I’ve been promising that I’d give an update on the Chromebook challenge that I undertook a while ago, but one thing and another have meant that I haven’t really had enough time to do it. But, finally, here it is.
There are a lot of positives to the Chromebook experience and to the “web-only” approach. Never having to think about where your data is is a liberating experience, and one that – once you’ve had it – is very hard to go back on. Similarly, not having to think about whether an application is installed, and being able to sit down at any machine and get to work in seconds is amazingly cool.
Then, of course, there’s security. Chromebook is about the most secure computing platform you’re going to find (and yes, I know about the security hole), and your data is about as secure as it’s possible to be.
The speed of startup and battery life on the Samsung Series 5 3G hardware is also great. You open it, and it’s ready to use (at least if you’re using WiFi – 3G, sadly, always takes a few extra seconds to connect to the network, something that’s really unavoidable). And the battery life is so good that it’s more like a phone than a PC. You charge it overnight, and work throughout the next day with it.
This might surprise many, but the need to constant connectivity hasn’t proved to be a negative. I’m simply not out of range of both WiFi and 3G often enough for it to be a problem for me. If you live in the middle of nowhere, that may not be true for you – but in my case, living in London, I’m constantly connected. And, of course, if I’m not connected then it doesn’t matter whether I’m using Chromebook, Mac or whatever – I can’t get to my webmail.
However, there are problems, and you can group them into two camps: those connected with the web-only nature of ChromeOS; and those to do with the hardware.
First, the web. You would think, with uncounted millions of websites, that there would be better applications out there than there actually are. But even the best web applications look pretty barebones compared to the richness of native apps on something like the Mac or iPad (or even Windows). Of course, web apps have features and advantages, particularly around sharing and collaboration, but their interface design tends to be pretty weak and hugely inconsistent from app to app.
Then there’s the hardware. Now there’s a lot to like about the form factor of the Samsung, but at the end of the day it’s just not quite powerful enough to do what it needs to do. Open up a couple of windows and five or six tabs, and the Atom processor and 2Gb of RAM start to creak under the strain. An i3, with maybe a bit more RAM, would make ChromeOS fly – and given the premium price you’re paying compared to more complex Windows-based netbooks, I think we have a right to expect this level of hardware.
Overall, I’m actually happy with the way that the Chromebook challenge has gone. Could I use the Chromebook as my only machine? No, and I don’t actually think that it’s really intended to be used like that. Could I use it as a second machine, a “throw in the bag and forget” laptop? Definitely. In fact, it’s ideal for that.
Will I be carrying on using it? Yes, I think I will. I don’t think that I’ll use it exclusively – sometimes, the iPad is a better thing for me to be carrying around – but the Chromebook will definitely get enough use to make it worthwhile keeping. And I’m looking forward to seeing what the next generation of Chromebooks will look like, because I think that this is a view of computing that represents part of the future. Not for everyone, perhaps, but for quite a wide range of potential users.
This weekend will be the first trip away that I’ve had since starting the challenge where I won’t be taking my Chromebook. Instead, I’ll be back using the iPad, along with a keyboard so that I can churn out some words. I’m pretty sure that I’ll miss the Chromebook though – it really is something that its creator, Sundar Pichai, can be proud of.