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Tag: Chromebook

A Month with the Chromebook Pixel

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending Google I/O – Google’s annual developer conference and product geekfest. To put it simply, it was probably the nerdiest conference I’ve been to (and yours truly has been to some really nerdy conferences) with Google Glass users everywhere and flying, internet-controlled, camera-connected dirigible floating above the conference floor among the attractions.

One of the things that Google tried to emphasize to I/O attendees was the growing idea of Chrome, Google’s web browser, as a key platform for developers to embrace. Part of that message, of course, came from the talks and sessions where Google promoted Chrome’s widespread adoption (if you count mobile deployments, Google claims 750 million users worldwide) and proudly touted Chrome’s support of both sophisticated open technologies like HTML5, WebRTC, and WebGL, as well as proprietary-to-Chrome technologies like Native Client and their new Packaged Apps capability.

Equally (or perhaps more) effective was the conference’s giveaway of its Chromebook Pixel (not to mention some pretty interesting artistic displays showing off the device and its capabilities, see below).

My generally positive take on the Pixel’s predecessor Samsung’s Series 5 Chromebook is one of the more popular posts on this blog and so I thought I would share my take on Google’s latest and greatest. In a nutshell, I will say that the Chromebook Pixel is light years ahead of its predecessors and is an amazing device which hints at the potential of well-built Chrome OS hardware, albeit one which is probably not worth the $1200+ price tag:

    • Good, not good enough, performance: While the Series 5 routinely stumbled and hiccuped, the dual-core Ivy Bridge processor in the Pixel, while not the fastest chip around, was up to the task of almost any large web workload I threw at it – multiple tabs with Netflix and complex webapps like Tweetdeck and Gmail and Feedly running. Even Evernote, which I had not been able to get working on the older Chromebook, worked without any problems on the Pixel.
    • Amazing display: In the same way that other remarkably high resolution displays make you want to view more content (Nexus 10, Retina Display Macbook Pros), the Pixel has actually managed to steal web browsing and video watching time from my tablets, something I didn’t expect would happen.
    • Touch: I used to be a big skeptic of the importance of touchscreen displays on laptop form factors – no more. As cheesy as it sounds, the type of relationship you have with content is different when you can use touch gestures to zoom in/out and scroll up/down versus using arrow keys or a mouse. I can’t say that I primarily use the touchscreen in navigation, but it’s a nice touch (pun intended).
    • Much better industrial design: I don’t claim to be an ID expert, but the attention to detail on the machine is decidedly impressive for a company that many in the tech industry for years felt just didn’t care about design quality. The touchpad beats most of what the PC industry has put out in feel and responsiveness (although that’s a low bar to beat) and, taking a page from Apple’s playbook, supports multi-finger gestures. The device body is smooth aluminum with only a groove on the body for cool-looking LED lights to come out as a signal that the device is on and an interesting piano hinge for the display which someone engineered to function not only as a hinge but as a heat sink and Wi-Fi antenna. Simply put: it doesn’t feel or look cheap.

Couple that with the advantages I described to all Chrome OS systems (rapid boot, easy multi-user support, frequent and automatic updates, syncing tabs/histories/passwords with all your other Chrome browsers), and I think you have a fairly compelling device.

That said, three major problems are worth calling attention towards:

    • This is still just a browser: granted, most of what we do today is in or can easily be replaced by web-based applications of some form or the other, but, this won’t be playing Starcraft or running Excel or operating a server or doing software build work.
    • Underwhelming Battery life: for an operating system that is effectively a browser, I am surprised that my typical battery life is somewhere in the 3-4 hour range, and significantly lower if I’m using Netflix or YouTube. I can’t tell if this is simply an issue where Google included too small of a battery to save costs, if this is the energy from the extra processing power and backlight needed to run such a high-resolution screen, or if this is a operating system/firmware bug where the video codecs aren’t being used properly, but this is something that will likely need real improvement.
    • Extremely high price: while this is a fantastic device, its usage limitations (to basically being a big browser) and storage and memory and battery life limitations don’t make this a $1200+ machine. Interestingly, I do feel that if they included a dual-boot to Linux option, the screen and industrial design could very well justify a higher price (compare with Linux laptop vendor System76’s new Galago UltraPro)

So, the verdict? I am extremely happy I got this device for free from Google. It’s something I use regularly because it is a delight to use and really does put forward Chrome in a fantastic light for developers (which is really the purpose of the giveaway at Google I/O). This device is also probably more than enough for what the average computer user needs (who is mainly interested in checking email, reading articles, watching videos, and playing webgames) and has unique advantages for enterprise/educational settings. But, the fact that Chrome OS still can’t do everything that I need it to do and has limitations in battery life and storage and memory make it difficult to justify the high price for a regular consumer purchase.

