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Life with the Samsung Chromebook

April 21, 2013

I know it is another tech blog. Don't worry I'll try to make the next one a "What I'm up to" or maybe an endless rant about something but I got a new toy. It's a new toy that I have advise a few people against but after logging a lot of time on my desktop and aging Sony Vaio Notebook building the new site. The Sony is about 3 years old and though it is showing it's age is still a pretty responsive Windows 7 machine. I have a few upgrades in mind in the near future to give it a slight longer life but I was increasingly finding myself dreading pulling the thing out. Especially while on the go. Even when it was new, I was lucky to get two hours of uses out of it before the battery started to die and there is waiting for the thing to boot.

 

What this device needed to be was something that was a lot more portable then my Notebook, with a much longer battery life but more useful then my Samsung Galaxy S3 for editing the site on the go and answering e-mails. You would think tablet right? Well, I'm sorry I find the things as useless as a phone when it comes to any task that might involve typing. Even with a bluetooth keyboard it doesn't really replace the efficacy of the notebook design with a touchpad. I want to be able to operate a majority of the UI through a keyboard. 

 

You can call me old fashion and maybe it's just the fact that I have been working in this form factor for so long but I can get a great deal more done with this traditional design than I could every get done with a tablet. I think this is in part because I don't find the touch interface effective. It could be my big man hands but I can easily become frustrated having to pinch to zoom and scroll around to do something that would normally take a click. 

 

The other problem with tablets is the fact that regardless of the UI it greatly relies on apps to do event the most simple tasks. There is also the issue that often when I'm even answering an e-mail it may require that I open another app to get information or a link and let's face it the multitasking on all of the tablet OSs, suck. 

 

How does the Chromebook fit?

 

I tend to do a lot of pre-shopping before buying something. In fact, to a degree it is one of the most enjoyable parts of buying a new toy. I even tend to check reviews after I've bought a product just to see what other people think of it and to see if there is a hint or uses that I'm not aware of. After reading through a number of reviews, I noticed the subject of the need for Chromebooks in the first place kept coming up over and over. 

 

Like any tool, especially specialty tools you really have to consider how you would use the tool and if you need the tool. I really started to consider what how I even use my desktop. Other than games, some image editing and media storage, everything else is done through my browser. I listen to music through Spotify, Amazon, Google Music or Sony Unlimited. All of my e-mail is handled through gmail. A majority of my media entertainment comes through ether Netflix, Hulu Plus or Amazon Plus. I update my websites through the CMS interface through my browers. Even getting files on to my host server is done through the Cpanel interface. I can't remember the last time that I used an FTP program for anything. Even with gaming I rarely play on a computer, choosing the experience of  playing on a 46 inch screen with PS3 instead. 

 

So the three main things that chromebook can't handle is the 400g of media files that I have stored on my desktop, notebook, home desktop and external hard drive. The only real time this comes up is when I'm either posting to the site or a social media site and for the most part they are more of an archive of files than something that I use daily. Granted it is nice to have access to those files from time to time but it's not something I need all the time. Think about it when was the last time you found the need for that set of photos of the family Christmas from 2000?

 

Out of all the reviews that I read or viewed, no one seemed to point out this fact. The closest they came was to state something to the degree, "If you already use Google services, you might find it useful."  This is a bit of an understatement if you consider the difference in which a majority of people use their computer for. I've been living in the cloud for sometime now. I think the first thing to get dumped was Outlook which was quickly followed by the whole suite of Office. All were easily replaced by Google Drive and Gmail. At first this was an issue of money but I quickly found have to no longer have to back up documents and being able to access them anywhere more desirable. Yes, there are limitations with both but everything you need to get the job done are there. Plus nothing is worst then trying to remember which machine you have what doc on.

 

So yes a Chromebook is limited but it allows the user to access cloud based applications quickly in a compact mobile format that is more usable than a tablet or a mobile device. The other advantage is the longer battery life and a light OS than traditional OS. Meaning that you can open it and it is on in a few seconds. The other advantage is price, $250 on average which puts it at the low end of tablets and Laptops. 

