My Life In Chrome: Going On A Google Chrome OS Diet

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My Life In Chrome: Going On A Google Chrome OS Diet

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The folks in Mountain View, California were kind enough to entrust me with the care of one of their awesome Chromebook Pixels for a bit. This loan served two purposes: it gave me the chance to review the Pixel while also giving me the opportunity to review Google's Chrome OS. I pride myself on being platform agnostic, plus I've been looking at picking up another laptop for the kids so I was eager to try out Google's OS in a browser and see if it would work for me and my own home in the hopes that I could maybe help you decide it it might be right for you and your home. Read on to find out!

 

Hey Amazon Reviewers... You're Doing It Wrong!

Read all those negative reviews of the $200 dollars Chromebooks? It's clear from the reviews that many people who got in on Chromebooks early didn't know exactly what they were buying into. The Chrome OS is not your standard OS where you can go to Staples, Best Buy or Fry's and pick up software or download a version of Microsoft Office. You can't just save files to your Desktop or setup a printer like you're used to simply by plugging it in. It doesn't work like that. That isn't what Chrome OS is, but what you are getting is an extremely simple, extremely fast operating system that may be the future of mobile computing and probably fits the way you already do most of your computing these days anyway.

 

Think of Google's Chrome OS like this… if you use Google Search, Calendar, Gmail, Google Docs and any modern web browser (even Internet Explorer, *shudder*) on a regular basis, you should have little or no problem adjusting to using a Chromebook as your daily driver. You just have to be aware of the caveats. So, let's get into those right away!

 

Caveat #1- The Digital Creative Dilemma: If your children use Photoshop (or GIMP), or any video editing software like Final Cut Pro or Sony Vegas, if they're budding filmmakers or graphic artists, this is probably not the computer for them. As I stated previously, this laptop lives in the browser but it does allow you to install apps from Google's Chrome Store which are more like Chrome browser plug-ins. This means no heavy lifting for digital creatives. You'll find apps which will allow you to do some light lifting, on the level that people who are bloggers might need but not much more. For your video editing needs, there is a new-ish service called WeVideo but I haven't tested it yet so I can't tell you if it is a solid replacement for a full blown application like Final Cut Pro. Even if it's editing interface is good enough to do the job, you'll still have to remember that any video you work with has to be uploaded to their servers which could be a lot of prep time for a quick edit depending on the file size.

 

Caveat #2- Wired Printing? No. Printing Wirelessly? Meh, Kind Of: "Don't try to plug your printer into your Chromebook--it won't work!" That warning comes directly from Google's own support page but it doesn't tell the whole story. You can print to a wired printer, you'll just have to download and install a piece of software called the Google Cloud Print connector on whichever computer is connected to the printer via wire. The Cloud Print connector is basically a browser plug-in that only works with Google Chrome, while you're signed in, and allows you to print from your Chromebook to a printer using another computer as your print server. In short, your Mac or Windows computer becomes the middle-man for your Chromebook Pixel or other Chrome OS device. Google Cloud Print connector setup is pretty straight forward and should get you up and running in very little time but it just feels so 10 years ago. Back before wireless printers were cheap enough for mainstream use, if you had a couple laptops and a desktop computer you could enable printer sharing through Windows and then print from anywhere in the house through you desktop computer which was generally the one connected to your wired printer. This meant  you had to make sure that desktop computer was actually turned on first. Now, wireless printing is supported on a host of printer models but it would appear that most of these models are new-ish models and if you're like me and have a printer that is on the older side of things, but is still running perfectly, you're out of luck. Especially since many people don't replace their printers as often as other computer peripherals. My printer, one of HP's 7400 series All-in-ones supports wireless printing via an ethernet connection to a wireless router but only HP's newer ePrint-enabled printers support Cloud Print (I know, I know… mine is from ‘04 but it still scans, faxes and prints like a champ). Some "supported cloud ready" printers will require you to download a firmware update using a PC (Win or Mac) before you can use those cloud ready features so be sure to read that compatibility small print on the box, or product website before purchasing.

 

Caveat #3- File Properties: I had an educational technology presentation to put together and decided that I was going to build my slide deck completely from the Pixel, which it handled with ease. I built my presentation using Google Docs' Slides app for the first time and it didn't disappoint. I even used the Pixel to present from during my talk on technology as an educational resource and it handled that without issue- especially since I'm a Mac user and already had a mini-display port to VGA cable for my projector. Everything was fine until I tried to download my Google Slides presentation in .pptx format so that I could upload it to my Slideshare.net account. I kept getting error messages and when I did a little research to see what the problem might be, it looks like my issue wasn't all that uncommon. The fix is to go into the file properties, to the General tab, go to the bottom and if you have a field that says "Security," to the right of it, just click on "Unblock." The problem is that you can't access the file properties on the Chromebook Pixel. I had to download the file on my Macbook Pro and perform the task. I've also read where people have imported .pptx files into Google's presentation app, edited them there, then tried to export back out to Powerpoint and it was no longer able to open them. Though this problem, or these exact use case scenarios may not be ubiquitous, it's definitely something you should be aware of. As recently as September, some people have had this issue as discussed in this support thread here: http://productforums.google.com/forum/#!category-topic/docs/presentations/W5a_9_Hf-Sc

