I'm writing this post using my Chromebook. It's easily the least powerful computer I've ever owned, but I like it the best. Let me examine why.
Why would you ever consider using a Chromebook?
How much of your current machine are you using? In the year 2015, does it make sense to lug around a fully-powered laptop? If your answers are "not much" and "no", then you might be in the market for a Chromebook.
Most laptops are designed as replacements for desktop units; whatever you could do on a desktop you should be able to do on a laptop. The only problem with this design philosophy is that you either end up with a desktop with a handle or you buy an expensive MacBook you need to replace every few years.
But what if you already had the computing power you need? The key idea is to you can trade performance for productivity. Instead of a high performance machine you'd look into making the machine more pleasant to use. So what features should we be optimizing in this case?
- Small and light
- Ideally you always have a laptop with you when you want it. That means carrying it. Your body will thank you for lightening the load.
- Long battery life
- Having your laptop always with you isn't worth anything if it's out of power. Power cords are clunky and I can't carry an extension cord long enough to reach my hammock in the park.
- Nice keyboard
- This is often overlooked, but having a comfy keyboard is crucial to your experience.
- Aside from the obvious reason of saving money, having a cheaper machine means it's easier to replace if it gets lost or stolen. If it ever breaks you're better off getting a new one off Amazon rather than dealing with the time delay of repairs.
Notice that a Chromebook1 scores highly on these criteria.
Now, realize that for most practical purposes you don't actually need all of your computing power. My usual tasks involve editing text, reading pdfs, and using my browser. It's not a huge load. Even my computational work is usually fairly trivial on a modern machine.
With this usage profile, it makes a lot of sense to use my Chromebook. Since I've switched I haven't noticed many downsides and I've definitely noticed the benefits.
You should probably have a real machine too
It's crucial that you don't forget that a Chromebook is not meant for serious computational work. So if you want/need to do something computationally involved you must have another machine available. Fortunately you can be very flexible as to what available means.
For example, I have a laptop that sits in my apartment which I use as a home server. When I need to run something I just connect using SSH2.
Your alternate machine doesn't even have to be your own machine. My department has some servers available and some of my cohort have access to a supercomputer3. This does have the downside of (probably) not having superuser powers and people will be angry if you monopolize community resources.
There's also the option of using the "cloud". Amazon AWS just got added to the GitHub student package, so I'll be experimenting with it in the near future. However, I'm not sure that the economics are currently in your favor for using AWS.
How to use a Chromebook
Ok, so you've decided to go with a Chromebook. Now before you start working you need to make some tweaks.
The first step is getting rid of the out-of-the-box OS, ChromeOS. There isn't anything particularly wrong with ChromeOS: it's lightweight and user-friendly. But it's just can't compete with Linux.
There are two main approaches,
This is very easy to try and doesn't require any commitment. If you don't like it, just delete it and you're back to your out-of-the-box Chromebook experience.
Installation is straightforward. Follow the instructions and everything should work.
After trying out Crouton for a while, you might start realizing that you rarely use ChromeOS anymore. It's time to switch to Linux full-time.
This removes ChromeOS completely which gives you a lot more disk space and control. It requires a little more effort and linux acumen. But it's very manageable.
The install more or less follows the typical process. The only twist is that you need to enable developer mode on your Chromebook. Follow the directions and you'll be fine.
Once you've installed Linux you should customize it to your liking. Lightweight should be your focus: you have limited resources and you want to spend your disk space and computational resources on getting work done.
If you use something like Arch Linux this task is very easy, just install all of the packages you need and don't install the ones you don't. If you're starting with a full installation of another distro you might need to work harder.
Your biggest leverage point is avoid a desktop environment like Unity or KDE. Instead just install a lightweight window manager like i3, awesome, or openbox. You're always running these programs so minimizing their footprint makes sense. Plus, you might just end up liking them better irrespective of the performance boosts.
Other than that, most software is not going to be a problem. My chromebook uses only 3.6 GB of space for packages. You don't have space for a typical install of Matlab or Mathematica. It's not a big loss.
Having worked with my Chromebook for over a year now, I can recommend it without reservation. It's very comfortable and can handle all of my day-to-day tasks. Traveling in particular is much better, I can just slip my Chromebook in my bag and work continuously while sitting on my train, plane, or automobile.
Eventually I think the Chromebook model is going to be mainstream. As distributed computing becomes more viable, we'll start moving away from the traditional laptop model. Taken to the limit, we'd only have a really nice display and a really nice keyboard with the actual computation occurring elsewhere. The Chromebook is a first start towards that future.
It should be noted that none of these traits is specific to a Chromebook. Many low-end laptops could have many of these features. The only thing special about Chromebooks is that they explicitly made the decision to embrace the fact that they're not trying to make a fully-powered machine.
I can even connect via SSH from my phone. It's every bit as cool as it seems.
Yes, I'm a bit jealous.