So, I bought a Samsung Chromebook, exactly a week ago, because I was intrigued by it and felt compelled to find out more about this disruptive way to approach daily use of computers. Also, the Mac Book Air my employer is getting me is taking ages to get here, and I was annoyed to carry around my 15 inches MacBook everyday, so this was the perfect occasion.
This is what we’re talking about!
The idea was to leave my temporary MacBook Pro at work, and to only open it when there’s something I can’t do with the Chromebook (spoiler: eventually, I didn’t open it at all, even though I was really close twice, but ended up finding an annoying way around my problem both times). My job is peculiar: I can work from home (I did, Monday and Tuesday), I sometimes take the train to see people (I did, yesterday). Also, my employer already works heavily with SaaS products: the EDM everyone uses is Google Drive, no one uses Office but the Google Docs only, all the code developed is pushed to our enterprise GitHub account, you can use the IDE you want and no one find it weird to use a cloud IDE like my good old Cloud9 … I can’t tell you much more about what I do, since the product I’m working on is in stealth mode; but I’ve been e-mailing a lot, feature designing prototypes a lot, working on spreadsheets/written docs/drawings a lot, and even did some front-end dev based on Twitter Bootstrap. Update: my role and employer went public since.
Software UX paradigms
The whole interface revolves around the window system built in Chrome, which works surprising well, even for advanced use cases. It’s not at all like MacOS or Windows handle their window systems, it’s a whole new thing entirely. For instance, the OS only shows one window at a time (you can minimize it, resize it, etc… but you won’t see the other windows when you see this one), which nicely helps you focus on that one task. Except for some minor apps (calculator, scratchpad), everything opens in Chrome (even the very limited terminal!), meaning that you eventually end up using your Chrome windows as virtual screens, just like in MacOS or Linux, and your Chrome tabs as apps on this screen. It’s really different, but since we’re all used to windows and tabs, it really works well!
I’m comparing to the Mac Book Air here, and I must say, even though the hardware is really low-cost, the physical experience with it (like, the typing, the mobility, the ligthness, the keyboard shortcuts, …) is very similar to a Mac Book Air’s. The only major difference is that the case is full plastic, which makes it look really, really cheap compared to a Mac Book Air’s aluminium case, but… eh, it’s indeed a cheap laptop! I was scared that it might be fragile or toy-looking, but it turns out it’s not at all fragile, and its plastic looks doesn’t bother me at all in the end (quite the opposite of shameful: when I took it off in my meeting with my client yesterday, they were rather impressed, since they had never heard of Chromebooks, and found it concept awesome). Last Friday, I showed up to an internal “apero” my company was having to talk about some internal stuff, and I took the computer on one hand as I was typing with the other. This is the kind of use case that you can easily have with a Mac Book Air, but that isn’t easy with a Mac Book Pro (even 13”). I love to consider my status as highly dynamic and mobile when I work, so it’s perfect for me! The only real physical downside compared to a MacBook Air is the non-backlit keyboard, which is indeed really useful. So far, I’ve been doing well without it, but yep, it’s a bit sad.
Cost for quality
I mean, come on! I thought about buying it used, but then I realized that it was cheaper than a smartphone anyway… Plus, I would get that 2-year-free 100GB plan on Google Drive. So I just went to a computer store and bought it. For a laptop, 300€ is not such a terrible investment… I like low cost for a lot of reasons, and not only the amount of money leaving my bank account when I pay for it. My best reason, is that my Mac Book Pro got stolen last year as I was in London, and although it technically was my employer’s, this really turned me paranoid about where I take my laptop. Now, I’m thinking, if someone steals my Chromebook, it would suck, but not that bad, and it relaxes me to think so, so I take it literally everywhere. (My father was a buddhism-enclined guy, so he taught me to appreciate this kind of things!)
Yesterday, I woke up, took my Chromebook, worked in the train for 1h40, went to my client’s offices, we used my Chromebook to cover a lot of things for about 4 hours, I went back to the train station, missed my train, had to wait 30 minutes looking up stuff on my Chromebook, then took the train back, and used it for about 1 hour before it died. That’s about 7 hours of battery in intensive usage, which I find really impressive, considering the price of the beast! I guess the reason is that intensive usage for a Chromebook isn’t as intensive a usage as for other platforms… I’ll try watching movies some other time, to see how that one works out!
Ok, I did choose to buy one of the cheap ones… but the hardware weakness did eventually get in the way of using it comfortably for everything. An example: the Google Presentation I’ve been working on is getting longer and longer, and the Chromebook is having a hard time remaining responsive when I work on it. Sometimes I click on something, and one full second happens before the UI reacts, which gets frustrating (this doesn’t happen for other apps but closing all the other windows but Presentation did not help at all) But the worst that happened: I wanted to show those slides to coworkers through a Hangout, and… never could! The Hangout + Presentation together totally froze the computer, and Chrome ended up launching exception after exception. I was at home, so I offered to hang up and connect back with my wife’s Mac Book (that was one of the two occasions where the Chromebook showed its limits), but one of my coworkers offered to display the slides himself on his Hangout’s shared screen, which solved the problem in a disappointing way.
