Living with the… Google Chromebook

Ever since Google announced their first Chromebook laptops back in 2011 I’ve been fascinated by the idea. Computers that eschew the storage of data locally, but instead embrace the cloud in all its metaphorical glory. The idea makes sense to me, is workable for me, in fact it’s actually preferable to me. The only problem is that the hardware up until now has been, well, rubbish.

Samsung's first Chromebook attempt. Naughty Samsung!
Samsung’s first Chromebook attempt. Naughty Samsung!

I had the chance to road-test Samsung’s initial Series 5 offering , and although I could see the potential in the system there was an undeniable lack of build quality or speed in that machine. Not the best way to promote a concept that many people still maintain as kind of pointless.

If you’ve never used a Chromebook, or indeed haven’t even heard of them before now, then they might sound a little odd. Essentially they are computers that do pretty much everything online. Most of us are familiar with Google Chrome, which has grown in popularity over the past few years to become one of the world’s most used browsers. The Chromebook does everything through Chrome, making the laptop similar to the old fashioned terminals that used to access mainframes in the 90s. All your data is stored online, as are the programs you run. This means you can’t lose your valuable thesis or family photos if you accidentally run over your laptop with a tractor – a very common complaint – as the information is safely nestling in the warm bosom of Google who, let’s be honest, are far more likely to perform regular backups than we are. This also means that you are free to log into your Google account from any computer, work on any project you like, then when you return to the Chromebook all the changes will be included.

But Sir! You cry. Surely any computer with a browser can do this, and a lot more besides?

Absolutely.

The difference of a Chromebook is that it doesn’t run an OS like Windows or OSX, so it can’t get viruses. It also means that if someone steals your machine, or you upgrade to a newer model, all you need to do is log into your Google account and within a minute everything is there. No backups, or re-installing software, simple,  and of course the information is constantly backed up by Google.

One real advantage, which myself and my wife have found invaluable, is that you can log in with various accounts, each with the relevant apps and documents attached. Of course laptops can also do this, but the Chromebook just feels very natural working this way as everything is online.

For people who use specific software packages to accomplish tasks – say Photoshop or Final Cut Pro – then the Chromebook is a non starter. But for most of us who use their laptop to browse, email, interact with social networks, or do a spot of writing, then the story is quite different.

In the past the real Achilles heel of the idea has been that once you find yourself without a WiFi signal the computer becomes a rather large waste of space, but Google have been updating the OS carefully and it now includes the ability to work on documents offline, which then sync up automatically to the online versions once you find a signal again. The whole thing is seamless and removes one of the last fears that many of us enthusiasts have had.

Google's little beach ball of happiness.
Google’s little beach ball of happiness.

All this talk is nothing but pretty words arranged in spectacular fashion unless there is a worthy product in the end. Now, thankfully, one has arrived.

The Samsung Chromebook (2012) is the latest machine from the electronics giants, and with this one they have finally got it right.  In recent months there have been Chromebooks that cost the best part of £400 but still feel like budget machines. In fact I’ve often thought that if you want to charge that much for a low powered, limited, machine then it had better be built like a Macbook Air – which of course it very much wasn’t. Now the new machine is built like a cheap imitation of a Macbook Air, priced accordingly, and I love it.

Don’t let any carefully shot promotional images fool you into thinking that this Chromebook has any Apple style brushed aluminium about its small body, it’s plastic through and through. This makes it light and enables Samsung to charge £229 – both of which I heartily approve of. Google have been clever in marketing the machine as your ‘other’ rather than main device. Let the kids play with it, welcome your butter fingered auntie back into the technological fold once more, even take it on holiday to Afghanistan with little hesitation. Ah, glory be! The age of disposable computers has finally arrived.

The new Chromebook. Take a bow Samsung, take a bow.
The new Chromebook. Take a bow Samsung, take a bow.

All this sounds a little derogatory, and it is, because strangely enough the Chromebook is actually a great little machine with a surprisingly fabulous keyboard. It didn’t take long for the diminutive laptop to find a special place in my heart, and thanks to the fact that I already use Google Docs for my work, and web-based services for nearly everything else, I’ve not felt restricted by its online nature at all. Yes the screen is a little frosty looking, and you need to wait a moment or two for webpages to load before you can scroll through them, but these are small gripes when you factor in the cost and the pleasure the machine is to use. Actually if the truth be told I use it rather less now because my wife keeps stealing it away for herself, which I can assure you is about as high a praise as can be given to a device.

Of course I don’t expect the machine to last for years, but that becomes less of an issue when the price is so low and the knowledge that a replacement will feature identical data once you log in. In fact I was heavily considering a Macbook Air to replace my ageing Macbook, but now I’ve used the Chromebook I can’t justify paying out £1100 just to be able to do a few more things on a much prettier machine. Instead I shall save the money and beef up the desktop I have at home, and maybe invest in a decent iPod dock with the change. Yep this little machine is the gift that keeps on giving.

The Google Chromebook is the ultrabook for the rest of us, and I’m well and truly smitten.

If you want to see an in depth evaluation of the machine then please visit the review here that I wrote for PC Advisor magazine in November 2012. 

Baby, how you’ve grown… (Part 1)

Regular readers of this site will know that I have a somewhat idealistic take on technology. The possibilities of the internet paired with powerful mobile devices and reliable, easy to use, interfaces still excite me on a daily basis. Maybe it’s a sickness. Quite possibly. But in the spirit of those immortal words sung so convincingly by Luther Ingram in 1972 – ‘If loving you is wrong, I don’t ever want to be right’.

