I took an interest in Chromebooks about a year ago (late 2013) wondering what the benefit of a web-only-ish laptop was. At the time I found a deal for a refurbished Acer C720 for only $160 and took the plunge. I had ulterior motives to also use it as a Linux device, as I’d read many had done. This post is a rough overview of the pluses and minuses of Chromebooks. It isn’t exhaustive, but I do think Chromebooks serve a very useful purpose in a hacker’s toolkit.
Chrome OS Benefits
I was immediately impressed with Chrome OS and find it useful in a few ways:
- As an uber-cheap and secure “internet portal” it is the perfect device to take on a trip where you are concerned it might get lost or stolen.
- The Chromebook hardware support is there in the BIOS to ensure that your data stays protected. In fact, if you’re worried it might get snooped-on as it goes through customs, you could log out of it and wipe your account, then log back in once you get to you destination (assuming you trust the internet connection you’d be later making.)
- It supports multiple users quite well. My wife and I can log in with our Google accounts and hand it back and forth as needed.
- It’s light and fast. It underscores just how bloated operating systems have become. Because it is stripped down to the basic essentials it does everything very quickly. It’s just enough OS and GUI to let the Chrome browser run. Even on the 1.4 GHz dual-core Celeron with 2GB of RAM that the Acer C720 is it runs fast.
Chrome OS Not-So-Greats
Here’s where Chrome OS doesn’t work well (these are rather obvious):
- You must have Microsoft Word/Excel/Outlook (the applications) and can’t make use of (or don’t have access to) Microsoft 365’s web-based tools.
- You need some PC-based, iOS-based, or Android-based software that doesn’t work on ChromeOS.
Chromebooks in Education
I have read that Chromebooks are making good strides in the education market. Honestly, I think they are a fantastic option for schools. Before mentioning Chromebooks benefits I do want to mention iPads. I have an iPad. I loooooove my iPad. My iPad rocks the Casbah. While iPads are seeing good use in education. However, iPads have some drawbacks in education use:
- They are expensive
- They don’t have a keyboard attached. While younger folks are likely more adept at using the on-screen keyboard, I find it very hard to enter lots of text using them. Equally as frustrating is that half the screen is covered by the keyboard when it is visible. Sometimes, you really need cursor keys, even when you can touch the whole screen. Though one can get very decent keyboard cases (I got an awesome deal on a used one), many are wireless. Lots of wireless keyboards in a space like a classroom can be problematic. It’s an added expense to an already expensive device.
- They don’t multitask well. Switching back and forth betweens apps is extremely helpful if you are reading a website and needing to write a report or enter some information in another application. Switching between apps in iOS requires either using the the doesn’t-always-take four-finger-drag or double-tap of the home button. You must wait for the pretty animation.
- When the tablets are owned by the school system they must be administered. This means instituting policies and installing those policies on the iPads. This requires efforts. Ensuring OS updates are installed also requires effort. Doing all these tasks for many, many devices requires lots and lots of effort.
- They can’t be shared by different users. iPads are single-login-only devices.
- Backup and restore are lengthy processes. If a student is backing-up their device regularly they either need to have a PC or Mac at home and be fairly religious about it or they need to have iCloud backup enabled. Restoring from an iCloud backup is a lengthy process. Restoring from one’s home PC isn’t going to be facilitated by the school’s IT team. So, if the device is damaged or faulty the student will likely be down for one to two days and could possibly lose significant work.
Here’s where Chromebooks have some great advantages in education:
- They are cheap, cheap, cheap. I’d feel much better about handing a student a $150-200 (bulk purchased) item than a $250-$500 device.
- The user’s data is always preserved in the cloud. While use of one does require a (free) Google account, the user never has to worry about losing the data and can access it wherever they need to. It stay with them even if they lose their Chromebook.
- If a user’s device is broken, they need only be handed a new one, log in with their Google account, and near instantaneously have all their apps and preferences back where they started.
- They multitask just as well as a using a PC. Just click between the tabs you want, or if you’ve split out your browser tabs you can Alt-Tab to the other window. There’s even a handy keyboard function key for displaying all your windows at once.
- They have a great keyboard and mouse already attached. Note that I’m a fan of the chiclet type keys that MacBooks have popularized. I know some folks don’t like them so keep that in mind. I do not expect an IBM Model M keyboard to be released as part of a Chromebook.
- They support multiple users.
It is my understanding that Google already gives free domains to non-profits and educational institutions. It is important to note that iPads (or even Windows laptops), if owned by the school, do provide a mechanism of limiting the installation of software. Likewise, there are many, many excellent iOS software programs available which might not have equals on Chromebooks. Personally, I think iPads are preferable for reading eBooks.