 

Will the ChromeBook fit my needs?

 

Now I think it is important to point out that everything the chromebook does is through the browser. Other than a few native apps, you will need to have a connection to the internet. So you need to consider where and when you are going to use it. If you are like me a majority of the time you are within the signal of a wifi network but if you are going to be spending time outside of one unless you can teether to your mobile phone or have some other Mobile wifi device, you are going to find the thing useless. So you really want to consider where and how you will be using it.

 

If you are worried about how useful the Chromebook will be I really suggest that you go to the Google Web Store and try out some of the apps. A majority of them can be added to your Chrome Browser. I was really surprised by not only the number of apps but how useful they were. I found that Pixlr Editor can handle a majority of my image editing needs that I would usually do in GIMP and Gmail offline give Gmail a outlook like interface. There are countless other productivity and accounting apps that I haven't really had time to play with. If you are looking for entertainment there are apps for Spotify, Hulu and Netflix and I had no problem streaming from Amazon Prime. 

 

Useful for you if:

  1. You always have access to a wifi connection. There is a 3g model for additional cost.
  2. You do a majority of your online activity through a browser.
  3. You can work with only cloud storage or can deal with the limited storage provided or expanded with SD or external memory like a flash drive.
  4. You find the Google applications and extensions useful. I highly suggest installing applications and extensions on your current machine to get a feeling for weather you can live with them.
  5. You need a light, quick booting machine to use for media consumption and activity that is handled through a browser.
  6. Not going to play PC Games that require native applications.
  7. You need a small portable device with a keyboard and 6 hours of battery life.
  8. You would like to stream video or presentations through HDMI.
  9. You would like to video chat using gtalk and Google + Hangout and don't mind the low resolution of the built in camera. 
  10. If you want a secure and automatically updated OS.

 

Not Useful for You:

  1. If you are going to be without aces to a wifi connection.
  2. If you need to use a lot of native applications.
  3. If you need access to a large media achieve stored on your machine.
  4. If you functions that are not found in Google applications and extensions.
  5. If you need to have files that are encrypted or only stored off line. I'm sure there are work around but I could not get the Chromebook to read files off of my encrypted external hard drive.
  6. If you need an optic drive to access files or watch DVD/Bluray disc. There is no optic drive. It goes without say that you can not burn files to disc either.
  7. If you are going to want to play PC games that require a native application or a disc to play.
  8. If you are going to need uses that is longer than 6 hours without charging. Since the battery is not removable, you can't carry a spare with you.
  9. If you would like to stream quality video. 
  10. If you would like to upgrade your machines. Google does not allow upgrades. In fact it will brick the device if you change the hardware.

 

Using the thing in Real Life:

 

Since the operating system is so light and you have a 16g SSD, the thing boots from completely off in about 30 second and I notice no delay from sleep mode(see the video at http://youtu.be/8Rrhb_YdQ5Q. In fact I found it somewhat faster than my phone. If you are needing an always on device for quick access to the web and web application, I can't think of a better choice. Though I did notice a great deal of lag when launching Spotify but I even get that on my desktop. Also because I'm in the habit of having 5 to 6 to 10 browser tabs open at one time, I think it is important to point out that I did notice that from time to time, there was a lag switching from tab to tab. When you get around 8 tabs it seems to shutdown the tab and then when you re-open the tab it has to reload the page. I don't think it is completely closing the tab because I have had tabs open that I was writing an e-mail or editing a page on the site and didn't lose any data I hadn't saved.

 

I've had no problem editing, updating or installing additional scripts on my Drupal sites or using cpanel. In fact, I installed a development version of Drupal 8 on a sub-domain and did all of it on the Chromebook without an issue.

 

Working in the cloud, access to Google Drive and Dropbox have both been seamless. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu played without an issue. I haven't really played with Google Music, Amazon Cloud or Sony Music but since even their normal interface is through a browser I do think there will be an issue. 

