December 25th, 2012
I've read literally hundreds of reviews on the Chromebook (the US$249 light one that's slightly more expensive for the the 3G version—both versions of which are completely sold out at Amazon, Best Buy, and the Google Play store). Finally got one, and here are my first impressions.
Taking it out of the box
Yes, the bump in the back is ugly and ruins the otherwise sleek look of the Chromebook. It is made out of plastic but feels solid and doesn't flex too much. I like that there's no latch when you close the lid, except that you can't open it with one hand without flipping it over (a neat little trick Apple's perfected with its MacBook line). The power cord isn't the magnetic ones I'm used to from Mac laptops (I'm clumsy and often trip over power cords), so I'll have to be extra careful with this one. The cord is also a bit shorter than I'm used to. With the long battery life (haven't done a full test, but it appears to be upwards of 8 hours, based on what the taskbar says), I'm hoping that won't be a problem.
A lot of reviews talk about how simple the setup is for a Chromebook. You boot up, connect to a wireless network, and then sign in, and that's it. It is, of course, a lot simpler than some of the other setups I've done (Windows, recent Mac versions, and Ubuntu). But it could be simpler. First of all, when you enter your wireless password, there's no option (as there is in Android) to see the password as you're entering it. Hey, I have a complex wireless password, and it's kind of annoying not to be able to see it to double-check I'm typing it in correctly. The other more annoying problem was that, after entering in everything, instead of just going straight to my login, I got a long system update to install. Hey, user experience team for ChromeOS at Google, that's not what people want to see when they are excited and first booting up the computer! It'd be much better to have the system log in, download the update in the background and then just install it the next time you boot up.
User interface highlights
There's a lot Google gets right in terms of making the Chromebook and ChromeOS experience good for the user.
- Your user settings load in quickly. When you log in with any Google account, your bookmarks, add-ins, and general preferences all load in almost immediately, so that you can be up and running in no time. I foresee this being very useful in case I ever lend this to a friend who has a Gmail account.
- The trackpad is large and very Apple-like. It isn't quite as responsive as a MacBook Pro or Air trackpad, but this is also a fraction of the cost. For a US$249-329 laptop, the trackpad is amazing, as is the keyboard, which feels almost exactly like a Mac laptop chiclet keyboard.
- The ChromeOS-specific keys make sense. Granted, they take some getting used to, but after you do get away from what you're used to (Windows, Mac, or Linux), it's easy to see why Google made the choices it did. The Control and Alt keys on the left are huge and easy to press without having to be precise in aiming. There are also smaller Control and Alt keys to the right of the Space bar, which make doing a Control-click with one hand a lot easier than on some laptops. There are dedicated keys for toggling fullscreen or switching between open windows. The Caps Lock key (usually useless) is a search key instead, but you can easily enable Caps Lock by pressing Alt-Search.
- Powering on and waking from sleep are nigh-instantaneous. Yes, I'd already read reviews about how many seconds it takes to boot up a Chromebook. It's just that when I read "seconds," I was thinking I could sit there and twiddle my thumbs for a few seconds while it boots up. Nope. You hit the power button, get the ChromeOS splash screen, and then you log in afterwards. It boots up more quickly than I've seen some Windows laptops resume from sleep.
- The trackpad gestures are the essential ones. You can two-finger scroll up and down, tap to click, and tap two fingers down to right-click. Standard stuff that makes the laptop functional and easy to use.
- There isn't a lot of annoying feedback when you change settings. If you lower the volume, there are no annoying chirp noises to tell you the volume is being lowered (you get a brief visual display of the volume going down or up, but that display disappears quickly to get out of your way). There are very few alerts or random dialogues that pop up in your face. ChromeOS doesn't constantly ask if you're sure you want to change a setting. The changes just happen, and this is extremely refreshing, especially after some of the changes in Mac OS X in recent versions (Lion and Mountain Lion). No notifications. Nothing in your face except what you're actually doing.
- The file manager seems separate. I didn't use earlier versions of ChromeOS, but I did read about how basically ChromeOS was a web browser. I think it still is, but Google has made it now at least appear to be a full operating system, even with something so simple as opening a Chrome browser window maximized by default and opening the file manager window not maximized by default.
