Chromebook - First Impressions

So I’m a bit of a kit whore - I do love a new shiny. I hoard things too. I’ve got all this old stuff I should probably throw/give away…
It’s been a while since I’ve been in the market for new toys, and I managed to rationalise a new machine - I’m about to move overseas for 6 weeks, and I don’t want to live on the work machine. I want something quick, light, with long battery and that I can take on excursions or just for evening IRC and twitter. I thought long and hard about whether a tablet would fit this - I experimented with my Nexus 7 in a case to make it stand up and with a bluetooth keyboard - while it was promising, the workflow just didn’t feel right - A notebook it had to be.

After that decision, I settled fairly quickly on a chromebook. Why? It ticks the boxes of being useful, and it’s new and shiny tech too! But what one - the X86 based Acer C7 or the ARM based Samsung Series 3.
According to the stats online, the Samsung Series 3 is the winner in battery life, which was my key requirement. I don’t want to be constantly tethered to a wall. As an extra bonus, it’s completely solid state - no fans, no spinning HDD, no optical media. This comes with the downside that storage is limited - 16GB space, but for my purposes, this is more than plenty - I managed the US trip with 20GB and didn’t suffer.

Hardware

Upon unboxing, this is clearly a small machine - it’s only an 11.6” screen across but it’s got a nice big (read: full-width) keyboard to go with it. The keys are great to type on - Samsung definately didn’t skimp on them. It’s a custom layout for ChromeOS - there’s no ‘meta’ or ‘menu’ (read: windows or apple) key here on the bottom row, just big control & alt. There’s no caps lock - it’s been replaced with a search key, but alt-search will put caps lock on if you insist on being EXTRA CLEAR. The top row of keys where F1-12 live are all dedicated keys too. They’re all pretty good and feel quite natural - volume and screen brightness and the like, but the dedicated refresh key is in the wrong place - on every other machine in the world, refresh is F5. Here, it’s in the F4 position. I’ve resized many a window trying to refresh it. Annoying, but I’ll adapt.

It’s lightweight, but the plastic construction doesn’t feel particularly sturdy - I suspect that upon being dropped, there’ll be a crack or worse on this machine.
It doesn’t feel as solid as my TC1100 ever did. I guess that’s an unfair comparison - the TC1100 was a much higher value machine. For all that it feels cheap, it’s nicely balanced - It sits well in the lap and doesn’t tip over easily when the screen is pushed. There’s a nice stiff hinge too. The trackpad works well - I had to turn the speed up to get my expected action, but that’s no major issue. The whole pad clicks, as happens in macbooks, but you can lightly tap for the same effect.

It’s completely silent, which is an odd sensation. Having no fans or disk drive, nothing moves - you don’t hear a fan spinning up under heavy load or the familiar under-hand clicking that hard drives can have. The only sound is my clicking and tapping and any music I’ve got playing. It’s surprisingly hard to move back to anything with fans - I feel my desktop is actually sounds like a vacuum cleaner now - I used to think it was so quiet I could sleep with it on, and I regularly did (Until I started paying my own power bills). It definitely feels like this is the future. Sometimes it gets a bit warm - in exactly the same way a phone does when it’s under load, but that’s not any different from a regular machine, and I guess I’m just looking for the heat to remind me that this isn’t actually powered by pixie dust.

Software - ChromeOS

So, how’s ChromeOS? I think it’s great. I’m genuinely surprised with how well it handles almost everything I do. Admittedly, I’m pretty invested in Google’s Ecosystem despite my concerns about both Google and my data, and it’s really well integrated here.

I’m running ChromeOS 30, currently. In recent builds, they’ve added the capability for applications to be opened in their own window, and I’m surprised at how close to ‘native’ applications they feel - no tabs or significant window decoration, just the maximise and close buttons. This is enhanced by the introduction of ‘Chrome Apps’, many of which work offline - this really adds to the experience and makes ChromeOS feel like a well rounded OS that’s lightweight and highly customisable to your needs, not a heavy behemoth that’s a pain to add to. The launcher at the bottom works as expected, the notifications are subtle and don’t get in the way, the trackpad gestures are sensible. I really think Google are on to something here - This is without a doubt the best out-of-box Linux experience I’ve had, and I’ve had quite a few.

