My wife and I keep a “household wish list” on our fridge. This list is a bunch of things – some fairly big-ticket items and other miscellaneous “wants” for around the house – that we do not have a line in our budget for, and are not emergencies. We save up a little here and there, and when we both agree we are ready, we take care of the top item on the list, cross it off, and focus on the next thing.
Rapidly approaching the top of that list was “computer upgrades”. And at the time of adding that to the list, it was necessary.
A little background
When I brought up the idea to my wife, I was at my wits’ end with most of the computers in my life:
My Ubuntu computer was getting remarkably buggy. This is my main hub – where I do virtually all of my work and the heavy computing in the house. Ubuntu has long been a favorite of mine, and my dual-monitor setup is a wonderful, wonderful thing. But my Ubuntu installation, for some reason, was starting to get a little buggy. It wasn’t running slow or anything, but certain things, like accessing our server shares, just weren’t working properly anymore.
My netbook had two major annoyances. I bought an Acer Aspire netbook with Windows 7 on it, with the intent of motivating me to get out of my office and write elsewhere. I wanted to write in my recliner, or at the library, or at the coffee shop. That change of scenery was really important to me, and I figured a solid netbook would do the trick. But Problem #1 was the keyboard. It was a full keyboard, which was great. But you don’t realize how much you need the little spaces between the keys until you don’t have them. I made do with it, and it wasn’t a dealbreaker, but the keyboard was just distracting enough that I thought about it almost every time I wrote on it. Problem #2, and more importantly, was the fact that this machine ran Windows. Sure, Windows can run some great things, but use it for more than a year and it turns into a buggy, slow beast. Plus, if I left it off for a couple weeks and then picked it up to use it, I’d have to download updates and let my computer reboot for 10-15 minutes while those updates were installed. Because of these two things, I often opted for the comfort of staying in my office and using my desktop computer.
My wife’s computer was an overheating, ancient laptop. I put Ubuntu on her computer, which runs beautifully to this day. But she’s had overheating issues which have done some damage to it. Plus, the machine can’t hold a charge (we’ve already tried replacing the battery), so it has to persistently be plugged in.
So, thanks to all of these issues, upgrading our computers was going to be a fairly expensive endeavor. But we knew that and were prepared for the time to come.
Our various options
I’m very much a die-hard Linux fan at this point in my life, and for good reason: Linux is free, it has always worked well, and it gives me the level of control I want in a machine. But the latest bugs with my desktop put me in a situation and mindset where I was contemplating moving back to a paid operating system.
Of course, here you’re looking at a two-party system: Windows or OS X.
On the Windows side, I already have reached my limit with Windows 7, which is supposed to be the “lightweight” version of the operating system. The media PC in our living room runs Windows 7 and I hate it there too. Obviously it wasn’t working on my netbook, either.
I don’t like the direction that Windows is going with Windows 8. It doesn’t look or feel intuitive, and I’ve heard plenty of stories from people who can’t seem to figure out how to do certain things. I didn’t want to learn an entirely new workflow. Given the direction Microsoft has been going in the last few years, I was making an active decision not to buy a Windows product.
So that left me with Apple’s line of computers. I’ve long viewed Apple’s machinery as overhyped and overpriced. To an extent, I still feel that way: I respect the design and functionality of an Apple computer, but too many people settle for Apple products on the pure basis that they “think” they’re better than the rest, and they pay exorbitant amounts of money for a status computer.
Financially, we could save up and take the hit. But as I continued to pore through the options, I couldn’t reconcile the fact that I only needed a computer to do a few things: file management, web browsing, and word processing. Spending $1000 on a desktop and $1000 on a laptop was way too unsettling for me. I do believe that Apple products are of great quality, but sacrificing that much money (as well as that much control) was just not something that made sense to me. It might make sense to others – and who am I to argue? But for me, it doesn’t.
So what did I do? I played around with a few more Linux builds (another bonus to them being free means you can try them out all you want), finally trying out Linux Mint. And you know what? I love it. Linux Mint has worked flawlessly on my desktop – supporting my dual monitors out of the box and being a powerful alternative to Ubuntu while still being free. An upgraded mouse, keyboard, and speaker system, along with the addition of an HD webcam turned my tired machine into a top-of-the-line system without spending a ton of money.
That took care of my desktop. My wife’s overheating laptop? She felt that she didn’t need a replacement, but just needed something that would keep it from overheating. So we spent $40 of her Best Buy gift card on a powered dual-fan cooling pad to go underneath her laptop. And since I was going to be replacing my netbook, we agreed to store the old netbook in the living room for light browsing – and she wouldn’t have to go upstairs into the office to lug her old laptop down.
And that left us with the netbook. I used to own a laptop, and I found it too clunky to take around with me everywhere. I didn’t feel a tablet would offer the right functionality. I wanted a balance between the functionality of a laptop with the portability and easy-carrying of the netbook.
And since I was intending to buy a product that would last at least a few years, I wanted something that looked nice.
