Google was wrong…

no one wants a pure web laptop.

As someone who has been using Chromebooks for a while…

… I have always tried to push the limits of what you can do with them. More often than not, the limits I hit were caused by one of the core tenets of the platform, that everything you need to do will be done with web apps. It turns out, this was never true, and it’s looking increasingly less likely that it is going to ever become true.

I read a web article a while back called “Is Chrome OS right for you? A 3-question quiz to find out“. The first two questions in the author’s quiz are:

  1. Do you spend most of your time using the web and web-centric services?
  2. Do you have specific local programs that you absolutely need, or could most of the things you do on a computer be accomplished with web-centric equivalents — along with Android and/or Linux apps to fill in any gaps?

At some level, these two questions capture both the history, and the problem with Chromebooks. When Chromebooks were first being developed, the notion that we might end up doing everything on the web was aspirational at best and, more cynically, was an attempt by Google to force people onto a platform they “controlled”. It rapidly became clear that the under-powered, first generation devices that were being built were too limited for day-to-day use, and as the complexity of applications that were being built on the web increased, they couldn’t even handle those web apps well.

Even more telling is that, even if we believed a web-based future would eventually come, what we have actually seen is the world going in a different direction: It’s not web apps that people run, but rather mobile apps. Question two above suggested we would use Android apps to “fill in any gaps”, but it’s Android (or iOS) apps that people typically use now, even if there are web app alternatives.

So what happened? Google added support for Android apps to Chrome, and Apple is in the process of doing the same on their platform. Want proof that it’s a mobile world? Just go take a look at the relative sizes of the Google Play Store and the Chrome Web Store. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

And the funny think about all this, is that yes, Chromebooks are useful now, because they can run the applications people are using, and have large screens and input hardware that makes using those applications easier than running them on phones. Oh well.

OMG! Chromebooks are useful!

As of this weekend, I’m the proud owner of a new ASUS Chromebook Flip C213

ASUS Chromebook Flip C213
ASUS Chromebook Flip C213

For around 450 $CAN, you get a laptop with

  • The “flip” form factor (i.e. keyboard folds under screen so you can use it like a tablet)
  • A touchscreen (as well as a trackpad)
  • 12 hour battery life
  • 2 USB-C ports as well as two as two regular USB3 ports

Obviously, there are limitations, like unexciting screen resolution and limited storage, but I can honestly say that this machine is as responsive as my MBP, for all of the basic tasks I do day to day, and now that ChromeOS can run Android apps as well, I’ve been able to find all the missing features I need (like 1Password support) too.

Let me be clear: This machine is *fun* to use. And that’s even before you factor in the linux app support that is incoming — I’ve already heard of at least one person who has gotten Scrivener for Windows running on WINE. 😉


So, my wonderful wife decided to get me something especially nice this Father’s Day. I had pointed out to her the Chromebooks that they have down at the local Future Shop, so she took me out Friday night and we went and got one. This one, to be exact:

From the Samsung website

At $250, it’s clear that compromises were made, but it works surprisingly well given it’s specs — 2Gig RAM, 16Gig SSD, 1.7 GHz “Samsung Exynos 5” processor (ARM Cortex-A15). The benchmarks show it as faster than a base Atom machine, but only 30..50% of an i3. Anyway, plenty fast enough.

To give you some idea what it’s capable of, as I type this, I’ve got a mouse and keyboard plugged into it, along with an external (HDMI) monitor. I have about 10 Chrome windows open (because, really that’s all you can do <g>) with one of them pointing at Rdio (and playing the latest Punch Brothers album over the HDMI speakers), one showing a remote desktop on my home server, one SSH’ed into my Raspberry Pi, a couple being used to write this blog post, and one connected to JazzHub where I’m keeping notes.

It also has a builtin microphone and camera and will happily participate in a Google Hangout video chat. It will cold boot in about 10 seconds and wakes from sleep in about a second.

As to the apps for it, in addition to the above, I managed to find solutions to almost all the things I normally need to do:

  • Files — DropBox, GoogleDrive, iCloud
  • Mail — iCloud Mail and GMail for home email; iNotes for work
  • Chat — Hangouts; no solution for Sametime yet
  • Twitter — Tweetdeck
  • RSS — Feedly
  • Reddit — Reditr
  • eBooks — Kindle Cloud Reader, Kobo Instant Reader, Google Play Books
  • Office — Google Docs, Sheets, Slides (and iWork once it comes out of beta)
  • image editing — Pixlr

I even managed to get access to my password safe, albeit without the full browser integration.

Of course, the reason I wanted one of these was to use it for testing the experience of working with Orion. I’m going to try to use it for my day to day development and testing for at least the next few weeks. So far, the experience has been good, but I’ll let you know if I discover anything particularly limiting.

So what don’t I like about it?

  • Regardless of the offline support some apps provide, this really is a one trick pony: It’s for being on the internet, and if you don’t have a connection, you might as well save your battery life.
  • The external hardware support works, but just: I wasn’t able to get the acceleration rate high enough on the mouse I use; the max resolution on the HDMI port was lower than the native resolution on the monitor I use; I hung the entire machine twice while getting the display hooked up; etc.
  • The keyboard layout is pretty wonky — massive ctrl and alt keys, with a tiny shift key and hard to hit return key, and somebody must *really* like the backslash character since there is a key to enter it on both sides of the keyboard (in exactly the right places to have you accidentally hit them while going for the shift and return keys).
  • It really does have an incredibly small SSD drive, plus limited ability to expand that using the built in SD card slot since the memory card sticks out so far you have to remove it when you aren’t using it. *sigh*. The former I might understand given the low price, but it makes the latter unforgivable.

Anyway, it’s not a replacement for the MacBook Pro, but it works pretty well. I could see taking just this device (and a USB HD to download pictures) if I was travelling. I believe the pricepoint is interesting too. It’s a nicer experience to work on than an iPad (even with a keyboard) at a significantly lower price. Now all they have to do is get the app ecosystem a bit bigger and it might start to make sense for the wider community.