So I picked up a Chromebook
I’m sat here with a huge grin on my face, the kind of grin I get when there is a new piece of tech in front of me. I know. I am easily seduced by shiny things. That’s just how it is.
But this piece of kit isn’t particularly shiny (more of a matte plastic really), and it’s not particularly new too. This is a Samsung Series 3 Chromebook, currently retailing around the £230 mark (or less) from all good retailers and PC World.
It is easily the least powerful computer I have owned in recent years, and I love it. There’s a lot to love too, even though there’s not a lot to the machine itself. The Macbook Air clone keyboard is wonderful to type on, treading the fine line between pleasantly clattery and efficiently responsive, and the screen (for this price-point) is surprisingly clean and sharp, particularly when rendering text. Is the screen on a par with a Retina display or that of the Chromebook Pixel? No, not by a long shot; but it’s more than sufficient for my everyday needs, and much better than I expected.
And the silence…. oh, the silence. I’m used to ipads and the like not making a noise during regular use, but a fanless laptop is a whole new distraction-free experience. And there’s where the Series 3 comes into its own. This thing is not just quiet. It is spooky are-you-sure-its-working quiet.
Let me explain where I’m coming from. My main work computer is a Lenovo z500, which I would rate as arguably the finest sub-£1,000 laptop known to man. It has a terrific build quality, i7 processor, 1Tb hard drive + 32Gb SSD, 8Gb RAM and can switch between the Integrated Graphics processor and built in NVIDIA GT 640 at the drop of a hat. It’s a powerhouse of a computer whether I’m working, gaming or messing about with 3D renders. Can you get better laptop or desktop machines? Yes. But not at that price off the shelf.
The downside to the z500 is that the battery-life is downright rotten, especially when compared to recently released models. After about 3 hours, I’m beginning to doubt whether it will last another 30 minutes. Sometimes luck is on my side and it squeezes out a solid 4 and a half hours, but usually it’s closer to 3:30. The power cord is an essential item when travelling.
The z500, precisely because of that power, is also a distraction magnet. It’s difficult to write reports when Skyrim is sitting there tempting you, or there’s a new MMORPG to try out, or a render just begging to be completed. It’s harder still when deadlines loom and the last thing your (ok, my) brain wants to do is meet them.
At the other end of the scale is my iPad Mini. This is my magical content consumption device that lets me breeze through the day’s RSS feeds, mail and news with a quick flick of my fingers. It’s a new Sunday Supplement of content every day, and it’s a brilliant, brilliant piece of kit in its own right. I can use it to create content too at a pinch, but it’s neither a pleasant nor productive experience. Yes, I could have bought an iPad keyboard or dock but by the time I’ve done that I’m halfway toward the cost of this Chromebook where the whole work environment suits me better.
This is where my Chromebook will sit, conceptually between the two. It will provide a distraction-free (ok, distraction-minimal) work environment with a proven 6-7 hour battery life at a price that’s about as low as it is possible to go and still have something that hasn’t come out of the ark. I’m happy with the way Chrome OS works when it comes to automatically saving and storing work out there in the cloud, and even without wifi access (or with wifi intentionally turned off, for a total freedom from distractions) the offline apps are fine for tightly focussed productivity.
Chrome OS has become quite the mature operating system. Tools such as Secure Shell and Chrome Remote Desktop allow me to connect to other computers with ease, and the fact that it’s still basically just Chrome with a bootloader at heart, all of my bookmarks, passwords and extensions are all synced up and ready for use within minutes of signing in for the first time. I’ve never been up and running this quickly with a new computer before, ever.
Even though it’s using an ARM processor this Chromebook runs about as fast as Chrome does on any other computer I have used, and that’s good enough for me. Youtube videos play perfectly well and good ol’ Grooveshark provides all my music needs. The speakers aren’t half bad too. Unlike Windows 8 (which I do like, for all its faults) Chrome OS is actually capable of playing a Youtube video in the background, something which the IE10 Metro version is annoyingly completely of incapable of doing.
So far, the only thing I miss is that there is no version of Skype for the Chromebook (and no, Hangouts aren’t a substitute before someone comments). The workaround is to Remote Desktop into my laptop for Skype or (simpler still) just use the iPad Mini, but having Skype available would just be icing on the cake. Can’t have it all, I guess.
Is the Chromebook for everyone? Nope. As the advert goes it’s a great first computer and arguably an even better second computer. This is a good system for just plain Getting Things Done whether what you need to get done is report writing, finishing that Great Novel you’ve been working on or web development (yes, the excellent Chrome Developer tools are there, and they rock). It’s less good for photo-manipulation tasks (there are Chrome extensions for such things, but I doubt the Samsung Chromebook is exactly the right tool for the job), and if you want to play games other than those in the Chrome Web Store, steer clear.
Likewise, if you absolutely have to use specific applications such as Photoshop or Microsoft Office they don’t run on a Chromebook but there are alternatives (and there’s always Remote Desktop, again). The Google Docs suite is pretty awesome, and you do get an extra 100Gb of storage on Google Drive for free. That’s not to be sniffed at.
So I picked up a Chromebook. I quite like it. For me, it is the distraction-reducing work environment I need. Case in point, I’ve written this blogpost in one sitting. That would have been just plain painful on the iPad Mini and taken five times longer on the z500 because of sundry distractions.