 

I like to keep my laptop next to the bed and do the last bit of checking e-mail, browse a bit or watch a video before going to sleep. The size makes it a great belly computer. Light and easy to use. Videos look great and about the only thing I would ask they added would be a back lit keyboard for uses in the dark.

 

The keyboard is very responsive and well spaced and the only thing that I really miss is the "home" and "end" key. The short cut is a game of twister requiring alt + control + arrow up for Home and the arrow down for end. Most of the other shortcuts are the same as the Chrome Browser. Samsung added a bunch of media keys where the function keys normally would be and create easy access to a number of often used functions like volume up and down, screen brightness and mute. The others seem to be focused on web browser which really seem pointless to me but could be useful.

 

The touch pad is a single pad without any buttons and take a few minutes to get used to. Single finger click handles the function of a traditional left click. While two finger click handles the function of a traditional right click. I have struggled with this one because from time to time it seems to only notice one finger. Scrolling is done by sliding two fingers across the pad and I have to say that I have found it really responsive and better than a lot of scrolling gestures on laptop touch pads. Drag and drop does take a little getting used to, you click the item with one finger and move it with the another finger and release by pulling both fingers away. 

 

Signing on to a wifi was pretty straight forward and without issue. Even when tethering with my phone, it worked without issue which I can't say about my other machines. Haven't really played with bluetooth 3.0 that much but the interface seems more straight forward than windows. 

 

The headphones jack is on the left hand side and is one of the tightest plugs I've experienced in years. Though I haven't tested it, it can handle headphone/mic combinations in much the same way that a mobile phone would. Next to the headphone jack is the 3-1(SD/SDHC/SDXC) SD Card slot to expand memory or excess additional storage. 

 

I really haven't done much with the camera but just the fact that it's a VGA 0.3 Megapixel camera I don't really expect much. The fact is that there are a number of Mobile phones out there with much higher pixel rate but considering that we are talking about a product that is under $300, it isn't surprising that there isn't a better camera. However it is a low point in the product though I can't remember the last time I used a webcam. The question would be whether you could buy a better after market web camera that would work without a native application. 

 

The back is the location of the USB 2.0, USB 3.0, power, and HDMI plugs. The location isn't the best but once again I have to state that I have found all the plugs to be tight and snug. Now how long they will be that way after the where and tear that the location will cause will have to be seen. 

 

It has really replaced a number of the things that I would have turned to my laptop at home for. In fact, I packed up the laptop for a week to see if I could replace it with the Chromebook. In a lot of ways I found the lightness and the size easier to work with around the house. However the smaller screen makes a huge difference in reading smaller fonts when you go from a 19 inch screen to one that is a little over 11 inches. It was often not comfortable to read with the Chromebook sitting in my lap and found the need to zoom in on the site. Though when in the car or sitting at a table where the screen is closer, view and reading was comfortable.

 

Since I was already working from three different machines, I'm using cloud based storage. After years of dealing the mess of trying to sync all my machines, I learned to just store all the project files I needed in the cloud. So, part of the major work was already done. I have hardly touched the 100g of online storage on Google Drive that came with it. The reality is that if you are like me and need files, documents and images on a number of machines, cloud storage is your best bet.  

 

Nerdy details, Comparing to the Macbook Air and conclusion:

 

The thing that kind of bugs me is that you are unable to upgrade the hardware. It is clearly stated that Google will brick the thing if you change the hardware. Along with the fact that the battery can not be replaced points to the fact that the machine is designed to have a life cycle of a set number of years and then thrown out when the replacement hits the market. So you are stuck with what it shipped with unless you want to try to jail break the thing and install another OS. 

 

So if you have to be happy with what you have which isn't really that bad but I have to ask myself how it will stack up to new models in a few years or even months. Currently it sounds pretty good though with a 11.6’’ High-definition LED with a matte finish and 200 cd/m² brightness (1366 x 768), 0.7 inches thin weighing in at 2.42 lbs / 1.1 kg and is 11.8" wide and 8.1" deep.

