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.

What I’ve been reading

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Pinboard.

What I’ve been reading

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Pinboard.

Adventures in open source land

UbuntuI had a load of fun yesterday being a total geek and installing Ubuntu on a netbook I’ve have for a little while and which doesn’t get used an awful lot. It’s a Samsung NC10, which, as I mentioned in this post, is a nice machine for social reporting due to its small size and light weight. Since I got the Macbook Air, though, I’ve tended to use that for general laptop use and for reporting at events – leaving the NC10 sat on the shelf.

I’ve wanted a Linux based machine for a few months just to play with, really. For the uninitiated, Linux is an open source operating system – in other words a replacement for Windows, or Mac OSX. It’s the bit of software that makes all the boring stuff work behind the scenes, and provides the launchpad for the applications on your computer to do their stuff, like surfing the web, or writing documents, or editing photos.

Now, Linux comes in many different flavours. Some you have to pay for, others you don’t. There’s Fedora, or Mandriva, or Suse, or Debian, or many, many others. I chose Ubuntu as it is one of the free (as in beer) ones, and because it seems to be one of the most accessible – ie it’s easy to install and easy to use. I do think that the plethora of choices is probably something that holds people back from trying Linux though. It’s a bit like trying to choose what to drink in a coffee shop!

Even better, there’s a sub-flavour of Ubuntu known as Netbook Remix, especially designed for use on small and slow laptops like the NC10. As you can see from the image above, open source doesn’t mean you lose out on eye candy – it’s a lovely looking system, with a netbook-friendly user interface that’s dead simple to use.

Installing it wasn’t too hard in the end, though I did run into problems. This is because the NC10 lacks a CD or DVD drive, meaning I had to install via a USB stick. I downloaded the Ubuntu software as an ISO file (which you would normally burn to a CD), then had to download another bit of software, recommended by Matt Jukes, called Unetbootin. This allowed me to ‘burn’ the ISO file to a USB stick. The next job was to tell the NC10 to boot from this USB stick – rather than the internal hard drive – when I restarted the machine. This proved tricky, and only worked when I completely removed the hard drive from the priority list of devices to boot from.

After I fixed that, though, installation was pain free, and the computer attached itself quite happily to my home wireless network – which was something I feared might go wrong. Other stuff like the built in webcam and microphone worked fine too, which was great.

Once Ubuntu was installed, it was a case of finding what extra software was needed to be added. Ubuntu comes with a great range of open source software out of the box, with everything most people would need, from Firefox for web browsing, Evolution as an email client, OpenOffice.org for productivity stuff etc etc. Indeed, the whole idea of netbooks is of course that you use web based tools as much as possible, so having lots of software installed on the system is kind of missing the point.

Point missing being a stock in trade of mine, I set about adding a bunch of tools to the computer. This can either be very simple, or a bit tricky. There are two ways you can do it simply: first by using the Ubuntu software centre to add open source software to the computer. This is great – you literally just search for what you want, and then in a couple of clicks, it is installed and ready to use. Some software isn’t available from the centre, but is still easy to install, usually just by downloading and running a package from the relevant website.

The tricky bit is when the software you want to install contains propriatory elements, and so doesn’t qualify to be a part of the Ubuntu software centre. I found this with Skype, and to install this, I had to get my hands dirty by using the command line – quite a strange experience in 2010 (I know there is a terminal available in Mac OSX, but I have never found the need to use it). However, one of the strengths of the open source community is the huge amount of documentation available, and Ubuntu is no exception. The support is generally excellent, and these beginners’ problems are covered in depth.

The extra software I have installed includes:

  • Google’s Chrome browser
  • Skype for voice-over-IP calls
  • Filezilla – FTP client
  • Dropbox for online file sharing across all my computers
  • Liferea – an RSS reader which can sync with Google Reader. This seemed to struggle with my subscription list though – perhaps due to a lack of processing grunt and memory on the NC10
  • Tweetdeck – which also needed Adobe Air installing first, which was another command line pain. Like Liferea, Tweetdeck ran quite slowly on the NC10, so I gave it up for a web based client
  • The GIMP for image editing
  • Quanta Plus for HTML and PHP editing

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the results. This will have breathed a bit of new life into a machine I had little use for before, and it has been an interesting experience to find out how easy it is to use Linux based software. In many ways the operating system argument is irrelevant these days as more and more services are made available in the cloud. This is certainly the aim for Google, whose Chrome operating system will do little more than connect people to the web through a browser. But it is nice to know that you don’t need to have a high spec computer, or a load of expensive software, to have a mostly easy to use, and very nice to look at, computing experience.

Big thanks to Matt Jukes, Mark O’Neill, Harry Harrold, Tony Malloy, David Wenban, Adam McGreggor and others for their Twitter support throughout this process!