7 days living with... Google Chrome OS and the Chromebook
The crux of the Chrome OS operating system is that you live your life in the cloud through a browser. There is no desktop, no installing software and no local storage or applications.
If it sounds visionary, that’s because it is, but can it be your only computer? Could you run a business on it? I decided to see for myself, opting to use the Chromebook and nothing else for 7 days. Did I do it? Read on to find out.
If you think that I’m just going to jump right in, give up my laptop and go cold turkey you’ve got another thing coming. I need a day to move to the cloud so the rest of the week isn’t just a complete waste of time with me whinging that I couldn’t do this or I couldn’t do that. So I've decided that it’s only fair that I have 1 day to move myself into a position that makes the week more bearable.
For the purpose of the test I am going to be using the Google cr-48. It’s the Chromebook Google has been dishing out for the last 6 months to developers and journalists. The cr-48 isn’t going on sale, and is not part of the opening line-up of hardware from other manufacturers (that’s Acer and Samsung). I therefore won’t be commenting on the device's performance, how the trackpad is awful, or how I still can’t fathom how to change the auto brightness settings.
As with previous 7 days features it’s also worth pointing out this isn’t a review, this is going to be my experience warts and all about living in the cloud with the Chromebook. The end result will hopefully give you an insight into what it’s like working on a device that insists you must be in the cloud to use it.
That covered, on to my move into the cloud.
As I see it, there are a number of areas to move myself over into the cloud and ditch local storage. Music, pictures, video, emails, contacts, appointments, and documents are the main ones to tackle.
Emails - Pocket-lint uses Google Apps for email, so the move to cloud email has already been in effect for some time. With so many devices coming in and out of the Pocket-lint office for testing, I use IMAP for my emails rather than POP3. This has the added advantage of when I read a email on my phone or Gmail on the web it is marked as read by static inbox on my Mac and vice versa. To make sure I don’t run out of space with no local copy, I boost the Pocket-lint Google App accounts giving me and the team 25GB of storage each.
Contacts - It turns out I’ve got contacts everywhere. In local form on my laptop, in Gmail, on my phone, and on my desk (a shoebox of business cards). That’s not going to work for a seamless cloud experience, so I’ve got to come up with a plan. Deciding that Google contacts will be the mother ship, I find the quickest way is to delete everyone and start again. It’s drastic, I know, but on close inspection a lot of my local contacts on my computer are out of date. I also realise that if I’ve lost a really important contact they’ll contact me or I’ll have a way of getting in touch with them somehow.
Appointments - Pocket-lint has been running a centralised calendar on Google for sometime. The move to Chrome OS won’t affect this and I don’t need to do anything here.
Pictures - With no storage on the Chromebook, the idea of storing pictures locally is going to be a no no. It’s not essential that I have pictures of me at University for the sake of this article, but I’m in the cloud mood so what the hell. I sign up to Flickr, grab a premium account ($25 a year) and start uploading. It soon dawns on me that to upload 10,000 pictures is going to take longer than an afternoon, but considering I won’t be using my Mac for another week, I figure it’s a good use of its time.
Music - I don’t know about you but I like listening to music when I work. I’ve got 20GB of music, but my Chromebook doesn’t have 20GB of storage, nor a local music app to play it. For the UK there is currently no option to listen to your own music on the Chromebook. Amazon Music and Google Music aren’t available outside the US. That leaves Spotify in the UK, but that doesn’t work because you can’t install an app. That leaves Last.fm. Luckily I’ve got a Sonos music system house, so I’ve grabbed one of my S5 Zone Players and plugged it in the office. My Galaxy S II will double as the remote. Out of the office it’s going to be quiet though.
Documents - Because I'm determined not to have to turn on my Mac, I also “cloud” all my documents to give me access to them on the go on the Chromebook. I’ve used Dropbox. It’s a fantastic service. You get 2GB of storage for free that you can then share with other people. To make things easier I turn my Mac’s documents folder into the Dropbox folder. Everything is now online and accessible via the web.
Final bits and bobs - My Mac has no physical media on it at all now. The music’s gone. The photos are gone. The documents are there, but backed up into the cloud. Likewise emails, contacts, and appointments are on my computer for offline use, but also backed up into the cloud so I can see them when on the Chromebook. Regardless of whether or not I enjoy the Chromebook experience, moving to the cloud has been good on a personal admin front. My computer’s hard drive now has stacks of storage space on it, and there is a sense that I’m a lot more portable. I like this feeling. This is liberating.
I get into the office, sit down at my desk and realise that most of it isn’t needed. I run a three screen set up and all of that is redundant today. I don’t really even need an office, Google will have me believe - everything I need is in my computer. We shall see.