 

Under the hood is a Samsung Exynos 5 Dual Processor(1.74GHZ), with 2g of memory and 16g of Flash (eMMc) memory. It has built in dual band Wifi 802.11 a/b/g/n, a VGA(0.3 megapixel) Camera, HDMI out, 3in1 SD Card Reader, Bluetooth 3.0, one USB 2.0, and one USB 3.0.

 

Includes 100g of storage on Google Drive for 2 years which I'm guessing is what Google and Samsung see as the life span of the device. I have gotten at least 6 hours of use before having to charge. The battery isn't removable though the case is not glued shut and there are screws, which may allow for a battery to be replaced and minor repairs. The case is plastic but doesn't give the impression of cheapness. In fact, overall the feel is good to great for the price and the weight of the device.

 

Due to it's size and design there has been a lot of comparisons to the Macbook Air. I have to admit that it looks a lot like one and even when I took the photo at the top of the blog Google Goggles thought it was a Macbook Air. Though it makes the same mistake with photos of my Sony Vaio keyboard. It is Samsung which has built a business on producing products that knock offs at more affordable price. Below is a comparison that soemone made in a comment on a review I read(I lost the link, if anyone comes across the link, send it to me to insure the credit goes to the correct person). Keep in mind that Chromebook isn't a native OS and has limited uses but is it really worth $750?

 

Comparing the new ARM Chromebook to Apple Macbook Air 11.6":-

PRICE: 
Macbook=$999
Chromebook=$249

 

DISPLAY: 
11.6-inch 1366x768 for both.

 

STORAGE: 
Macbook= 64GB Flash SSD
Chromebook= 16GB Flash SSD ($50 extra for 64GB Flash SD card to take this up to 80GB)

 

PROCESSOR: 
Macbook= 1.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5
Chromebook= 1.7GHz dual-core ARM A-15 Cortex

 

RAM MEMORY: 
Macbook= 4GB DDR3
Chromebook = 2GB DDR3

 

SIZE AND WEIGHT: 
Macbook= 11.8 in x 7.56 in x 0.68 in. Weight 2.38 lb
Chromebook= 11.4 in x 8.09 in x 0.69 in. Weight 2.43 lb

 

GRAPHICS:
Macbook Air= Intel HD Graphics 4000 integrated graphics
Chromebook= ARM Mail T604 high end integrated graphics

 

RESOLUTION:
1366x768 on built-in display, up to 2560 by 1600 pixels on an external display for both

 

VIDEO OUT: 
Macbook= Mini DisplayPort (requires purchase of adapter for HDMI)
Chromebook= HDMI port

 

USB: 
Macbook= 2 USB 3.0 ports
Chromebook= 1 USB 3.0 port + 1 USB 2.0 port

 

WIRELESS: 
Macbook= 802.11 a/b/g, Bluetooth 4.0
Chromebook= 802.11 a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0

 

KEYBOARD & TRACKPAD: 
Full size keyboard and oversize multi-touch trackpad for both

 

BATTERY: 
Macbook=5 hours continuous use
Chromebook=6.5 hours continuous use and ultra low standby consumption.

 

When concluding, I think it's important to point out that at this point the Chromebook isn't really a replacement for a PC. Now this clearly depends on how you use your computer but if you are really going to want to do computer gaming, the Chromebook will not work for you. I haven't really played with the video editing programs but I'm guessing that it's possible but since there is no optic drive you can't burn to DVD or Bluray. If you are completely digital and happy living in the cloud, then there should be no problem hooking up the HDMI when you want to show a video on a larger screen or transferring the file to a flash drive using the USB 3.0 or 2.0 ports.

 

However the most important point that people seem to miss is with the growing adoption of tablets, smart phone and cloud storage, using a terminal interface with the cloud maybe the future of computers. What Google Chrome is doing is moving the main processing away from PC to the more powerful servers that house the internet. As internet connection speeds increase it's not hard to see cheap terminals connecting calling upon other computers to store files and run programs within the same structure used for the viewing of websites. Which will call for devices that can display and remotely control other computers efficiently.  When you begin to transfer the workload away from the device to a remote device it opens up a whole new world of possibility in portability, interface, implementation, design and affordable devices. 

 

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