Monday, June 27, 2011

Chromebook: Notes and Experiences

This afternoon I came home from work to a relatively new device called a Chromebook. For those of you that don't know what it is, it's kinda like a netbook, but without an operating system you're used to. This device runs on Google's Chrome OS, which pretty much gives you the Chrome browser as an operating system. Kinda neat. Anyways, I figured I'd give some first impressions, since there are plenty to be had about this thing.

This product was delivered courtesy of Amazon, and I received it as a result of attending Google I/O this past month in San Francisco. It arrived in a rather banged up box, and had all the packaging on top with the device up against the cardboard on the bottom of the box.

The Chromebook packaging is very square and relatively clean. It was relatively easy to open and well wrapped. Inside was the Chromebook, a power cable and AC adapter, a VGA adapter, and safety instructions. There was plastic around the white top of the Chromebook, as well as around the screen.

Based on the charging rate, I probably got this when it was at about 30-35% power. Initial setup on the user's part is easy: connect to a network, accept agreement, sign in (with a Google account of course), and choose a user picture. There's only a 1MP camera above the screen, but it gets the job done. The final final step, however, is to update the Chromebook, and that takes maybe 5-10 minutes. The updates I got were relatively fast to install version 12.

3G Setup
My first relatively major setback was setting up the 3G access for the Chromebook. The idea is that there's an "Activate Verizon Wireless" option from the list of wireless options in the top right corner. Using this, you should be automatically setup to use Verizon's 3G service with only a few clicks. Not so for me - the screen would attempt to connect and fail miserably. This was especially strange considering that Big Red has blanketed 3G coverage in at least half of my state, so there was no problem with connectivity.

I followed the on-screen instructions, and with a little patience the nice people at Verizon Wireless were able to set up my device's new phone number and I was on my merry way. If you're looking for help with a Chromebook and stumbled upon this page, I recommend CTRL-SHIFT-? to see Chrome OS Help. There was a "Mobile Broadband Help" section that supplied additional information and support.

One thing I've noticed is that the free 100MB go fast. It becomes very clear that you're not downloading light mobile applications, but generally fairly JavaScript heavy applications. When I left Twitter, Google Calendar and GMail up and running for about 15 minutes, it went through a couple MB without me having to do anything. Although this makes sense given the nature of these web applications, it does disappoint me a little that there aren't more visible controls for managing web applications within a limited data plan. And I think it could definitely disappoint less tech savvy users when they lose their 100MB in 2 days and don't understand why.

If the 3G plan looks appealing to you, you may also wish to consider getting a wireless hotspot. I've found that $50 for 5GB isn't such a bad plan, and it also has the advantage of connecting other wireless devices to the internet. The Chromebook doesn't currently have any sort of "act as a wireless hotspot" features that some of the smartphones provide.

Illumination Sensor
One quirky little thing I've noticed over the first few days of using the Chromebook is that the screen's brightness has moments where its brightness varies wildly. Turns out this is because of the Illumination Sensor at the top of the screen. If you're sitting with a somewhat bright light behind you, the sensor notices this pretty quickly and accommodates for it. Although I see its value, it's a very sensitive sensor.

The camera's 1Mpx and for a camera it does a decent job, however it's really difficult to use it for very much other than taking a profile picture, and gmail chat. If you want to try using it as a camera, here's instructions for the easiest way to take pictures with it so far.

Here's a fun one; the microphone doesn't always work properly. I noticed this problem when trying to use the voice icon on Google's search page. Probably even more frustrating than not having my voice heard was that clicking the "Microphone settings" link that was available didn't do anything. So not only did the microphone not work, but I also couldn't do anything about it.

I checked the forums and found this discussion, that said it was a recurring issue, but switching to something like Google Talk usually corrected the issue.

