Latest Links

Sep 28th

My Deep, Dark Secret

I’ve been using an Acer C720 Chromebook for over six months now, and I’m surprisingly happy with it.

How I got hold of it was fortuitous and remarkable by itself, but the “why” is markedly more relevant, so I’m going to write about that.

As a matter of fact, ever since selling my personal MacBook I felt a need for something I could take along to the countryside to do some coding.

My usual iPad-and-pocket-server combination works but can be fiddly to set up and things go south pretty quickly — for instance, when doing something a bit more demanding like running an IDE (which is pretty much mandatory when doing C# or Java)1.

But whatever I replaced that with, it had to be small. Even a 13” MacBook Pro feels overly big and clunky to me these days, and I’ve long held the theory that a 11” display would be just about enough.

By the time the C720 came along I was actually considering an HP Chromebook 11 (which is ARM-based and reportedly has rather better build quality), but the C720‘s Intel CPU made things a lot more interesting, especially when tied to a whole-day battery life.

Bullets and Chrome

I won’t bore you with any philosophical considerations on Chromebooks or their tailored environment. I’m rather partial to the concept of network computing (although I would prefer it relied less on web apps these days), so I knew what I was getting into — my expectations towards the hardware side of things were fairly low, and we all do so much online these days that the muddling inconsistencies of using all those mongrel web interfaces are little more than a mild itch.

So let’s start with the not-so-good bits, both hardware and software:

  • The C720‘s screen is hardly on a par with, well, just about anything. After years of Apple displays, the cheap LCD panel seems washed out and entirely too limited in terms of viewing angle, and I’m not even going to mention the word “retina” here.
  • The trackpad and keyboard are cheap — and feel cheap, to the extent that the Return key is poorly balanced and sometimes fails to register a tap. In the same vein, you can use trackpad gestures, but be prepared for some occasional unresponsiveness. Again, Apple trackpads spoil you.
  • The way Chrome apps are pushed out to all your machines leaves a lot to be desired. I installed a number of apps and extensions that I don’t want to use anywhere but on the Chromebook, and they started popping up on all my other machines. Simple? Yes. Useful? Not so much.
  • The Chrome OS VPN client shares a number of limitations with Android’s and was incompatible with my corporate VPN server, which made it rather useless for work. Google obviously doesn’t care about L2TP routing settings, otherwise they’d have implemented those by now.

Now for the better bits:

  • The thing is fast. Instant boot, hardly any trouble at all with complex websites, etc. An almost perfect casual surfing machine.
  • 1366x768 turned out to be decent enough for most kinds of work. I was able to get two windows side by side and edit a website live on Github while watching Jekyll render it, have a chat window going docked to the side, read documentation while coding, etc. Surprisingly, Chrome OS also makes it easy to change resolutions with Ctrl-Shift-+/- in several steps between 1536x864 and 683x384, so I was able to eek out a little extra room at the expense of readability.
  • The 11” screen size is indeed usable enough for me in the long run. 13” has been my standard for a long time, but I now see no reason to cart around a 13” laptop.
  • The C720 is very lightweight. Moving about with it in a messenger bag was liberating, to say the least.
  • Battery life is great. I was able to confidently leave the power brick at home and work (as in, read bunches of webpages and write mail, code, etc.) for a whole day — plus the thing charged in around an hour.
  • I had zero trouble with its paltry 2GB of RAM where it regards response times. Everything was zippy, even when running a number of extra Chrome apps like Google’s own Chrome Dev Editor.
  • Using an external display via HDMI (and a VGA adapter) was painless.
  • Using it on a lap in warm weather (35C) is perfectly tenable, given that even though you notice it’s warm, it’s not unbearably so (rather unlike my work MacBook). The fan noise is slight enough that you’ll only notice it in the evenings, too.
  • The keyboard layout wasn’t as much of an issue as I feared. The “search key” actually generates the same keycode as the Command/Windows key on a regular keyboard and I actually prefer the US Extended keyboard layout to the Portuguese one, so barring a few niggles with accented characters everything seems to be working out.

That and I’m actually considering binding the Caps Lock key on my Mac to Spotlight — it’s very handy. Once I got used to the keyboard shortcuts, I was able to remote to all my machines (Mac, Linux and Windows) and get a lot of stuff done.

Apps

The app situation was almost exactly what I expected - there were very few genuinely useful apps in the Chrome store, and those I tried were a mixed bag, so for ordinary day-to-day stuff I mostly went with Google Docs (most of which are offline-capable to a degree) and little else.

The big personal highlights here are that I immediately came across three hurdles (besides 1Password, to which I’ll get to in a moment):

  • I had a fair amount of trouble finding something good enough to write in (I did most of my writing in Editorial on the iPad)
  • Every single day I wished Evernote had an offline-capable version2
  • (probably worse of all) I hated not having a local mail client.

Some of it was merely a matter of adjustment. But the rest added up over time. I eventually settled on using Zed for editing, and that was it.

