I’ve had a Chromebook for eight years
I won a Google Chromebook 11 in February 2014, which I even reviewed here on Medium. I was curious about whether I could use a Chromebook as a daily machine: this one was a decent little machine, though only had 2GB of RAM so ended up being quite slow, and I didn’t really use it much: everything was a bit of a compromise.
I liked the idea, though, so got a Toshiba Chromebook 2 in April 2015. I reviewed that here too. This got a lot of use, and my review is very happy with it. It was the first high-DPI screen I’d ever owned; the build quality and speed was great, and though it was “just” a browser as an operating system, it was really quite powerful. It was the only machine I took out of the house, and I worked in coffee shops often at the time. “I’d have no hesitation in recommending a Chromebook as a computing device for almost everyone. And that surprises me,” I concluded.
Chromebooks became more powerful, and newer ones added the capability of natively running Linux and Android. Beguiled by that, I found an Acer Chromebook Flip: a well-built if slightly too-small device that could work as a tablet if I wanted it to, but I never did because it was a bit weird. Yes, I reviewed that here, too. Golly, it looks old-fashioned. Tablet mode was useless, and I noted that ChromeOS simply hadn’t been built for touch at all. I also didn’t like the downgrade to a worse resolution screen.
After a trip to Los Angeles in 2017, I grabbed a Samsung Chromebook Plus, and went to review that. This device is still in use in the house: again, built very well, with a much better-feeling tablet mode, an intruiging 3:2 aspect ratio for the screen, USB-C charging and a gorgeously high-resolution screen. I started using this machine for board meetings, where I had the notes in PDF, and could scribble all over them using the pen (which slotted into the device when not being used). I noted then that tablet mode still didn’t work very well but at least it worked better.
The only difficulty with the Chromebook Plus was its size: perfect for being a laptop, but I have a capable laptop in my MacBook Pro, and increasingly was doing things every day that I can’t do on a Chromebook (not least, use the Hindenburg audio editor, or do slides with Keynote).
The Chromebook Plus is great for slinging in a backpack and going to work out of a coffee shop. It’s unlikely to turn heads like an Apple computer does. But then, I’m increasingly not working out of coffee shops any more.
Where I was using a Chromebook: as a tablet reading device, the Samsung Chromebook Plus was too heavy and too big. My use-case at home was increasingly to use the device as a way to read magazines and newspapers over the weekend, but it was much too heavy to hold like that.
This is where it all began to go wrong
When the Lenovo Chromebook Duet came along, I went to try one out in a local store, and did so again, and on the third time I played with one, I ended up grabbing it, and reviewing it, in 2020. It’s a tablet device with a magnetic keyboard to clip on, to turn it into a laptop. It sounded perfect.
My review says the build quality is good, and it is. But the software is just a bit lacking.
I bought a USI pen for it (and then another). But the problem with it is that the USI pen doesn’t work very well: it seems to have no palm rejection, and it seems impossible to use it while resting your hand on the screen. The keyboard is mushy and not very good, and the clip-on keyboard (and clip-on back) to the device turns it into quite a heavy machine for carrying around.
And there’s another problem. As a laptop, it’s fine (if a little too small), and while ChromeOS remains a great operating system for emails and web use; as a tablet it’s a real mixed bag.
Use it for the excellent Libby app via Android, to read The Economist every week, and it works very well. Read The Guardian using their website, and that works very well too. Read through Twitter? Yes, that works fine. But as soon as you want to reply, that’s where the problems start.
The on-screen keyboard is awful and inconsistent. Sometimes, swipe-typing works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it misses letters when you type, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you type a sentence, and hit “send”, only for the last word in the sentence to magically disappear.
Sometimes, tablet mode runs as if it’s mining Bitcoin in the background. Sometimes it is fluid and decent. But it’s inconsistent enough to become really irritating, and there’s no obvious rhyme or reason as to why.
If you use it to idly surf the web, using the “back” gesture often dumps you out of the browser altogether rather than take you back to the previous tab. It’s inconsistent with the Android behaviour, and one that’s been pointed out as irritating and buggy, but Google hasn’t fixed it.
Just turning it on requires me to enter a PIN, but for some reason the onscreen keyboard appears, even though I can’t use it to enter the PIN, so I have to minimise it first. I assumed it was a bug with the beta channel; but that’s been going on for six months now.
Tablet mode really isn’t ready for primetime, and I’ve given it a further 12 months of waiting for Google to get it sorted, and it hasn’t helped.
So I’ve gone to the dark side
A Chromebook is an excellent laptop: but I already have an excellent laptop; this MacBook which I’m typing this into.
But a Chromebook is not an excellent tablet. It’s an awful, inconsistent, still-buggy experience. And that, predominantly, is how I now wish to use this device.
Which is why I’m shortly to be holding an iPad Mini in my hands, which I will use for my reading and consumption device over my breakfast coffee. One of the big blocks to buying an iPad was the proprietary cable, but the iPad Mini uses a USB-C connector, so that’s that objection overcome. The device seems small but more robust than a standard iPad, and while the screen itself will be a little smaller than the Lenovo, it’ll be higher resolution (and my near-sighted eyes are fine with smaller screens).
It’s a disappointment to be losing a Chromebook from my computing life after almost a decade. I’d still recommend them for laptop use, where for most users they’re better, frankly, than a Windows machine and cheaper than a Mac. I have a lot of goodwill towards the ChromeOS ecosystem. But as a tablet, it’s really not good enough, and shows no sign of being. And that’s a shame.