Should I buy a Chromebook?
September 7, 2017 6:15 PM   Subscribe

Long time business PC user now looking at Chromebooks. Pros and cons?

I have started a new job where I am working as the director of communications for a blockchain startup. I am working remotely on the East Coast while the company is headquartered on the West Coast.

I am a long-time PC user. That means years of muscle memory and prowess using Microsoft Office apps. But I also use Google Chrome as my browser, Gmail, Google Calendar, etc. as well as a tone of web apps (salesforce, squarespace, airtable, etc.)

But I am now working in diverse environments. That means working with people who have MacBooks, we use Google Drive, and I am an admin on G Suite.

What are the pros and cons? My budget is $500. I've had mixed success in the past with Microsoft-Google compatibility (PowerPoint is a notorious offender here) and I've heard that Chromebooks require always on connectivity to wifi (not always available on cross country flights). I'm scared of both compatibility and connectivity (or the lack thereof).

Tell me what I should buy. Pretty please. :)
posted by zooropa to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Also adding: I have been looking at PC sub notebooks. I don't need a DVD player and a thin notebook with a 12" monitor makes air travel sound a lot more appealing. I am getting a bigger external monitor, so a smaller screen is fine.

But the Chromebook price points are VERY appealing. I like cheap. :)
posted by zooropa at 6:21 PM on September 7

My line in the sand: no local filesystem (accessible to the user that is). I was fine working with Google docs / web apps. But not being able to save something locally is a dealbreaker. (and yeah... without network access, it's a brick. Isn't really an issue for me, but if you're on a plane a lot, it would get annoying.)
posted by cfraenkel at 6:49 PM on September 7

I am typing this on an ASUS flip Chromebook. I'm super happy with it. It has been on a couple of work trips with me now and I have not really missed having a Windows PC. If you are already happy with gmail/docs/drive, the transition will be painless. The instant on and relative lack of fuss are also very big wins for me. The flip configuration for me is a very sweet spot between a tablet and a laptop.

If you go into the beta mode, many Chromebooks will now run android apps too. This is hit or miss; Android really doesn't do big screens, but it does provide access to lots of specialty apps that native Chrome lacks.

A couple of months in, I have no regrets. ASUS has done a fantastic job with the C302C model hardware I have. Chrome has enough but not too much and is very responsive.
posted by bonehead at 6:51 PM on September 7 [1 favorite]

Chrome has local and remote file and directory access. I can use local, sd card, nfs (local network drives) and remote google drives with the built-in file manager.
posted by bonehead at 6:54 PM on September 7 [3 favorites]

My job just gave me one (I work in a school where almost all of the students and staff are assigned a chromebook for the year.)

The portability is AWESOME. It's so light and easy to bring along wherever. For my position, this is huge - I'm a librarian so just having the option to bring the chromebook to different corners of the library is big, let alone the whole school.

other pros are the speed - boots up and logs on much quicker than a PC, decent charge life (though not necessarily more than a laptop.) small, lightweight, easy to use. love chrome and love gsuite.

cons: no internal storage, essentially a paperweight if you don't have access to the computer. it's ALL internet based.

When I was thinking about getting one (already having a laptop as my primary device at home) I ended up getting an ipad mini - similar price point, and I knew I'd be able to utilize it for other things (games, reading, typing, apps) without internet access. Likewise, I can use my laptop for wordprocessing and games and dvd watching when there's no internet, but a chromebook wouldn't work in that scenario.

If it was going to be my only device, I wouldn't go chromebook. It's a nice add on option, but for me, the need for internet to have any functionality made it a deal breaker as a solo device.
posted by firei at 6:55 PM on September 7