- When you click the Space bar or hit Alt–down arrow to scroll down a page, the scrolling is smooth without the animation being annoying or overly flashy.
- The interface is responsive. There isn't a lot of lag time, spinning mouse cursors (with an hourglass or beachball). You launch a "program" (really usually just a bookmark to a website), and a new tab immediately opens. The Chromebook really focuses as much as possible on putting you in the web browser and making you productive.
- As many other reviews mention, this Chromebook is silent and cool. No fans. No overheating.
- This isn't a major plus, but I did read some reviews implying that videos are terrible on the Chromebook, that having too many tabs open slows it down considerably, or that the viewing angles on the screen are bad. None of this is true in my experience. I've had 25 tabs open with no sluggishness. Yes, if you view the laptop from an almost 180-degree angle, you can't see anything, but you'd never do that! And I played back some YouTube and Hulu videos, as well as a Google Play Movie, and all played back fine. No stuttering. The resolution wasn't the finest, but no noticeable pixelation or fuzzy blocks either.
- It comes with a matte screen. Glossy screens stink. This screen is a pleasure to look at for long periods of time. No glare or reflection.
User interface improvements needed
Lots of good stuff with this Chromebook. Still, there are definitely some major things Google needs to revamp to make the experience near-perfect.
- It's great that Chromebooks now let you have offline files. Too bad that's not enabled by default. It's also not an immediately noticeable setting in Google Drive. I had to Google how to do it (on the left side, click More to expand the menu, and then select Offline Docs).
- The SD Card slot on the side makes the SD Card jut out quite a bit (almost half the card sticking out). If you're hoping to get more than 16 GB of storage, think again.
- You can't, as far as I can tell, keep any Google Play Music offline without downloading individual songs. One of the nice things about Android is you can launch up Google Music, select a playlist to keep offline, and Google will keep that playlist offline for you. I don't want to download and organize individual songs. And I also believe there's a limit to the number of times you can download songs from Google Music. If you want to keep people in your ecosystem, make your ecosystem seamless!
- Most apps in the Chrome App Store are just bookmarks. Some people have called them "glorified bookmarks." No, they're not glorified at all. They're just bookmarks. The Google Maps app is just a bookmark. Dropbox is just a bookmark. Pretty much everything apart from games (Angry Birds, for example) is a bookmark. It'd be great if one could get, for example, some Dropbox integration going, or even a decent VNC app. I actually love the Chrome Remote Desktop app, except that it's tied to one account, which leads to my next criticism:
- No fast user switching stinks. Granted, I have a particularly odd setup, but I can't be the only one who'd like fast user switching. My wife and I share a Mac Mini, which is headless and acts as a file server and general random computer we can remote into. Chrome Remote Desktop can be set up with only one particular Google login. So if my wife wants to remote into it, it has to be set with her Google login. If I want to remote in, it has to be set to my Google login. In other words, fast user switching would be handy, because if the Mac Mini is set up with Google account X, and I'm signed in on my Chromebook with Google account Y, it means I have to sign out of my account, sign into another (just to remote), and then sign out, and sign back in with my original account. The other useful related feature would be to allow Chrome Remote Desktop to work with multiple accounts remoting into a single server. I did try using private browsing mode to see if I could switch users for remoting in. No go.
- It's not at all obvious how to move the taskbar (which defaults to being on the bottom). Had to Google that as well (type about:flags in the address bar and change the appropriate setting), and the change requires restarting the computer. If you do get the taskbar over vertically, the time gets split (first half on top of the second half) instead of just being a slightly smaller font, which could easily fit horizontally.
- It's also not terribly obvious how to rearrange certain apps or bookmarks on the taskbar. You have to right-click them to unpin and then repin them to the taskbar. Sometimes a pinned app will open as two separate icons (one the pinned, the other that's open), which is visually confusing, given the direction Mac, Windows, and Ubuntu have all headed. The apps button (the equivalent of the Start menu, I guess) can't be moved at all, as far as I can tell. It's always last, no matter what you unpin and repin.
- Clicking the wireless icon and battery icons does bring up their status, but the window appears to come out of the user icon and not the icon you clicked on. Hovering over these icons gives you no information at all (How much battery is left? What wireless network am I connected to?).
- You can't right-click on the clock to change the time. You have to do that through the settings menu in the Chrome web browser.
