Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tech Column: The Chromebook Revealed

by Bill Adler

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the theoretical advantages of having a Google Chromebook as your traveling companion instead a tablet, such as an iPad. My article, which you can read here, http://yhoo.it/UTxrR8, looked at the pluses and minuses of each, but only from a theoretical perspective. Now that I've had my Chromebook for a while, I can report on the actual plusses and minuses.

First, let's get this part out of the way: Why compare a Chromebook? Why not a Windows netbook or a Mac Air? In a nutshell, the Chromebook is far less expensive, costing as little as $199. (I have the $249 model, http://amzn.to/V44HDe). At that price, few tears are shed if it's dropped or stolen.

I barely noticed the 2.4 pound Chromebook in my backpack during a recent trip. With a battery life of 6.5 hours, I had more than ample juice to make it all the way from Washington to New York on Amtrak.

The Chromebook is an instant-on machine. (It cold boots from a completely turned-off state in under 10 seconds.) That's a great feature, especially when traveling. Whenever I got up from my seat on the train, I'd shut the computer's lid. Resuming work was instantaneous: I just popped open the lid and was back in business.

The keyboard is responsive and quiet. I'm a fast typist, and I find some keyboards have keys that feel slippery, which makes for typos. The Chromebook's keys feel like solid targets for my fingertips. The trackpad is both easy to use and versatile: Different kinds of taps yield a right mouse click or left mouse click: easy to learn and do.

Hotel wifi is often slower than old-style dial-up, so I brought along a USB thumb drive with some movies, figuring that watching streaming movies would be impossible. Movies play fine on the Chromebook, with one exception: The Chromebook will not play Windows Media files. So if you rip your own movies, make sure that they're AVI or MP4's.

The Chromebook will not do Skype video (but it will do Skype messaging.)

How is it to actually work on a Chromebook? It's fine. It's actually great...if you exist in the Google universe. If you use Gmail, Google Docs, Google Talk (Google's Skype equivalent), Google Play, and other Google services, then the Chromebook is a no-brainer. I write in Google Docs, having decided a couple of years ago that Microsoft Word was too over-featured for my needs. I use Gmail exclusively, and I now have my music on Google Play. If your computer life is similar, then the Chromebook will be a fantastic traveling laptop. If not, then you're better off sticking to a more traditional laptop.

If you use Chrome as your main browser, Chrome will appear on your Chromebook exactly the same: same bookmarks, same extensions, same theme, same everything. That's because Chrome syncs across all of your devices.

The Chromebook is designed to be a cloud computer. Most --though not all-- of what you do with the Chromebook requires being connected to the Internet. I found that even with incredibly slow hotel Internet speeds, using the Chromebook was fine. I had no problem at all with speeds that were well under 500 Kbps for email, reading online, and general surfing.

While the Chromebook is best for those who use Gmail and other services, you can easily do many non-Google things, such as read Kindle books though Amazon's cloud reader (a Chrome add-on), edit photos using one of several photo editing add-ons, read the newspaper, and play Angry Birds and other games.

The Chromebook, which you can read more about at www.google.com/intl/en/chrome/devices, comes in a variety of flavors and prices (as low as $199). It's not a powerhouse, but it's fast and more than adequate for most work needs while on the road. For me, the deciding question is: If my Chromebook died, would I get another? Yes.


Bill Adler is the co-publisher of the Cleveland Park Listserv, www.cleveland-park.com. He is the author of "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relationship with Gadgets," http://amzn.to/rspOft. He tweets at @billadler.

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