Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Tech Column: Chromebook on the Road

by Bill Adler

I've written about using a Chromebook on the road before, but those articles had been based on relatively short trips that lasted just a few days. I just returned from a two week trip to Tokyo: I left my Windows laptop behind and took only my Chromebook.

If you're not familiar with the Google Chromebook, it's a lightweight laptop that runs on Google's operating system. It lives in perfect harmony with Google Documents, Gmail, Google Play, and other Google services, as well as doing normal web-related things. At $249, the Chromebook lives in perfect harmony with your wallet, too.

What's the long-trip Chromebook verdict? The answer depends on what your working style and favorite programs are. For me, the Chromebook was mostly, but not entirely, a terrific travel computer. I used it for major book writing and minor Cleveland Park listserv management. I used it for email, web searching, watching YouTube videos, playing with Facebook, backing up and uploading photos (the Chromebook has an SD card slot and USB ports), and doing basic photo editing. I had no problem zipping along with writing my new book. Dropbox worked fine, too. Uploading files and sharing via Google Plus were also a snap. Even when the coffee shop's wifi got flaky every now and then, Chromebook was happy to save files locally until it could resume backing up to the cloud. Except for a little small-font message that told me that files were being saved to the computer itself, rather than to Google Drive, not having always-on Internet wasn't a problem at all.

At 2.4 pounds and with a 6 hour battery life, my Chromebook was easy to carry, too, and ran long enough at the coffee shop, HanaCAFE nappa 69, www.nappa69.com, where I parked myself every day.

One morning I fired up my Chromebook before having coffee. I clicked on a link in an email from a friend without focusing on what I was doing and, well, you know how that story goes. But the story actually goes a little differently on a Chromebook, because while that was an evil link, the Chromebook isn't affected by nefarious websites, trojans or viruses, especially with phishing and malware protection turned on. While I was annoyed at myself for falling for that scam, no harm was done to my Chromebook. It's an extra special kind of hell when your computer gets infected while you're traveling; the Chromebook prevents that from happening.

But the Chromebook wasn't perfect. I noticed that some pages were sluggish to load, and every now and then some tabs crashed. (In Chrome, when pages crash they don't bring down the entire browser; just that tab.)  I reduced this problem by turning off some Chrome extensions, as recommended by Google Chrome tech support. I'm a bit of a Chrome extension hoarder, and had several add-ons that I could live without. That helped a lot. I also noticed that having too many tabs open --seven seemed to be the magic number-- slowed Chromebook down. Again, I could live with fewer tabs open: In fact, fewer tabs helped me focus more on writing.

Chromebook has an interesting power management quirk that you'll either love or hate: After six minutes of inactivity on battery (eight minutes when plugged in), Chromebook goes into sleep mode. There's no way to change this setting. To awaken from sleep you enter in your password, if you selected password protection from sleep. Waking up from sleep takes a literal second, but it can be pain if you're stepping away from your Chromebook a lot. On the other hand, this auto-password protection can be a good thing because it means that if somebody walks away with your Chromebook they won't be able to access your data.

The biggest problem I encountered was with using Evernote, my go-to, do-everything app. Evernote, www.evernote.com, is a note-taking service that lets you create, store, sort, and access your notes from anywhere. I use Evernote almost 100 times a day, and can't live without it. Except, as I discovered, mileage varies a lot when you're using web-only access for Evernote. Using Evernote via the web was so painfully slow --on average 2 minutes and 15 seconds to load-- that I gave up. On my iPhone and Windows PC, Evernote loads almost instantly. I've been told that Evernote is slow on the web because it wants to load your entire database. If you have slow wifi, Evernote will be even slower. Fortunately, I could work with Evernote on my iPhone, but still, it's limiting if you're not able to fully use Evernote on your laptop, as you can with a Mac or Windows PC.

The big question is: Will I take my Chromebook as my travel PC on my next extended trip?  I'm not yet sure, and I'm prone to doing a last-minute Windows to Chromebook laptop swap in my bag (note to self: remember to switch power cords, too!) I like that the Chromebook only costs $249, so that if it's lost, broken or stolen, it's not a tragedy. I  really like the battery life and weight of the Chromebook, but I miss some of the power features that come along with my Windows PC. I just hope that I'm not going to miss my next flight because I can't decide.


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.

1 comment:

  1. I don't think the 2GB RAM on the $249 device is enough to support many browser instances. They made some trade-offs to get to that price. I also think the ARM processor is a little underpowered. I use the Samsung 550 with 4GB an Intel celeron, and rarely have those issues. But then, my system cost $200 more. But for the money, your system sounds good. Seven tabs isn't bad.