Nothing But Chromebook For A Week

2011-07-01 10:36:00 -0700

As promised in my Samsung Chromebook review, I'm using nothing but my Chromebook for a week. I'm a programmer, fledgling system administrator, and blog writer. This isn't going to be easy. Not only am I using this at home, but I'm leaving my workstations at work shut off.

Day 1 - No Minecraft!?!?

Day 1 was a normal day at work. I checked some tickets, check that status of the computer labs, and stuff of that nature. Nothing really intense, and nothing that required anything but the browser. I jammed out on Pandora and Google Music. I checked a few docs in Google Docs. Google+ worked great. I check email in GMail and our custom written webmail client for campus/work (Aside: If some professors weren't so worried about their work being stored in the cloud, I could do both from GMail.). I didn't really notice I wasn't using a normal desktop, other than not having dual monitors. I was too busy outside the office to get any serious computing work done. That changed when I got home.

At home, I got a text from a friend who couldn't log into my Minecraft server, because a new update for the clients, but I hadn't updated the server. So, I dropped into Chrome OS's terminal (Ctrl + Alt + T) and fired up crosh's (Chrome OS's extremely limited shell) ssh client. You have to specify each parameter separately. For example:

crosh> ssh
ssh> host minecraft
ssh> user minecraft
ssh> connect

# And when you finish:
ssh> quit
crosh> exit

This is..annoying. I'm told if you flip the developer switch (a handy requirement from Google for all Chromebooks), you get a better shell, similar to bash, by typing "shell". I'll check that out later in the week, as I'm just testing how this works for the normal user. Anyway, I did what  I needed to do, and it was pretty easy once I was back to Bash on my Ubuntu server. The only hard part I had was pasting the link to the new server binary. To paste in the terminal, you have to middle click. Middle click is awesome when you have a mouse, but is a 3 finger press on the trackpad. For some reason, a 3 finger tap (like 1 and 2 finger taps, rather than clicks) doesn't work, and I'm forced to actually click, which is relatively annoying.

From there, I proceeded to do a little administration work, and everything was pretty good. You can have as many terminals as you want open, which makes managing a couple computers quite simple. Once I got some of my SSH keys downloaded, I could easily use those in SSH as well. Just download the key into your downloads directory, and type "key <keyname>" in the ssh prompt, no directory required. That was actually easier than normal terminals.

One really nice thing I noticed was that Google Talk box hover over all windows, not just in GMail like standard Chrome. If you click their title bar, they minimize and stay out of the way. This is actually true of all popups it seems, such as chatting with tech support. Nifty! I usually keep a few windows open for business partners and my wife, to make talking even easier. They minimize and you don't even notice they're there, but pop up when you need them. The only thing I don't like is the lack of keyboard shortcuts to jump between a chat box and browser windows and back again. I'd expect Alt + Tab  to work, but no such luck.

Battery life on Day 1 was superb. It was running for about 12 hours total, with me using it around 8, and I still had 20% battery  left. That is very impressive.

P.S. I did have to break out my Linux laptop to test that Minecraft was working. Chrome OS isn't entirely perfect yet.

Day 2 - The Workstation

So I got to work early, and figured it would be a good time to play around with my Chromebook and try a few things. The first thing I tried was a new mouse. Holy crap, I love having a mouse with this thing. It's not that I don't like the trackpad (it's one of the best I've used, though I would like some freaking buttons. Is that too much to ask?), but a mouse definitely makes it better, especially for extended use. Then I grabbed a Microsoft ergonomic keyboard. Not too much of a change, as I think the Chromebook has the nicest keyboard ever. If it had backlit keys, I'd buy a couple just to rip out the keyboard for other laptops. Then I grabbed the mini-VGA to VGA adapter, a 24 inch HP monitor, and got it plugged in. Now I have a Chromebook workstation that makes me sing. I feel like I can get real work done very efficiently.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="Awesome Chromebook Workstation is Awesome"]|IMG20110701084529.jpg|[/caption]

My HTC Evo has been having some problems lately. I decided it was time to back up everything, and wipe all of it. I plugged the phone into my Chromebook with a USB cable, turned on USB storage, and opened the Chrome OS file manager with Ctrl + M. Unfortunately, nothing came up. Then I popped out the micro SD card, plugged it into an SD adapater, and put it in the SD card slot of the Chromebook, but still, nothing showed up. I had to break out another laptop to do it. I can't say for sure that it was Chrome OS's fault, because my phone has been having a lot of problems lately. It is a known issue, and should be fixed shortly. See this issue in Google Code.

