Saturday, July 30, 2011

Living With A Chromebook, Part 2

In my previous post on this topic - Living With a Chromebook, Part 1 - I discussed my initial impressions of my Chromebook after about a week.  I've now had 2 more weeks on it, and have a few more things to say about it.

In general I continue to be very happy with this device.  Battery life continues to be great, and the ability to just shut the cover to shut down is wonderful.  My power bill will, no doubt, be a few dollars smaller in the coming months since I am not running the big machine all day anymore.

A few things stand out that didn't get discussed last time, or that I have additional thoughts on:
  • As I previously mentioned, I keep an encrypted file of all my passwords on the big machine, and so far I have found no way to do that on the Chromebook.   Encrypted data, in general, is probably the weak link of this device.  I am not yet aware of any Google docs encryption options, for example, so if you're storing medical records, financial data, or anything else particularly private and important you may have concerns about using your Chromebook for that purpose, and I understand the issues.  For passwords, though, I may have a solution:

    I am not yet 100% certain about this, but it looks very promising so far.  Passpack gives you the ability to store passwords on their servers.  Encryption is done on your end - in your browser - and they claim even they cannot recover your data if your packing key is lost.  They have a reasonable UI which works well with the cut/paste facilities on the Chromebook, so you can click a single button to copy a password into your buffer, then Ctrl-V to paste it into the website you're logging into.  It's never visible or readable.  They store user name, email, password, URL, and a general notes field with each record, among other things, so you have lots of choices.  They can recommend new passwords for your sites, and have a 1-click login facility that I have not yet played with.  Their free account lets you have up to 100 password records, and their paid accounts are not all that expensive.  As I say, this is looking very promising, and gets around the inability to store encrypted passwords on the Chromebook, at least for me.  In a few weeks I will probably be fully converted to passpack and have played with more features.  At that time I may have more to say about it.

  • A happy discovery of a few days ago: crosh, a command line shell built into the system.  It's not a fully featured Unix command line, but it has a few nice built in commands (like top) and an ssh subsystem, which means those of us who want to connect to remove servers using ssh can do so without adding browser extensions or using other machines.  Ctrl-Alt-T will get you a crosh command prompt, and from there 'help" gets you a list of commands, and 'exit' gets you out.  Alt-Tab moves between your crosh session and the browser window.  Inside crosh you can type 'ssh' to get into the ssh subsystem, and again 'help' will get you a list of ssh related commands.  For example, you can type 'user foobar' to set the user name, 'host' to set the host name, and 'connect' to get an ssh connection to that host.  Login with whatever your remote password is and from there it's all familiar.  This is a major win for me, though most users will never bother with it.

  • If the Chromebook has a weak spot so far it is printing.  Google won't install printer drivers on the Chromebook, so you cannot talk to a printer directly.  Printing, therefore, requires a different solution... a cloud based solution.  Google has a start on this - cloudprint - but it isn't quite ready for me just yet.  The general idea is that your local printer is connected to a computer and that you can register that printer with their cloud and then print to it from the Chromebook.  Sounds good, but, the local computer has to be powered up to make that work, and the software running on that computer is currently only available for Windows and MacOS, though they say Linux support is coming.  I really don't want to have to turn on another computer to print, though.  If I do that I might just as well login to Google docs (or whatever) from there and print directly to my local printer, right?  And leaving a computer running all the time for the rare times I want to print something seems silly.

    HP has a partial solution for this issue: network connected printers that are already cloudprint aware.  They are always on and can be printed to (so I am told) by sending an email to the right address.  Don't ask me exactly how that works... I haven't printed anything from the Chromebook just yet, and it won't be happening any time soon.  I don't happen to own one of these magic printers from HP, and I don't run Windows or Macs at home, so I have no suitable servers.  In the meantime I can just fire up the big machine and print from it when I need to, I guess, but a better printing solution would be nice.  Mind you, I print rarely, perhaps a couple pages a month.  It happens so rarely, in fact, that we destroyed 4 different ink jet printers with gummed up print heads.  Ink jets need to be used to continue to work, and we simply don't print often enough to make them last.  At the moment we have a cheap color laser printer, which seems to be fine, but isn't capable of talking to Google's cloudprint service on its own.  Oh well.

  • Another minor issue is keybounce.  As I type I see regular appearances of repeated letters, but I'm not sure what is causing it.  I cannot force it to happen when I try, probably because I am paying attention more closely - so I rather suspect it is me, doing something a tad odd.  My old keyboard has keys that are about 18mm wide, but the tops are only 12mm wide, or so.  The Chromebook has keys that are 15mm wide with gaps between keys.  I suspect I am a sloppy typist and often hit keys less than straight on.  On my old keyboard a miss like that might matter less than it does here, where hitting off center probably means bouncing off the gap filler and (possibly) hitting the key a second time.  The newish Mac keyboards are very similar, and I could easily have the same issue there as well.  In any case I continue to watch this and try to figure it out.

  • Finally, for this post anyway, Spotify is the newest oddity, but it is symptomatic of a general issue.  During the past two weeks several people I know have started using Spotify, a music subscription service that seems to be all the rage.  To make it work you need to download and install an application, for Windows or Mac, naturally, but I am told the Windows version does run under Wine on Linux.  As you can guess, though, I cannot run such an application on the Chromebook, so using Spotify would mean turning on the big machine or getting out a "real" laptop.  Thus far I have resisted.  I love the portability of the Chromebook, my laptop isn't all that great in general, being ancient, and the desktop, while plenty adequate, is stuck in the den.

    What is needed is a chrome browser app for Spotify, or any similar service you might be interested in using.  I saw a couple of things that claimed to be Spotify related in the Chrome Web Store, but nothing from the Spotify service itself, and random apps always make me wonder about security issues.  So, for now at least, I am not Spotified, which may be a good thing.  However, if the available web app list grows up a bit I will probably find it available, and then maybe I will give it a shot.
That's my list of Chromebook comments for this time around.  It's still living up to my expectations - and then some, actually - but there are a few things people need to know before jumping in with both feet.  I love it, but as with all things, your mileage may vary.  Feel free to ask questions or leave comments.  I will do my best to answer them.

My other Chromebook related posts are available here: