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Two Weeks With A Chromebook

arm-chromebook-topAfter two weeks with a Chromebook, did Chrome OS prove to be an impressive and productive platform?

As I started packing for a trip across the Atlantic, I realised I needed something more svelte and efficient than my ageing laptop.

With the low price point and positive reviews, a Samsung Chromebook seemed just enough for my needs. In the two weeks between the first boot and my return trip I took a look at Chrome OS stable with verified boot enabled – the “out-of-box” experience – as a productive tool for both everyday use and development.

As A New User

twoweeks-desktop

Though the first boot of a new operating system is often a bewildering experience, in Chrome OS all roads lead to the browser. As Chrome is always the first app I download on a fresh install of an OS, the process was just one step shorter.

In fact, the entire todo list was down to a single item: install extensions and apps. And even that was taken care of after signing in with my Google account.

If apps and settings can sync on your Android and iOS devices, why not on your desktop too? Having bookmarks, passwords, extensions, and apps synced (given they haven’t disabled it) is both a time saver and a simple way to familiarise new Chrome OS users to their already somewhat familiar surroundings.

“…the sheer number of finger-twisting combinations also include a shortcut to access an interactive shortcut overlay!”

There’s no denying the beauty and simplicity of Chrome OS either – the raft of keyboard shortcuts one of the few exceptions. Though useful, the sheer number of finger-twisting combinations also include a shortcut to access an interactive shortcut overlay!

From the first few minutes of use to the last jet-lagged words in a Google Docs document, there wasn’t much to dislike about the user interface or ease of use. Between Chrome OS and more “mature” operating systems – Windows, OS X, and various Linux distributions – I’m tempted to give Chrome OS the top prize for sheer polish and convenience.

As A Writer

But polish alone doesn’t make a platform usable. I spend a significant amount of time staring at and writing sprawling literary analyses. As a traveller, I also wouldn’t be in a position to have a constant, reliable internet connection for most of my journey. Between a browser-oriented operating system, spotty wifi connections, and a fear of catastrophic word processor crashes, I was deathly afraid of Chrome OS eating any papers I wrote.

But fear not. Google Drive’s offline mode works well (usually) and Google Docs has improved significantly the last few years. After relying on it during my trip, I doubt I’ll need to use a desktop office suite again.

Offline mode isn’t perfect, however. The spell checker disappears and Google Drive’s syncing has been fairly unreliable even with a stable connection. A blank document is a horrifying sight after an entire day of writing and spotty syncing.

Ever useful spellchecker ever absent when offline.

The ever useful spellchecker ever absent in offline mode.

Nevertheless, I haven’t outright lost any documents or edits from these issues and Google Docs performed well enough for me to trust documents to sync eventually. My needs are fairly dull as a writer, but sitting back with Google Docs in fullscreen and an operating system that stays out of my way is perfect for pushing out another hastily written essay or casual email.

As a Developer

As a web developer, I had my initial reservations about Chrome OS and its ability to replace a more featureful platform. But I wouldn’t be doing any heavy coding and design work on holiday or even when I’m lazing around the house away from the desktop.

Though it’s relatively painless to drop into developer mode for a “full” developer experience in Chrome OS – terminal and all – the lack of automatic updates and more “everyday” features (like Netflix support) makes the process a no-go for a part-time casual user like me.

Though you won’t have access to vim and the like, a variety of web-based editors and IDEs, like Cloud 9, as well as editors as Chrome packaged apps are available, offering offline mode, local file editing, and remote file access. When I inevitably needed to edit remote files during my holiday, ShiftEdit came to the rescue, even managing to cope with a cafe’s intermittent wifi network.

ShiftEdit to the rescue.

ShiftEdit to the rescue.

But without access to a suitable build environment in non-developer mode, a large portion of web development becomes significantly more difficult. With the wealth of preprocessors, testing frameworks, and any number of command line tools in development workflows, a browser alone isn’t enough to sustain a web developer.

Without access to source control tools like git, even Chrome extension development is far more difficult than it should be. Though Google Drive can sync your codebase (when it decides to sync properly that is), a limitation with Chrome OS’s file picker prevents extensions from being loaded from or saved to the Google Drive folder. But the Chrome OS devs are already on the case.

“What [Chrome OS] gains in a slick everyday experience, it loses in many developer-friendly features.”

But since I’m an Android app developer as well, fixing folder access alone won’t fix the limitations a browser-based approach puts on mobile development, even for Google’s own Android platform.

There is, however, some hope on the horizon. If Google are serious about the prospects of Chrome OS – as their well-specced Chromebook Pixel suggests – it will only be a matter of time before Android development comes to the platform. A Google desktop OS should be the best platform for development on their mobile OS.

Until then, Chrome OS will still be lagging behind its more mature brethren. For what it gains in a slick everyday experience, it loses in many developer-friendly features. Though on holiday this wasn’t as much of an issue, it certainly will be for anyone travelling with work in tow.

Last Thoughts

Chromebooks in a café

Chromebooks in a café

When I returned from my trip and switched on the desktop for the first time in nearly two weeks, I couldn’t help but open up the Chromebook again. The Chrome OS experience isn’t perfect, but the potential is overflowing in the near seamless integration between OS and browser.

Whilst Linux, OS X, and Windows still offer an, as yet, unmatched experience, Chrome OS is shaping up slowly but surely. Whether browsing, writing, or even coding, a humble Chromebook may be all you need in a bustling airport, quaint cafe, or the cozy comforts of your own living room.