Any other Chromebook Pixel users out there care to share their perspectives?

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Where do the devices fit?

About a month ago, I got Google’s new Nexus 7 tablet, and have been quite happy with the purchase (not that surprising given my self-proclaimed “Fandroid” status). Android’s Jelly Bean update works remarkably well and the Nexus 7 is wonderfully light and fast.

However, with the purchase of the Nexus 7, this brought the total number of “smart internet connected devices I own and use” to a total of 6:

  • Samsung Galaxy Nexus Verizon edition (4.65” Android phone)
  • a Nexus 7 (7” Android tablet)
  • a Motorola Xoom (10” Android tablet)
  • Chromebook (12” ChromeOS notebook)
  • Thinkpad T4o0 for personal use and a Thinkpad T410 for work (both 14” Windows 7 laptops)

nexus-devicesBeyond demonstrating my unreasonable willingness to spend money on newfangled gadgets (especially when Google puts its brand on them), owning these devices has been an interesting natural experiment to see just what use cases each device category is best suited for. After all, independent of the operating system you choose, there’s quite a bit of overlap between a 10” tablet and the Chromebook/laptop, between the 7” tablet and the 10” tablet, and between the 7” tablet and the 4.65” phone. Would one device supplant the others? Would they coexist? Would some coexist and others fall by the wayside?

Well, after about a month of adding a 5th device to the mix, I can say:

  • I wound up using all the devices, albeit for different things. This was actually quite a surprise to me. Before I bought the Nexus 7, I figured that I would end up either completely replacing the Xoom or find that I couldn’t do without the larger screen. But, I found the opposite happening – that the Nexus 7 took over for some things and the Xoom for others. What things?
    • Smartphone: The smartphone has really become my GPS and on-the-go music listening, photo taking, and quick reading device. Its small size means it fits in my pocket and goes everywhere I go, but its small screen size means I tend to prefer using other devices if they’re around. Because it’s everywhere I go, it’s the most logical device to turn to for picture-taking (despite the Galaxy Nexus’s lackluster camera), GPS-related functionality (checking in, finding directions, etc) and when I want/need to quickly read something (like work email) or listen to music/podcast in the car.
    • 7” tablet: I’ve really taken to the Nexus 7 form factor – and it’s become my go-to-device for reading and YouTube watching. The device is extremely light and small enough to fit in one hand, making it perfect for reading in bed or in a chair (unlike its heavier 10” and laptop-form-factor cousins). The screen is also large enough that watching short-form videos on it makes sense. It is, however, too big to be as mobile as a smartphone (and lacks cellular connectivity, making it useless if there is no WiFi network nearby).
    • 10” tablet: Because of the screen size and its heft, my 10” Motorola Xoom has really become my go-to-device for movie watching, game playing, and bringing to meetings. While the smaller 7” form factor is fine for short-form videos like the ones you’d see on YouTube, it is much too small to get the visual impact you want while watching a movie or playing a game. The larger screen size also gives you more room to play with while taking notes in a meeting, something the smaller screen size only makes possible if you like squinting at small font. It is, however, at least to this blogger, too big and too heavy, to make a great casual reading device, especially when lying in bed 🙂
    • 12” Chromebook: What does a Chromebook have that its smaller tablet cousins don’t? Three things: a keyboard, a mouse, and a full PC flavor of Chrome. The result is that in situations where I want to use Flash-based websites (i.e. the free version of Hulu, Amazon Videos, many restaurant/artist websites, etc) or play Flash-based games (i.e. most Facebook games) or access sophisticated web apps which aren’t touch-driven (i.e. WordPress, posting to Tumblr) or which don’t have full functioned apps attached (i.e. Google Drive/Docs), I turn to the Chromebook.
    • 14” Laptop: So where does my 14” laptop fit (and how could I possibly have enough room in my digital life that I’m actively researching options for my next Thinkpad machine)? Simple: it’s for everything else. I track my finances in Excel, make my corporate presentations in PowerPoint, do my taxes in Turbo Tax, compose blog posts on Windows Live Writer, program/develop on text editors and IDEs, write long emails, edit photos and movies… these are all things which are currently impossible or inconveniently hard to do on devices which don’t have the same screen size, keyboard/mouse caliber, operating system, and processing hardware as modern PCs. And, while the use of new devices has exploded as their cost and performance get better, the simple truth is power users will have a reason to have a “real PC” for at least several more years.
  • Applications/services which sync across devices are a godsend. While I’ve posted before about the power of web-based applications, you really learn to appreciate the fact that web applications & services store their information to a central repository in the cloud when you are trying to access the same work on multiple devices. That, combined with Google Chrome not only working on every device I have, but also actively syncing passwords and browser history between devices and showing the open browser tabs I have on other systems, makes owning and using multiple devices a heckuva lot easier.

