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Eight Thoughts After Trying the Samsung Chromebook

chromebookEven as a resolute Apple user, it’s hard not to be at least somewhat curious about Chromebooks, the low-cost netbooks running ChromeOS. For the past six weeks or so, I’ve had a Samsung Chromebook, and it has been an interesting experience to say the least. It’s actually a little difficult to make an outright recommendation about the device either way–so much depends on the use case and on the institutional context–but I do have some impressions.

The model I”m using is wifi-only, with an 11.6″ display, 2GB RAM and a 16GB solid-state hard drive, plus a couple of USB ports. Some of these specs just don’t matter at all, though. The device comes with a 2-year free upgrade to 100GB of Google Drive space, which tells you most of what you need to know about the system: It wants as little as possible to live locally–in fact, the only folder you can see on the device is the “downloads” folder. Out of the box, the only way to create or edit files is with the various Google apps, so this does make sense.

After this summer’s revelations and controversies about online privacy and electronic surveillance, the first thing that has to be said is that this is a device designed to push everything through Google. You have to decide whether you’re willing to engage that risk.

Things I Like

  • Weight: It’s incredibly light–2.42 pounds. (Of course, that’s *still* heavier than a MacBook Air, but that Air is $750 more.)
  • Speed: It is more or less an instant-on device–in fact, it’s probably about as quick as my iPad in terms of getting to work.
  • Works offline: It will cache documents from your Google Drive so that you can work offline.
  • Chrome: Who doesn’t love Chrome? It’s a great browser, and the extensions that are available make the Chromebook far more usable. (For example, I have Evernote & Dropbox installed, as well as a browser-based text-editor that syncs via Dropbox.)

Things I Don’t like

  • If you think that Google means open, then a Chromebook will disabuse you of that: “Since this product operates on the Chrome operating system, a replacement or upgrade of the hardware (memory, SSD, etc.) is not possible due to restrictions of the Chrome operating system.”
  • You get what you pay for. On the one hand, $249 is *very* affordable. On the other hand, it’s hard to describe just how cheap the kit feels. Even the touchpad is annoying. (But, hey: there’s an “emergency hole.”) If you’ve had almost any other computer or device ever in your life, especially a Mac or iOS device, then you will be irked by the physical interaction with the Chromebook.
  • Depending on your institution, getting on wifi can be wonky. My school requires devices to self-register before accessing the wifi. I’ve done this with iOS devices, Mac laptops, and various Windows devices, always without a hitch. My Chromebook insisted that I choose an Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP) method before doing *anything* else. And it offered no help in guessing (screenshot), unlike any other device I’ve used. For those scoring at home, that means even Microsoft products get on at least some networks more easily than a Google Chromebook, which is a sentence I can’t believe I just typed. There were other wifi-connection issues, but those might’ve been specific to our process. At home, there were no such problems, and I’ve gotten on at coffeeshops and so forth, too.
  • These days, everyone says they “live in their browser.” But with a Chromebook that’s not a euphemism: Be prepared to work with a browser and absolutely nothing else. For me, the pain point here is 1Password. “No problem,” you’ll say. “1Password has a Chrome extension. Problem solved.” And that’s true: There *is* a 1Password Chrome extension. But it only works if you have the app installed somewhere else on the computer. So it doesn’t work here. (Yes, you can access the data via Dropbox, but that’s not the same.) Similarly, the different apps are just browser tabs, not actually different apps.
  • Relatedly, it is important to remember that Android and Chrome are not the same. My first day or two, when I was trying to find extensions that would make the device more usable, friends kept recommending Android apps. But they don’t work, because Chrome and Android are different Google-owned OSes. The Chrome experience is web apps only, full stop. You don’t even get a tricked-out version of Gmail . . . you get the same Gmail that’s available in any other Chrome browser anywhere.

For some users, the privacy considerations around Google products will be an insurmountable hurdle. For others, the limits on local file storage, or the lack of real apps, will be a stumbling block. But if your workflow is already centered on Gmail + Google Drive, this is a very appealing device.

I’ve found myself wondering if this is a good supplemental computer: Maybe you have a desktop as your regular computer, but you want to be able to take something to an archive, or to do fieldwork. Whether the Chromebook will suit probably depends on how comfortable you are living in Google Drive, or on the extent to which you can cobble together a workflow out of browser extensions. (As I said, I do like the text editor SourceKit, which makes a lot of the writing I do easier to manage than does Google Docs.)

With all of those caveats, though, a $249 computer really is a remarkable thing. And students who have come through middle schools or high schools that are Google clients will take to this environment very naturally.

What about you? Have you tried a Chromebook? Do you have workflows or extensions that you love? Please share in comments!

Photo by me. Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0.

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