Monday, July 18, 2011

Living With A Chromebook, Part 1

For a bit over a week now I have been using a Chromebook - specifically a Samsung with both Wifi and 3G - because I am sick and tired of big clunky laptops and desktop machines.  In this post - and possibly some others that follow (thus "Part 1") - I will do my best to document the good, the bad, and the ugly of this experience.

First, a bit about me, just to set the stage and my own expectations.  I have done software development for 25 years now, with a couple of breaks when I was deliberately jobless.  I have used computers starting with a TRS-80 model 1, then on to a Compaq Deskpro, innumerable different machines at college, from mainframes on down, then DOS, OS/2, Windows, and Apple machines at work.  Then I abandoned Windows and Apple and went to Unix via a different series of jobs.  My home machines now - other than the Chromebook - all run Linux of one sort or another.

In terms of what I do with computers, I am one or two steps above most users in terms of complexity, but I am not among what I would consider the elite power users.  I don't generally write programs for fun, but I do maintain my own website, for example.  The place where I probably do the oddest thing at home involves maintaining an encrypted file system that can be mounted (or not) in which I store a list of the jillions of passwords I have around the internet.

Most of what I do, like others, is done in a web browser.  I read email, watch a few videos, use a few social networks, and consume news and other media.  You, your mom, and maybe your grandmother do the same things on their computers.  The things that we also share that generally happen outside the browser - word processing, spreadsheets, etc. - are also things that are happening inside the browser now, and which I have been doing there for some time.

Games are another matter entirely.  Mostly I don't bother as I find a lot of them boring and/or repetitious.  Still, a few hold my interest for a while.

With that all stated up front, this post will list out the things I consider good and bad about the Chromebook so far.  Here we go...