Overall, I think this was a great day for my Chromebook. Plugging it into a workstation really made this a more appealing laptop. When I need it to be mobile, it is ultra portable. When I need to get more serious work done, I can plug it into a workstation.

Day 3 - The Road Warrior

My wife and I were driving up to see friends for the Fourth of July today, so it was time to test out how the Chromebook worked on the road, cut off from the rest of my computers. The 3G version comes with 100MB of free data each month, and I have a Verizon 4G hotspot courtesy of Google I/O, so I was set. It took a few minutes to set up 3G on the Chromebook through Verzion (had to make an account, tried to upsell me for more data per month), but after that, speeds were pretty good, and I was able to get some basic work done. SSH was mostly usable for simple commands, but writing a script from the command line was unusable. Oh well. I switched over to my hotspot, so I could take advantage of Madison's new 4G network. It was fast, and I couldn't tell I wasn't at home. Frankly, I wind up using my 4G hotspot at places like libraries and coffee shops, because it is faster. However, the response from SSH was still slower than I'd like, so I wound up scripting in Google Docs and copy/pasting into the terminal for testing. Eventually, as I got towards northern Wisconsin, and my 3G signal started to get slower and slower, and became too spotty for any real work. That's when I confirmed a fear about the Chromebooks: Offline support isn't ready yet. According to blog posts by Google Docs folks, it will be ready later this summer.

My thoughts on offline: Oh well. It really isn't a big deal for me. I rarely work where there isn't Wifi, and when I do, I've got the 100MB of data from Verizon in the Chromebook, a hotspot for a few more months, and worse comes to worse, my phone is rooted and could be used as a hotspot. Even on planes, I just pay the couple bucks for Wifi. If I were a frequent flyer, I'd get the cheap monthly plan from AirTran. Overall, not a big deal, but something I would like.

Due to the lack of 3G and offline support, I lost about an hour of work. Instead, I actually talked to my wife and relaxed. Maybe Google is just trying to save my marriage by not supporting offline.

I took 3 days off because I was on vacation and didn't do any work on a computer (I did play the tutorial for a game and show off Minecraft). Day 4 resumes on July 6, rather than the 3rd.

Day 4 - Back to Work

After a fun Fourth, I finally got back to work. Well, it was mostly work. First off, I wanted to start migrating from Facebook over to Google+, starting with pictures. I stumbled on some great software called Move2Picasa.org, but the site said they were Tech Crunch'd, so it would be very slow. My next plan was to download all the files from Facebook (Account Settings -> Download Your Information). Then I should be able to upload my pictures to Picasa with the file manager. However, it all comes in a zip file. Yet another minor tool missing from Chrome OS, which should have been easy to implement. Then I went search around online for an easy unzip tool. I found WobZIP.com, but after unzipping my file, I would have had to download each file individually. At a couple hundred pictures, I'll just wait a few days and do it on my desktop.

Edit:You can now upload .ZIP and .RAR files to Google Docs and they will be unzipped. You could then download the entire folder, and upload it to Picasa. A bit more work than a standard OS, but I'm hoping tighter integration of Google Docs with Picasa will come soon.

Today I figured it would be a great day to try out some programming. I mainly develop in Python and Bash. Bash programming was fairly easy...when I SSH'ed into a server and wrote it there. Similarly, I could do the same thing in Python, but frankly, I'd rather not. There is a great app called Cloud9 IDE. I met 2 of the developers at Google I/O, and their demo was impressive. However, the software wasn't fully rolled out yet, so I couldn't get much done. I was hoping for deployment to App Engine, where I host most of my web apps, but no luck. On the high side, they say it'll be rolling out soon, so that should make development great. The interface is great, has full git support, and pretty much does everything I'd want a Python IDE to do, minus the deployment issue. Almost there Chrome OS!

When I got home from work, I tested out video calling people with Google Talk. It worked great, with no plugins to install or anything! The machine got a bit slow with a ton of tabs open, but that's to be expected. I also tested Hangout in Google+, and it worked like a charm. Again, some slow down, but nothing major. This would be great for family members, because getting them to use Skype takes some work, and then we could more easily keep in touch.

Well, the Chromebook worked pretty well today for some script development in Bash, thanks to SSH. However, it fell on it's face for Python development. Javascript development would work on Cloud9 I believe, as well as HTML/CSS, but I think that is the limit. I suppose I could SSH to the school's servers and write my C code if I needed, since IDE's don't seem to add much to it, and frankly I always write C in nano. I spent more of the day working on blogs and social networking. Obviously, the Chromebook wasn't really meant for developers (yet!!), but for most people, it'd be pretty good.

Day 5 - Another Day in the Life of a Chromebook

Day 5 has me at work again.  I've been searching for cloud tools to get work done, and testing them out. Here's my findings!

Music: I've been jamming out to Pandora and Google Music most of the day. A huge, huge problem for Chrome OS here, is how do I buy music!! Many people are used to desktop apps for this kind of stuff. First, you can buy your music at the Amazon MP3 Store, and save it to their Cloud Drive. Then you'll be able to stream it. Frankly, I think this is the way most people should buy music, Chromebook or not. For all of your existing music, you can either upload it to Cloud Drive, or you can use Google Music. I'm a big fan of Google Music, so I generally buy music from Amazon, then upload it to Google Music. Both allow you to stream them online and have Android apps, so it really comes down to preference.

Picture Editing: The app Picnik is a very impressive photo editor entire in the web. It allows you to do basic editing tasks, such as crop, rotate, resize, exposure, colors, etc. There is also a handy AutoFix tool. The best part is you can import pictures from photo sites, such as Facebook, Flickr, and Picasa to edit them, and then export them again. No more downloading! If you go premium, you can use multiple sites at the same time.

Video:I was very disappointed to see that Netflix isn't supported at launch. However, Hulu is, so my TV shows are covered. Also, renting movies from YouTube is awesome, and works great on the Chromebook. Quality is great and snappy.

Documents:The easy and obvious way to write documents in Chrome OS is Google Docs. You can edit documents with multiple people, easily share, and get work done. If you're used to Microsoft Office, you can use Microsoft's Live Office, which is basically Microsoft Office, online, for free. Both allow you to save all your docs to the cloud, so if you need to use another computer, they are all easily accessible.

Day 5 didn't have as much notable work to talk about, but looking at all the apps, I think most people can get most of what they do on a daily basis done on one of these gorgeous laptops. I asked all my Facebook/Twitter followers for a list of the applications they use most often at work and at home, so hopefully I'll have a list of what you can and cannot do on Chrome OS soon. The main things you can't do so far are use the Adobe Suite, do most art-related things, download torrents, or do some system administration tasks.

Day 6 - Install Ubuntu!

On Day 6, I decided it was time to push the Chromebook. I've read articles about installing Ubuntu on the CR-48 (the beta version of the Chromebook), and it sounded pretty awesome, so I'm going to give it a try. It is kind of breaking with the idea of "Nothing But Chromebook For a Week", but I think this simple mod will expand the potential user base for Chromebooks, so let's do it anyway. Check the article I followed if you have questions.

The first thing you need to do is enable developer mode. Luckily, Google has demanded that every Chromebook have a Developer Mode switch, so pop open the tab on the right side of the Samsung Chromebook, and flip the little switch. I'm not sure where it is on the Acer model, and it appears to be under the battery on the CR-48. Reboot your laptop, and it'll wipe your stateful partition. Let me say that again: IT WILL WIPE YOUR DOWNLOADS FOLDER! So back it up if you have anything useful there. Then go through the normal set up process, and then hit Ctrl + Alt + -> (the forward arrow where F2 should be). This will drop you into the developer shell. Log in as "chronos" for your user. Here you'll have full access to a real SSH client, and most other bash tools (finally!). Now, we need to enable the developer BIOS, so it'll let us boot non-Ubuntu distros. Simply type "chromeos-firmwareupdate --mode=todev", and you'll be good. Reboot once more for good measure, and let's jump into install our new OS.

Jump back into the developer shell and log in as chronos again. To download and run the script to get everything install, run "wget http://goo.gl/hnkxo; sudo sh hnkxo". First, it is going to prompt you for how much space you want to allocate to Ubuntu. The stateful partition is under 11GB, so for best results, I'd recommend choosing 9GB. That'll leave over 1GB for caching and downloads in Chrome OS. It is going to take quite some time, because it has to download 5GB of compressed data, so hopefully you're on some speedy wifi. Once it finishes, it should reboot for you. If not, reboot, and you'll be dropped into Ubuntu! The username is "user" with password "user" (super security!). Create a new user, modify everything to how you want it (Go into Mouse in the Preferences menu to enable 2 finger scroll and tap to click). To make this stick, we need to modify which kernel is more important.

