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Using a Chromebook: First Impressions

Using a Chromebook: First Impressions

As noted, I’ve been using a Chromebook for about three weeks now. My machine is a Samsung Series 5 with 12.1” screen and both Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity built in. This is the highest-priced Chromebook currently available, selling for $499.99. Samsung also makes a Wi-Fi-only model (no 3G) that sells for $429.99. In addition, Acer should soon be releasing its 11.6” AC700 Chromebook, available in both Wi-Fi-only ($349.99) and Wi-Fi/3G ($429.99) versions.

My first observation is a practical one – I’m not sure it’s worth it to get the 3G version. It seems like there’s a Wi-Fi connection everywhere I go, and my Chromebook seldom if ever switches to 3G data mode. (It comes with 100 MB per month of free 3G data access from Verizon, by the way.)

That said, if I didn’t have a reliable Wi-Fi connection, the 3G would be a necessity. That’s because nothing, absolutely nothing, is stored on the Chromebook itself. It only has 16 MB of internal storage, of the solid state variety, and that’s not enough to hold much of anything. If you want to store data locally, you’ll need to insert a USB flash drive, but even that has limitations. Google fully intends for Chromebooks to utilize web-based storage, so you need to get use to that.

This means, of course, that there’s a lot of stuff you can’t do with a Chromebook. Want to run Microsoft Word? Can’t. Want to edit photos with Photoshop? Can’t. Want to call someone with Skype? Can’t. That’s just the way it is in Chrome’s world of web-based computing.

This forces you to find web-based alternatives for all your old software programs. For Word users, that means either Google Docs or Microsoft’s Word Web Application. For photo editing, it’s Adobe Photoshop Express. For Skype, it’s... well, there’s no web-based alternative for Skype; you have to install the Skype software client for it to work, and you can’t do that in Chrome. So there’s no Skype alternative.

If you do download a file to your Chromebook, you need to find some way to offload it to external storage. You think you’d be able to use a USB flash drive for this, but no such luck; Chrome’s rather rudimentary File Manager does not include a copy command. (That’s right – no file copying in Chrome!) Instead, you’re forced into a bit of a workaround, where you upload the file to the web and then download it to an external USB drive. For example, if you copy a JPG file from your Chromebook to an external device, you have to upload it to Google’s Picasa Web Albums site, and then download it from Picasa to a USB drive connected to your Chromebook. It’s a very Rube Goldberg-like way to perform what should be a common task.

Another challenge comes when it comes to print a file. The Chrome OS doesn’t come with printer drivers for various printers, as you’re used to with Windows. Indeed, Chrome doesn’t have any built-in print functionality at all. Instead, you need to work with the Google Cloud Print service, which requires a Cloud-ready printer or access to an existing printer connected to a Windows or Mac computer. On one hand, this relieves Google of the expense (and operating overhead) of trying to maintain compatibility with thousands of different models of printers. On the other hand, it requires the user to go through a totally foreign process for registering a printer with the service. That said, once you get it working, you don’t even know it’s there; it just outsources a function that we’re used to having built into the operating system.

By the way, I haven’t run into many problems with compatibility. Unlike Apple’s iPad, Chrome OS runs Flash just fine, so websites look and work as they should. It’s a perky little machine when loading web pages, at least on an average broadband connection. I’ve run into no problems accessing those websites I frequent most.

Once you get used to Chrome’s different way of doing things, using a Chromebook isn’t that different from using a Windows or Mac notebook. You’re not in Windows world anymore, but since more and more of what we do is done on the web anyway, having the browser as OS works somewhat naturally. If all you do is use Facebook and email and browse the web, you won’t notice the difference.

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