Chromebook Adventure

I think I may be part of the Chromebook revolution.

For those that do know what a Chromebook is, it is a laptop like device, that has only a single function, run the Chrome browser.  It has very little local storage because all your data is in the cloud and accessed through a browser.  Devices start extremely cheap, $150 and up, for a device that looks and feels like a laptop, except it runs ChromeOS.  Think of it like a tablet with a permanently attached keyboard.

I have been intrigued with the Chromebook for a long time. It has taken off hugely in the academic world, where students are issued cheap inexpensive devices that has all their data in the cloud. It just keep things wonderfully simple – no complicated expensive laptops or Apple Macbooks to maintain – schools love it.

While the Chromebook is a window to your online life, it does manage offline data very well, allowing the likes of Google Docs, Gmail and even Outlook (the web version) work well disconnected.

I have been doing a lot of train traveling of late and that is 2 hrs each day of sitting in a carriage.  I have been using my excellent Samsung Ultrabook but I miss the fact I am not connected to a network. I could of course, power up my MiFi unit, but the problem with a conventional laptop, when you give it a network a lot of software thinks it is online and starts chewing up your data plan.  DropBox, BackBlaze, updates etc, all compete for data bytes.  So I use my MiFi when I am in dire need and with careful consideration after I have shut down everything that may chew up bandwidth.

But I got thinking, could I get a Chromebook with a cellular modem built in?

After a little bit of surfing around I discovered a whole world of choice.  One particular device that caught my attention a long time ago, was the beautiful Pixel from Google.  Google no longer produces it, but the Pixel was a beautiful high end Chromebook and at $1499 it was simply too expensive for this space, at only 4GB memory and 64GB disk space, it was an experiment in style for Google.  The build quality is the highest I have seen in any laptop.  Absolutely stunning.  However, at $1499 this was too much for my experiment into the world of Chromebook.

However, given that Google have discontinued this experiment, I looked towards eBay and picked up a second hand unit for only $400. It arrived 2 days later and the original owner had kept it in top condition, complete with original packaging.  This Pixel had the LTE modem integrated and a few clicks i had the sim card added to my Verizon account.

The thing with using the Chromebook on a cellular plan is that it is just a browser, therefore the only bandwidth you use is what you load – no background processes chewing up data.  ChromeOS aggressively caches locally all the resources that come with a modern web app which keeps requests to a minimum.

After a week, how did I get on?

Well in short very well and it has found a place in my daily routine.  Setup was a breeze.  I have multiple Google identities (work, personal, family) and you use your Google login to get into the Chromebook.  You login and then Chrome loads up with all your bookmarks, extensions and themes loaded.  Literally, within 1 minute of first logging into the device I was looking at a familiar browser as if it was on desktop or laptop.  All my extensions – lastpass, adblock, inoreader, ghostery, tabresizer, wunderlist – all there and working.

A hold down of ctrl-alt-< and i can switch to a completely different Google profile.  It was a joy to quickly move so easily back and forth.

Google Docs works very well complete with offline access.  We use Office365 at ParkerGale, and i was concerned if i could do my email offline.  Surprisingly, Outlook web has a great offline mode and I can say that after using it for 30mins i forgot i wasnt using the Outlook desktop client.

The convenience of the integrated LTE modem cannot be underestimated.  I was a passenger in a car, and was gleefully using the Pixel with absolute ease and speed.

The hardware is a joy.  The screen is very high res, 2,560 × 1,700, and is touch enabled, which makes working with Google Maps a breeze.   The keyboard is firm and backlit.  Interestingly there is no caps lock or delete key.  You can get to these by holding down various keys, but it was strange at first, but now i don’t miss them.  

There are some nice touches.  For example, hold down ctrl-alt-? and up pops an onscreen keyboard showing all the shortcuts, hold down the ctrl key, and it updates to the options available.  I love this.

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Speaking of missing keys .. no function keys, instead they have been replaced with buttons (not keys) for things like volume, brightness, window switching and even the escape key is a button.  The whole keyboard has been rethought, and i like it.

The device has multiple USB ports, an HDMI port and bluetooth.  Pairing my logitech bluetooth mouse took all of 10 seconds.  It comes with an SD card slot for expanding storage.  The only downside, and this simply due to the fact i bought a 2year old second hand unit, the battery life has dropped from its once 10hr life to only 3hrs.  Not a huge showstopper.

As i noted before, think of Chromebook like a tablet in a laptop shell.  To that end, as soon as you open the lid, you are working.  The speed is instant and a joy.

The Google Store has a lot of ChromeOS apps available but the world is opening up, as android apps are now beginning to be supported on the Chromebooks.  This opens up a huge world.

I have a couple of nice chrome apps, like remote desktop so i can remote shell into my desktop or other machines.  This week, Amazon released a web client for access to its Workspace machines, which now lets me use the chromebook for this.

Dropbox even works with ChromeOS, however it does not sync. It shadows your dropbox account and if you access a file it is available offline, but it does not pull down your dropbox automatically.  I wish the Windows version worked like this.  It works more like Egnyte works on Windows.  Very nice.

For me, as someone that is always on the move, the Pixel has found a place in my world between phone and laptop.  It is light that i can carry it around with my laptop and when i need to catch up on emails or write a document, then it is instantly available, with either WiFi or cellular network.  I don’t think i would be as quite as excited if the device didn’t have the cellular component.

Even with that, for offices that have most of their people on email, salesforce, docs, then a chromebook is a very cheap alternative to desktops.  Simple login and if a unit breaks, you can instantly get on with any chromebook.  Given their price point, you can afford to keep a couple in stock, just in case.

If i think about it, the only reason i still need a laptop is for my development environment.  But if i am not doing that, then i could easily use the chromebook exclusively.   With your life stored in the cloud, i love using the chromebook as a dumb rich client that once logged in, your life is available and ready.   Share it with family and colleagues, as you can have it prompt for a password as you switch profiles.

I will admit to coming to the chromebook revolution a little late, but i am in.  I could see myself ditching my laptop altogether and running my development world in an Amazon Workspace.  The cost of the chromebook and the price of running of an Amazon Workspace all year is still a lot cheaper than a medium high end laptop.

Just a shame Google stopped building this beautiful machine, but i have it on good authority that the HP and Samsung chromebooks are of a high quality.

Will update as this journey continues.

#Update 29th Nov: Ordered a new battery from eBay for the Pixel ($59) and will replace it to get back many more hours on the road.