Living with Chromebook: The Basics

Posted on August 19, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in iOS, Mobile with 110 Comments

Living with Chromebook: The Basics

In sharp contrast with my Windows 10 S experiences, Chromebook can be surprisingly usable. But there are many caveats: You need to pick the right device, you’ll have a much better experience if you’re not using G Suite, and you need to be open to using at least some Google products and services.

So let’s step through some of the basics.

Hardware

Most Chromebooks are fairly low-end devices, and 11-inch devices are very common. Good 13-to-15-inch devices are as expensive as mid-range PCs in most cases, and even then you’ll run into issues like display scaling (which is terrible). And keyboard backlighting is unusual, even on expensive Chromebooks. So set your sights accordingly, and be sure to read several reviews for any Chromebook you are considering.

Related to this is that few Chromebooks have access to Android apps today, and even fewer for those unwilling to use a beta/pre-release version of Chrome OS. So in addition to finding a device that means your needs, you will need to cross-shop it with Google’s list of Android-compatible Chromebooks. Even though it’s buggy, I consider Android app support to be a minimum for using a Chromebook, and I wouldn’t consider buying a device that did not support this functionality. All Chromebooks that ship in 2017 and beyond are Android-compatible, Google says.

On that note, my test rig is an Acer Chromebook 14 for Work. It’s a long-term loaner, and I waited for many months for Android app compatibility to arrive even in pre-release form. According to Google, this device needs to be in the Beta channel to use Android apps, and I do have mine configured for that. (Chrome OS supports Stable, Beta, and Dev channels, and I’ve never had any issues not being on Stable.)

The Acer Chromebook 14 for Work is mostly excellent. It’s expensive for a Chromebook: The base model, with a Core i3, costs about $475, but my Core i5-based loaner is about $550. It includes 8 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage, both of which are on the high-end for a Chromebook, a 14-inch 1080p (1920 x 1080) IPS display, a decent backlit keyboard, 802.11ac and Bluetooth networking, a 720p webcam, and a great selection of ports: two full-sized USB 3.0, a full-sized HDMI-out, an SD card slot, and USB-C for power. The build quality is excellent, and that helps justify the price. I’m not a fan of the Gorilla Glass on the outside of the screen lid, but that’s aesthetic. It weighs 3.2 pounds and delivers a manufacturer-claimed 10 hours of battery life (which I have not tested).

Google account

You can’t really use a Chromebook without a Google account, which should be obvious. If this is an issue for you for some reason, you can simply look elsewhere.

Less obvious is that if you’re using a custom Google domain—meaning you’re paying for a G Suite account—then you are in for a world of hurt. Many Chromebook features are disabled by default on these accounts. And finding where to enable them—even understanding what they are—is very difficult. And in some cases, the setting you wish to enable doesn’t even exist. (PIN logon, for example.) In short, the G Suite admin console is a freaking disaster, especially for the normal people who have never encountered such an interface.

Using a Chromebook

For the most part, you will be pleasantly surprised by the Chromebook experience. This is especially true if you master a single feature called “Open as window,” which lets you open web apps in their own basic windows, rather than in Chrome web browser tabs. As with the similar functionality on Windows, this makes Chrome web apps look and work like native apps, and it really changes the experience into something more familiar and usable.

Beyond that, you will settle in immediately with the basic Chrome OS user interface. In lieu of Start, Chrome offers a Launcher interface that can be accessed from the Start button-like Launcher button in the taskbar or by pressing the Search key on the keyboard (which, on Chromebooks, replaces Caps Lock).

You can pin frequently-used apps on the taskbar, just like with Windows, and a tray area provides access to notifications, system information, Settings, and controls for powering down and locking the device. All of this should be immediately familiar to any Windows user, even with the slight differences. In fact, I find the Chrome OS interface to be more familiar, and friendlier and more usable, than that of macOS. Most keyboard shortcuts from Windows work as expected, but you will want to learn Chrome OS-specific shortcuts too.

Chromebook doesn’t offer a Windows Hello-type sign-in experience, though I’m told fingerprint readers are possible. For the most part, you will sign-in to the device using your full Google account password, which I find tedious. Thankfully, you can use Smart Lock for Chromebook (Beta) if you have an Android handset. Or you can enable PIN unlock, assuming you don’t have a G Suite account; I could not figure out how to enable this feature.

