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Life With A Chromebook: First Impressions February 21, 2014

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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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?

The Hardware

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.

The Software

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.

First Impressions

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.

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Comments»

1. Grant Wagner - February 23, 2014

I’m anxious to hear how the thin client experience worked for you day-in/day-out and if you expect to turn your enterprise data over to Google or duplicate the back-end in-house.

Chuck Musciano - February 23, 2014

Grant, I’ll be covering my day-to-day successes and struggles in upcoming posts, including some thoughts on what makes an enterprise ready to adopt Chromebooks. Some things turned out to be easier than I thought, and some things are still is extremely difficult.

2. Adam - February 23, 2014

While businesses have been slow to adopt Chromebooks, the technology does make sense for certain use cases. As the devices improve, more and more businesses will find groups of employees or even entire departments that can enjoy the benefits that Chromebooks offer, such as ease of use, quick start-up, etc.

But the major issue for many businesses will be giving up their Windows applications. Not everyone can do that. However, there are solutions, based on HTML5 technology, that allow browser-based access to such applications. For example, Ericom’s AccessNow HTML5 RDP solution enables Chromebook users to securely connect to Terminal Server or VDI virtual destops (or almost any RDP host) and run their applications and desktops in a browser.

AccessNow does not require any installation on the Chromebook.

For an online demo open your Chrome browser and visit:
http://www.ericom.com/demo_AccessNow.asp?URL_ID=708

Please note that I work for Ericom.

Chuck Musciano - February 23, 2014

Adam, you’re touching on something that I’ll address in more detail in a follow-up post. Windows-native apps are the Achilles heel of Chromebooks; the enterprise implications of supporting some sort of VDI are crucial to the success (or failure) of Chromebooks on a large scale.

3. Saqib Ali - February 23, 2014

I have been using ChromeOS since it was launched, and use it as my primary desktop at work. That’s not to say that I can do all my work on a ChromeOS device. Far from it. While I can do a lot of work-related tasks on a ChromeOS device, I still need a traditional OS and windows apps. Luckily my workplace provides VMware Hosted Virtual Desktops which I can easily access from ChromeOS. This setup allows me to use ChromeOS as my primary computer and have access to a Windows hosted virtual machine when needed. So ChromeOS works nicely in enterprise if you can pair it with a traditional OS (virtual or physical) 🙂

I have also used Citrix published apps on ChromeOS using the Citrix Receiver for ChromeOS. That works nicely too.

Chuck Musciano - February 23, 2014

Saqib, you’ve illustrated why Chromebooks exist as an extra device, not a replacement device. I suspect both you and Adam will have more to say after a few more posts.

Saqib Ali - February 23, 2014

Looking forward to reading your future posts on this topic. ChromeOS in enterprise is a topic that is near and dear to me. I am very impressed with the secure nature and simplicity of management of ChromeOS. Makes them a good fit for enterprise. Enterprises switching to ChromeOS will not see reduced IT costs right way. In fact there will be an increase in IT cost during the initial roll-out. But overtime, I think, the IT management overhead for ChromeOS will go down drastically. I have been using ChromeOS since 2011, and have forgotten what a virus / malware is. The OS updates itself in a seamless fashion, with no user interruption. In fact, I have become so accustomed to the verified secure environment of ChromeOS that I can’t even think of logging into my bank account, or work websites if I am not on a ChromeOS device.

Adam - February 24, 2014

I’m also interested in seeing those posts. As Chromebooks become more popular and accepted, more enterprises will look at it as an option.

The Chromebox might also become an option, especially for call centers or data-entry functions.

4. nemasketMark - February 24, 2014

“that purport to replace traditional laptops with a more elegant, cloud-based alternative”. I’m not so sure that is a fair characterization of the Chromebook’s raison d’etre. I love my chromebook but I would never sugest that it can fully replace a regular laptop. I see it as being a secure fast cheap device that does 90% of what I need. I also see the chromebook more as an alternative to tablets. Let’s face it – tablets are good for consuming content but suck at creating content. By the time you purchase, attach, and carry a bluetooth keyboard – you might as well just use a chromebook.

Saqib Ali - February 24, 2014

Mark,

You are right. That 10% that requires traditional OS is the key. I have been trying to minimize dependencies on traditional native apps and move my workflows to HTML5 / cloud apps. And I think, as an ecosystem we are getting to a point where browser based apps outdo the the traditional native OS apps.

Offline access is also important for a successful transition to web-based apps. Google is doing a good job with offline access with Google Docs and Google Mail. But they can do better. They recently added offline support for Google Spreadsheets. Microsoft needs to work on pure HTML 5 offline capabilities for Office Web Apps. I love Microsoft Office Web Apps, but I can’t and won’t start using it till they provide pure browser based HTML5 offline access to those apps.

Saqib

5. Rich Santoriello - February 25, 2014

We have the same issues as others have previously mentioned as such I an extremely interested in your findings. However, one thing seems to stand out time and time again is global collaboration with audio and video in a group environment. I would be very interested if that subject will be addressed with your testing.

Chuck Musciano - February 28, 2014

Rich,

As you would expect, the Chromebook works flawlessly with Google Hangouts, with both the internal camera and a USB webcam.

I tried to install the Skype web plugin, but no one will be surprised to learn that the install process outlined by Microsoft did not work and I was never able to get a browser-based version of Skype installed or working.

There may other tools that do work. If you try one, please share your results!

Chuck

6. Life With A Chromebook, Part 1 | The Effective CIO @Bookmarked #BM - Philip Stephens - November 24, 2015

[…] 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. https://effectivecio.com/2014/02/21/chromebook-1/?blogsub=confirming#subscribe-blog […]


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