New Chromebooks – worth the bother?

Google have announced a new model of their Chromebook – the web only laptop that runs their Chrome operating system, which essentially consists of a browser and not much else.

As well as the laptop, there’s now a desktop machine too – which is rather reminiscent of the Mac Mini.

Both look like nice bits of hardware – but just how useful is a computer that only runs web based apps? ReadWriteWeb featured two contrasting views recently – one for, one against.

I’ve never actually seen a Chromebook, and am pretty sure I don’t know anybody that owns one (this in itself is probably telling). I do however have a bit of experience with something similar.

A while ago I blogged about my investment in a Lenovo S205 netbook. After a little while I got bored with it, and decided to replace Windows 7 with Ubuntu as the machine’s operating system. I probably should have been mowing the lawn or something at the time.

Anyway, as part of setting up the machine, I made it boot up Chromium (the open source cousin of Chrome that ships on Linux based systems) automatically, and so I pretty much just use the machine within the web – I don’t run any native programs at all.

The truth is, it’s pretty handy and I reckon I can get 80% of my work done on there. Thanks to Gmail, Google Docs, Evernote, Xero, Basecamp, Google Reader, Tweetdeck, WordPress and so on, I can get an awful lot done within the browser.

The downside comes when I need to do something with an actual file – such as using FTP to get a file online, or formatting a document in Word (Google Docs is fine for bashing in text and sharing notes, but not so good for well presented documents, I find). Editing images is another example of a common activity that right now isn’t fun to do within the browser.

(The other downside of using the Lenovo as a Chromebook-like device is the slow boot time – unlike the official ones, it doesn’t feature a solid state drive, which enables the Chromebook’s to boot in less than 10 seconds. I have, however, ordered an SSD for the S205, so we’ll see if it makes a difference!)

However, when I think about it, there could well be a role for Chromebook style devices, not necessarily for person use, but maybe within an organisational context. I could imagine a company’s sales team, or a group of field workers, having access to all the apps they need through a browser: email, docs, CRM etc, without any of the clutter of a traditional machine that in their roles they just wouldn’t need.

I’d probably prefer to have an iPad though. What do you think?

Ideapad S205

For the last couple of months I’ve been playing around with a Lenovo Ideapad S205. It’s a slightly bigger than a netbook machine that runs Windows 7.

s205

I’ve been a pretty dedicated Mac user for the last five years or so, but have been tempted to switch back to Windows for a couple of reasons. One is I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the way Apple is starting to make decisions for me in terms of how I use my computer, and what services and software I should be using. I’m quite happy with this sort of control on my phone or tablet, but it feels wrong on a more traditional computing device – I don’t want an iOS type experience on my laptop.

Secondly, all my customers are in the public sector, and they all use Windows. Even though I can use Microsoft Office on my Mac, there are still loads of problems in opening and editing documents with clients, and it’s a real pain. As well as that, I kind of feel a duty to share the same platform as my customer base.

But, I didn’t want to spend a load of money on a new laptop that I hated, so I decided to get something cheaper that would nonetheless help me make a decision as to whether I would want to return to using a PC rather than a Mac. The machine I went for was the Ideapad S205.

Firstly, it’s cheap – less than £300 from PC World the last time I checked. It has a screen that’s 11″ – so slightly bigger than your average netbook. This extra space also means a larger keyboard than you often get on these small machines, and it’s a lovely thing to type on. Not only that but the screen has a decent resolution on it, so it isn’t filled up with enormous icons that makes it impossible to use.

The other winning thing about the S205 is that it has a pretty grunty 4gb of memory. Often these smaller machines have only around 1gb and that makes running big applications, or several at once, pretty slow going.

There are a couple of downsides to the S205 though and these make it unlikely to become my everyday computer. Firstly, the 320gb hard drive is spacious (not that I really need that for a work laptop) but it’s an old school drive with actual moving bits. Once you have had a machine that just runs off a solid state drive, as I have with the MacBook Air recently, you don’t want to go back to the old, slow way of doing things.

The second issue is one of processing power, and while the memory on the S205 is good, the processor is not exactly rocket-powered. Fine for word processing and browsing and so on, but video calls on Skype slowed things down to a crawl and it really struggled.

A couple of things I noticed about the difference between the Windows and Mac platforms. One is the sheer amount of crud that comes pre-installed on a Windows machine – it took me over an hour to delete all the demos and trials of software I didn’t want from the machine, and removing all the unnecessary icons from the desktop. A real pain!

Secondly, software on Windows just isn’t as easy to use as that on a Mac. I’m still to find, for example, an FTP client on Windows that doesn’t have 3,000 icons on the screen. My Mac equivalent, Transmit, has a beautifully clean interface, which gets out of the way and lets you get with with what you want to do. This is true of lots of apps, and even the Windows interface itself – which to be fair in version 7 is much improved on Vista, etc.

