musings > technology

This might be the last time you hear me talk about my Chromebook

11 Sep, 2017 | 6 min read

After 2 years, I’ve decided to move on from my Chromebook. On reflection, would I recommend one? It depends…

Two years ago, I left MacBook life and bought a Toshiba Chromebook 2. Convinced that all I really did was write, send emails, and some light web coding (which I would do through CodeAnywhere and a cheap hosting plan), I was confident in my choice. I was also broke. So there was that factor too…

Two years on though, the laptop itself is beginning to show its age, and I’m becoming increasingly aware of the limits of its 2Gb of RAM. More importantly though, my day-to-day is different. My current demand is the ability to do web development on the move. For that, I wanted a laptop that can host a local server.

That’s a very specific requirement though. Would I recommend a Chromebook more generally?

Let’s start with the bad

There are a lot of things you might take for granted on a PC/Mac, which are either impossible to do on a Chromebook, or require more hoop-jumping-through than one should really have to deal with in 2017. For instance:

  • Skype
  • Dropbox
  • Handling Microsoft Office files
  • Working offline

Sure, Google Hangouts and Drive are free alternatives to the first two points, respectively. The problem with both of those, however, is to get the full benefit, they rely on your collaborators also using that platform.

In terms of Office, while you can import and edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files, it’s still a 50/50 shot whether doing so will completely screw up the formatting. Also, you still have to go through the process of importing and exporting. I like Google’s office suite — I prefer it to Microsoft in almost every way. But the problem is that I’m in the minority on that one. If I’m doing work with a colleague or a client, it’s not unfair for them to assume they can send me a .docx file and it isn’t going to ruin my day.

Lastly, Google has promised since the beginning that Chromebooks allow you to work offline. Just open Docs (or many of the other Google apps), start working, and it seamlessly syncs when you have an internet connection. There are maybe a dozen times, in the last two years, where that has happened to me. Every other time I try to open Google Docs, or check Gmail Offline, I’m faced with this:

Working offline screen on a Chromebook

Sure, I’m connected to the internet 80% of the time, where ever I am in the country. But I’m on coaches and trains fairly regularly, and the WiFi is always either broken, has too poor a connection, costs more than the Chromebook did, or some combination thereof.

What’s the alternative?

Credit where it’s due, there are a lot of areas where you do get your money’s worth from Google. I really realised that when it came to writing down the spec I wanted from a new laptop:

  • Lightweight — less than 1.5kg (the Toshiba Chromebook 2 is around 1.3kg)
  • At least 8 hours of battery life (two years on, and I’m still getting that from my Chromebook)
  • Full HD screen (this is one of the areas the Chromebook falls down, and I’ve noticed it a lot the more coding I do)
  • 8Gb of RAM (my Chromebook has 2Gb, and the lightweight ChromeOS struggles — Windows is much less forgiving)
  • At least a 13 inch screen, with full-sized keyboard

I also couldn’t spend the earth (as much as I want a Dell XPS). Having only spent £180 on my last laptop though, I knew I’d have to loosen the purse strings a little. I settled on the HP Pavilion x360, which I picked up for about £550, including a year’s subscription to Office 365.

It’s performing reasonably well so far. I’m getting about 6 1/2 hours of battery out of it, compared to the advertised 10. But I have been doing a lot of downloading, and installing, and configuring (because, hello again Windows). I’ve only had a couple of ‘normal’ days on it so far, so it’s hard to tell. Crucially, it does all the things that my Chromebook couldn’t do. Windows makes you work to set up Apache and co, git, and a decent programming text editor. Far more so, than Linux does. But a mere 8 hours after opening the box, I had it set up how I want it. More or less..

So, are Chromebooks pointless?

To be entirely fair, the Chromebook does everything it’s advertised to do. For emailing, checking up on the news/social media, and working with Google Docs/Sheet/Slides etc, Chromebooks are great.

Two years on, and I’m still getting 8 hours of battery life in a device that weighs a little over a kilo and cost me less than £200. Also, the keyboard on my Toshiba model is one of the best I’ve used. Even today, my only major day-to-day gripe is how few browser tabs it can handle. Go for a model with 4Gb of RAM, and you’ll probably be fine.

But, if you regularly need to work with non-Google documents, or have slightly more ‘advanced’ needs, you’ll undoubtedly get frustrated with having to jump through hoops — or not be able to do them at all. I listed 4 examples of specifics (as well as web development) above, but also things like image editing are tricky. It’s also worth noting that any streaming service that requires an app — e.g. NowTV, or downloading iPlayer episodes to watch later — won’t work.

Final thought

I suppose a good litmus test for whether I’d recommend one, is will I still use mine now it’s been officially replaced? And the answer is yes, I probably will. If I’m on the move and know all I’m going to be doing is writing, for example, the Chromebook still wins. It is noticeably lighter than my HP, can last a couple of days’ light-mid use without charging, and I really love the keyboard. (Also, it’s taken far more than it’s fair share of knocks — that thing travels really well.)

I get to say that, though, because it’s now my ‘second laptop’. If, like 2015 Will, you were looking to use it as your main one (and, despite my very hot/cold review, I do think that is a legitimate option), don’t spend more than £200. You’ll be paying for the hard drive, and if you need more local storage, leave a low-profile USB drive plugged in (I use one like this.

And for the love of Page, don’t buy a Chromebook Pixel.

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