Google’s stuff, of course, works brilliantly (as does Outlook.com and Office 365), but the remaining “apps” available are either too niche or too limited. The recently introduced (and hacked) Android runtime support might well change this, but it’s early days yet.

Contrary to what I expected, remote desktop options in vanilla Chrome OS are scarce and fiddly.

I was unable to get Chrome Remote Desktop to work at all, so I tried a few VNC and RDP clients from the Chrome Web Store — they’ll do in a pinch, but are simply not good enough for serious use since they all seem to defer standard key combinations like Alt+Tab to Chrome OS, which makes it impossible to switch between remote apps quickly.

But critical things work: I was able to use 1Password via an extension hack, use corporate webmail and set up dedicated windows for some apps and sites (like MEO Cloud and the SSH app), so taking the Chromebook along to meetings was a non-issue (other than some bemused looks).

Crouton

The second thing I did after powering on the Chromebook was install a Ubuntu chroot using Crouton. I went for 14.04 with LXDE and promptly pared down all the ugly LXDE bits until I got a very usable environment with Firefox, NetBeans, IntelliJ/PyCharm and MonoDevelop (plus Remmina for remote access to other machines, which fixed all the issues I had with the Chrome Web Store clients and more).

Performance-wise, things were OK. Even on a 2GB RAM machine, I could have NetBeans, MonoDevelop and Firefox running simultaneously (using swap, which the SSD made hardly noticeable) and build times for small projects were more than acceptable.

Push it a little further, though, and the host Chrome would topple over, sometimes taking the chroot with it. But I seldom pushed it that far.

Switching between both environments was instantaneous, so I was able to keep an IPython kernel or a Clojure server going and toggle back to Chrome OS to interact with them on the browser, or fire up a remote desktop connection to Visual Studio and test the resulting API with Postman in Chrome OS.

There’s actually very little friction — save for e-mail3 and graphics, pretty much everything I do daily is covered, so I suspect “regular” people will be perfectly happy with one.

Epilogue

Three months in and with summer break coming up, I decided to spend a few bucks on a 64GB SSD and install “plain” Lubuntu, leaving the original SSD in pristine form as fallback.

I went with Lubuntu because I wanted the simplest possible thing without any frills and Elementary‘s Freya wasn’t ready, but I have no regrets.

Everything’s almost exactly the same after a few tweaks, but the machine is substantially more useful to me now — I can run the Windows edition of Evernote under WINE without any significant problems, have a decent e-mail client (Thunderbird), and if I’d bothered, I could even use the office VPN.

On the whole, I’m pretty happy with the machine — I’m afraid my friends at Google might be a little bit sad I’m not running Chrome OS, but I did install Chrome, so the rest of the experience is pretty much identical.

Would I recommend one?

Well, it depends. For personal use, and at the prices I’m seeing, it’s hard to beat. But it’s also almost impossible to purchase in Portugal, so I haven’t given the matter much thought in that regard.

For educational purposes (given that last I heard some companies were pitching them them to colleges, even here), the thing is almost perfect on principle, but Google has yet to get their education solution going outside the US, and schools usually need specific software that simply isn’t web-enabled (or available on Android) yet.

For work, well… It depends a lot on what your IT department picked as a productivity suite, because all you’ll ever be able to run are either Google‘s apps or the Office 365 web versions. But I can see that happening.

And for web developers it’s certainly good enough as a second computer, even without replacing Chrome OS.

But if I had to pick something equally small and handy for my own use, I would have a fair amount of trouble deciding between a 12” Surface Pro 3 (I had one demoed to me recently, and it is pretty great) and an 11” MacBook Air — which Apple seems to simply not care about, or update to decent specs at the same price point.

Either way, I’ve already started saving up.


  1. It bears noting that I could probably manage to run and debug JavaScript properly on the iPad itself if Textastic were able to access its own HTTP server. 

  2. Yes, you can run the Android version on Chromebooks now, but it’s far from ideal and munges all my neatly nested checklists. 

  3. In the immortal words of @jwz, reading mail on a browser, like an animal, is completely out of the question for me. 


Recent Posts

At The Faire

We had a “mini” Maker Faire this weekend here in Lisbon, and it was a resounding success. Read More

It's Too Big

Although I decided to toss out my general comments on the Apple keynote (given that there wasn’t anything to add regarding watches) there was something to be said on the matter of large phones, so here it is. Read More

On the iWatch

I honestly don’t get the wearables craze. Or the “phablet” craze, but that’s for another post. Read More

The Return Of The Private Copy Levy

Remember when I wrote about a proposed storage levy not once, but twice two years ago? Read More

Go Vendoring On The Cheap

Go is great, but I just had to do something about its borderline insane dependency management. Read More

Summer Mornings

I’ve been skimping on writing lately, so I feel I must make amends with a sort of brain dump. Read More

Not That Better

It seems that my decision to rebuild this server atop btrfs for better container management has come back to bite me. Read More

Reviving a dead synth with a Raspberry Pi

I’ve never been much of a musician, but I had some fun with a Kawai K1-II for a number of years. And it seems that will go on even after it died. Read More