James Cridland

Review: Five months with a Chromebook (for web development, writing and more)

I have a Toshiba Chromebook 2, which I purchased in April 2015, for £269.99.

So: what do I do for a living? I write for a bunch of different websites, including my own. I am a public speaker. And I am a website developer, getting down and dirty with PHP.

I got a Chromebook primarily because my MacBook Air was really suffering. It is the original of the new-form Airs, bought in 2010 I suppose, and it simply doesn’t have enough memory to do everything it should without grinding to a hideous halt every now and again: the spinning beachball telling me that I shouldn’t have skimped on the memory.

Realising that I mostly use Chrome, I thought it was time to give a Chromebook a try. So I wandered into the Google Store inside PC World on Tottenham Court Road in London, and discovered this device. A relatively expensive Chromebook, but one with a large screen and available with 4GB of RAM (because I’m not going to make the mistake of buying a 2GB device again).

Here I am, five months later, with a review.

First, the hardware. The screen is a thing of beauty. The battery lasts for six hours or so. The keyboard’s okay; the build is a bit flimsy but otherwise OK, the large trackpad’s okay too but nothing special. The screws underneath began falling out, but after tightening them, they’re fine. It’s all OK. The charger is small but has a silly plug on the end that doesn’t smartly fall out if it’s tugged. But then, nor does a new MacBook, so there’s always that.

I don’t, though, really notice much difference between this and the aluminium shell of the MacBook Air. And the screen of this Chromebook is better. Which, given the differential in price, is relatively astonishing.

Next, the software. I’m really impressed at Chrome OS. I love that booting the machine takes five seconds. I really appreciate that there’s a OS upgrade every fortnight, regular as clockwork; and have noticed subtle differences and improvements since I’ve bought the device. (And, haven’t noticed them: more of which in a minute).

I especially like the speed; the smart-locking with my Android phone (if my phone’s nearby you don’t even need a password to unlock the system); the lack of anti-virus nonsense. I also like the inbuilt HDMI port, and the fact I can continue streaming video on it even when the screen’s closed.

It is a new OS, however. It doesn’t work the same as OSX, nor Windows. This is a good thing in many ways — but it does mean that there is a certain amount of re-learning how things work. Not much, but some. Here are some of the differences — mainly around web development.

  1. I can’t install MySQL Desktop on this thing; but instead have installed phpMyAdmin on my server. Being honest, it’s more reliable that way anyway. I now use this on my Mac, too.
  2. I can’t install Gimp on this. But most of the image editing I do is limited to cropping (which it can do); and Aviary (through Flickr), Pixlr, or Google Photos all do a great job. I now use those on my Mac, too.
  3. I can’t install a SFTP client on this, nor a programmer’s editor. But I can SSH directly from Chrome; and I’ve learnt how vi works. I now find myself using vi on the Mac, too, in preference to the programmer’s editor I had on that system. (Update: See later in this review.)
  4. For a word processor I use either Google Docs or the Minimalist Markdown Editor. Depends what I’m writing. Either, incidentally, work just fine offline. I now use those on my Mac, too.
  5. I couldn’t install a VPN on this. Except actually you can — either by punching arcane numbers into the network configuration, or, better, by using Tunnelbear’s Chrome extension.
  6. I couldn’t install Skype on this. But I walk around with an Android phone. So Skype’s on that now. Why do I need it on a laptop, when it’s primary use is for voice and video?
  7. I couldn’t run Keynote or Pages or other OSX software on it. But my Mac is connected to the internet at home, and Chrome Remote Desktop lets me access it remotely. So no big deal there either.

Update: Above, I mention that I use SSH and vi to do my programming work. And I did. Except I don’t any more. It turns out that one of the newer updates added direct SFTP access into the Files app (the equivalent of Explorer or Finder), so that my development box appears simply as another drive on my Chromebook. And Caret is an excellent programmer’s editor. So now I have a proper programmer’s editor (as well as the SSH terminal I need to put those changes live). And here’s the benefit of the Chrome OS constant update cycle, as well as its downside — this simply wasn’t mentioned as the considerable upgrade that it was.

And another update: (July 2016) I’m now using codeanywhere.com to edit and deploy code. It works perfectly in the browser, and is free (though I have upgraded to a paid model). I found the SFTP access plugin was a little unreliable, particularly after sleep and when dealing with a captive WiFi login.

And a further update, given this post’s popularity: (May 2017) CodeAnywhere is the tool that I continue using. It is rock-solid and works very well — it allows you to upload files and has an SSH window directly inside it for deployment. Naturally, you’re developing on a remote machine, but the bandwidth you use is minimal doing this, so it’s fine to do while tethering to a mobile connection. I now use my Toshiba Chromebook as a desk machine, and an Asus Chromebook Flip as a portable machine: this has Android apps on it too, and a touch screen which is surprisingly useful. Both sync with each other; the Asus is the same size as an original iPad, and works very well.

This laptop (the Toshiba) is just fine at connecting to any wifi that it gets hold of. It’s as usable as any other computer I’ve ever had in terms of what it’ll do without an internet connection — I can write, I could go through my Gmail (I instead do that on a phone when not connected), and that’s about all. It isn’t a “paperweight” as some reviews state — it’s just as functional as another computer is. My Android phone also has data tethering, which I’ve used a bit (you can do it via the USB port rather than a WiFi hotspot).

In short, as you might have guessed, it’s a very capable machine. It copes with much of my computer use.

It’s just fine for someone who writes and researches. It’s also just fine for someone who does web development. Additionally, if you’re a typical home laptop user — playing with a computer on your lap while watching telly — it’s also perfect.

For a public speaker? I’ve not, yet, made that leap. The MacBook Air still comes with me to present from. This is partial laziness: I use Keynote as a business tool and have a large archive of slides. But it’s also because I’m a Keynote power user, and do some vaguely clever things with video and audio that most people don’t. I have produced one piece of work using nothing but Google Slides, but right now wouldn’t necessarily rely on that for my public speaking.

I also have spent the last two months scanning lots and lots of pieces of paper in. The Chromebook won’t recognise my USB-powered Doxie scanner (though it would, incidentally, work with their new wireless one). (TinyScanner, an app for your phone, does just as good a job as a proper scanner, I discover.)

And you can’t, yet, use Android Studio on a Chromebook. I have dabbled with Android coding, but have to keep that on the Mac.

This Chromebook is, then, my primary computing device: but can’t, yet, replace the ageing MacBook Air completely. But at £269 it needn’t. (Some Chromebooks are half this price.) There’s nothing wrong with my MacBook Air except for its slowness and lack of memory — two things that are less relevant if I don’t use it as my daily driver. In short, then, given the choice between replacing the MacBook Air (over £1,000) or buying this thing (£269) I think I know what I’d rather do.

And just one thing worthwhile mentioning — if it’s nicked, nobody can get into it, I’ve lost absolutely no work whatsoever, and at £269 it’s not as if I’ve just lost a £1,200 computer.

I’d have no hesitation in recommending a Chromebook as a computing device for almost everyone. And that surprises me.