Of course that song was actually written from the point of view of a lover involved in an affair with a cheating husband, and you can imagine that after the music faded someone ended up hurt and alone. Maybe it’s not the best analogy to use. Ah, you’re an intelligent bunch, you can work through the moral disarray.

In short – technology is great. So to celebrate this I decided to illustrate some very simple but wonderfully convenient ways it has changed over the years to make our lives better.

The Home Wrecker’s Anthem.

Remote Controls

When I was merely a snippet of a lad the only mobile technology I came into contact with was a remote control for our brand new, top-loading, VHS recorder. I loosely use the word remote because rather than the infrared devices that clutter up the gaps in our sofa cushions these days, the one we had actually attached to the front of the machine via a cord. So remote became a very subjective word. If six feet was remote to you then you were in luck, otherwise it seemed that you’d been given a quite close control, one that really offered little advantage over just getting up off your backside and turning the video on or off yourself.

How times have changed.

The other day I was in the pub with friends and realised that I’d forgotten to set my PVR to record Match of the Day (if this is all becoming far too lad-like for you, I refer you back to the first paragraph which included references to a 1970s love song, albeit of rather questionable values). In the past this would have been resolved by going home, calling home, or just bemoaning the fact that I wasn’t at home and why couldn’t someone invent something that stopped this kind of tragedy from ruining innocent lives. But not this day. Instead I quickly whipped out my iPhone, launched the Sky+ app, found the program guide and sent a signal for my PVR to begin recording. It was right, just, and I swear I heard the faint echo of angels singing as I slid the magical device back into my jeans and lifted my glass in victory. This is how life was meant to be.

Now this is a remote control.

Personal Organisers

As a child of the 70s who reached those troublesome young adult years amidst the avarice, violent protests, and terrible synthesizer music of the 80s, there is one item that came to symbolise those difficult years. The Filofax. It was the age of share dealing, business meetings,  go-get-’em young executives making huge fortunes on far east investments then losing it all before the end of the day. Buy low, sell high, act like an over privileged idiot and end up thirty years later working in a petrol station, with a haunted look permanently darkening your gaze.

So how could you achieve such heights? The trusty Filofax. A paper world that needed to look battered, and so filled with contacts, notes, and calendar entries that technically the item counted as a potential explosive. Everyone who was someone had one. That’s a lot of ones.

The other thing I remember about the Filofax was how remarkably expensive they were. So for what was essentially a smaller than usual, leather, ring binder you could pay quite ludicrous prices. Then there was the additional expense of the inserts you needed to stuff into the thing to make it actually useful. It really became the case that in order to own a filofax you needed to be a high earner just to afford the new ruler, business card holders, or latest coloured note pages. Of course as the collection grew so did the weight and size, until those desperate to look important were dragging around what amounted to a filing cabinet in their pockets. Hernia treatment clinics have recently been linked with coming up with the concept, but they strongly deny the allegations.

Where are these paper palaces now?

The smartphone appeared pretty much out of nowhere and wiped out the industry. There had been the initial PDAs that started the transition, but really the iPhone, Blackberry and recently Tablets have taken the place of these impractical, additional devices. Now instead of the type of leather you clad your information in it’s the type of manufacturer. Brand names are back in fashion – Blackberry for the business professional…who doesn’t keep up with the times. iPhones for the well heeled, and Android for the rebels. What’s that? Windows Phone 8? Your guess is as good as mine.

Oddly one thing hasn’t changed. We still stuff additional pages into the phones to make them do more and increase our productivity. We just call them apps now, and thankfully they have little impact on our spines. Until the evil Hernia people find their angle…

In the days before Google Calendar…

 

Video Chat

It wasn’t that long ago that relatives in distant lands would film themselves on camcorders while giving seasonal messages, proudly holding aloft new born babies, or expressing they love for those far from them. These video cassettes would then run the gauntlet of x-ray scanners, crazed postal workers, and differing manufacturing encoding standards in the hope of delivering their precious cargo. To be honest it was such a pain that most people didn’t even attempt this high-tech form of correspondance, instead electing to write letters and throw a few choice pictures into the envelope. Long distance calls were expensive and at times actually of low enough quality to make it not worth the effort either. But still we tried to keep in contact with family and friends on foreign soil. I know of relatives that recorded audio diaries, repete with bedtime stories, which they would regularly send to their grandchildren so they could stay present in their lives even if not in a physical form.

There is a certain romance to this. The effort involved makes the intent more admirable. The striving to stay in contact even though the world would do its best to keep you apart is a true measure of love. It’s something almost noble.

These days our options are wide, free, and – technical hiccups aside – pretty much instant.

Where does the cassette go?

 

Skype, and its digital ilk, has made a huge difference in the lives of families who move to distant parts of the world, or in some cases just to the other end of a country. Now bedtime stories can be read in real-time, and the reactions witnessed as Bilbo nears his final confrontation with Smaug. I’ve been at parties where someone who couldn’t make the couple of thousand mile journey actually spent the entire night in the corner of the room via her laptop. She raised drinks, took part in the jokes, and was able to feel part of her wider community all from her home a hemisphere away. Journalists like myself conduct globe spanning interviews with celebrities that would once have had to brave the press tours to promote their newest creation. Children talk with their school friends in the evening, not seeming to see it an issue that they’ve spent the entire day with them already. The world indeed has been made smaller. It might not be the labour of love that went before it, but I think anyone would take it in a heartbeat.

 

There will be a few of these musings on the way tech is changing how we do the things we’ve always done. Why not leave a comment telling me what your favourite, simple changes are? Maybe they might even make it into a future post.