The Good
  • The Chromebook is small and light.  That turns out to be very nice.  Nicer than I expected, in fact.  The screen is large enough to be easy to use, but overall this device is quite capable.  I am not yet certain if I could use it as an eReader, though.  Reading with it in bed might be a challenge as it pretty large in comparison to a kindle or ipad, and the dedicated keyboard I wanted so much (see below) would be a hindrance for that application.  Or so I suspect.  I'll have to try that at some point, but in the mean time I am quite happy with its size, shape, and weight.
  • Good Screen.  Nice and bright, easily read, etc.  I am pleased with it.
  • A Real Keyboard.  I didn't want a tablet because I wanted a real keyboard.  Imagine trying to write this blog entry on an on-screen keyboard.  No thanks.  And while an outboard keyboard is possible for a tablet, it makes it two separate things and thus rather hard to hold onto while sitting in a comfy chair, or whatever.  For me a built in keyboard was a requirement, and this one has good key feel, though it appears the key spacing may be different from what I am used to.  (Lots of typos that I have to fix.  Will get over that with more time.)
  • The apps just work, mostly.  I am not a big app user.  My G1 has just a few loaded onto it, and I've only paid for one app ever over there.  I am still mostly living in the web itself (rather than in apps running withing the browser) on the Chromebook, but I see there are apps here - I've even poked at a couple - and I am certain they will continue to grow and thrive.  In fact, the offline aspects of the Chromebook will require more apps over time, so seeing them is a good thing.  The only issue I see so far is that at least some of the apps I have looked at in the Web Store indicate they won't run on the Chromebook.  I am guessing there are some differences between the Chrome browser as it runs here and on a "real" computer.   Everything I have installed so far has been fine, but that isn't a guarantee they will all work.
  • Fantastic battery life.  I am getting 8 hours or so out of a charge, and I pretty mush just ignore it until the warning pops up to tell me I have 15 to 20 minutes left.  Then I plug it in and let it charge while continuing to work.  Simple, and quite nice to be unplugged for so long.
  • Amazingly quick start up.  A cold boot really is 10 seconds or less.  (My linux boxes boot in 50-70 seconds, depending on what you count as boot time.  I discounted login time but did include time to launch X and start the browser, to make it a fair comparison with what the Chromebook does.)  Even better, though, is sleep mode.  Close the cover and it's off.    Open it up again and within 2 seconds it's at the login prompt, waiting for your password.  For me this is a game changer.  I no longer have to leave a computer running all day to have access quickly when I want it.  Just open the lid, enter my password, and I'm there.  Nice, but it does require changing some habits.  No need to set the machine aside - lid open - when I go do something else.  Close it.  Open when done.  Easy, but different.
The Bad (or at least not so good):
  • Touchy trackpad - it's huge and easy to tap accidentally.  I find that at times my cursor has suddenly moved elsewhere thanks to a stray finger or palm grazing the track pad.  This is a learning thing, and (to be honest) I have never liked track pads before, but this one is growing on me.  It's large enough to let me accomplish quite a bit with one or two gestures, which is good.  But it is really sensitive, and click-to-tap, which I have enabled for another reason, makes it more so.  I expect to be past this in another week or two and just using it like it was completely normal.  I could plug in a USB mouse simply enough, but I really want to keep this to be just the one thing, not something I have to have dedicated space to use.
  • The mouse button in the track pad is stiff.  There is a single mouse button built into the trackpad, and if you push down hard enough on it you will hear it click.  I wanted to use it (as opposed to tap-to-click) but it is so stiff as to make that difficult.  I've resorted to tap-to-click and the corresponding risk of accidental mouse clicks when fingers stray.  So far it's working, but a slightly less stiff button would have made me happier.
  • Unknown keyboard shortcuts and unexpected happenings (like tabs opening).  Another thing I have to get used to (and figure out) rather than a real problem.  If you're prone to typos, these things happen.  Just a few minutes ago I figured out that the key with a magnifying glass on it - where the caps lock key would normally be - opens a new window, and also closes an unused window.  (Or maybe it closes the current window... I don't really know which it does yet.)  Between hitting that when going for 'a' and the occasional stray mouse movement as described above, I find that a few times a day I am wondering what the heck just happened and have to take my hands off the keyboard and undo whatever I just did.  There is a map of the various keyboard shortcuts available, and I looked at it once from an online tutorial I read a week ago, but I have no idea where it is now.  (Keyboard shortcuts bug me in general, though.  Having them is fine, but make them really, REALLY easy to find out about, OK?  Both Windows and MacOS have zillions of these things now and I never seem to know what they are.  I can navigate my way around inside vi, though, so go figure.)
  • Occasional glitches in video.  On my first day I was going through Google's tutorials and there were some videos.  Loading them was simple, and they mostly worked, but on one page there were just black boxes where YouTube videos should have been.  On another the video played but without sound.  In both cases I reloaded the page and everything worked, and I haven't see the issue since, so I don't know what it was I saw.
  • A fan.  I was hoping for a totally fanless computer, finally.  No such luck.  There is a CPU fan on this puppy and it varies in speed depending on what you're doing, though it is pretty quiet overall.  There are also vents on the bottom of the case that bug me.  Setting this machine on your lap won't make you sterile, but I don't know if it will overheat if those vents are blocked by your clothing.
  • Oddities in 3G registration.  I have barely tried 3G yet.  WiFi in my house works fine, and it has also worked at at local restaurant just as well.  But I did register for 3G and had two glitches in the process. The first was that registration would not work at my home.  I am in a rural area, but we have Verizon service here and it should have worked.  In fact, once I registered it elsewhere it does work at home, but I had to do the registration in town.  The second glitch was that the registration form was designed by someone whose elevator didn't go all the way to the top.  It kept bouncing back to me saying my credit card information wasn't accepted, and I kept looking it over and it was fine.  Eventually it dawned on my that I had to remove the spaces from the CC number.  Why they couldn't remove them while processing the form data - particularly since they let me enter them in the first place - I don't know.  But once I deleted the spaces everything went through.  A nit, I know, but user experience matters, and this was just stupid.
That's my list, at least for now.  I clearly have to make some changes in my life, like move my passwords out of my encrypted file system and into some sort of online password repository.  I am researching those and may have an answer for that soon.

I'd like to see a command line here so I can ssh to to remote machines.  That would make things much simpler for me when I work on my web sites.  I'd also like to see some blinking lights on the menu bar when it's doing network access.    It would be nice to know if any bottle necks are related to data not moving at all, or just moving slowly.

I expect these sorts of issues will be resolved with time, and I have every reason to think that Google's Chromebook idea is going to work out well in the end.  Having my data stored in the cloud doesn't bother me.  If I have private data of some sort, though, I'd like a way to encrypt it here before it goes to the cloud.  I expect that is coming someday, from some cloud based service provider.

In the meantime, google docs is a great set of apps for all kinds of work, and the so called limitation of having to be online while working isn't really that big a deal, at least not to me.

If you have questions, feel free to post them here as comments or email them to me (jrpstonecarver at gmail dot com) and I will answer them in the next Chromebook related post, if there is one.

I have other posts about the Chromebook available: