Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Electroplated Computer

A couple of months ago I broke down and bought a Chromebook. If you’re technology inclined (read, geek) you probably have an idea what that entails. If you’re not, perhaps a little explaining is in order.

One bright sunny day awhile back Google decided to do it’s own operating system. It was a brilliant idea, if somewhat random on account there are already some pretty damn good operating systems out there. This new OS would rock hard by loading super fast, run on cheap hardware, and do everything out on the magical interwebs.

They call it Chrome OS.

Chrome the operating system is a different beast than Chrome the Internet browser you might (and should) use on your PC, tablet, or mobile. Just like Windows, OSX, iOS or Android, Chrome OS runs the whole machine, accessing disk drives and memory cards, managing files, displaying the screen, and so on. The Chrome browser, on the other hand, is a program that runs on top of the OS and displays web pages. Chrome the browser won’t run without an operating system to power all that other stuff.

Here’s some quick linkage to a video that does a great job of explaining Chrome OS.

The cool thing about Chrome OS is that just about everything you do is done on the Internet through the browser. There are only a few programs stored on the computer itself. Don’t go freaking out. This is a Good Thing. This article by Dan Tynan on Yahoo! Tech news is an excellent rundown of some of the pluses and minus of a Chrome OS computer.

Point is, it’s very different than a traditional Microsoft Windows or Apple OSX laptop. Those machines are loaded up with tons of programs, drivers, interfaces, and other miscellaneous crap that slow them down and clutter them up significantly. A Chromebook, on the other hand, only grabs stuff you need when you need it. Put simply, the fucker is light, simple, and fast.

Why jump ship and go with something so radically different?

Two reasons.

First, I like new things. New techy techy things. The more different they are the more I’m drawn to them. Back in the day, I bought a TRS-80 Color Computer instead of an Apple II or Commodore 64 like everyone else. I didn’t give in and jump to the IBM PC clones for years and years, and when I did I bought a Tandy instead of a Dell or an IBM. The Tandy computer was different. When I finally did jump into PC compatibility I ran an alternate operating system called DR DOS instead of Microsoft DOS. I used Norton Commander instead of Windows 1.0. More recently, I chose the HTC One M8 as my new phone over the Galaxy S5 or iPhone 5s.

A Chromebook running Chrome OS has a lot of appeal because it does what it does very well and it’s very different from traditional laptops. I like that.

Second, price. When you’re in the market and you’re on a budget, the difference between $300 and $500 is huge. I know, I know. The technorati don’t consider that a big factor. For the rest of us in the real world, it matters. Being a tech junkie geek on a budget sucks sometimes. Chrome based computers are cheap and kickass.

A cheap, fast computer that does just about everything you want it to do? Yes, please. After using it for a couple of months, I believe Google and their hardware partners have gotten closer than anyone before them to this ‘internet computer’ thing.

What I like?

Updates and new features are easy. Google can change and update this OS endlessly and seamlessly. Updating my daughter’s Windows 8.0 machine to 8.1 has been a major issue. It still won’t update because she missed 142 previous updates. 142. I shit you not. At this point I’ve gotten it down to 80 some odd updates left after a full day of downloading and restarting, each restart taking from 15 to 45 minutes. Much cussing with gusto and vehemence ensued, I assure you.

I haven’t cussed at the Chromebook once. Well, maybe once because of the delete key, but other than that...

With Chrome OS, the update is just there. It restarted on the last update once and it took less than 15 seconds. That’s seconds. Serious. It’s fast not because it’s turbo charged with a lot of hardware but because it’s light. Quick, like the puma. No junk, just the good stuff.

Want to make it do more stuff? Go to the Google Chrome Store, find the app, click install, use the app. Total time (minus browsing and searching) about… oh… let’s say 30 seconds to be conservative. Most load up in about 10 seconds. It’s like apps on your smartphone except they live on the internet instead of in the device itself.

Google also revamps and improves the OS constantly and for free. No upgrade fees, disks, or fretting involved. Here’s a quick article on The Verge about some of the improvements Google has planned for this year including new interface changes, integration with your smartphone (notifications, calls, text message, etc. from your phone showing up on your computer automagically), and the ability to run Android apps on Chrome OS.
It’s insanely awesome.

In fact, using Google’s services, some integration is already available and I’m completely enamored with it. Google Now picks up anything I do on the Chromebook and starts showing me context cards on my phone. It works the other way, as well, with Google Now notifications showing up on the Chromebook. ‘Ok Google’ is one of my new favorite phrases and Now kicks the shit out of Siri. Seriously.

I’m also enjoying the Acer c720p Chromebook machine itself. Few Chromebooks at the moment have touch screens, although apparently Google is encouraging manufacturers to starting adding them more often. The c720p does have screen that likes to be fondled and it fondles quite well. It’s no iPad, don’t get me wrong. But for basic navigation it works great when paired with the keyboard and Chrome OS’s wide variety of handy dandy keyboard shortcuts.

The only complaint I have is I’d like a much bigger and brighter screen. The c720p comes with 11.6” screen at 1366x768 at a 16:9 aspect ratio. There also doesn’t appear to be a contrast control (just brightness). This is fine for web browsing, basic anti-productivity, and autoplay next episode marathons of death on Netflix. 13” or 14” would be better. For the price, though, it’s not a stinker.

Speaking of all nighters, the battery life is quite nice. In highly scientific test involving me and a wild ass guess I’d say the battery lasts all day under normal use. I like that Acer included a super long power cord with the machine, as well. Very kind.

There are a few quirks. No deal breakers, just quirky bits. For example, sometimes a link on a web page is too small to tap on the screen. So you either have to use the touchpad to precisely position the cursor, or pinch to zoom and then tap. If you browse on a smartphone you’re use to this problem. I’m not. I don’t like browsing web pages on a tablet or phone. It’s a bag of ass.

The instances of this happening are few and far between (and usually are the result of shite web design), and the Acer Chromebook handles it pretty well. Still, better screen with better touch controls would be divine and certainly doable.

Another one is the lack of a delete key on the keyboard. If you grew up using the backspace key you’ll be fine. If you’re of the delete key school of keyboarding, you know what I mean. See, back in the old days, some computers didn’t have a backspace key. They had a delete key. You position the cursor to the left of a word and then hit delete. The computer removes the character to the right of the cursor. With backspace you position the cursor to the right of the word and then delete to the left. The Chromebook forces you to use the backspace method and it’s madding for old geeks like me.

I’m slowly getting use to it, but sometimes I feel like going all Samuel L. Jackson. ‘I don’t remember telling you to delete a damn thing to the left, motherfucker!’

A minor quibble, perhaps.

The front facing camera is crap, too. Very grainy and jumpy. It’s not a feature I ever use (I’m not a video call kinda guy) but it’s something to consider if you’re into the selfie thing.

Expectations are important here. Again, not a laptop. Also, not a tablet. A lot of people say it’s a ‘tween device, but I don’t see it. Honestly, these devices stand on their own. Cheaper and 90% as functional as a laptop and way more useful than a tablet. As the world’s fascination with tablets continues to wane, I can see devices like the Chromebook becoming better and more prevalent.

The Chromebook is the answer to the ‘smartphone is too small but a laptop is too much’ problem. To be frank, it solves the issue much better than a tablet in most cases. With the exception of games, which are just better on PC or console, I find myself using the Chromebook considerably more often than my PC or tablet.

Take researching on the web as a big fat for instance. Open the Chromebook. It’s instant on. I mean, like, by the time you get the screen open it’s on and ready. Just like your phone. Say, ‘OK Google’ and then what you want. Done. It’s computing in easy mode.

Taping through the pages with the touchscreen makes life simple, just like using a tablet. When needed, the keyboard is there for quick text entry. Flipping between the two is surprisingly intuitive. To the point that when I’m on my desktop I sometimes unconsciously reach up to tap the screen now. Oops.

I’ll never have another machine without a touchscreen. Nope. Too much awesome in such a simple concept.

Basic productivity is all there through Google Drive and the Google suite of applications. The joy of seamlessly switching between desktop, Chromebook, phone, or tablet and back again without having to move, copy or jump through hoops on fire is a joy. You can even use Microsoft’s stuff, it you prefer.

When I write on the Chromebook the updated document is there on the phone and desktop a few seconds later. Pictures from the phone are available to the Chromebook as close to immediately as you’re likely to get. When I make a note on Evernote it’s automagically on my phone. My calendar is updated across all the devices through Google’s services and the Chromebook is an excellent and optimized portal to those services.

What I’d like next? A Chromebook with better hardware, particularly a much better screen, that doubles as a tablet. I would use Chrome OS on a tablet if they improved the touch screen and gestures available to the machine. If it runs Android apps, I don’t see why not. Port WoW to Android and fully integrate it with my phone and I’d never need another computer. Hell, yeah!

Until the next new computer comes out, of course, but until then...

The Chromebook with Chrome OS is getting close to the promise of seamless computing between devices in simple and efficient form. A lot of companies are promising it. Google is too busy delivering it. And it’s only going to get better. While you can certainly do similar things with a PC or a Mac, with the Chromebook it’s built in and available right out the box. It’s not something you make it do, or have to think about, it just does it.

I like that.

-CDE, July 2014

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