Powering on the system - which takes around 3 seconds - and logging in and I’m ready to go. The Chrome OS browser (that’s really all it is) stares out at me saying “where shall we go” but it dawns on me that I actually run a lot of apps on a daily basis in the background to do my job. The place I normally go is usually already here.
3 minutes later and I’ve got my Gmail tab running, I’ve got a Twitter tab and Google Docs so I can start this diary, of course.
One of the main ways we communicate at Pocket-lint is through Skype. A quick search of the Chrome store brings up a selection of apps none of which are made by Skype. I opt for IM+ - an in-browsing messaging “solution” that lets me connect all manner of Instant Messaging services in one window. It does Skype. I am happy. A new account later and I’m up and running, although there is no voice or video support. So, not quite Skype then. In fact, just IM.
Realising that I don’t need to be in the office, and I’ve got a launch event to go to in London, I grab my Chromebook and head for the train.
Once on board, I open up the laptop and get ready to do some writing. It’s a good time to get some words out without distraction. Unfortunately, Google Docs isn’t having any of it insisting that I must be “connected” for it to work. Thankfully, I’ve got a Vodafone Mi-Fi dongle in the bag, but I don’t really want to be online just so I can write up a feature. If I didn’t have the dongle, I would have had a dead paperweight on my lap, and a wasted hour.
I get to London and go to my event. No Wi-Fi, so I’m on the dongle again. The dongle is great, but signal is poor so Google Doc’s performance is sketchy. At one point the window freezes. The only way out is to refresh the page. I lose 5 minutes of work and a good quote I jotted down. I am annoyed so give up and switch to paper. Not good. My hand feels like it's forgotten how to write.
The rest of the event goes smoothly and I head home. On the train back it dawns on me that battery life is still a healthy couple of hours in the tank. It seems running only a browser does have its benefits after all.
A full day in the office today. I would sit outside in the sun, but it’s actually rather windy. I’ve got used to this working from a browser business now.
On the Twitter front I notice that the microblog's webpage in Chrome automatically tallies up the number of unread tweets for you. I’ve got hundreds which is never a good way to keep calm. Wondering whether I can induce the same stress levels for my email, I head over to Gmail Labs to see if there is a bolt-on that will tell me how many unread emails I have. There is. I install it and then don’t have to keep wondering whether or not I’ve got mail.
Skype (IM-only, of course) in a browser is going well although the concept of "quick calls" to the Pocket-lint team have dried up. It’s too much effort and seems too formal to make a phone call each time - you mean you have to use your hands? They're probably enjoying the peace and quiet too. [note from team: we are]
I’ve got some “office paperwork to do” and that presents the first challenge. I can’t print. Google has got a print offering for Chrome OS but you need a PC to set it up. Yep, another computer, and seeing as I can’t do that it’s a no-go. Bugger.
On top of that, saving invoices to my invoices folder on Dropbox proves impossible. I can download attachments but then can’t seem to find them on the hard drive to then upload them to my Dropbox folder. Where on earth are they going to? It’s an annoying setback but nowhere near as annoying as what happens next.
I visit the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 product page while doing a story which promptly crashes Chrome OS. Getting no response, I turn off the Chromebook and turn it back on again. However rather than the quick boot up I’ve been promised, I get an error message telling me that the OS has been corrupted and that I have to completely reinstall it. What?
To do this I need to make a boot disk from a 4GB or larger USB stick and a Mac or PC to download the file. Now the idea of using no other computer this week has really been dashed unless I'm willing to take the next few days off work. There's no other way around it, so I boot up my Mac, download the file, and get to re-installing the Chromebook.
An hour later I’m back online, the process has, as far as recovery is concerned, been a simple one. My apps associated with my account are there, as too are my bookmarks and, on reflection, that's actually very handy indeed.
It serves to highlight two things. Firstly that the Chromebook and Chrome OS are reliant on you having a PC or Mac to help you out in the first place, and that switching computers to other Chromebooks in the future is going to be a doddle as there's nothing physical on the device at all.
I'm not going to blame Chrome OS for the crash. After all, I am still on the developer build, so it’s to be expected from time to time.
5am start. I’ve got to do an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live. Thankfully they’ve said that I don’t have to go into the studio in London. What they have said though is that I’ve got to do the interview over Skype; better quality than over a landline they say.
That leaves me with the predicament that I either say no, or I cheat and use my Mac. If you were up and you heard me, you’ll know the answer.
