Sunday, September 25, 2011

Living With A Chromebook, Part 3

My other posts about the Chromebook are available here:
This post contains some additional notes on my Chromebook experience and isn't quite as upbeat as the others, I am sad to say.

Yes, I am still using my Chromebook heavily, but some flaws are more obvious to me now.

The single biggest problem for me is the feature that make the Chromebook more useful than any tablet: the keyboard.  I continue to get key bounce - duplicate letters, numbers, or symbols entered when I am sure I typed only one.  I cannot figure out the cause of this problem, and I am perpetually backspacing to delete the second appearance of whatever character it happened to this time.

Additionally there are issues with the trackpad.  I've mentioned before that the button built into the trackpad is hard to click, so I turned on tap-to-click, which helps usability overall.  That setting, however, may be the source of another problem, or it may just be my own sloppiness, but I regularly find myself staring at a screen in which large chunks of just entered text have gone away.  Perhaps one or both of my thumbs (or wrists) hit the track pad as I was typing, but whatever I did, suddenly one or more paragraphs of text just vanish, as if I had selected an area and then replaced it with my continued typing.  Except I didn't do that, at least not deliberately.

On top of all that, there is the keyboard feel itself.  The Samsung Chromebooks have a  keyboard similar to the newer Apple keyboards, with flat keys and limited key travel.  Now that I have lived on it for a couple of months I know that it is not an acceptable substitute for a "real" keyboard, at least for me.  The action is wrong, the feedback is poor, and my typing is worse on it than on a normal keyboard.

Yes, I could plug any USB keyboard into the Chromebook, but that reduces portability, and would require a mouse as well.  The combination would probably eliminate the issues mentioned above, but then I might as well use my desktop machine, which, in fact, I find myself doing when I have substantial text to type.

The combination of those issues gets old.  Perhaps some other Chromebook design will have a different keyboard and trackpad combination that works better, but I cannot claim to be happy with what Samsung built into my machine.

Another physical issue is display size.  I need a bigger screen when I am doing anything complicated, and that just isn't an option with a Chromebook.  Then again I think I would have the same problem with any laptop, so we can chalk that one up as my own issue, not one specific to the machine.

One place I can point to the machine and/or OS as having a real issue is in powering down.  The Chromebook has a very nice feature that just lets you shut the cover to turn it off, and open the cover to restart it, right where you were.  It's a sleep mode, effectively, and while it isn't new (many laptops have done it for years in other operating systems) it is very much faster than any other system I have used in this way.  But sometimes - maybe 1 out of 20 - when I close the cover it doesn't shut down.  Instead it continues to run as if nothing happened, and reopening doesn't prompt for a password, since it missed the shutdown signal entirely.  Very odd.

A work around is to actually power down, which is still quick, though not as quick as shutting the cover.  The boot is fast - another good Chromebook feature - but still not as quick as the restart, so while it will shut down this way it isn't as nice in all cases.

I continue to see some memory leaks, I think, and so I reboot once a week or so, at a minimum.  Whether that helps or not is less than clear to me.

The machine also slows down at times that make no sense to me.  My Internet connection isn't exactly speedy, so why is it that sometimes I cannot scroll a web page in one tab - possibly for two or three seconds - while the only other open tab is buffering a paused YouTube video?  It's like interrupts for incoming network traffic - or perhaps memory allocation to buffer the incoming data - are heavy enough to slow the entire system way down.  I can see this when loading non-video pages as well, but in those cases the pages I am loading tend to be large and complex, with lots of items for Chrome to fetch.  These slowdowns aren't crippling, but they do cause irritation.  I would be curious to know if others are seeing them, or if they are an artifact of my slow network connection in some way.

Finally, I think Google needs to add at least a few visual indicators to the system.  I'd like a way to know if I am getting network traffic or not, how busy the CPU is, and whether or not a reboot is required to get updates to Chrome OS installed and running.  As things stand there are no blinking lights or system monitors available, which means I don't have the feedback I need to know where problems are, or if a reboot would be a good idea.  I can't even tell if the system is in the middle of downloading an OS update when I shut down.  Not good design.

Despite the above issues I still use the Chromebook for most of my online activities.  I don't have many apps installed, but that's my usage pattern.  Overall it is quiet and adequately fast, and certainly good enough for handling email, social networking, blog reading, and the like.  That's where most home users spend their time, and I think it will work well for that audience, but there are still some rough edges and I'd really like to see Google address them.