The Apple iPad Mini and Microsoft Surface may be dominating the news this week, but I've been fascinated by Google's most recent addition to the Chromebook line: an ARM-based Samsung model running Chrome OS. At $249, the device is probably the cheapest useful mainstream laptop I've ever seen. It follows in the wake of earlier devices in the same range, one of which I happen to have bought for myself about a month ago.
The big surprise: My experiences using a Chromebook for a month have been so good I believe it deserves serious consideration.
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While it's not being talked about in this way, the Chromebook line is probably the most successful Linux desktop/laptop computer we've seen to date. Most of the software on the device is open source and it relies heavily on open standards. The options for updating it yourself are openly discussed, and enterprising hackers have even loaded full GNU/Linux distributions onto it.
The HTML5 road machine
I've not done that; I don't need another hobby. Instead, I've tried to use the Chromebook exactly as it was delivered. I'm now using it for almost everything. I bought the Samsung 550 model with the optional support for 3G data access because I don't want to be dependent on Wi-Fi access. Apart from that, it's likely my experiences would have been exactly the same on any Chromebook, including the new low-cost ARM-based versions.
The setup process is pretty much what you'd expect from a Web appliance. I unpacked it from its plain vanilla box and opened the lid; immediately the Chromebook turned on and led me through a few steps to make it my own. I plugged it in to make sure the battery was able to charge and got started. After I gave it my Google email address and password, it almost instantly downloaded the bookmarks, preferences, and extensions I use on Chrome on my MacBook Pro. It was up and running, and I was productively browsing in just a few minutes.
You'd expect that part to be easy. But I need to be able to write articles, gather research clippings and notes, stay in touch with people, and handle pictures. I was skeptical that the Chromebook would be able to help with these; instead, I figured it would mainly act as the "lounge browser" by the family after I'd checked it out. Indeed, when it arrived I found it gave me great HTML5 browsing -- the cool toys on the Chrome Experiments site worked really well.
Hanging out offline
As it turns out, I got quite a bit more. The device comes with Google's Drive cloud storage service pre-installed, as well as shortcuts for creating new documents, spreadsheets, and presentations on Drive. They all work offline once Offline Mode is enabled in the Drive Web page. Google uses the local storage ability of HTML5, so enabling this mode starts a caching process that makes the most recently used documents available locally. The same applies to Google Calendar and to Gmail; as a result, the Chromebook is just as useful as an Android or iOS device for the basics of personal productivity, even without a Wi-Fi or 3G connection.
There's also an SD card slot, so I experimented with uploading photographs. The experience was identical to that of any other browser: Select the files from the file browser and upload. The file browser application on the Chromebook supports SD cards, USB sticks (via the two USB ports), and Google Drive. The easiest way to manage file upload and download is to drag and drop between Google Drive and local storage in the file browser. With the ubiquity of Google Drive, Google's current offer to Chromebook owners (100GB of storage, free for two years) is very useful.