I just memailed you a long, gory review of my experience with a Chromebook as a replacement for a Macbook Pro. While I was doing that, I see a bunch of comments rolled in, so I'll riff off of those. All of my personal stuff was in the Apple ecosystem, mashed up with some google services, and at work I use a Windows laptop and O365, so I had a chance to try out cross compatibility with both. Overall, I've been pretty happy. I find that 95% of the time, it is a perfectly suitable substitute and 5% of the time, I get surprised by things that just don't work in browsers and find myself going down rabbit holes to figure out if the limitation is with the browser's sandbox model, or if I just haven't found the right plugin yet. Example annoyances: trying to open an SSH tunnel with keys; trying to determine the background of an image using a pixel eyedropper; trying to run a flash based browser app from FedEx that claimed I didn't have Flash installed no matter what I did in the settings. I don't have much experience trying to use it in offline mode, so no strong opinions there. The Android compatibility is trickier than it looks. Some chromebooks are more compatible than others, and some require you to flip the distribution channel out of stable and into something like beta or canary (as in, canary-in-a-coal-mine). I thought I had a high tolerance for dev releases, but a week in the canary channel was enough to cure me of that. I've got a recent generation iPad and find that has its own set of limitations; if I had to pick between iPad and Chromebook for a work machine under your ecosystem, I'd pick Chromebook. Finally, $500 is plenty; you can get a nice Chromebook for $250. If you are used to running a laptop with a lot of screen real estate or a second monitor, I'll mention that there aren't very many Chromebook options with large screens (here I'm defining large as > 13").
posted by kovacs at 7:08 PM on September 7 [1 favorite]

I've been using Chromebooks for about 4 years and currently have two.

I've heard that Chromebooks require always on connectivity to wifi (not always available on cross country flights).

Many of the basic apps will work offline but it is indeed built with the concept that you'll always be online. One of the biggest problems you might face is the assumption that your documents will be stored in the cloud rather than on the device, both in terms of having to manually say, "make this available offline," and in that most Chromebooks have small on-device drives. You will have to spend some time and effort making it usable without a network connection.

Speaking of flights, I highly recommend getting something with a touchscreen. It makes dealing with the device while crammed into a tiny seat easier than trying to use the touchpad, IME. You absolutely want one with 4GB of RAM, 2 GB or less is really restrictive.

Are you going to be presenting? Will it be at places that only have VGA inputs? Most Chromebooks only have HDMI outputs.

ChromeOS is less stable than Windows or OS X. It's gotten much better, but it's still way worse than them (or Linux). There's been times when I'd get a spontaneous reboot every day or two, which can be a big drag on productivity if you're using web apps that aren't good about saving state automagically.

My budget is $500.

If I were you, I'd say that you need a larger budget and get one of the ~$150-200 Asus Chromebooks for travel and a Windows based laptop (with MS Office) for day to day use and compatibility when you need MS Office. If they can't budget $1,000 for proper tools for their staff, they might not be a good place to work.

Are you going to be approving web design? If so, you're better off with something that can run Firefox and IE naively so you can check for browser specific issues. You can use the online services that render sites on multiple browsers but for quick and fast verification, I prefer being able to do it locally.
posted by Candleman at 7:08 PM on September 7 [3 favorites]

I have an ultrabook - mine is actually this discontinued 13" model, but they make them in 11" as well. I remain happy with it even though it is no longer my main computer (for work and home). For work/travel, I love it - lightweight, fast, reliable, and versatile. It boots quickly and has good battery life, Even going from desktop to desktop, I have always had huge issues with my Office files doing weird things (like losing formatting, or causing crashing) when switching between editing in Office versus Google 's productivity apps, plus I really like not being tethered to a not always available network connection. So that's my anecdata, but as others have pointed out, it really does depend on what you need to be able to do with the machine.
posted by sm1tten at 7:28 PM on September 7

I used a Chromebook for years and it mostly did everything I wanted but once it started to die a bit, I decided I absolutely needed a full Windows laptop because I wanted some functions that I just couldn't get through web apps (like Photoshop and actual Microsoft Office ... and well, some PC games I wanted to play).

I think they are great and if you have a consistent Internet connection, they will do everything you need (and yes, you can save somethings locally). It will be an adjustment, though. I didn't really feel like I was missing out on anything until I realized I was, if that makes sense. (To be honest, though, I did have an ancient desktop that I could go to when necessary.)