 

The Chrome OS Diet

We've been through the caveats but those were small in comparison to the enjoyment I got out of using the Chromebook Pixel! Well, except for the whole Caps Lock thing (covered that in Part1). The argument that Chrome OS "only does Google" is moot. Period. Sure, it uses Google services but anything you can reach in a browser, you can use. I live in Evernote, Remember The Milk, various social networks, my blog and of course the content management system here at myfoxla.com and none of my work was impeded by Chrome OS itself. Matter of fact, because it literally takes seconds to get into the OS from a cold start I'd argue that getting things done was faster- at least "off the line" to borrow a racing term. The only issue you may encounter is when their is no app in the Chrome Store for a product or service you use and you're forced to use that product or service's web interface. For a long time, I hated having to ever use Evernote's web interface. It's great now and a joy to use, but if you run into a situation where you're forced to use a web interface for a task you usually reserved for a dedicated desktop app, I hope for your sake they have a good web interface. On the upside, Google has been aggressively updating the way you access the things you need in Chrome via its new Chrome Apps, or Chrome Packaged Apps which allow web developers to turn their sites into "stand-alone" apps which run outside the browser. Theoretically, this will allow developers to easily deliver native apps for the Chrome OS and for compatible devices running the Chrome web browser. With that, my hope is that we'll see a greater number of apps become available for Chrome OS users, including multi-media editing power apps.

 

For those in the EdTech environment, I actually think that using the Chromebook/OS makes a better proposition than the iPad. Many of you are already using Google Apps so there's no learning curve and many of your students are using Gmail accounts or Google Search at the grade school and university levels. Additionally, there is no sacrifice in usability because you're still using a full  computer to do what you need instead of the scaled down tablet experience. Don't get me wrong, there are absolutely some benefits of using a tablet over a laptop for computing but I still think that when it comes to a learning environment, we should be teaching on a laptop so that the children are learning lessons while learning the computer environment as well. I read a great article recently detailing just computer illiterate many in our society really are because all they know is mobile device use. They don't know how to do simple tasks like plug in a USB drive and move files, or reinstall an OS, or many other tasks that those of us who grew up with computers and no mobile devices learned to perform. Think I'm exaggerating? Go ahead and ask your young child who you think handles that iPad or old iPhone like a champ to take a flash drive and move files off of it to your desktop.

 

Tablet? We Don't Need No Stinking Tablet? Kind Of

Who needs a tablet when you've got a Chromebook? The answer is still, "me" however I found I wanted to reach for my tablet less. Access to data with Chrome OS is just as fast as my tablet and more robust in many cases. On my tablet, when accessing apps like mobile banking for instance, it's a given that I'm not going to have all of the features that I would if I'd accessed my banking online in a full browser but with Chrome OS, the boot time is so short, I often found myself reaching for the Pixel instead of my tablet unless I was just checking a balance which meant reaching for whichever device was closest. And this is what I loved about using Chrome OS… the scenario I just recounted above repeated itself time and again. The Chromebook Pixel is small enough and Chrome OS fast enough that it really becomes interchangeable with my tablet usage. Personally, the only thing I'd add to Chrome OS is an IR port to the hardware and remote functionality like you're seeing on many mobile devices now, baked right into the OS.

 

One of the issues which I figured for a caveat at first, but quickly became a non-issue was learning to code. That is to say, I'm currently teaching my children how to program in Python and definitely want them to learn other computer languages, which is a task that was problematic if you were a Chrome OS user. With online services like Tynker, Google App Engine, Scratch and online schools like Coursera, the need for a traditional desktop OS or powershell/terminal decreases greatly. More companies are coming online which are creating cloud-based development environments where you can write and test code without the need for the traditional desktop resources required to do so.

 

At the end of the day, I think I can safely recommend Google's Chrome OS and Chromebooks for most computer users. Statistically, most people use computers for fairly mundane tasks that Chrome OS should handle without a hitch (except for that whole printing thing). Add to that, having a family with more than one child in grade school needing to do homework online at the same time and Google's Chrome products hit that sweet spot between usability and cost. For mom and dad who may need a little more computing power than the Chromebooks which have traditionally been available but don't want to spend the kind of money you have to put out for a Chromebook Pixel, HP and Acer have both recently shown off new Chromebooks coming this Christmas which will feature Intel's Haswell processors which bring more processing power to Chrome OS than the tablet processors found in previous sub-$300 models.

Tshaka Armstrong Tech Ninja Tshaka Armstong writes about the latest technology and helping FOX 11 Viewers understand how to be safer, smarter users of the internet and their "gadgets. He's also one of our social media guys, helping guide the station's online efforts and social media outreach.
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