If you run "sudo cgpt show /dev/sda" in the terminal (Ctrl + Alt + T), you'll get a list of the partition table. KERN-A and KERN-B are the 2 Chrome OS kernels (so Chrome OS can update the kernel not in use, and switch on next reboot. If the update fails, you can just fall back to the previous kernel). KERN-C is a copy of the Chrome OS kernel and will be used for Ubuntu. We need to set KERN-C's priority to a number higher than the A and B. That way, when we are in developer mode, we'll boot Ubuntu, and when we are in normal mode, it'll boot Chrome OS. Best of both worlds, right? To do this, simply type "sudo cgpt add -i 6 -P 5 -S 1 /dev/sda".

Finally, to resize your partition to fill the whole 9GB, you'll just need to run "sudo resize2fs -p /dev/sda7". Because the filesystem for Ubuntu, ext4, is awesome, it'll do this on the fly while you're still using Ubuntu. Cool huh?

That should cover everything on how to get Ubuntu installed. From there, I was able to do just about everything I needed, especially development related tasks. The hardware in the Chromebook is definitely fast enough to do everything I need for development. I still switch back to Chrome OS for most of what I do day to day, because it does most of what I want. Chrome OS in developer mode gives me access to bash, and from there I can do even more.

This is one area where buying a different netbook and installing ChromeOS on it might be a better idea. You'd be able to install any version of Ubuntu that you want, or even Windows if you so desire. I was doing this for a while before the Chromebooks were released, and I'm hoping I can get ChromeOS running on some older desktops for family members (no more support calls? Yes please!). Another option besides buying a Chromebook is to pick up a Mini 9 or 10v netbook through the Dell Laptop deals page for cheap, and then install ChromeOS directly onto it. I've always like the Dell Minis, and their battery life is absolutely superb.

Day 7 - The Conference

For Day 7, I went to Barcamp Chicago, an unconference where the attendees are the speakers and everything is very free form. On the way there, I decided to update a few articles, write a few new ones, and do a little maintenance on my blog. My friend was driving, so I busted out my Chromebook, and connected to the 100MB of free data. I disabled a few Chrome extensions that might use a lot of data (Twitter and such), but other than that, I used my Chromebook like any other laptop on standard Wifi. Almost all of what I did was exactly the same as normal. I still had some issue getting work done via SSH over 3G, but it was manageable. This was probably because I was headed towards Chicago, rather than towards northern Wisconsin. My battery life was fantastic, even when using 3G. I was able to write for the 2 hour drive, then take notes for a few hours at the conference, and still have plenty of battery life left over. During the whole day, which included a bit of exploring Chicago, I had my Chromebook with me. It was quite light, especially without the charger which is rarely necessary. This is in stark contrast to my Dell 13" laptop, which is so heavy by the time I make the 20 minute walk to class, my back starts to hurt.

Being a college student, I'm very used to taking notes any time someone gets in front of a group of people and starts talking. There were various talks, many of which had valuable points which I wrote down for future reference. Taking notes was just as simple as when I took notes on my other notebooks in classes. I believe this will be the perfect laptop for students. Many schools use Google Apps already, so this is a great compliment. I was easily able to check my school email, and my GMail quite easily. Basically, during the whole day, Chrome OS was all I needed, except to show off that I had Ubuntu installed on it.

Conclusion

The Chromebook can do most of the things most users will need. For people that use less specialized applications, such as intense gaming, Java-based apps, and system administration apps, the Chromebook could be a primary computer. However, it is designed to be a secondary computer, and in that role, it does everything necessary. With the 3G version or a hot spot, it is the ultimate in portable computing. With the coming offline capabilities, it will be even more useful on the go. The hardware itself is very well designed, and pleasing to use, often more so than other, more fully-functional laptops. I believe this is the only kind of computer I will encourage many of my family members and some friends to buy, because it is exceedingly simple, has zero management, and web apps simplify much of my life. The Chromebook automatically updates itself without notification, it checks itself on boot, which should mitigate most viruses, and the lack of installed apps means no required maintenance. With the addition of "Chromoting", along with apps by VMWare and Citrix, Chromebooks will soon be able to connect to any apps that aren't available online. Chrome OS is impressive, and will only become more impressive as more apps become available online.

More!

Don't just take my word on it, check out reviews on Amazon. Also, the cheaper Acer Chromebook is at the bottom.