A Month With ChromeOS (and the HP Chromebook 14)

It’s true. I love technology. There’s something about a new gadget or computer that gets me all giddy inside, so I was actually pretty excited when my significant other told me he bought me an HP Chromebook 14-q039wm on Woot last month. It’s a pretty interesting device. I’ve been using it fairly regularly since I got it, so let’s see how it stacks up against my myriad other portable computers (including but not limited to a Surface Pro 2, Dell Latitude E6410, ASUS VivoTab Note 8, and an Acer Aspire Switch 10).

What it is

You’ve probably heard about Chrome OS by now. Based on the Linux kernel and Google’s Chrome browser, it’s a browser-only operating system. When I say browser-only, I mean browser-only. If it’s not online, you probably can’t do it with Chrome OS. The same extensions you use with Chrome in Windows or OS X can be used in Chrome OS, and more recently, Chrome OS has introduced the ability to run Android apps (provided that the app supports this feature, and those are few and far between so far).

Chrome OS has gotten a lot of media coverage, and there are plenty of journalists and tech pundits who have started (or at least tried) using Chromebooks as their daily driver. I’ve been taking mine to work lately, and while I can do some stuff with Chrome OS, it isn’t going to replace Windows any time soon.

What it isn’t

I’d go so far as to say that Chrome OS isn’t a real operating system. Sure it runs on a computer and has a graphical interface, but the similarities end there. Chrome OS does have the ability to offer some basic functionality – text editing, an SSH terminal, a limited file browser (local storage and Google Drive only!), a calculator, and a web browser. However, unless you’re well-entrenched in the Google services ecosystem, Chrome OS doesn’t cut it.

My primary email address is through Outlook.com, I use OneDrive for my cloud storage, and I have no interest in Google’s sorry excuse for online document editing with Docs, Slides, and Sheets. I also use Reddit and Facebook pretty frequently. Chrome OS support for all of the above is weak at best. Although there are rumblings of other cloud storage services working with Chrome OS’s File System Provider API, the lack of access to my OneDrive is a serious flaw for me. I’ve started using Google Drive out of necessity, because face it – manually downloading from and uploading to OneDrive via the website is just a pain. What’s worse is that I can’t access local network shares over SMB or WebDAV – or even SFTP! My file server is rendered useless thanks to Chrome OS completely missing support for mapping network shares.

The other big flaw that I’ve found is the total lack of Facebook support. All I’ve found are a few so-called “apps” in the Chrome store that do nothing beyond load the mobile Facebook chat interface in a separate window. There’s no support for notifications. The same goes for Reddit – the Reditr app is passable, but unless it’s running, there are no notifications. I’ve been able to get a couple Android mail apps running, which gives me email notifications for my Outlook.com account, but the native Android mail app is unstable and CloudMagic (which is in the Chrome web store but is really just the Android app ported to run on the ARchon runtime) has a long list of bugs and problems in its current form.

Why I like it

Chrome OS is fast. It boots and reboots almost instantaneously. Because there’s virtually no data stored on the device itself, wiping and starting over is incredibly painless. Battery life is pretty great, and my model has a 4G SIM card slot complete with a T-Mobile SIM card and 200MB monthly data access for free – for life! The hardware is pretty nice for a $200 laptop, with 4GB DDR3 RAM and an Intel Celeron CPU. I already have plans to replace the 16GB M.2 SSD with a 128GB module so I can dual-boot Chrome OS and either Ubuntu or Windows 10.

On the fit-and-finish side of the hardware, I love the color. The trackpad is really great, and the keyboard feels pretty solid. I’ve read that the HP Chromebook 11 has an IPS display while my Chromebook 14 has a cheaper TN display, but I don’t really have any complaints about the screen quality or viewing angles.

Why I (sort of) don’t like it

I won’t lie – compared to HP’s Windows 8.1 competitor, the Stream 14, the Chromebook 14 is a better product (and cheaper, if you get the model with 4GB RAM and 4G data at the $209 Woot price), but with Chrome OS on it, it’s just too limited. As noted in many articles about both Chromebooks and Chrome OS, most of what your average user does is online. However, most of that online stuff is centered around communication of some kind – and that’s where notifications are critical. I don’t want to keep tabs open for Facebook and Twitter and Outlook.com and Reddit and LinkedIn just so that I can get notifications about account activity.

One minor complaint I have is that the sparkly turquoise rubberized finish leaves something to be desired – there’s a nick in the surface already, and it seems to pick up marks and scuffs a little too easily. A bigger complaint is that Google has decided to keep to a very short-lived support timeline for each Chromebook that’s released. That part is pretty obnoxious – my Chromebook is only going to stay updated for five years. After that, Chrome OS updates won’t be available anymore. Google has a knack for doing that – they did it with Google TV, too. I understand not providing customer support after five years, but not allowing OS updates on specific hardware after five years is nothing more than forced obsolesence. I hate that Apple does it, and I definitely hate that Google does it. It’s kind of the opposite of their so-called “don’t be evil” mantra.

Should you get one?

I’m a Microsoft fangirl. I can’t help it. I work for the company, I work with Windows 8 every day, and I love teaching people how to get the most out of Windows. On that alone, I can’t really recommend a Chromebook to anyone. It’s not a good student machine at all, because it can’t run anything a student might need outside of basic document editing. A lot of schools use web applications that require Java or ActiveX, neither of which will work in Chrome OS. Advanced applications like Visio, Matlab, and Visual Studio are just not an option. Beyond that, the total lack of social networking integration limits its use considerably, unfortunately.

The thing is, when you can run Chrome in Windows and access a Chrome OS-like interface simply by launching the Windows 8 Modern Chrome interface, Chromebooks don’t have a lot to offer over similarly-priced Windows computers. Most of the reasons Chrome OS was initially compelling have been negated thanks to significant improvements in Windows 8 and 8.1. The number of apps available for Windows 8 today mean you don’t necessarily need a web browser to access web-based services. In fact, apps are frequently a much better experience – fewer (if any!) ads, a more fluid interface, and customizability.

If you’re a big proponent of the Google ecosystem, you’ll probably get good use out of a Chromebook. If OneDrive integration happens with the new API Google is supposedly introducing, I’ll be able to do a lot more within the confines of Chrome OS. I’d also be thrilled to see a mail client released that’s Chrome native (not just a repackaged Android app) with support for multiple accounts and protocols like Exchange and EAS. I also haven’t found an offline text editor that can connect to my web server over SFTP. The developer of the best Chrome text editor available, Caret, refuses to build in any remote access support, unfortunately.

In the meantime, my Chromebook makes a good web browsing and SSH machine. It’s not going to replace a real computer for me, but the hardware is nice enough that it has earned a place in my computer collection.

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