Life With A Chromebook: First Impressions February 21, 2014Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
Tags: Chromebook, Google
Throughout my career as a CIO, I’ve long believed that any and all technology should be thoroughly explored by the IT team before it is ever deployed to (or inflicted upon) our end users. Whenever possible, I like to use new tools myself to really understand what my users will experience.
To that end, I have recently developed an interest in Chromebooks: inexpensive laptops running Google’s Chrome OS that purport to replace traditional laptops with a more elegant, cloud-based alternative. Reviews of the more recent Chromebooks have been very positive, and by some metrics, Chromebooks represented 20 percent of all laptop sales in 2013. With such favorable reviews and market momentum, could Chromebooks become a viable replacement for enterprise laptops and desktops?
There was only one way to find out: try a Chromebook for myself. And so it came to pass that, two weeks ago, I set aside my much-beloved Lenovo X1 laptop and began using an HP Chromebook 14 as my only computing device, day in and day out. Could I successfully remain productive and effective in a traditional enterprise computing environment?
There are a number of very good Chromebooks available from a variety of manufacturers. For my experiment, I chose the HP Chromebook 14 for one simple reason: a 14-inch display. Most other Chromebooks sport an 11-inch screen, but I really need a larger screen to be productive. Even so, the HP 14 is roughly the same size as my Lenovo X1 and weighs right around four pounds. All in all, it is a very manageable, portable device.
Except for the screen, the HP 14 is fairly similar to other Chromebooks: 16 GB of storage, 4 GB of RAM, wifi networking, Bluetooth, three USB ports, an HDMI port, SD card slot, and a webcam. In this configuration, the HP 14 is $349 at Walmart. You read that right: $349. At Walmart.
If you can make do with a smaller display and can live with fewer ports and less RAM, you can get devices from HP, Asus, and others for as little as $199. And therein lies the first compelling feature of a Chromebook from the enterprise perspective: price. These devices are so inexpensive that If it breaks or malfunctions, the cheapest solution is to throw it away and buy a new one. No repairs, no service calls, no spare parts, dying batteries, or screen replacements. Just throw it away and start over.
Don’t let the low price mislead you: the build quality and overall feel of the HP 14 is excellent. The screen is clear and bright, the keyboard and trackpad usable and accurate. Reviews of recently released Chromebooks from other manufacturers tell of similar build quality. I did have problems with the webcam, but I was able to exchange my first unit for a replacement at Walmart without question. Really: walked into Walmart, walked out with a replacement thirty minutes later. After dealing with device repairs at a corporate level for 25 years, it was exhilarating.
The HP 14 does have one unique feature: an LTE cellular radio. The unit comes with a T-Mobile SIM card and 200MB monthly cellular data plan, free for the life of the unit. T-Mobile is happy to sell you a larger data plan, but 200MB each month is perfect for occasional light usage when you are between access points. You’ll never stream Netflix with that data cap, but you can check email on the fly or browse a few web sites during a layover. I initially thought this feature was a bit much, but found it to be useful in a pinch, especially at the price.
Regardless of manufacturer, all Chromebooks run the same operating system: Chrome OS from Google. Chrome OS provides the foundation to run the Chrome browser atop the Chromebook hardware. Everything you do in a Chromebook, with minor exceptions, actually occurs in Chrome. Even so-called “apps” in Chrome OS run within a Chrome tab or window, and offline versions of certain apps are scripted to provide some functionality without an internet connection.
The simplicity of this cannot be overstated. There are no patches, no managed updates, no viruses, no drivers, no executables, and no software installations. There is one universal version of Chrome OS, and you get the latest version automatically when it is released by Google. My Chromebook updated soon after I first turned it on; the whole process took about thirty seconds.
Google offers an App Store for Chrome OS, with hundreds of apps you can install on your Chromebook. Don’t read a whole lot into that: almost all the apps are simply packaged links to web-based tools that open and run within a Chrome window. A small number of apps have the ability to function without an internet connection (a calculator, for example, or a simple text editor), but most everything you’ll really need for day-to-day productivity occurs in a web-connected Chrome window.
Oddly enough, apps in Chrome OS are much like far more sophisticated versions of apps on the original iPhone. The first iPhone had no apps at all, but clever developers built browser-based tools and games that felt like apps within the iPhone browser. Web development has advanced substantially since the first iPhone, but the fundamental model is the same.
Beyond apps, Chrome OS features a familiar desktop. Once you log in with your Google account credentials, you’ll see a taskbar across the bottom, a status tray over to the right, and a icon on the left that opens a menu with all your available apps. An initial Chrome window invites you to start doing something; clicking the app icons within the app menu opens the appropriate website in an additional tab within Chrome.
So what is really like to start using this thing?
I took my Chromebook out of the box and opened it. It booted in literally 8 seconds and found my local wireless network. I provided the passkey and a few seconds later, was prompted for my Google credentials. A few moments after that, Chrome began syncing my bookmarks and such and I was able to use Chrome just like I do on any other device. Even my Chrome extensions installed and started without intervention on my part.
Emboldened by my first five minutes of success, I began pushing the envelope. I paired a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard, which worked the first time. I added a Logitech wireless mouse by plugging the mini-receiver into a USB port. That also worked the first time. I even plugged in my webcam, which worked the first time.
You may sense pattern here: “worked the first time.” You’ll note that the words “install,” “driver,” “update,” and “reboot” do not appear in the previous paragraph. You plug things in, the Chromebook does what you would expect it to do.
I decided to tempt fate and plugged in my 1080p HD monitor using the HDMI port on the Chromebook. The Chromebook instantly recognized the device and added a second desktop, at full HD resolution, next to the native 1366×768 display. I could move windows between the two desktops, just as you would expect. I closed the Chromebook’s lid and was greeted with a message saying that the Chromebook would stay on, using the monitor as a single HD display. I almost fell off my chair. Getting that to work with my Lenovo X1 took the better part of a day; the Chromebook did exactly what I wanted in 30 seconds without a single click or prompt.
All in all, my first moments with a Chromebook were as good as you could possibly imagine, far exceeding my expectations. But a great first date is one thing; could we settle down and marry for life? As with any relationship, long-term success is based on mutual compatibility, which I’ll explore in more detail in my next post.