How good an idea is a Chromebook?

A few months ago I bought a new computer.

Close up of keyboard Buying computers is dull of course. Deciding which computer to buy is fun.

My starting point was that I wanted a laptop: slim, portable, good looking and with enough oomph to do some decent computing. An ultrabook if you will.

Oh and it had to run Linux.

Buying sparkly new machines is fraught with danger when you roll with the Linux crowd because not all device manufacturers provide Linux drivers or even make it easy for the community to build their own. Discussion forums are full of frustrated discussions as people hunt for a way to get the wifi up and running on their new machine.

Dell has an interesting project running in the XPS Developer Edition. It fit the bill perfectly but it proved laughably impossible to actually buy one of the things.

I was very tempted by the shiny ChromeBook Pixel. It looks the part and has suitably well spec’d components including a very high pixel count on its touch sensitive screen.

Only one problem. ChromeBooks run the Chrome OS which is fast and secure but basically lets you run a browser and nothing else. And it costs £1,049 which is quite a lot to check your Gmail.

And then I discovered the Crouton project the details of which need not detain us but essentially allows you to install Linux alongside Chrome OS (it’s a bit more subtle than that because Chrome is in fact Linux under the hood).

So I took the plunge.

Crouton makes it VERY easy to get a lightweight Linux install on the machine. Assuming you are happy copying commands into a terminal. It’s not suitable for a complete novice because you end up with a very slim install and need to know how to get more stuff and what stuff to get.

Linux desktop environments have not been built for the massive resolution found on the Pixel. I tried the Unity desktop (the “normal” Ubuntu look) and the lightweight XFCE but found myself peering at teeny tiny icons and window text. Then I ran up KDE which I am now a total convert to.

It is possible to boot straight into Linux but I’ve left it to boot into Chrome. I really like the Chome OS. It loads incredibly quickly and I do spend a lot of time in the cloud. Cloud based services still don’t really cutting it for me in DTP, video or image processing so locally based apps are still needed. Chrome OS doesn’t allow this so I switch to my KDE. I can hot swap back and forth. I also need to run Java for a couple of tasks (editing OpenStreetMap amongst them) and Chrome OS won’t allow a Java Virtual Machine anywhere near it so it’s over to KDE for that. Finally there are a few tasks I could set up on the Chrome side but I’m more familiar with how to do them in Linux: FTPing, setting up VPNs and so on.

It works for me. If I just need to throw a browser I boot the machine and within seconds I’m online. If I need to do some proper computing its a couple of commands and less than 20 more seconds away.

ChromeBooks have a really good use case I’d say at the more value end of the market, People like my parents and their friends who check their (web-based) emails, shop online and read the papers should really look at cheap ChromeBooks.

But they don’t look anywhere near as cool as my Pixel.

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