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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
There are two main approaches,
Crouton is a straightforward way to run a Linux userspace
alongside ChromeOS. I started with a fork of crouton croagh which
is just crouton for Arch Linux. It worked well.
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
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
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.