Living on the wild side: two days with a Chromebook

I am travelling abroad again this winter (back to Israel), and I did not want to bring my mac book air with me.  It is my primary work machine, and there are export control regulations as a state employee that I have to follow, and I decided I wanted to have a second, kind of “throw-away” computer for the trip. Plus, I didn’t like the idea of traveling with my primary machine.  After considerable research looking at low-end (sub$250) laptops, I realized I had options between Windows 10 machines and Chrome books.   I came close to purchasing a Windows 10 Lenovo machine, but could not pull the trigger.  I could not go back to a bloated OS, with everything in it that I didn’t need.  I didn’t want to be in Microsoft’s ecosystem.  I have been running OSX for 5 years, and am happy with that.  And I couldn’t imagine how a machine with 2GB of ram would fare running a full desktop OS.

So, I started looking at Chrome OS.   For the uninitiated, Chrome OS is Google’s operating system, which builds an entire operating system (based in linux, as is OS X) around its Chrome browser.   The system is meant to use applications and extensions supported by Chrome.  It is cloud-based, drawing heavily on Google Drive, but can run a wide variety of tools, both online and offline.  Prices were right.  11.6″ machines could be had for $150.   And these things are light.  Fanless computers.  To test it out, I started using Chrome on my macbook, installing a combination of applications and extensions to see what the experience would be like.   Everything I needed for travel was there.   Office productivity software, email, web, video, music.   Sure, I wouldn’t have access to iTunes (but I’ll still have my iPad for that).   And my fear that were I stuck someplace with little or no wi-fi that I’d have a sub 3 pound paper weight was unfounded.  Most software I needed could run off-line.   I decided to give it a try.  Hell, I can even play my favorite brain puzzle 2048 as a chrome app, right in the browser!  

The next step was what machine to get.  I was impressed by the Acer 11.7″ model.  At 2.4 pounds this thing weighed little more than a tablet.   But I was leery of the small screen.  It had a full size keyboard, but given my laptop usage, I was quite concerned I could have back issues, from my neck being at a weird angle (I use a 13″ macbook day in, with it literally on my lap for hours). I also did not like that it was a white plastic case.  The store display model was quite honestly, filthy.  I’m sure mine would loo the same.  I also checked out a similar Samsung Chromebook 2.  Also 2GB ram, and 11.6″ screen.  But the same concern about size was there.  So I started looking at the Toshiba 13.3″ Chrome book 2.   I was taken by two things.  This machine has 4GB of ram instead of the typical 2GB of ram.   (They all have 16GB of eMMC (an on-board version of a Solid State Drive for off-line storage).  But Chrome itself only takes about 5GB, so I’d have 10GB of storage space.  Plus, there was a full-sized SD card reader (in which I could easily add 128GB of storage) and a USB 3 and USB 2 port.   But the thing that got me was the High Definition screen.  This thing is incredible.   Crisp, making use of the newest technology for screens.  DId I say that it weighs less than 3 pounds. Identical in size to the mac book air.   Ad  So I bought it.  

I opened it up, and it booted in a few seconds (typically it takes about 5 seconds to boot), and asked to login to a google account, or create a new one.  I logged in to my account, and in the next ten minutes it transferred all of my google chrome settings, extensions, apps, and even google docs to the chromebook.  I’ve never seen a setup as quick as that.  Because I had done some prep work on my macbook using chrome, it was pretty much ready to go instantly.  Once that is done, the boot up is literally just a couple seconds long, if you choose to shut it down entirely.  

A couple days later, and I realize this is more than a throw-away machine.  It is a extremely fast, comfortable laptop to use for basic writing, web browsing, email, even music and netflix.   The Chromebook has a battery that is rated for 9 hours, and I’ll be darned if it doesn’t last that long.  It is fanless, and does not heat up much when used.  Completely silent.  Extremely fast.   I’m going to use a USB3.0 based “nub” drive (128GB), which barely protrudes  beyond the side of the device, as an external drive, to provide access to my library of documents, and probably some of my music.  WHat can’t it do?  Well, no Stata or MaxQDA for statistics (I’ll live).  Can’t run full versions of Microsoft Office (which I despise, so I’ll really live).   Can’t run itunes or some of my favorite mac programs.   But from the standpoint of basic writing, web browsing, email, this thing is extremely useful.  And did I say it is fast?   It’s lightning fast.   The keyboard is nice – feels like a mac. It even has a trackpad that works very similarly to the Mac one.   Its only limitation?  It doesn’t have a backlit keyboard (we are talking a $200 range laptop after all, and Toshiba does sell one with 32GB of storage, a backlit keyboard, and a Core i3 processor, but its double the price.   The Celeron processor and Chrome work great.  The High Definition display blows the mind.  

This is a great device.  It doesn’t replace my macbook, and to be honest, I wouldn’t want to give up all that the mac offers, but for travel, and for day to day light work, this is a great supplement.   I see mostly advantages, and only a few short comings.   It is the perfect computing companion to my primary work station.

I wrote this blog in Google Docs, on the chrome book.


7 thoughts on “Living on the wild side: two days with a Chromebook

  1. Bill

    Nice post! I did a bit of research and turns out you can run R on these things. Takes a bit of fiddling. It is based around setting up a Linux partition. Might be able to run your research apps as well.

    1. User Michael Gizzi Post author

      Yes, I know I can install a linux partition and thus run R, but since I use Stata, I’ll save that for my mac. Bu tit is doing, and would not be hard to do. I have already researched how to install linux. But see no compelling need at the moment.

  2. Tom

    Yeah, I agree. I bought an Acer model a couple weeks ago mostly because there was a special deal: $95 including shipping. It is an amazing little machine. I also usually travel with a 500g external hard drive, but your idea for the nub drive might be better. I see they are now down to $30 —

    1. User Michael Gizzi Post author

      That is exactly the nub drive I ordered from Amazon, it arrives tomorrow! I would have walked out of Best Buy with the Acer a week ago if they had it in stock (even at $159 it was a steal), but since they didn’t I did more exploring, and opted for the Toshiba. The extra ram and the screen were compelling. Plus this thing really feels like I am working on a mac. I am incredibly pleased with it. It will hold me over until my grant money kicks in and I can buy the new macbook pro I want. And I suspect it will get a lot of use in general.

    2. User Michael Gizzi Post author

      Don’t BUY that particular nub drive. It arrived today and heats up so you can barely touch it after about 5 minutes. The Samsung drive has reviews which suggest that it doesn’t have heat problems. I’ll be returning the one I received today. Bummer, since it really is quite small, and non-intrusive.

    1. User Michael Gizzi Post author

      Now, that would be interesting. I have ot check to see if my license permits it being installed on two machines. I think it does. But I’d do the linux partition just to see how Stata worked on the chromebook. Alas, the program I’d really want isn’t for stats, but Devonthink. 🙂

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