Apps

Here’s a quick selection of what I’m using and what I’m thinking about them:

Google Drive appears as part of the base filesystem, so everything I’ve got living there appears in the file manager and is available to apps.

Google Docs is, well, Google Docs - pretty great and really useful for group collaboration or my massive EVE Spreadsheets. Unfortunately, spreadsheets appear to be not editable offline, or maybe that’s just mine as they’re a bit mental and pull in data from all over the place.

Google Music is Fantastic, as I’ve already discussed - I have it set to open as a window, so it feels more like opening iTunes or similar than opening a tab in a browser.

Stackedit is a fantastic, lightweight Markdown editor. I write all the blog posts in Markdown - I’ve really fallen in love with it as a method of writing text - maybe it just fits how my brain works, but I feel it provides readable ‘source code’ and can be easily translated into a webpage. It synchronises with Google Drive and works offline too - all my markdown is safely backed up somewhere in Google’s system as I type it. It works with Dropbox too, but I’ve not tried that out yet. Stackedit shows the editor, but also shows a parsed output of my markdown, so I can see if I’m being crap or not. It’s proved very useful in debugging both the website and writing & correcting blog posts, so far, and I’m sure it will continue to do so.

Text is another excellent text editor, but this one isn’t solely focussed on markdown. I’ve imported, so far, HTML, PHP and C into it, and it’s highlighted the code perfectly. It does have a quirk that if you’re starting a document afresh, you’ll have to save it with the relevant file extension and reopen it to get code highlighting, but I’m sure that will be fixed in future, alongside (hopefully) the ability for the user to select what language is being highlighted. It runs offline and has useful features like line numbers. Despite it’s shortcomings, I feel it’s still pretty great for quick changes and edits.

CIIRC is an IRC client for ChromeOS and Chrome - I’ve been experimenting with it more and more. It’s got what I love about command line IRC clients, in that it doesn’t fuck about with daft functions and features - I’ve got the standard /join /server /kick and so on, and a simple interface. It opens as a window by default, and stores servers, nickname and channels across devices. Notifications use the standard ChromeOS / Chrome notifications and work nicely, although I’d hate to be spammed and have a column of them.

Secure Shell does the business when it comes to SSH to servers. It’s a pretty bog standard SSH client - it looks nicer than PuTTY, which is also a bonus. There’s not much more to say about it’s functions. It’s still in beta, apparently, so thinks like an options menu are on the way. I had to change the font size with the javascript terminal, which was a bit of a pain in the arse, but it does it’s job of giving me access to servers so I can IRC in a different way or do other things on the server. One thing it’s missing is being able to SOCKS proxy, as far as I’m aware. This is a shame - I’ve not yet worked out how to do it on ChromeOS, and it would be much appreciated in the ongoing attempts to keep my data my own.

Tweetdeck works as it does on the desktop or any other machine - it’s become my main Twitter experience as I find it far better than the default Twitter website. Maybe that’s just me though - it doesn’t have those annoying blue conversation bars, which makes it worthwhile!

Overall Impression

As I’ve said a few times, I’m really impressed with this machine. It’s incredibly usable, it’s quick and it does exactly what I want it to. At £229, it’s a great price too - It’s right in that impulse buy territory which is oh-so-dangerous to so many. I’d definitely experiment with giving one to my mother to see if she could adapt to it too.

On the downside, though, it does feel like a £229 laptop. Inside is essentially tablet hardware, and while it can play 1080p flash content, it will stutter with 480p flash + a few tabs, or running Google Music alongside some other tasks.

With that said - I’m definitely recommending this machine to people who want a lightweight road machine or a second machine for watching in front of the telly. It’s a good toy, and useful for an instant-on fix of internet. I’ll be watching Chromebooks with great curiosity over the coming years, and you should be too - I can’t wait to try out Chromecast when it comes out… and when I’ve bought a TV.


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