than I could really do on iOS. Particularly, I needed the ability to use Google Drive with something approaching a real keyboard. And while the iOS version of Drive is better than it used to be, that’s not saying much. It still can’t do word count, for crying out loud. I’ve also come to realize that while the iOS Squarespace apps are fine for writing blog posts, they can’t manage pages or do other site management. I needed something that would let me use full web apps with no compromises.

And unfortunately, I’m moving later this year and changing jobs next month, so shelling out $1,500 for a shiny new 13″ retina MacBook Pro was also out of the question. I still plan to buy one of these eventually, but probably not until next year. And I needed something now.

Of course, I could have gone back to my Lenovo G575, a netbook APU with a 15″ screen and less than an hour of battery life, and over six pounds to lug around with the AC adapter. Running Windows. Uh, no. I get paid to be frustrated by Windows in order to fight for the users in my day job, but I’m certainly not doing it on my own time.

Since the only thing I was using on the Lenovo was Chrome, I started wondering, “why not Chrome OS?” I’d had a Google Cr-48 back in 2010 when they first sent them out to early adopters and other test-minded people. It was an interesting machine that I eventually bricked trying to reflash the BIOS to run Linux. As you might surmise, Chrome OS wasn’t really powerful enough then to meet my needs. But hey, it’s four years later. Maybe things are different now.

I did some research on Amazon, discovered the Acer c720 that my friend James Kendrick speaks so highly of is generally well-reviewed and decided to swing by Best Buy on the way home to take a look at one in person, maybe even buy it there if the price difference wasn’t too outrageous rather than waiting nearly a week for Amazon to send it to me.

First Impressions

Looking at the display model, it was way smaller and lighter than I’d expected. It’s half the weight of my Windows laptop and not much bigger than my encased iPad 2. The screen is bright and crisp, though the matte-finish, TN display washes out quickly at any angle other than head on. This makes it less than ideal for watching Netflix in bed with my girlfriend, but fine for typing and web surfing. I have the iPad 2 or the iPad mini for video, anyway.

The keyboard seemed responsive and large enough for my ham-hands, something that became an issue over time with the ZAGGkeys Cover for the iPad mini (which, I might point out, cost half of what I paid for the Chromebook). Not backlit, which is disappointing considering the ZAGGkeys and my Logitech K810 are, but I’m a touch typist so it’s not necessary.

The touchpad is great in showing exactly how bad most Windows touchpad drivers are. It supports multitouch gestures like two-finger scrolling and I can even reverse the direction like they do on newer versions of OS/X so scrolling feels more like it does on a tablet — pull down and the window contents move down. It’s responsive and just not derpy like the trackpads on my HP and Lenovo laptops.

Initial Setup

Setting up a Chromebook is pretty simple. I connected to WiFi — it may be worth noting here that the c720 doesn’t have a wired Ethernet port — and signed into Google. That was it. It synced my extensions and bookmarks from my other Chrome installations and I was ready to go. It had some difficulty connecting to my home WiFi, but I attribute that more to my crappy WiFi router, which seems to take much longer to connect than most devices expect.

It’s also worth pointing out that if you use a complex, non-human-readable Google password and a password manager like 1Password, you’re going to have trouble with Chrome OS. You have to type your Google password quite a bit, at least on every bootup, and you’ll have to do reboot at least as often as Chrome OS updates itself. It didn’t take me long to decide that I don’t like manually typing it in one character at a time looking at 1Password on my phone. So, like my 1Password master password itself, my Google password is now an XKCD-style passphrase, something I can memorize and type in myself when needed. And while I kept the HTML version of 1Password open in its own window via Dropbox on my Chromebook, I couldn’t change passwords in it from the Chromebook or use the Chrome extension to add new ones.

Apps

Of course, every platform comes down to what you can do with it. My initial run with Chrome OS was cut short because I just couldn’t get the utility out of it that I needed to. Is it any better now? Yes, but.

Yes, the app situation is much better. Most of the apps and services I use daily are usable on Chrome OS. 

First off, the Google apps work great on Chrome OS, as you’d expect. I can even switch between Google profiles pretty easily, something I was worried about since I’m signed in to the Chromebook itself with my main Google account. And Google Drive integrates with the Chromebook down to the filesystem level. I can save stuff from the web and upload stuff to the web directly from Drive, so the 16GB of local flash storage is mostly cache. My real file system is my 115GB Google Drive.

Other things designed to be web apps also work great. ToDoist, my current pick for task manager, looks and works great either in a side-docked pane or drop down extension in the toolbar. Evernote works fine, though a bit clunkier than native variants. Feedly, Verizon Messages, Couple.me, Squarespace, Twitter… All fine.

But.

1Password got to be a pain in the ass very quickly. Even running the HTML version from my Dropbox was less than optimal, especially since it couldn’t offer to save or generate new passwords. I ended up switching to LastPass for my password management since it works cleanly and without compromise on both Chrome OS and iOS. This would become a pattern.

I’ve also mostly dropped Dropbox in favor of Google Drive. This is partly because of how seamlessly Drive works with Chrome OS, and partly because as I was getting my Chromebook set up, Google dropped the prices on Google Drive storage space. I’ve got 115GB for free for a year just as part of buying a Chromebook, but I’m seriously considering giving Google the $10/month I was paying Dropbox and instead of 100GB from Dropbox, getting 1TB from Google. That’s enough for me to store all my ripped DVDs and back up all my music if I decide I need something in addition to Amazon, Google and iTunes.

Basically, I’ve done an audit of what services I use for what activities, and settled on services that work on any platform. Google Drive instead of Dropbox. ToDoist instead of Omnifocus. LastPass instead of 1Password. Verizon Messages instead of iMessage.

You can see where this is going.

By keeping all my media with Amazon (books, audiobooks, TV, movies, music), all my productivity data with Google (mail, contacts, calendar, files) with a few cross-platform standalones where they fit (Evernote, Comixology, LastPass, Twitter, ToDoist), I’ve pretty much divorced myself from needing any particular hardware. The Chromebook does everything I need. So does my iPhone. And my iPad. So would a shiny new Moto X, but let’s not get into that right now.

Odds and Ends

It’s also worth noting that on the off chance the Chromebook doesn’t do something I need it to do — thinking mostly about ebook format conversion here, for which I need Calibre — Chrome OS has another trick up its sleeve. Chrome Remote Desktop. Through this, I can remote into my laptop at home or my laptop at work, hit the full screen key and it’s pretty much like I’ve got a Windows laptop. I wouldn’t watch video over it, but it’s fine for my occasional needs.

Battery life has been impressive, and it charges quick. Because this is running a full Haswell processor, it can’t do the microUSB use-the-same-charger-as-your-tablet trick that the new HP Chromebook can do, but the upside is that the full PC-style charging brick works fast. I’m getting between 5-8 hours on a charge, more than enough for a typical outing, and it recharges back to full in an hour or so. If I’m using it all day, I usually have to plug it in in early afternoon, but then it’s good for the rest of the day.

Conclusion

I’m far more impressed with the Chromebook that I expected. This is not only adequate for my needs, but it feels like the right computer for me. Small and light, cloud-aware, as simple as possible, but no simpler. The more I use it, the more I want to, and I’m rethinking whether I need a “real” laptop at all now. Time will tell if online tools like Pixlr will be able to do the kind of graphics work I need, but if I end up doing all that on an iPad Air and everything else on the Chromebook, I think I’ll be pretty happy.

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