- The power button has a little light in it to show you the computer's on, even though it's clearly on already, because you're looking at the screen—useless information and a waste of energy (the battery life is already amazing on this, but I wonder how much longer the battery would last if that light stayed off).
- If you use Google Hangouts, the webcam seems to do a weird zoom on your face so your face takes up the whole box if not more than that, but if you turn on the webcam via the Camera app, you appear (even at the same distance away from the webcam) to be a normal distance away and framed appropriately.
- The sound if the Chromebook is on a table is fine. If it's anywhere that's not a hard surface, don't expect to hear anything, even with the volume cranked up, because the speakers are weak and oddly placed on the bottom of the laptop.
- If you turn off tap-to-click, you also turn off two-finger tap-to-right-click. I happen to like the two-finger tap-to-right-click, since the alternative is Alt-click to right-click, which is fine, but not as convenient. And I like turning off tap-to-click because I find otherwise I often accidentally click stuff.
- Even though the Chromebook gives you a nice orange light when charging and a green light when fully charged, the light is in the back of the laptop, so it's not terribly convenient to check on.
- I'm hoping it was a fluke, but after only one day with this new Chromebook, I've already had a random reboot. If it's not a fluke, I'm hoping this is something Google can address in a future OS update. I'm looking forward to having these updates install automatically, too.
- The Chromebook comes with 12 Go-go in-air internet passes. I haven't tried them yet, but it seems a good value, considering how cheap the laptop is.
- The 100 GB free of Google Drive storage for two years seems a dubious benefit, though. First of all, if you do enable offline files, you can't enable them all to be offline, since the storage is only 16 GB on this laptop, and then you otherwise have to make only some offline and pick and choose individual files. Annoying. Also, after two years, then what? If you do actually use up the 100 GB, they either all go up in smoke, or you end up having to pay for that 100 GB. No thanks.
- I got the 3G version of the Chromebook, which comes with 100 MB free of Verizon data per month for two years. That's a pretty good deal. 100 MB isn't a lot, but most of the time I'll be connected to a wireless network of some kind. It's good to have the 3G connection as a backup, and I can always turn off images if I want to save bandwidth. Setting up the 3G connection wasn't that easy. Verizon gives you a useless "this may take several minutes" warning with no progress bar. It took far more than a few minutes. In fact, I waited ten minutes, rebooted, tried again, waited less than ten minutes (I think it was eight or nine), and then it finally activated. I didn't risk trying this out, of course, but in theory the Chromebook isn't supposed to use the 3G unless you're not connected to a wireless network. I don't trust that, so I made the 3G not connect automatically (manually only). There also doesn't appear to be a way to easily monitor your data use (how much of the 100 MB have I consumed so far this month?).
What is it good for?
I wouldn't recommend a Chromebook to everyone, but I think it can be a very handy machine if you know what it's good for. First of all, in almost all cases there's no way this is your only computer. You have a regular laptop or desktop you use for heavy applications or mass storage. The Chromebook is for on-the-go web browsing and typing. It can definitely be used for consumption, but I actually think it's ideal for production, mainly writing. If you want a consumption-focused device, you're better off with an Android tablet. If you want a general-purpose computer, you're better off with a Mac, Windows, or Linux laptop.
The Chromebook will get you to a website quickly or allow you to blog or write documents with very little distraction. You can also use it as a great guest computer. Anyone with a Gmail account can just sign in, and you don't have to worry about your personal settings or documents being messed with (intentionally or accidentally). It's also good for people who don't do serious computer work (email and web browsing only) and don't want to worry about installing system updates or avoiding malware.
Where I'd like to see Chromebooks go
I'm glad Google did a recent promotion to get $99 Chromebooks in the hands of schools. They got to the $100 laptop goal faster than One Laptop Per Child did. Chromebooks would be great for education, particularly for schools that are already set up on Google Apps for Education.
I do think Google could go further to make their brand integration work better (the way Apple's does... or even Google's own Android does). Google Music should be a better experience than it currently is, for example. Photo management seems to be almost non-existent. Maybe some more apps that aren't just bookmarks? I do know Google updates ChromeOS frequently, so I'm excited about future developments. I've had this Chromebook for only one day, and it's very cool to use (despite all its problems, which I've outlined above).