On Chromebooks

I spent the summer of 1994 working minimum wage (a princely $4.25/hour), testing electronics, saving all of my pay to buy a beast of a computer. That September, I entered my sophomore year of high school and plunked down my saved ~$3000 to become the proud owner of my first Windows PC, a Comtrade Pentium 90 with 8 megabytes of RAM, a 730mb hard disk, and a quad-speed CD drive. My parents threw in a few hundred dollars to get me an upgrade to a 17” monitor (snicker… 15.7” visible). I split my time between DOS and Windows for Workgroups 3.11.

Suffice it to say, I’ve been a Windows user for a long time.

In 1999, I started as an intern on the team that became the SharePoint team, and in 2001 I joined Microsoft full-time to work on Microsoft Office, and later Internet Explorer.

Since 2012, I’ve dabbled with Macs and Linux VMs, but spent nearly all of my time on Windows.

That’s starting to change.

Why?

Confession: I love Chromebooks.

In January of 2013, I bought my first Chromebook, the $249 11.6” Samsung Chromebook. It was a underpowered little machine with a decent keyboard, a good battery, and not much else. But the long battery life meant it was almost always ready to go, and the tiny form factor made it an easy choice when I wanted portability but a better keyboard than the tablet.

Within a few months, my wife took over the machine; it was perfect for her scenarios: it booted quickly, rarely ran out of juice, and didn’t bother her with incessant demands that she install updates and reboot, a constant hassle with her Lenovo x200. Updates on the Chromebook are incredibly painless (just click an icon every few weeks) and make both Mac OS and Windows look primitive by comparison.

In March of 2014, I sent my parents a $160 ASUS Chromebox to replace their old Windows XP computer. The new box is about a twentieth of the size and probably four times as fast, but the real reason I sent it was that I was tired of doing remote tech support for browser-borne malware, and I was increasingly terrified of letting my parents do online banking from Windows.

In October of 2014, we upgraded my wife to the $329 Toshiba Chromebook2; it has a much faster CPU than the old Samsung, a dramatically nicer screen, and a respectable battery. It’s a bit heavier and bulkier than the Samsung, but it’s still much more pleasant than the Lenovo. The Samsung Chromebook became a hand-me-down to our two year old son (who loves pounding the keyboard) but alas, the screen was recently broken… not by the boy, but by our cat, who knocked it off a table. Still, for a $249 machine, we definitely got our money’s worth.

My favorite Chromebook is the Pixel. I had a 2013 model which was a beautiful machine with a fatal flaw—an inefficient CPU and a smallish battery that meant it wouldn’t last for five hours on a charge. As much as I wanted to love the Pixel, it let me down too many times; I’d pick it up and it’d be dead. The 2015 Chromebook Pixel solves this problem—it gets much longer battery life (10 hours or more), can live on standby for a very long time, charges rapidly over USB-C, and has a faster CPU. Build quality is generally very good (awesome touch screen, strong hinge, good keyboard). The only worrying issue is that I recently noticed that when the fan comes on (pretty rare) there’s a bit of an audible whine if the base isn’t horizontally level—a problem which may or may not be unique to mine, as I haven’t found anyone else with the next Pixel yet. Update: a friend reports his 2015 Pixel doesn’t have this problem.

I have the $1300 “LS” edition which has an i7, 64gb SSD and 16GB of memory but I’d recommend the $1000 regular edition (i5, 32gb SSD, 8gb RAM) to almost everyone, as there are more useful ways to spend the $300 price difference. (I bought the higher-end model with the idea that I’d eventually put Crouton on mine and run Linux beside ChromeOS… but thus far I’m too afraid to “break” it.)

I currently have a wide range of other devices to choose from (2015 XPS13, 2013 Mac Air, Lenovo T420s, Retina IPad 3, Nexus 7) but I find myself picking up the Pixel more often than not—it’s just a fundamentally pleasant machine for doing things on the web. I’ve also started redeeming the “free HD version on Google Play” codes that come with the HBO shows I’ve bought on DVD and Blu-ray and the Pixel is a great device for watching these as well, although the beta branch of Chrome OS seems to have a number of minor annoyances in the Google Play app.

My 2015 XPS13 which is an awesome form factor (light and fast) but it is currently running Windows 10 which is not ready. Prior to upgrading to Windows 10, the XPS13’s real problems were the awkwardness of the Metro UI paired with the hassle of constant Windows Updates. Another key consideration is that you can’t get (performance destroying) antivirus for a Chromebook, and most IT departments don’t know how to screw them up. Previously this beneficial ignorance was an advantage for Macs as well, but our IT department at least has started “enhancing” Macs and making them awful too.

Despite its many benefits, the Pixel isn’t a perfect machine and it’s probably not for everyone. Apps are sadly sparse, and web-based replacements aren’t getting new features as fast as I’d hope. There have been a few promising developments recently, like Skype making its way to Chromebook. I’m not a gamer, but Chromebooks are very limited in this department– while many browser-based games will work great, those based on Java don’t, and none of the major PC games available for Windows (and increasingly, for Mac) will run on Chromebooks.

The biggest disappointment so far is in printing—it’s not a super-common scenario for us, but we do a ton of online shopping and need to print a return label a few times per month. At home, we have a Brother DCP 7065DN printer and you basically can’t print to it from Chromebooks without expensive workarounds like the Lantronix xPrintServer Cloud Print. It’s goofy that I have to buy a little box to run a print server just so ChromeOS can print, while presumably the exact same print daemon could be run directly on the ChromeOS machine. While frustrating, this limitation will probably continue to fade in importance as new printers come with the Google Cloud Print code built in; for instance, the slightly newer Brother DCP L2520DW supports Cloud Print, and it’d be cheaper to buy that than the xPrintServer box.

Unlike most of my PCs, I feel like my Chromebook works for me, rather than the other way around.

-Eric

On Chromebooks

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