Enter the Samsung Chromebook
Chromebooks have been out for a few years now, and if you do a Google search for “chromebook”, you’ll get a lot of tech nerds ripping it apart for what they deem to be a lack of functionality.
But after a LOT of research and reading, I started to really see the appeal.
For those unfamiliar with the Chromebook concept, here it is: a laptop that basically runs a Chrome web browser, and that’s about it. That’s probably the simplest way to describe it.
Perfect for my needs
Once I started looking at my workflow and what I needed out of a laptop, I realized something – a Chromebook pretty much takes care of what I need out of a laptop:
Writing? Google Docs (and a couple other “tricks” – see below).
Virtually everything that I do with my computer, save for a couple of activities, not only can be done in a web browser, but I already do in my web browser every day.
Look, I like the MacBook. I really do. It’s a fine, beautiful machine that is very powerful and works well for people. But the features of a MacBook that I wanted the most could be had with the Samsung Chromebook:
The vaunted “just works” feature. This is the one that every Mac fanboy throws in your face immediately when they explain why their computer is worth the extra $700 they paid for it. My Chromebook boots instantly, works amazingly well, and… wait for it… just works. Setup was almost nonexistent, it was so easy.
A pretty machine. The Chromebook is not made out of that aluminum unibody stuff that a MacBook is made out of. But that’s okay. Take a look at the Samsung Chromebook sometime: matte silver body with black keys. It’s plastic, but it looks sharp, and clearly takes a few design tips from the MacBook.
A keyboard to die for. Sure, it’s not backlit or anything, but this keyboard is amazing to me. Google and Samsung stripped out all the extra keys you really don’t need, like, ever, and replaced a few of them with some specific keys that work great. The keyboard is really simple, and I don’t have to sit and think about it anymore, because it is comfortable and easy to type on.
So why is it the “Anti-MacBook”? In a word: value.
Because I get the features I wanted most for only $250. But along with that, I get 100 GB of Google Drive storage for two years, and a dozen in-flight WiFi passes (handy, considering I’m traveling more for work these days).
As far as price goes, this was a no-brainer.
At first, I was prepared to make some concessions with using the Chromebook. I had the MacBook features I really needed, but I thought there were going to be some workflow issues I’d have to deal with in exchange.
Making the Chromebook Work for Me
The two biggest hurdles for me were ones that many people complained about when reviewing and talking about the Chromebook: constant connectivity and a robust word processing program.
Let’s look at these each on their own, shall we?
Connectivity? Not a problem with Ting
Okay, you can spring for the Chromebook with 3G connectivity. That’s cool – you get 100MB a month, which is more than enough for the few times you’ll need it. WiFi is pretty much everywhere now, and even your “regular” laptops are almost useless without internet access.
I strongly considered it, too – it’s just an $80 difference on Amazon. But then I realized: Ting’s got me covered.
See, your smartphone has the functionality to provide an internet connection to your computer, either with a USB cord (“tethering”) or turning your phone into a hotspot. But your major cell phone carriers see this (like pretty much everything else) as an opportunity to milk you for more money. You know, even though you already pay for the data.
So you connect your computer to your phone and suddenly you’re getting charged an extra $15-$20 on your bill every month. Yup. Not worth it.
But Ting doesn’t care. You’re already paying for the data, so they say you can use it however you want. That’s why, while in the park waiting for the fireworks on July 3rd, I flipped on the hotspot feature on my phone, connected my Kindle and downloaded another book to start reading with not a single WiFi connection in sight.
For the few times I might not be using this Chromebook around WiFi, I can work offline in Docs or Gmail, connect to my phone, sync everything up, and disconnect. It’ll cost me a few MBs of data, but it will be easy and cost-effective.
Word processing? I’ve got two great options
Google Docs is just fine, but the dealbreaker for leaning on it all the time is its feature set. I work with clients who all use Word, and we track changes to documents and insert comments in the margins all the time. LibreOffice can work with that. Google Docs cannot.
So what’s a man to do? I actually have two options to use in the wild.
First, Google has a remote desktop application built into Chrome. So I just install the same app onto my desktop computer, and I can tap into it while on the road. There I can just open up documents in LibreOffice and work with them as if I were at home. Not bad! I’ve heard many people say they’ve done the same to tap into their Apple computers and run Photoshop or other more robust programs on their Chromebook.
Another option? Something called rollApp. With rollApp, I actually have a full version of LibreOffice I can run in my Web browser on my Chromebook, and I can open all my Dropbox documents, edit them like usual, and do it all on my Chromebook.
Bonus third option: I could install Ubuntu right next to it and use both OSes simultaneously. It’s the least desirable of the three options, but it’s nice to know it’s there in case I need/want it!
Is the Chromebook for you? It is perfect for me
I have all the functionality I need for a secondary, “road warrior” laptop in a beautiful package that only cost me $250.
Yeah, I’m a fan.
So how does this sound to you? Is a Chromebook a viable option for you? If it is and you want one, do me a favor and hit up this link to buy one (it’s an affiliate link – you don’t pay any extra but I get a little something).
Or does this not sound like your cup of tea? Let me know in the comments – let’s debate!