A new type of laptop – Google Chromebook

What is a Chromebook?

A Chromebook is a different breed of laptop. Instead of being a Windows machine or a Mac, it is a ‘Google Computer’. They are low cost, fast and light. As they do not have a hard drive they have very long battery lives 9+ hours and they boot up in seconds (just like a tablet or a smartphone). They are designed to be used primarily while connected to the internet, with most applications and documents living in the cloud. Their prices range from US$220 – $1,200. Check out the Chromebook website for a  more detailed explanation.

Our business is 95% cloud-based and we are ‘married’ to Google, so I have been watching the development of Google Chromebooks and the Chrome operating system for the past couple of years. With the release of the new generation of Chromebooks and the overwhelmingly positive reviews for most of them, I decided to test one out. The goal is, through natural attrition, to change over from Windows-based laptops and desktops to Chromebooks over the coming 12 months, if they work.

In researching the Chromebook I found lots of technical reviews from ‘reviewers’ who had been given a Chromebook to test for a day, or so, and negative feedback from people who thought they were buying a Windows 10 laptop (and were very disappointed). We didn’t find many reviews from people who had fully changed over to a Chromebook. So, this is a review from a real person who has moved from a Windows 10 environment to a Chromebook (specifically the Toshiba Chromebook 2).

Choosing the model

I did quite a bit of research online and determined that the Toshiba Chromebook 2 was going to be the best fit for my (and the businesses) needs. While its battery life was shorter than other models, it had a bigger screen, backlit keyboard and a faster CPU. These all impact on battery life. I was happy to make this sacrifice, as the advertised 10 hour battery life is more than adequate for our needs. For more of the specs on the machine view it on the Amazon web site.

I had some negative feedback about Toshiba computers (mainly because of their level of service was poor). I felt that if the computer arrived and worked when I got it, the risk of it failing was small as it has so few moving parts. What can go wrong!  (Famous last words, I know – I will update the post in a year to let you know how it went)

Preparing to operate 100% in the cloud

Over the last couple of years we have been moving our business to totally to cloud-based applications – Xero and Wave accounting packages, Google Apps for Business, and other web-based applications, which made the move to a Chromebook a logical one. I wanted to test our dependency on Windows, so in the month prior to ordering the Chromebook I did some monitoring of my laptop usage to see which Windows applications I used. There were very few, but here is the list anyway:

  • Printer/Scanner drivers
  • COIN – financial planning software
  • Paint.net – image and photo editing software
  • Microsoft Word and Excel occasionally, but I was able to open these with Google Apps for Work
  • Screencast-O-matic – on-screen recording software
  • Skype – online chat and video calls

For all except the COIN application I was able to find alternative cloud-based solutions for most of them. See below for these solutions, if you are interested.

Buying the thing

Chromebooks are difficult to find in Australia for some reason. Actually, I was unable to source my preferred Toshiba Chromebook 2 at all in Australia, except on eBay from sellers who had presumably imported them from the US and were reselling them. With this in mind, my only option was to buy one online. I wanted to get the top of the range model (CB35-C3350) with a 2.1 GHz processor, but this model could not be shipped to Australia. Instead I had to settle for the 1.7 GHz model (CB35-C3300) which was able to be shipped to Australia.  I purchased it on Amazon.com because I know that I am going to receive my order with them and if it arrives damaged I can return it.

The order took 9 days to arrive from the date of order and it cost US$324.74 (including postage). As the item is valued at less than AUD $1,000 there was no import duty payable. There was no GST payable either.

Set Up

The Chromebook is the easiest laptop I have ever set up. Literally, all I had to do was:

  • Press the power button and wait a few seconds for it to start.
  • Enter my Google logon.
  • Select my WiFi network and enter the password.

All of my Google history came across, I was able to access all of my files on Google Drive and I was up and running in 5-7 minutes. Impressive.

Working on the Chromebook

Nearly everything that I do on my computer is via the browser, so there has been very little change in the way that I operate, however, there are a couple of areas where things are different:

HDMI-VGA adapter with Digital/Analogue Converter

The HDMI/VGA adapter allows me to extend the screen on the Chromebook using an older VGA monitor.