Maintenance, even for those on the Beta channel, is effortless and seamless, and updates are never disruptive. Performance is excellent, too: This machine, at least, boots in seconds when booting is necessary, and comes out of sleep instantly. I have never run into performance issues using the Acer, even with multiple apps and tabs open. (Android apps may be a different story. See below.)

On the downside, the Chrome OS UI is not scalable in an elegant way. What you can do is scale the entire display down to a lower resolution, which is desirable on my loaner unit. To do so, you type CTRL + SHIFT + – (that, CTRL and SHIFT and the minus key). On the Acer, this changes the resolution to 1536 x 864, which is actually quite nice looking in general. But the issue is that text in menus and other places remains very small; it’s like these UI elements do not scale. Whether this is an issue for you will depend on the hardware you select and, of course, your eyes.

Android apps

With the advent of Android apps on Chrome OS, Chromebook users have some interesting and confusing choices to make.

For example, in some cases, there are both Chrome web app and Android mobile app versions of a product or service you may want to use. The Android apps can be buggy and not play nice, especially with devices that do not support touch or provide a 2-in-1/tablet form factor. Some apps, for example, are designed only for a phone, and are OK running in a phone-shaped window but look terrible full-screen.

The list of things that are wrong with Android integration into Chrome OS is too long for me to bother with here. But the good news is that the situation is improving regularly as Google improves Chrome/Chrome OS and the list of compatible devices grows. Long story short, I will be writing more about this aspect of using a Chromebook soon as I feel that it is a key differentiator for the platform and is, potentially, a game changer. Just expect some problems and go into this with an experimental mindset.

Microsoft on Chromebook

Since I do focus largely on Microsoft and feel that its productivity solutions are superior to anything offered by Google or other third parties, I have always been particularly keen to see how well the firm’s solutions work on Chromebook. But this is becoming more complicated with the addition of Android app compatibility. In short, you’ll see a compromised experience on Chromebook, and you will want to test whether Microsoft’s web apps or Android apps make more sense for you. I could see using a mix.

But the problem for Microsoft, of course, is that many Chromebook switchers will simply expand their use of Google products and services because they are right there and are better integrated. Consider this one example. Chrome OS includes a Files app that works much like File Explorer in Windows. It offers integration with your Google Drive storage, as you’d expect, but it also lets you “mount” other cloud-based storage systems into the file system. Including, amazingly, OneDrive.

You won’t get sync with this arrangement, of course. But the ability to browse OneDrive from Files is great, and it means that apps can potentially save files there too. (This requires the app to know about Files, which is sadly often not the case.) The issue is that this mounting times out, forcing you to manually re-mount it. Which is really tedious, because you have to manually type in your username and password, and then handle whatever two-step authentication you set up. Every single time. Put simply, unusable.

A few other thoughts

Chromebook users reading through this article may notice a few points with which they disagree, where things don’t work the way I described for them. This type of thing is most likely caused by my use of a G Suite account, which really does screw up the experience badly. I did configure a normal Gmail account too, and I may have to switch to that on Chromebook to get the full, or correct, experience.

You’ll also note that I have not touched on the big complaint about Chromebook here, that it basically requires an Internet connection for a complete experience. This was certainly true in the early days of the platform, but it is less true now. And aside from local storage, I suspect that the offline Chromebook experience isn’t too much more unusable than, say, the offline Windows PC experience. But I have not tested this a lot in recent days. So I will do so soon. But let’s be honest here: The typical Chromebook user will use this device around their home almost exclusively, and Internet access is to be expected. It’s 2017.

As for Chromebook, I don’t anticipate turning this into a long series, and I won’t be using a Chromebook every single day as I am doing with Windows 10 S. But there are definitely some areas of exploration here, key among them Android app support, so it’s reasonable to assume I’ll have more to say soon. Let me know if there are any key topics you’d like to see me address.

But I will say this. I wrote this article entirely on the Chromebook, using Google Docs. I found and edited (using Pixlr Editor) the hero graphic entirely on the Chromebook. And I posted it to the website (via WordPress) using the Chromebook. This process was considerably easier—more natural and familiar—on the Chromebook than its been with Windows 10 S, and that’s true after three straight weeks of trying to make Windows 10 S work for me. This says a lot, I think, about the relative state of these platforms. And that is especially true when you consider that I am a Windows guy.

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