The general UX is awesome, but there are some details in the day-to-day usages that show that not many people gave their feedback yet, and that this is still quite young. For instance: customization is very, very limited, and there has been a couple of things that I wished to change to gain productivity, but couldn’t. Also: it’s easy to switch from a window to another (obviously), but there is no way to see what your currently opened windows are, so answering the question “so, overall, what am I doing again?” takes a lot of effort and brainpower. Also: the touchpad works perfectly, but the gestures are really limited, which is a shame (they’re so, so useful in MacOS). Also: everything is accessible with hotkeys, which is great as of productivity, but those system-level hotkeys conflict with app-level hotkeys; for instance, in Google Word, you’re supposed to use Ctrl+Shift+R to align to the right, and Ctrl+Shift+L to align to the left… but well, Ctrl+Shift+L also locks your screen! Update: Google added some gestures since (like the long-awaited two-finger back gestures in the browser).
Limited stuff you can do offline, of course
Well, you know it when you buy it, and actually, I found it much more usable offline than I thought it’d be. However, the 3 hours in trains were perfect, because I exactly had to use Google Word and Google Draw for what I had to do; but if I had had more time, I don’t know what I would have done next in that train! Even to use Pocket, you need to be connected (I eventually finished my train time using it… on my smartphone!), and let’s not even mention development. If I had a plane to catch tomorrow, I don’t think the Chromebook would work a second time in a row, or for a longer travel time… Update: Pocket now works offline.
Limited stuff you can do online
Well, this one is annoying. When there’s something you’ve got to do, and your Chromebook doesn’t do it even while online, how do you manage? These few things do stand in the way of making it a primary workstation. In my case, the things I found the most annoying were:
- image editing: sure, there are some online image editors (I use PixlEditor, which, ironically, is made in Flash!), but the offer is really poor. I had to work with open SVG cliparts… well, none of them seems to handle SVG! This is the second time I thought of reopening my MacBook, but eventually, I did the silliest thing: screen-captured my SVG displayed in Chrome, then removed the blank background in PixlEditor. Brr…
- printing: I had to print something this morning. Maybe I should have read the documentation more, and tried harder, but this seemed like a lot of work to do to just accomodate the printer to one experimenting guy. Eventually, I passed the PDF over to a coworker, who printed it with her MacBook.
- Dropbox: if the file explorer has a connector with Drive, there’s no technical reason for it not to work with Dropox. Oh, wait for it, actually, the file explorer doesn’t work offline! No kidding!! If you want to use your Google Drive while offline, you have to do it in the browser… So I don’t think we’ll see a functional Dropbox plug-in for Chromebook, before Dropbox has a functional offline web mode (which they don’t need, since they have native apps to do that in every significant platform)
- Skype: I was supposed to have a Skype meeting yesterday, to which I finally couldn’t attend, for unrelated reasons. This was a headache-inducing problem, because the partner I was supposed to Skype with doesn’t use Google Hangout. I ended up finding a solution (before I had to cancel): I’d use Skype on my Android phone. Hem.
Update: I believe the file explorer now works offline, but still doesn’t have an API for Dropbox or others.
For now, I’ll go on with it, because this way to work seems to accomodate the way I work these days. However, my role is going to become more mobile, and I don’t think the Chromebook will be mighty enough to cover the long plane hours I’ll have to spend. My employer will buy me a phone soon, and I was thinking of asking a Samsung Galaxy S4, which covers most of the lacking needs (Dropbox, Skype, …), even more so when you know that 4G LTE is massively arriving downtown San Francisco ; but what if I have to work on code, for instance? (I’ve never used Cloud9 offline, by the way, maybe I should start with trying that) I was thinking of reselling the Chromebook if the experience is disappointing; I decided I’d keep it after all (I can do without those 200 euros), but on the longer run, I’m sure it wouldn’t be enough as a primary workstation. Also, even though the cheapness of the hardware is the biggest problem, there’s one thing I wouldn’t do: upgrade! The downsides of the concept are endearing when you think of it as a cheap alternative, and I don’t regret my purchase for one second! But I can’t see one single use case where spending 1400€ for any kind of hardware based on ChromeOS makes sense, as ChromeOS is today. Overall, though, I give the experiment a 8/10 grade, the missing 2 points being mostly because of the hardware limitations. If you already work a lot with SaaS products like I did anyway, the switch will be really smooth; but I know this 8/10 grade might decrease as I use it more and more, and expect more and more from it…
Full disclosure: the weaknesses eventually outgrew the strengths in my daily productivity a few days later, and I went back to a MacBook Pro (13′ retina). I still use my ChromeBook from time to time, mostly to test whether web-based stuff I think about works on it or not; but I find my time on it increasingly difficult, and I don’t think I’d ever use it again for work, or anything serious. I think I’m more and more switching from the notebook kind of guy to the tablet kind of guy for basic everyday tasks… It was a cool experiment, though!