  • I change my Google password periodically. When doing this on the Chromebook, you get logged out of everything. At the time I was updating a client’s web site and lost all of the changes. Make sure you save everything before changing your Google password.
  • I use two screens when working at my desk. Dragging windows from the Chromebook to my second screen is slightly different to Windows. You have to minimise the screen and then move it across. Just a minor difference.  The process to extend your screen is very simple with the Chromebook – just plug in the HDMI cable and it asks you what you want to do.
  • There is no VGA port on the Chromebook. To use my VGA screen I needed to buy a HDMI/VGA cable with a digital/analogue converter. If you are going to buy one of these get it from Ali Express for around US$8 (and free postage). To get one from Harvey Norman or another retailer in Australia you will pay $50 +.
  • The only moving part inside the Chromebook is a small fan which comes on occasionally and can hardly be heard. Apart from the fan there is no sound from the Chromebook. There is also very little heat generated.
  • There is no right-click option on the Chromebook’s touch-pad. To get the right-click menu just tap two fingers on the touch-pad.
  • As there are only two USB ports on the Chromebook, I bought a Bluetooth cordless mouse so that I could free up a USB port. Once again, Bluetooth mouses are not readily available in Australia. I bought this Logitech one from Amazon and am very happy with the way that it works on the Chromebook. Having Bluetooth activated permanently on the Chromebook probably impacts on my battery life slightly, but I have no complaints about the battery life.
  • The battery lasts 9-10 hours, which is more than enough to get through a day away from the office, if I need to. I haven’t timed it exactly, but it takes less than an hour to charge the battery from flat.
  • I love that there is no need for virus protection software on the Chromebook. Google has that all taken care of.
  • I have had to set up Google Cloud printing to be able to print. If I had a cloud-capable printer this process would have been much easier, but as I do very little printing I wanted to keep my old canon printer. It was possible to get my old canon up and running on Google cloud printing.
  • I was not able to get the scanner working, so for the moment I am limited to taking photos of documents on my phone and uploading them.
  • We use one piece of very old software for writing financial plans for financial advisers. This is a windows-based piece of software which cannot run on the Chromebook. The workaround for this is to have a Windows PC which I connect to via VNC and run the software remotely on the Chromebook. All of our staff can connect to this machine and access COIN as required. This is not ideal, but it works. Hopefully the financial planning world will move into the 21st Century at some point and make a web-based version of their software.  🙂
  • The Chromebook is fast. Even though its processor is not high end and it only has 16 Gig of memory, it is more than fast enough for me. At the moment I have 23 browser tabs open, 11 plugins running and I am streaming some music. The Chromebook is running very well under that load – far better than my old Windows laptop. My guess is that without all of the background programs that are required on a Windows machine (as well as Windows itself), the Chromebook is able to run more efficiently.

In summary

I am impressed with the Chromebook. For our business, which uses nearly all cloud-based applications, it works very well. I have only been using it for a few weeks, but it is fast, reliable and efficient.

We will definitely be changing over from Window-based machines to Chromebooks.

Windows-based software workarounds

  • Printer/Scanner drivers – I used Google cloud print, which works nicely. It would work better if we had cloud-ready printers.
  • COIN (Financial planning software) – This software is not available via the web, so has to run on a Windows machine. I got around this problem by running it on a separate Windows machine and using VNC to connect to it remotely. Our entire team will be able to connect to this machine as required.
  • Paint.net (Image and photo editing software) – I am now using Pixir Editor which is free and works just as well as Paint or Photoshop.
  • Microsoft Word and Excel  – occasionally I receive MS Office documents from clients. I am able to view and edit these documents using Google Apps for Work and can easily convert them to Google Doc if required.
  • Screencast-O-matic (On-screen recording software) – We use this software for training and documenting work instructions. The alternative is Screencastify which is a free Google plugin and works just as well as Screencast-O-matic option that I used to use.
  • Skype – We use Skype for online chat, video and telephone calls. We have held back from changing over to Google Hangouts, but the move to Chromebooks will force us to migrate to Google Hangouts. In the meantime I have been using the web version of Skype which works well on the Chromebook. It is still in Beta testing, and has limited functionality, but it serves most of my requirements.

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