Beginning your own Chromebook adventure soon? Check out our getting started guide for pointers.

  • ojdon

    Neutron Drive is definitely the IDE you need if you want to have Google Drive integration. Fantastic IDE from a fantastic developer. Last month it just received real-time collaboration so you can now share projects between other users.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1658495863 Curtis Alan Mitchell

    This was a pretty good read. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on Chrome Remote Desktop if you ever experiment with that,

  • registeringwithdisqusisapain

    I would think that a decent RDC or VNC web app would get me to a development system pretty quickly from ChromeBook, as it does from any tablet. Did you try that?

  • binaryphile

    As a web developer myself, I first thought a Chromebook would just be a less “touch-y” tablet replacement with a keyboard, one that would let me watch movies without having to find a stand. Since I’m mostly unix-oriented in my development, I knew the SSH client would still let me do development on a work machine or VPS when I needed.

    However, I’ve been amazed to learn of the native support for ubuntu apps (including all of the development tools, ruby, vim, etc) available through crouton. You don’t even have to dual boot, just open crosh and run a couple commands, and you have a choice of X or cli ubuntu with everything except ARM versions of third-party commercial apps. Amazing. I stopped short of installing mysql but local rails development with sqlite is eminently doable.

    Secure Shell extension:https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/secure-shell/pnhechapfaindjhompbnflcldabbghjo?hl=en

    Crosh Window app (lets all Ctrl sequences through in fullscreen): https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/crosh-window/nhbmpbdladcchdhkemlojfjdknjadhmh

    Crouton: https://github.com/dnschneid/crouton

  • Roger Siegenthaler

    Might I suggest http://friendco.de for all your coding needs ;).

  • w1ngnut

    I find Chrome OS fascinating for what it CAN be. So far tough, it’s already a good system for average users but not to us devs but certainly that they will come. And when it does, probably it will be a much better experience than most of the linux distros out there.

    Great review!!

  • Henri Vickers

    Vim is available in dev mode

  • Tyler Shelton

    Why would a “raft of keyboard shortcuts” be seen as an impediment to UI beauty/simplicity?

    A robust keyboard shortcut system is one of the easiest ways to *achieve* a beautiful and simple interface, in that it provides a slew of features that are out of the way of casual users, while providing people who wish to learn them with a fast and simple way of working.

  • David Armstrong

    Sam, as a writer, did you not wish for a larger screen? I often write with a 13 in display and have not considered the Chromebook just because of screen size. I do use a Chromebox, sometimes.
    The getting started guide is a great help, thanks.

    • Sam Tran

      The Chromebook’s screen can fit about two thirds of an 8.5″ x 11″ page in GDocs when I minimise the toolbar and go fullscreen. That’s been enough so far for the creative and academic work I’ve written on it, though coding is a little more difficult with the limited vertical space. Then again I’ve also had trouble fitting everything I need into a 3600×1080 desktop!

  • http://twitter.com/ThomRaven Thomas Raven

    While I use my Chromebook frequently, there are a large number of things it certainly doesn’t do well. Among them is long-format writing. I attempted to write a novel using google docs and found there was a cap on how many characters a document could contain! I now use this machine as a couch computer. It’s more readily comparable to a tablet or mobile device than to a full-fledged computer. As such, I find it to be a great machine. Just don’t expect to eek productivity out of it.

  • Rod

    Can’t help but a Chromebook is just something to play with. I had one from a friend. Gave it back to him. Not even as a present. Sorry. All cloud based? Sure I upload all my important files to Google LOL. Sure sure.

  • http://www.techmansworld.com/ Michael Hazell

    In reply to the developers aspect of the Chromebook, this OS itself wasn’t really intended for developers to make production code. That is what a full blown computer is for.

  • Craig Wessel

    I am looking into one of these, for two reasons. One to play around with it, and two the option to have 100GB of storage on Google Drive Free for 2 years. That’s perfect for my needs. I’ll have graduated from High School in two years anyways, if I get this over the summer, so after 2 years, I won’t really need the 100GB on google drive as I’ll have my two full-blown laptops and my two desktop towers to do work on for college. :P

    • Coady

      I like turtles

      • Adrian

        That was hilarious, no doubt. But uncalled for, No Soul.

  • Buster

    My thoughts exactly. As a new Chromebook user, I was first blown away that I had the entire interface set up in less than 10min, fully updated and all.
    I have a few gripes with the OS and hardware as a whole, but overall I have to have respect for the darn thing. It’s easy to mention all the negatives about the device, but the potential and simplicity of it outweighs all that.
    I’ve always said “Apple and Microsoft need to have a drunken night and produce a kid”, well this is pretty close. It’s not stellar, but it’s pretty good. My biggest gripe is basically the same as cell phone apps, I want them to do more and offer a way to save locally.

  • Nikolas Nikolaou

    I want to buy a chromebook , but i have some questions before i do so , basically i need a cheap computer, what i mostly use on my macbook or windows laptop is internet – browser / firefox or chrome is ok for me , then i need Remote desktop (windows RDC ) and VNC ( not 100% necessary ) also the most important for me is terminal … i search the internet and cannot find somewhere to tell me that there is a linux terminal … ( only in devel mode) Is it possible to always boot in developers mode ? Also is there any media player like VLC to play media stream (http://ip:port)

    Thank you in advance!

  • http://superduper.net/ Sam Clegg

    These days you can actually use vim on a chromebook: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/vim/dhhoacdlegcbdglbfnhgnlchpkdlofkb