"He Wears Black and Has a Beard"

Chromebooks: A Solution

Toby Roworth

Jul 30, 2018

About five years ago I wrote a post on Chromeboooks, discussing how they weren't right for me.
About 18 months afterwards Chromebooks became the right fit for me, and I've been using them almost exclusively for more than three years - this week I look back at what I said all those years ago, and give my current viewpoint.

I made three main claims last time as to why I didn't feel a Chromebook worked for me: Thanks to OnShape, the first point is sorted. OnShape in an in-browser CAD program, that's pretty decent, with Git-like branchimg & merging and Google Docs-like concurrent editing. However, it's $1500 per year, which is a bit steep, and I don't think they do a free plan anymore for non-pro use. Whilst they were in beta, I gave it a go, and my crappy Chromebook was rendering just as fast as my workstation, thanks to server-side rendering (for the web dev guys, I'm talking graphics SSR). Realisitically, however, if I need to do CAD at home I'm just going to use Fusion 360 on my work laptop.
Update: There is a free plan, it's just very hard to find - thanks Dunk. All documents created have to be public, and there may be further limitations like storage limits, but for CAD on a Chromebook, this would fit the bill perfectly. I'll do an update, maybe an OnShape vs Fusion 360 showdown, in a future post.
There's also Tinkercad, but it's very crude, as suggested by their "No design experience required." claim. Autodesk have ported AutoCAD into the browser using WebAssembly, which is pretty cool. Unfortunately, it's AutoCAD and we're now in 2018 - sure, there's still plenty of people using it, but I doubt anyone wakes up, starts a new company and chooses AutoCAD as their weapon of choice.
The second point is still lacking - whilst Adobe claim to love the cloud, they haven't yet ported Creative Suite to the browser. Although this is annoying, I've not found it a big deal the last few years - it turns out I'm happy to spend me free time not using Creative Suite. This blog might get some nicer content if I did, but beyond that I don't have much need for it.
The only time I really missed it was when I was applying for jobs, and wanted to do my CV in InDesign. As I'd donated my laptop to my brother, I visited him at uni and borrowed it back for a day. This almost ended up expensive, as I was issued with £360 of parking charges for parking in an empty car park, but some careful letter writing made most of that go away. My proper CV clearly made an impression, as I got the job (and a favourable comment on it in the interview). It didn't go down so well at the US embassy trying to get my visa for coming to Florida, but that was mostly due to a misunderstanding, and seemed to be fixed when I offered to update my CV if I stopped wearing black, or shaved.
The final point has been addressed by the wide range of Chromebooks now available - there's something for everyone, at a suitable price point, from the cheap and cheerful to the premium models Google still push. More on this later.
When I moved onto a boat, power became difficult. Mains power is rare on a boat, and hard-earned, so I really needed something that could charge on 12V or below. Enter the HP Chromebook 11 (G2, I think), which would charge on Micro USB.
This kept me going for about 18 months, at which point I found it really was too slow for my needs. Netflix etc was OK, but once a few tabs were running it really started to struggle. However, in that time I only needed to borrow another computer once, as mentioned above. I've now given it to my grandmother, who finds it much easier to use than her old Windows machine.
When the time came to upgrade I chose the ASUS Chromebook Flip C302C, with a Core M7 processor, 4 GB of RAM, a 360° hinge, and touchscreen. At the time, it was one of the better Chromebooks available. It was a little pricey, but given how much I use it, it made a good "new job" present to myself, and it's doing me well. A key feature was USB-C, which made it easy to charge on the boat, thanks to a Belkin car charger, and means when I travel abroad, I can use one charger for my phone and laptop. Saying that, the mroe recent MacBooks charge with USB-C. I was tempted there for a while, but in the end I couldn't justify dropping £1500 on a laptop.
The one thing I still found tricky on a Chromebook was web development, which seems odd, given how web-oriented they are! There's still a way to go on that, but Cloud9 fills the gap very well, and may even be preferable to local development. As each dev environment runs in its own VM, you don't need to worry about one project contaminating the environment of another. The Chrome Dev Tools keep getting closer to being a full-blown IDE, but until chrome can run node, we're stuck.
There's light at the end of the tunnel on that though - Chromebooks will soon support linux applications, which will allow proper IDEs to run. Specifically, Google have promised Android Studio will run, which mill even make mobile development possible. This is terrible timing, as I no longer have any plans to write native apps - its PWAs all the way for me!
Despite my reservation a few years ago, I'd now heartily recommond a Chromebook to most people for home use, if not for pro use. In over three years for Chromebooking, I've only needed to borrow a windows laptop twice, once for my CV and once to unbrick my phone (which didn't work anyway).
They're also easy to use for everyone, even my computer-fearing grandmother. A cloud-print enabled printer goes a long way to help on this.
Every time I assess what new computer to buy, I get further away from being able to justify a pruchase that isn't a Chromebook. As more and more applications become available on the web platform, native-based systems don't make sense.
Finally, Chromebooks are really quite secure. They don't need anti-virus (there's a whole rant on anti-virus, if anyone wants to hear...), sandbox pretty much everything and use the same security you Google Account uses, which Google pride themselves in. For more on Security at Google, this talk by Neils Provos (a securty legend, who defends Google by day, and is a viking sword-smith by night) goes into a lot of detail, and specifically mentions how they use Chromebooks as a security measure.