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Chromebook - What Is It?

So you're considering the purchase of a Chromebook. While not as expensive as most laptops, it still represents a significant purchase for most of us. So, what exactly is a Chromebook, and what can you do with it?

The Chromebook is a newer manifestation of the laptop, one that takes full advantage of the growing capabilities and accessibility of the Internet. By taking full advantage of the Cloud aspects of the Internet, Chromebooks offer some distinct advantages -- and, in some cases, disadvantages. You need to get these considerations well in mind before you purchase.

Some additional sources that may help in preparation of a decision are these Chromebook and Cloud Computing books. But I'll endeavor to give you some idea about what a Chromebook is and can do on this web page.

A Chromebook is a light weight, ultra-convenient rendition of the familiar laptop. Compared to a traditional laptop, Chromebooks weigh much less, run much longer on batteries, and boot much much faster. But whereas a laptop usually comes with a Windows or Apple operating system (some with Linux), the Chromebook comes with Chrome OS.

Chrome OS Starts With A Browser

Chrome OS is a very minimal system, and is based on a highly trimmed Linux kernel. The OS has enough smarts to manage memory, keyboard, screen, and peripherals, plus some additional interfaces. These interfaces, like USB, Bluetooth, and HDMI, are all there to support and supplement the Chrome browser, which is the main feature of the OS.

In addition to supporting the Chrome browser, Chrome OS tightly integrates the Google Drive cloud storage into the system. For example, apps that bring up the system file selection menu show the Google drive as a natural option, as if the cloud drive were literally inside the Chromebook.

At first blush it might seem that an OS that supports only a browser will have little utility, other than reading the news, connecting with Facebook or watching some YouTube videos. And in fact, I've read a few reviews that suggest such a case. But I've also read a few reviews by users of Chromebooks that suggest much more.

I decided that I needed to find out for myself. My first step was to explore the Chromixium project, which makes freely available a minimalistic Ubuntu operating system with a Chrome-OS look-alike desktop. I worked with that for awhile, and reviewed it here. I liked it enough so that I was installing it on all of my computers as a boot option. That was until I installed it on my Emachines desktop. The Ubuntu kernel on which Chromixium was based wouldn't play well on my Emachine. So I made a bit of a look-alike from a Puppy Linux version that would play on my Emachines and still give the full Chrome browser plus Chrome Web Store experience.

Bottom line -- I liked it. I thought that it had merit. So I bought a Chromebook so that I could get the full experience. I purchased the Acer Chromebook, 11.6-Inch, CB3-111-C670 . I've been actively exploring what I can do with it. I found what any Google gmail user probably already knows, that I have access to the Google drive and the Google suite of products that can operate on files on the Google drive. Products like Google Docs, Google Spreadsheets, and Google Presentation to mention a few. The recent versions of these products can even operate on local files when your network is down, and the files will be synced back to Google Drive when your network is up.

But Chrome OS Is More Than A Browser

In addition, Chromebooks have access to the Chrome Web Store, which holds thousands of apps that run in Chrome -- on any operating system for which there is a Chrome browser. These apps provide an extensive range of tools. The categories in the store at the time of this writing are:

Business tools
  • Accounting & Finance
  • Admin & Management
  • ERP & Logistics
  • HR & Legal
  • Marketing & Analytics
  • Sales & CRM

  • Education
  • Academic Resources
  • Family
  • Foreign Languages
  • Teacher & Admin Tools

  • Entertainment
  • Books
  • Music & Radio
  • Online Video
  • Photos
  • TV & Movies

  • Games
  • Arcade & Action
  • Board & Card
  • Puzzle & Brain
  • Role-Playing & Strategy
  • Sports Games
  • Virtual Worlds

  • Lifestyle
  • Astrology
  • Food & Health
  • Money
  • Religion
  • Shopping
  • Travel

  • News & Weather
  • News Reporting
  • Social News
  • Sports
  • Weather Forecasts

  • Productivity
  • Creative Tools
  • Developer Tools
  • Office Applications
  • Search & Browsing Tools
  • Task Management

  • Social & Communications
  • Blogging
  • Chat & IM
  • Email & Contacts
  • Phone & SMS
  • Social Networking

  • Utilities
  • Alarms & Clocks
  • Bookmarks
  • Calculators
  • Dictionaries
  • Notepads
  • Note that this isn't an actual app list, but only a list of the app categories, with each category containing from a few to many actual apps. Most are free, a few are not. But that's a pretty big selection available to any Chromebook user.

    Can You Create Stuff On A Chromebook?

    While some still believe that a Chromebook is only good for web browsing, I created much of this web page from my Chromebook. I used a Secure Shell app that let me log onto my Linux desktop where my web page work is housed. I used the desktop VIM editor to create the pages while in the Chromebook Secure Shell. I displayed the pages as I worked on my Chromebook browser via a local ftp connection. It was like I was sitting at my desktop.

    Most of the available Chrome apps run in a Chrome browser tab, but a few open windows of their own. The apps come up and run quickly. Some are designed to run on the Chromebook (client), and some only use the Chromebook for input and display, and actually run on a server. But the difference is transparent to the user.

    With just the Google cloud utilities, one can do a great deal of document work. With the available apps, many other capabilities also exist. There are additional document products, including Libre Office and some Microsoft office products. There are also image editors, utilities to help in the creation of your own apps, and many many others.

    If you are primarily a computer user, the likelihood of a Chromebook being useful to you is great. I find using it a joy, and have plenty of apps that I've downloaded to extend my Chromebook's usefulness.

    In the past, I've done a lot of development work, and I wondered if the Chromebook would still give me some coding avenues. I'm happy to say that I can still do development work using the Chromebook. There are two avenues open to me.