Guilty that I’ve had to use my regular computer again, I feel even worse when I find, 10 minutes after the interview is over, that I'm still on my computer enjoying the desktop. Twitter is easier, Skype is easier, reading email is easier. Oh dear. Realising it's the equivalent of having a Mars bar when you’re on a diet, I slam the lid shut and take the dog for a walk for my sins.
10am and I’m back on the train into London for more meetings, and once again have to make sure that my Mi-Fi is on so I can write up this entry. Why there isn’t an offline mode baffles me.
10:43am and the train slowly arrives into Richmond, a notoriously bad area for reception. My Chromebook grinds to a halt.
I’ve got meetings for the rest of the day so the Chromebook doesn’t come out again until I get back on the train a couple of hours later to go back home. It’s worth mentioning that the battery hasn’t drained a bit - well not noticeably. Compared to my MacBook Pro, where I am always on the look out for a charge, it’s been the complete opposite for the Chromebook.
I jump on the train, pull out the Chromebook and the Vodafone Mi-Fi to do some work on the way home. The Chromebook’s battery might be fine, but I realise I’ve left the Mi-Fi on and the battery on that has run out. So no USB cable to hand and with no power for the Mi-Fi, means the Chromebook has effectively become useless. It means I’ve got to work later tonight. I read the Evening Standard instead and begin to grind the tops off my molars.
I’m hoping today is going to be better. I’ve got a briefing in the morning so the Chromebook doesn’t get used much until it comes to writing up the story. Meanwhile the briefing from Thursday involved a gallery of photos that need to be edited, cropped and uploaded onto the site. A wave of nausea washes through me as I realise that this isn't going to be as simple as doing it on a PC or my Mac.
While there is some local file support in Chrome, there isn’t a local image editor. Everything is about the cloud of course and that means all my images have to be uploaded to the web first before being edited, then downloaded back on to the Chromebook before re-uploading them on to Pocket-lint. That's a faff even if you're on Wi-Fi.
On recommendation, I try out Picnik. Without signing up, you can upload one image at a time but if you're happy to register, you get to upload five images in one go and, for $24.99 a year, you can upload 100 at a time. Picnik allows you to crop, adjust exposure and do basic editing tasks as well as fix red-eye on your friends and pets. It’s no Photoshop, but then it’s free rather than £200+.
What’s frustrating is that if you’ve just taken 20 photos with your digital camera you’ve got to spend quite some time uploading those to the Picnik site before you can start doing anything to them at all. On my Mac, with my normal offline image editor, this process takes seconds. I’m not happy. Exactly how far has my productivity dropped this week?
4pm. It’s coming up to home time and I’ve got to make some changes to the site’s code. It’s a quick job on the Mac and I’m hoping it will be on the Chromebook.
I find ShiftEdit, a coding site that has FTP support within the browser built in. It’s quick, it’s perfect, and it works. Pleased that I can go home for the weekend I shut the Chromebook.
It’s the weekend, so I don’t really use my laptop in my normal life that much, preferring instead to use an iPad, or whatever tablet I am testing, on the sofa.
The Chromebook comes out once to use Google Maps. Not because I haven’t got it on the iPad - it’s a better experience - but I feel guilty that I said that I would use this for 7 days and that really I’m not entirely living up to my side of the deal.
The battery is still going strong even though I’ve not plugged it in since leaving the office on Friday night. Not much is happening on the work front, so I fire up the BBC iPlayer to catch up on this week’s Apprentice.
The show watched and another sucker fired, and I start to reflect back on the week that’s been.
The biggest thing to note is that without a back up PC (in my case a Mac) the task wouldn’t have been possible. There are just too many times for me where I needed the power of an operating system with a desktop. And once you start thinking like that, then you start thinking why do you want a Chromebook that needs a PC when you could get a PC with Chrome the browser and not have any of the problems we experienced over the week? I missed Skype, I missed Twitter as an app, and I missed local image editing - badly.
I also missed any form of offline use. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed moving my digital life to the cloud, and the preparations I made at the beginning of the week with my email, my contacts, my music, et al, but the reliance on being online has been hard even though I’ve been set up to be online for most of the time. All those promises of offline compatibility thanks to HTML5 coding haven't come true. Whether Google will have sorted that out come the arrival of the Chromebooks proper is another thing, but somehow I doubt it.
Ultimately, after my 7 days, I’m struggling to see where the Chromebook will fit into my life and my business. It may work for you. If you work from Wi-Fi at all times, if you don't do much image editing and if battery life is what you crave, then it could be just what you're looking for. But, when it comes to running Pocket-lint, the Chromebook has proved to be too much of a headache. I go to bed and look forward to the luxury of computing from my desktop in the morning.
Will a Chromebook work in your life? Tell us how in the comments below.