How do you use the different devices you own? Has any of that usage segmentation surprised you?

(Image credit – GetAndroidStuff.com)

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A Few Months with the Chromebook

(Hello visitors, if you’re interested in this post, you may be interested to know that I have posted my impressions of the newer Chromebook Pixel here)

Last year, I had the chance to attend the New Game conference sponsored by Google to talk about the use of HTML5 in games. The conference itself was fascinating as it brought up many of the themes I’ve mentioned before on this blog about the rise of HTML5 as a tool to build compelling software, but one of the highlights was that Google gave every attendee a free Samsung Series 5 Chromebook to test out and use for development purposes.

chromebooks-portability

I’ve blogged a few times before about Chromebooks and how they represent the next logical step in Google’s belief in the web as the core platform for software delivery (seeing how they’re machines that are built almost entirely around the browser), and I jumped at the chance to test it out.

I initially tested out the Chromebook shortly after getting it for a week or two. To be completely honest, I was underwhelmed. While there were many cool things about the operating system (it always being up to date, the built in Google Talk experience, and the ability to use Google Docs as a scratchpad for starters), the machine just felt very slow (likely in part because of the low-end Intel Atom processor inside). The device never seemed to sync properly with my Google account, the lack of a desktop made this feel more like a browser with a keyboard than an operating system, and poor support for offline functionality and handling of peripherals made it feel very constraining. I meant to write up a review on the blog but I never got around to it and it faded from memory, collecting dust in storage…

Flash forward to May when Google unveiled a pretty bold re-vamp of the Chrome OS operating system that lies behind the Chromebook: Aura. Aura replaced what was formerly a within-one-browser-window experience with something which looks and feels a lot more like a traditional operating system with a taskbar, multiple windows (and hence true multi-tasking), a desktop background, a “system tray/control panel” to readily access system-wide settings (i.e. battery life, which WiFi network I’m connected to, screen brightness, etc), and an application launcher. My previous problems with syncing with my Google account are gone (and its support for tab syncing – where I can continue browsing a webpage I was reading on another device – make using this very natural). The experience also just feels faster – both the act of browsing as well as thinsg like how quickly the touchpad responds to commands. Chromebooks now also handle more file types natively (whether downloaded or from removable media), and, with the recently announced offline Google Drive integration, Chromebooks have gotten a lot more useful and have taken another step to achieve the “web file system” vision I blogged about before.

Much to my surprise, I’ve even found myself turning to my Chromebook regularly as a casual consumption device. It being instant-on, browser-centric, and ready support for multiple user accounts makes it a perfect device to watch TV epsiodes or movies from Google Play, Netflix, or Amazon Videos or to share interesting articles to my Tumblr (something that my touch-centric Galaxy Nexus and Motorola Xoom do less well at).