I don't know if I'd have a Chromebook as my sole personal computer anymore, though, even though I still think they're awesome. I know people who do, but they have access to other computers at work (so they can have things like Office/etc. when they need them). With your budget, you can definitely find a good Windows laptop that's small and does everything you need.
posted by darksong at 7:34 PM on September 7

I'd buy a refurb Surface Pro 3 or Surface Pro 4 (*with a warranty*) instead. Same size, same battery life, does everything a Chromebook does and is a real computer. Make sure to get a Surface Pro 4 Type Cover. The v3 type covers sucked.
posted by cnc at 8:30 PM on September 7 [1 favorite]

Buy a real computer. As in a tablet, or a a Windows/Linux notebook in your budget. I would have suggested MacBook Air but Apple has pretty much killed that line and it's above your budget it seems (replacement lightweight model the MacBook is priced even higher).

As many have noticed, Chromebook looks and feel all awesome, sleek, and cutting edge until your hit its limitations - you are completely locked in Google ecosystem. You can't install any application that you might want at some point (and you will want that a lot). It's just a machine that loads a browser. That's it!

While some apps (and there aren't many) may work offline, it will be a dead box of plastic and metal when there is no Internet. Also, I have heard only bad things about its battery life from friends who used Chromebook.

> But I am now working in diverse environments. That means working with people who have MacBooks

Nope. I won't say that's a good idea. Again, a good tablet, or a lightweight laptop. Maybe a bit costlier but Chromebook will not be very helpful here.
posted by amar at 9:20 PM on September 7 [3 favorites]

I think Chromebooks make sense if you are absolutely sure that everything you do is online, in Google's suite, and if everyone else is on board with it. Otherwise you are likely to hit some requirement or limitation that you cannot get around. It's not really clear from your question what applications you will need to use in your new position.

Spending $500 on one also seems kind of crazy since one of the draws of Chromebooks is that their hardware requirements are so low. I just installed Neverware (a non-Google ChromeOS distribution) on ten year old hardware destined for the recycling bin and it worked better than I thought. The new ones do all kinds of odd things like turn into a thick, heavy tablet and run Android apps.

A slower Windows laptop that can run what you need to run beats a really fast Chromebook that can't run what you need.
posted by meowzilla at 9:55 PM on September 7

I use Chromebooks a lot. They are cheap and offer good battery life. You can use plenty of apps offline, but making sure you have your cloud-based files also available offline and syncing them can be a PITA. Every Chromebook I've used has USB and supports SD or micro SD so you can manage offline storage. One nice thing about not using local file storage is that I do not worry about data loss or compromise if it gets trashed or stolen. I check 'em in airline bags, throw 'em around, and take 'em to the beach. At about 100 bucks for the cheap ones they are basically disposable. Just use a good password and change immediately if the device gets swiped.

They should pretty much work for what you describe except for one thing--PowerPoint. It is always a pain when working in mixed environments but you're going to run into that anyway if everyone running various OSes and a mix of PowerPoint and maybe Keynote on the Macs. But if you're the director of communications can you just get everyone on board with Google Slides and be done with it? 500 USD is way more than you need to spend even for one with 4GB of RAM (which you will want to get).

I miss the nice things like back-lit keyboards and great sound, but you won't get those on a cheap machine anyway.
posted by Gotanda at 2:23 AM on September 8

I use an Asus Chromebook but only for casual use around the home. I would never rely on it as my primary traveling computer because the ChromeOS apps are anemic.

Contrary to what cfraenkel says, there is a local filesystem, readily available to the user. With a standard USB port the files created on it (TXT and RTF, primarily) can be transferred to other computers as needed.
posted by megatherium at 4:29 AM on September 8

I purchased a refurb notebook (a Lenovo T420) and put Linux on it. Poof! Instant fully-featured and mostly fast portable computer.
posted by Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon at 6:21 AM on September 8

Can confirm that a T4xx with an SSD and maxing out memory is the bargain option for a robust system with decent performance. I still want a chromebook for the weight factor. The offline does work in chrome and 64B SD cards are cheap these day but huge excel spreadsheets offline will not likely be a good experience.
posted by sammyo at 7:12 AM on September 8 [1 favorite]

Hi folks! Thanks for all the great insights and information. Most of you were really helpful. Some of you, not so much, bless your hearts.

I ended up buying a laptop. Here's the one I picked up last night:
posted by zooropa at 10:08 PM on September 8

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