So overall, for most folk who want a cheap but good performing laptop, the S205 is an excellent choice. It’s no replacement for my Mac, but then at less than a quarter of the price, you wouldn’t expect it to be. It also hasn’t quite persuaded me to switch platforms either, just yet.

Using a PC

I’ve had a pretty settled tech line-up for a while, which works really well for me. Essentially – 24” iMac on the desktop, MacBook Air for the portable and an iPhone for the really portable.

The iMac is fine for the grunt work, sitting at the desk ploughing through pretty much anything – with 4gb RAM and a 3.06ghz Core 2 Duo crunching through video doesn’t present too many problems (though I am at times tempted to up the RAM to the full 8gb).

The Air is not a performance machine, but it handles the web ok as well as basic stuff like Word, and is light enough to lug about and use on trains etc without too much bother. The battery life on it is disappointing, I only get between 2.5 and 3 hours out of a full charge. It’s limited to 2gb RAM, which isn’t that much these days, and things can slow down when you have a lot going on – Flash content can be a problem.

Some stuff you need Windows for, so on the iMac I have a virtual Windows XP machine, which I tend to use for testing stuff in Internet Explorer 6 and the odd bit of Office work which, for whatever reason, Office on the Mac can’t handle (sometimes it does very odd things with formatting).

This setup has done me proud, and with the brilliant Dropbox providing the glue that keeps all these machines stuck together, it’s been easy to work on stuff whichever device I’m using.

Sadly though, my Air has had to go into the Apple shop for repairs – the iSight webcam stopped working, and that means the whole screen-half of the machine needs replacing, and it will be gone for a week at least.

This left me laptopless, which given that I am out of my office a few days a week, would cause some major productivity problems. Luckily team Learning Pool came to the rescue and kitted me out with a new laptop.

It has Windows on it.

To be precise, Windows 7 running on a Dell Vostro v13. It’s a lightweight portable laptop, a step above a netbook, but no workhorse machine. My model has 2gb RAM and a 1.3ghz Celeron processor – plenty for web browsing, emailing and Office stuff, but not a machine you’d want to do any video editing on, for example. Also, if you have too many apps open at once things do slow down quite  bit. In other words, it’s a bit like the Air.

Like the Air, it’s also a lovely looking thing, thin and light and perfect to carry around a lot. I’m finding Windows 7 a real improvement on Vista, but it still takes too long to boot up, shut down and wake up after going to sleep.

The battery life on the Vostro is as awful as it is on the Air, if perhaps a little worse. 2.5 hours seems to be the best it can do. Carrying a power lead will be necessary.

Most of what this review on Engadget says is about right, I think. What I have found I miss most from the Air – apart from all my favourite apps (see below) – is the trackpad. Using multitouch has just become second nature to me, and as I tend to do a lot of scrolling – in Google Reader, for example, or on general web browsing – having to constantly switch between trackpad and cursor keys is incredibly annoying and counter-intuitive.

In terms of software, the Learning Pool guys installed Office for me, and Skype, which is handy to have. Of course, with the Windows version of Office I get Outlook and I’m giving it a go (we use Google to handle our email and calendar at Learning Pool, and it seems to play pretty nicely with Outlook. On the Mac, I stick to the web interfaces). It’s not as bad as I thought it would be.

Bits of software I have added include my favourite RSS aggregator, FeedDemon which is superb, especially with the Google Reader synchronisation. NetNewsWire, the Mac equivalent, has nowhere near the richness of features sported by FeedDemon.

I installed Dropbox, so all the files I have shared using my other machines are now available on this one too.

I found that Live Writer was preinstalled, which is cool as it is a neat offline blog editor (I’m using it to write this post) and probably better than any of the Mac options.

I need an FTP client, and for that I downloaded FileZilla, a free open source cross-platform application that seems to work nicely enough, but doesn’t have the great usability of Transmit, which I use on the Mac. Any suggestions for a better app are welcome.

I’m using Notepad++ at the moment as a text editor, which is useful enough but I am yet to find a genuine equivalent to the likes of TextMate or BBedit on the Mac. If anyone has a recommendation, do let me know.

For Twitter, I installed the native Windows app by Seesmic, so as to avoid having to install Adobe Air, which can be a bit resource intensive on these less well-powered machines. I didn’t like it though, so also installed Air and Tweetdeck. Paint.net is a good little free image editor, and I downloaded Chrome for a browser – I couldn’t contemplate using IE, and I find Firefox is a bit slow and bloated these days.

Windows 7 comes with something called the ‘Snipping Tool’ which may replace Skitch on the Mac – if not then there is always the likes of SnagIt. The way Windows handles archive files like .zip seems really slow, and doesn’t match the speed that OSX seems to handle these things. I suppose something like WinZip would solve this.

Generally I would say Windows 7 is pretty good, probably the best version I’ve ever used, but it doesn’t come close to the ease of use of OSX. The system is often a bit sluggish to react and sometimes it isn’t terribly obvious to know what to do to accomplish certain tasks.