Realistically, there are a set of apps which I’ve found to work much better on Windows/Linux (mainly coding, using Microsoft Excel, and composing blog posts) and which prevent me from using a Chromebook for 100% of my computing needs. But, while important, these only take up a minority of my time on a computer — what actually stops me from using the Chromebook much more actively as a primary machine in my job and day-to-day are two far more pressing items:

  1. Evernote does not work. I am a very active user of Evernote for note-taking and note organization, and its unfailing ability to crash whatever tab is open to it on a Chromebook is a pretty major roadblock for me.
  2. Some web apps don’t play nice because they don’t recognize Chrome OS properly. The key culprit here for me is Microsoft Outlook. A conspiracy theorist might think this was some ploy by Microsoft to get people using Chrome OS to switch to Windows or by Google to get Outlook users to switch to Google Apps – but at the end of the day, Microsoft’s very nice, new Outlook Web App, which works beautifully on Chrome on my Windows 7 machine, treats the Chromebook as if it were a barely functioning computer running Internet Explorer 6 – leaving me with a crippled web experience for what is my corporate email lifeline. If Google made it possible to spoof the browser identification or found a way to convince Microsoft to give Chrome OS flying colors when it comes to serving up web apps, that would make me a MUCH happier camper.

These issues aside, there is no doubt in my mind that Chrome OS/Chromebooks are a concept worthy of consideration for people who are thinking about buying a new computer for themselves or their loved ones: if you spend most of your time on the computer on the web and don’t need to code or create/consume massive files, these machines are perfect (they boot fast, they update themselves, and they are built with the web in mind). I think this sort of model also will probably work quite well in quite a few enterprise/educational settings, given how easy they are to support and to share between multiple users. This feels to me like an increasingly real validation of my hypothesis of the web as software platform and, while there’s quite a few remaining rough spots, I was very impressed by the new Aura revision and look forward to more refreshes coming out from the Chrome team and more time with my Chromebook :-).

(Image credit – Chromebook – Google)

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Chrome Remote Desktop

A few weeks ago, I blogged about how the web was becoming the most important and prominent application distribution platform and about Google’s efforts to embrace that direction with initiatives like ChromeOS (Google’s operating system which is designed only to run a browser/use the internet), Native Client, and the Chrome Web Store.

Obviously, for the foreseeable future, “traditional” native applications will continue to have significant advantages over web applications. As much of a “fandroid”/fan of Google as I am, I find it hard to see how I could use a Chromebook (a laptop running Google’s ChromeOS) over a real PC today because of my heavy use of apps like Excel or whenever I code.

However, you can do some pretty cool things with web applications/HTML5 which give you a sense of what can one day be possible. Case in point: enter Chrome Remote Desktop (HT: Google Operating System), a beta extension for Google Chrome which basically allows you to take control of another computer running Chrome a la remote desktop/VNC. While this capability is nothing new (Windows had “remote desktop” built in since, at latest, Windows XP, and there are numerous VNC/remote desktop clients), what is pretty astonishing is that this app is built entirely using web technologies – whereas traditional remote desktops use non-web based communications and native graphics to create the interface to the other computer, Chrome Remote Desktop is doing all the graphics in the browser and all the communications using either the WebSocket standard from HTML5 or Google Talk’s chat protocol! (see below as I use my personal computer to remote-control my work laptop where I am reading a PDF on microblogging in China and am also showing my desktop background image where the Jedi Android slashes up a Apple Death Star)

image

How well does it work? The control is quite good – my mouse/keyboard movements registered immediately on the other computer – but the on-screen graphics/drawing speed was quite poor (par for the course for most sophisticated graphics drawing apps in the browser and for a beta extension). The means of controlling another desktop, while easy to use (especially if you are inviting someone to take a look at your machine) is very clumsy for some applications (i.e. a certain someone who wants to leave his computer in the office and use VNC/remote desktop to access it only when he needs to).

So, will this replace VNC/remote desktop anytime soon? No (nor, does it seem, were they the first to think up something like this), but that’s not the point. The point, at least to me, is that the browser is picking up more and more sophisticated capabilities and, while it may take a few more versions/years before we can actually use this as a replacement for VNC/remote desktop, the fact that we can even be contemplating that at all tells you how far browser technology has come and why the browser as a platform for applications will grow increasingly compelling.

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