    Option one is to use one of several editors and programming environments for Chrome available in the Chrome Web Store. They provide support in creating Chrome apps or web pages, primarily written with HTML, CSS, Javascript, and/or Dart. I have little experience in Javascript, but in working more with it lately, I think it will nicely satisfy much of my coding urge.

    Option two is to use the Secure Shell app to log onto my Puppy Linux system and use all of the non-Xwindows utilities there, like VIM for editing and all of my perl scripts that help me do my work. I can, via an ftp link (ftp://url/.... instead of http://....) connect to files on my Puppy Linux system and view them in the Chrome browser. This works for html files, text files, doc files, and even PDF files.

    Much of my new Star Pointer astronomy utility was created on my Acer Chromebook using a programming IDE I obtained from the Chrome Web Store. Some of the development was also done on my Puppy Linux desktop, either at its local terminal or from my Chromebook using the Secure Shell logged onto the desktop.

    Star Pointer is a utility that lists telescopically visible star objects from any of three popular star object lists that amateur astronomers enjoy. It not only shows what's up at a user's location, but what the current pointing coordinates are for each target.

    As useful as Star Pointer is to amateur astronomers, the exercise of developing it also answered the question of whether I could develop software on a Chromebook. The limitations are that I do my code development using CSS, HTML, and Javascript. I can develop software that exists locally on my Chromebook or is hosted somewhere else, like the Chrome Web Store, my own web page or blog, or on my own local server.

    Check Out Google Sheets

    I found that learning more about Google Sheets really expanded my view of my Chromebook. You can see some coding examples and guidelines for spreadsheet scripting at my Google Sheets Review.

    First off, Google Sheets gives me the opportunity to do much of the math I enjoy. If you browse this site, you'll see reviews of many Math Matrix languages. They offer a much quicker way to solve many data processing problems than writing solutions in conventional languages. While Google Sheets didn't initially supply all of the functions I was used to, the tools for getting there did exist.

    I found that Google Sheets allowed me to scratch my data processing itch and my programming itch through my Chromebook. I was able to supplement Google Sheets with my own custom functions using the Google Scripting tools. Google Sheets supports Javascript as a scripting language, and with that I was able to supplement Google Sheets with a collection of handy matrix tools similar to what I was used to, and satisfy my programming urge as well. Take a look at the following 3D plot that was created with a couple of scripts that made a special version of a data matrix, which was then fed to one of the Google Sheets built-in plotting routines.

    Google Sheets 3d Graph
    Hidden Line 3D Plot Created With Google Sheets

    While Google Sheets didn't provide a built-in 3D plot function at the time of this article, it did provide a function that would plot all rows (or columns) of a matrix. I just had to make a matrix that did the hidden line work. So I built a library of routines to do this and other basic matrix operations, create special matrices, interpolate matrices, do FFTs, and more. With the ability to create custom functions, Google Sheets is a capable environment, and proved to me that I can do much with a Chromebook.

    My Chromebook Resources

    The Acer Chromebook that I have has 2GB internal ram and 16GB of Solid State Disk. That's it. However, the product came with 2 free years of extra cloud storage. It specifically provides 100GB of storage on the Google Drive. Once the 2 years is up, I have the option to keep the extra storage by paying the very nominal fee of a few dollars per month.

    I found out that though the internal ram is limited, I can enable a swap function that makes use of 2 GB of the Solid State Disk as swap space, keeping me well out of trouble as I work, no matter how many tabs I open.

    In addition, I can insert and use a USB stick or an external SDRAM module to extend my local storage capacity. One note here: while I can format USB drives and SDRAM modules from the Chromebook (as vfat), I cannot name the volumes from the Chromebook. So I find it better to format things on my Linux (or Windows) computer so that I can give them volume names as well.

    As to usage, the Chromebook is a dream. Upon opening the lid, it's ready to go in just seconds. Updates are handled so fast that I don't even notice that they are happening. The device is simple, fast, and virtually maintenance free. It also happens to be very light and portable. I used to work some, sitting in a comfortable chair, with my laptop. But that old laptop was a bit heavy, and during use began to feel warm on my legs. Plus, after a couple of hours the batteries were about gone.

    Using the Chromebook instead, I don't feel the heaviness on my lap, no heat, and batteries last all day, should I be engaged in a project that long. It works for me.

    What's The Down Side?

    So what can't I do?

    I can only create HTML, CSS, and Javascript applications for Chromebook use. I can't program locally in other languages, like perl, C++, as they are not supported by Chrome OS. One can install a compatible Linux that lives well with Chrome OS, but I haven't tried it. I think my Acer is maybe too limited in resource for that. One can also get a copy of Dos Box from the Chrome Web Store. In that environment, one can write DOS programs and run them while in Dos Box.

    Through the secure shell login, I cannot run X-windows programs on a computer I'm logged onto and have the server open new windows on my Chromebook. I'm restricted to running non-Xwindows applications in the secure shell. As it happens, I tend to work that way when on my Linux systems anyway.

    I can't plug in a printer and print directly.

    Cloud Printing

    I can print, however, using the Google Cloud Printing provision.

    Is that complicated?

    Not at all. I was able to use a Google utility to register a printer that is locally available on one of my Linux computers. Through the Cloud printer system, I can get to that printer not only from my Chromebook, but from any other computer in my possession -- even my Android tablet. I let the Cloud Print support function as the networking for my printer.

    For this setup to work, I must have the printer up (of course), and the computer it's plugged into. That's about it.

    Printer setup can be even easier. There are now Cloud Ready Printers readily available. These printers connect directly to your network, and have the servers built in so no other computer needs to be running to support them.

    The Bottom Line

    For me, the bottom line is that I use my Chromebook all the time. I use it for its super portability, its quick booting, its seamless integration with cloud storage, and its long battery life. In most ways, it performs the things for which I previously used my laptop.