Thanks to the lovely people at PushON, I’m the lucky winner of a Chromebook. I’ve had my eye on the platform for a little while, and have been curious to give one a try. The problem? I’m a Mac. I’ve been one since the 80s. I’ve used PCs in that time (at work, under sufferance), but my love has always been for macs. I’m the proud owner of a Macbook Air, which I think is probably the most complete computer ever made. That’s right, EVER MADE.
As technologists, we should always be aware of other platforms, not just the one we ally ourselves to on a daily basis. Whether that’s a love for Windows and it’s pecadiloes, or the open sourceness of Ubuntu, we might often find ourselves embroiled in a semi drunken conversation about which is best, and how we’ll never use anything else.
We’re wrong. But being truly cross platform requires budget, time, and patience. And that, as technologists, is something we have in short supply. We simply want to use our tools, and make things that other people love to use, no matter the platform. But if you’re a mac, when did you last really look at something on an Android phone? Reed Hastings (of Netflix fame) has the right idea – he changes platform every month, from Windows and Windows mobile, to Apple and iOS, to Android and Chrome, all so he can experience his own UX and product from a variety of perspectives.
So, to me and a Chromebook. The ballad of new platforms. I’ve decided to use my new toy to fulfil as much of my day to day as possible for five whole days. My macbook is still in my bag, in case something get’s suitably hairy and I have no other option but to fire up Keynote (or of course, I could use that in it’s brand spanking new web app edtion), but my suspicion is that the Chromebook will keep me more focussed on certain activities. Here’s the other thing: My Macbook was £1100, the Chromebook significantly cheaper. So let’s divide my thoughts into two parts; OS and hardware.
We’ve all used Chrome. I don’t think I’ve met an internet user who hasn’t tried it at some point (including my Mother). Largely, it’s a great browser, though it was proving to be such a memory hog on OS X I ditched it for Safari last year. That’s another story.
Google have worked hard with Chrome, and the effort shows. It’s rapid. It looks nice. You can add bells and whistles to it. And it’s the cherry on Google’s core USP – they’re a web platform after all.
Chrome is the total operating system. It runs web apps, and save for something resembling a desktop, and a sort of dock come launcher, that’s all it runs. It comes with 100gb of Google Drive (for two years), but aside from that, that’s it. Even the laptop’s settings can be found in Chrome’s preferences. A bold move.
And I bloody love it. It’s so simple. There really is nothing to it. It’s a computer, with a web browser. So fresh, so clean. Sure, there’s an app store, but in a broad stroke, I can say that it’s one epic sea of piss. Apps aren’t apps in many cases, they’re links to websites. Games are webgames. So by and large, I’m ignoring them all. And I think that might be the platform’s biggest challenge: WIth a lack of decent apps, convincing the hard-core to move over to a device which can only run web apps will be tough. We needs our Adobe products. We need presentation software. We need dev tools. There are apps which try and match each need, but not in the native way we like or to a sufficient standard.
As I mentioned, the Samsung Chromebook I’m playing with is a good £800 cheaper than my Macbook. And despite it’s silver casing and black keys, it’s a pretty steep climbdown. In contrast, it’s tacky, and not as well made. The screen leaves a lot to be desired, and the trackpad is tacky and not a joy to use.
And that’s all I can say to criticise it.
It’s quiet. It’s got some ports (USB 2, USB 3, SD and Expansion slots, HDMI). It’s pretty small (about the same size as a netbook), and weighs a couple of pounds. It’s not particularly speedy, and video chugs a bit, but what do you expect from a machine which costs a bit over £200? The battery life is great – it doesn’t consume anywhere near the same amount of juice as my Macbook. It’s pretty good looking, but lacks the feeling of quality on touch. The co-working space I frequent largely looks like an Apple store, and it looks are akin to it’s aluminium cousins.
This isn’t to say I don’t appreciate it – I truly do. I’ve been faced with a few poorly made netbooks over time, and despite their compact nature and first look cuteness, using them is a drag. And they’re awfully constructed. The Chromebook trumps them by miles.
I did try to use my iPhone with it, you know, for giggles like. The phone can be charged using it’s USB ports, but that’s it, the machine simply isn’t bothered by having an Apple device connected. I hoped it would let me browse the phones files, seeing it as an external drive, but it didn’t. I wasn’t really disappointed with that either.
So what next?
As a creative strategist, my role is to help organisations get to the best digital solution for their often complex needs and products. This means my typical toolkit comprises Keynote (for wireframing, designing, and presenting), Illustrator (for knocking up the occasional vector), Photoshop (for editing images). iA Writer (for writing) and my extensive music library all running through iTunes Match. This means that sadly, I can’t devote my entire life to Chrome.
But it can fulfil another role in my life. I’m a scatty worker, and easily distracted when writing. So on the days I need to write, or use a spreadsheet, I’m going to leave my mac at home, and just use the Chromebook instead. It doesn’t meet my every need, but due to it’s single use nature, it’s perfect for immersing myself in.
Pixels and Parallel universes
The tablet destroyed the netbook, which in my opinion, is a pretty good thing. In a way, the Chromebook is a computer from a parallel universe where tablets never happened. Google simply took the netbook, and evolved it into a cloud device.
As for the Pixel, the luxury version costing about the same as a Macbook Air, I can honestly say that I’m not bothered. Yes, a super nice laptop with a better screen running Chrome OS would be cool, but overkill. The apps, and therefore usage, just isn’t there at the moment, so if you’re looking to spend that level of cash on your next laptop, I’d go for a MBA every time.
As much as I like the machine, I don’t think they’re going to be massive sellers in the long term. I can see the advantage for a company, already using Google Apps to manage their comms and document infrastructure issuing certain staff with the machines, but they won’t work for all. They’re also good for students who don’t have the need for native applications. I also think they’d be good for the many who don’t use a computer at all, with the simple nature good for digital inclusion.
For the Chromebook to succeed as a product, apps need to be better. A lot better. Even Google’s offerings need to be far better. As it stands at the moment, it’s a bit, amateur. Sure, for single uses, it’s great, but the platform needs better buy-in from developers. I’d like to see the platform mature, and new user interfaces specifically for the device and it’s eventual place in the world. And I’m sure it will have one, we just need to find a reason to have a Chromebook in our lives.
The world won’t be any less evil in doing so, but it will mean we can use the internet in a slightly less cluttered way than we have before.
The Chromebook is a lovely piece of kit. It doesn’t carry a chip on it’s shoulder, and does exactly what it’s supposed to do – browse the web – with aplomb. But it’s faced with challenges, such as it’s pathetic app store, which shows the level of contempt many developers have for the platform. Sure, you’ll find everything you’d want in terms of top level web apps in Chrome app form, but power users will be left expecting more.
As I said, it will get used occasionally when I need to concentrate on working within the confines of a web app, something like Google Docs or Draft. But unless my world changes drastically, or the quality of apps improves by several hundred percent, OS X will still be my number one platform.
Jon is a Creative Strategist and Digital Planner based in Manchester. He specialises in helping clients achieve more from their digital products, all solved with a holistic approach and creative thinking. He’s also a member of the Manchester Digital council. Follow him on twitter, or catch his musings on his blog.