Life with a Chromebook

Ever since I started looking at this Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340) I had been focused on how I can break out of constraints imposed by Chrome OS. Although I had occasionally acknowledged the benefits of a system architecture focused on the most popular subset of all computing activities, I still wanted to know how to get out of it.

Now that my research got far enough to learn of a plausible path to removing all constraints and turning this Chromebook into a normal Ubuntu laptop, I’m satisfied with my available options and put all that aside for the moment. I took the machine out of Chrome OS Developer Mode so I could experience using a Chromebook for its original intended purpose and seeing how well it fills its designated niche.

Reviewing all the security protections of Chrome OS during the course of my adventure made me more willing to trust one. If I didn’t have my own computer on hand and needed to use someone else’s, I’m far more likely to log into a Chromebook than an arbitrary PC. Chrome OS receives frequent updates to keep it secure, raising the value of continued support. Since my original session to fast forward through four years of updates, I’ve received several more just in the few weeks I’ve been playing with this machine.

On the hardware side, this lightweight task-focused machine has lived up to the expectation that it would be more pleasant to use than a bulky jack of all trades convertible tablet of similar vintage. Its secondhand replacement screen‘s visual blemishes have not been bothersome, and the keyboard and trackpad had been responsive to user input. Its processing hardware is adequate, but not great. During light duty browsing the estimated battery life stretches past eight hours. But if a site is loaded down with ads and tracking scripts, responsiveness goes down and battery life estimate quickly nosedives under 4 hours.

The biggest disappointment in processing power comes from the display department. This machine was the upgraded model with a higher resolution 1920×1080 panel instead of the standard 1366×768. The higher resolution made for more pleasantly readable text, but constantly updating those pixels was too much for the machine to handle. It couldn’t sustain web video playback at 1080p. Short clips of a few seconds are fine, but settling down to watch something longer would be frustrated with stutters unless the video resolution was lowered to 720p.

And finally, there’s the fact that when the network connection goes down, a Chromebook becomes largely useless. This is unfortunately more common than I would like at the moment as I’m having trouble with my new router. In theory Google offers ways for web sites to remain useful on a Chromebook in the absence of connectivity (like Progressive Web Apps) but adoption of such techniques has not yet spread to the sites I frequent. So when the router crashes and reboots itself, the Chromebook becomes just a picture frame for showing the “No internet” error screen. This is not a surprise since network connectivity is a fundamental pillar of Chrome OS, but it is still annoying.

All things considered, a Chromebook is a nice lightweight web appliance that makes sense for the right scenarios. Its focused scope and multilayered security provisions mean I would heartily recommend one for the technically disinclined. If they learn enough technology to find Chrome OS limiting, there’s always Mr. Chromebox. If I should buy one for my own use, I would want a high resolution panel, and now I also know to get a more powerful processor to go with it.

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