Note that I compared iPads to Chromebooks. I didn’t mention Android tablets. I think Android tablets likely suffer the same issues as the iPads, albeit they may have a better mechanism for multitasking (some Android implementations, that is.)
Other articles that have some interesting commentary about Chromebooks in education:
- PC World article on Chromebooks growth in education
- Chromebook replacing iPads in some situations
- iPads are for consumption, Chromebooks are for creating
Acer C720 Chromebook Hardware
Here’s what I like about the Acer C720 hardware:
- The device is incredibly light.
- It has an SD card reader, and HDMI hookup, a USB 3.0 connection, a great keyboard, and a great touchpad.
- The battery that can run for about 8 hours.
- The SSD is upgradeable.
- With ChromeOS it is instant on. And, I mean instant. It wakes from sleep so quickly.
Here’s what is lacking from the $160 hardware:
- A quality screen
- A strong laptop body (one drop of this thing and it will surely shatter)
- 2G of non-upgradable RAM
Because the attempt is to make the laptop very cheap, the result is a very cheap laptop. The screen on the C720 is pretty lousy, but for $160 I wasn’t expecting much. There are more expensive and better quality Chromebooks available. However, I find that once you enter the price range of a better-quality Chromebook you could likely have purchased a full capability laptop and put Linux on it.
Running Linux on a Chromebook
If you want a semi-decent Linux box, the Acer C720 (and most other Chromebooks) provide an avenue to put the hardware in developer mode. This mode allows bypassing the special boot security so that you can install another operating system. Note, however, that by doing so you do open a hole in the security Chrome OS and the hardware vendor have worked so hard to provide.
I enabled developer mode so that I could also install Linux. I first tried using “Crouton” which allows you to run Linux side-by-side with Chrome OS. Because my built-in SSD was only 16GB I had to use an external hard drive. Even using an external USB 3.0 SSD enclosure, booting Linux was pokey.
I decided to invest a bit more money in my C720 and put in a 128 GB SSD using these instructions. I was able to get one for about $65. Yes, it’s almost half the price I paid for the Chromebook. I could have gotten a 64 GB SSD for about $50. This brings home the point that if what you really want is a cheap Linux laptop you are probably better off spending a bit more money, waiting for a good sale, and buying a $300-ish laptop which affords you lots more flexibility and a better screen.
Using the larger SSD I installed ChrUbuntu using these instructions. Much props to the guy who created all the install scripts. His website is a trove of great info. I can now dual-boot into both Linux and Chrome OS. The biggest downside to this little Linux laptop is that 2GB of RAM is rather tight, even with a minimal window manager. Chrome on Linux (and other OSes) has become a rather RAM hungry. Running more than a few tabs and other programs quickly exhausts the memory and results in swapping. However, even with these limitations, I really like my little Linux laptop. It’s rather peppy.
Be mindful too occasionally have Linux perform a TRIM operation to keep the Flash performant. This article has helpful information about TRIM on Linux. See the bottom of the article to find a quick-and-easy script you can use.
Use of Chromebooks by Non-Techies
A non-tech-savvy friend of mine was in need of a device for accessing the internet. She had a very limited amount of money to spend. So, I recommended she purchase a Chromebook and it has worked out very well. I set her up with a Google account and she can email and access all the things she needs. She never has to worry about viruses, and the Chromebook will update itself (it only requires an occasional reboot which takes all of 30 seconds.) I highly recommend Chromebooks for folks who are technophobes, or for elderly folk who may be getting into computers for the first time. They are so much easier to maintain.
One area I think Chromebooks will continue to excel in is capability for their low price. Good screens will continue to become cheaper. Likewise, fast processors will become cheaper. As of the time this post was written (February 2015) you can buy a nice brand new Acer Chromebook for $160. It’s almost twice as fast (the CPU) as my Acer C720, which I bought less than a year ago as a refurbished model for that same price:
Knocking on Intel’s door are ARM-based processors. Intel has been the prime provider of low-power, fast CPU’s. Because Chromebooks merely act as the conduit for running web-based software, they are prime candidates for running atop non-Intel processors such as ARM processors. In fact, many ARM-based Chromebooks already exist. As of now, the ARM-based Chromebooks aren’t nearly as performant as the Intel-based ones (like the Acer C720). However, this gap is quickly dropping. I wouldn’t be surprised to see many more ARM-based Chromebooks being released over the coures of next year which will be more than fast-enough.