So far I've found this to be an interesting device, in that it's forcing you to do everything on the web. I don't find it to be that much different than a computer for simple tasks like checking websites or writing email or documents. Some parts are a little odd to me - ALT-TAB shifts browsers left to right, so you may not remember your windows existed. The SEARCH button that replaces CAPS LOCK (press both SHIFT buttons to toggle CAPS LOCK) and pops open a new default tab, so you can search via the omnibar (big text box at the top). Audio's pretty standard sounding - it sounds tinny when there's music, if you're particular about that stuff.

A couple problems I have had so far mainly center around the touchpad, because I accidentally put one thumb down on the trackpad while navigating with the other thumb or finger. This leads to the trackpad not always moving, though that's usually my own fault there.

Otherwise, I've been writing this post using the Chromebook, and I haven't had too many problems so far. I found out how to take screenshots (CTRL-[_]]]) and open the file manager (CTRL-M). Other things remain intuitive (like switching windows is ALT-TAB), but I have yet to figure out how to move a tab to another window.

File System
The File System is a bit of a nuisance to work with, as it really isn't a full fledged file system. It has files and folders, sure, but it's relatively flat. One of the greatest frustrations was moving files into a folder, which oddly isn't directly supported. In order to do it you have to open your file system as a website and use "Save As..." to save a copy of the file to the desired directory. Detailed instructions can be found here.

Offline Access
One thing that has been a large concern for users has been how connected the Chromebook is to the internet. Among the top three questions about the Chromebook, "If it's always connected to the web, can I use it when I'm disconnected from the web?" is usually one of them.

So first off, you can still log onto the Chromebook without being connected to the internet. If you have a Google account saved already, you should use that. You can also log on with a guest account, although that doesn't really get you anything, for the reason given below.

Now, Offline Access really shines when you use the Chrome Web Store. The reason for this is that when you install a Chrome extension, extensions can increase their local storage quota with user permission. Normal HTML5 local storage has a typical quota limit of 5MB, which isn't enough to do much offline work within a browser. What this means is that if you install a Chrome extension (for instance, GMail or Angry Birds) you can still have most of the functionality available to you offline as well as online. Supplemental data will be loaded into Chrome's local storage so you can still play it if you power down or log out of your machine.

Although this is a clever solution, the Chromebook's offline status still will burn you. Google search is dead when you're offline. And when your computing environment is a chrome web browser, you search a lot more than you may realize.

Printing and Accessories
The VGA Adapter that comes with the Chromebook is pretty basic, so no surprises with that.

I haven't gotten to test printing yet, but hope to get to it shortly.

Testing Continues...
Currently I am finding this device to be viable for 3 markets: Schools, businesses solidly defined on Google Apps, and infrequent computer users.

As I continue using this, I'll be updating this page to hopefully make it a useful reference for those curious about the Chromebook.

Commands for Chrome OS (Quick Reference)

Touchpad motionsDescription
One finger clickLeft mouse click
One finger moveMove mouse in a direction
Two finger clickRight mouse click
Two finger moveScroll in a direction
Three finger clickMiddle mouse click (convenient to close a tab by clicking on it, or open a new tab clicking on a link)
Three finger moveScroll a little faster in a direction (seems that way at least)

Ctrl-NNew window (to the right)
Ctrl-TNew Tab (to the right)
Ctrl-W or
Three finger click on tab
Close Current Tab
Ctrl-Shift-WClose Current Window
RShift + LShiftCaps Lock
Ctrl-MOpen File Manager
Ctrl-[_]]]Take Screenshot
Shift-Ctrl-[_]]]Take Selected Area Screenshot (Area Selection using Mouse)
Alt-Up/Alt-DownPage Up/Page Down
Ctrl-Alt-Up/Ctrl-Alt-DownTop of Page/Bottom of Page
Ctrl-Alt-?Chromebook Keyboard Shortcuts
Ctrl-?Chromebook Help Center Webpage
Ctrl-Alt-TOpen New Crosh Terminal Window

The full list is available from Google's Chrome Support page.