Sunday, May 26, 2013

Initial Experience with My Samsung Chromebook

Getting Started

Getting started is pretty simple. There is not much in the box:
  • The laptop (netbook) itself
  • The AC adapter and power cord
  • A 2-sided Welcome to your Chromebook page with some very simple tips
  • Quick Start Guide booklet (in various languages)
  • A Warranty Information card
  • Safety Precautions booklet.

I simply connected the AC adapter and power cable and plugged it in. Then I opened the lid and powered on the unit.  First there was a screen with 3 selections:
  1. The language
  2. The keyboard layout
  3. The network. It showed various available Wi-Fi networks (I live in a multi-unit building). I selected my own wireless network, entered the password, and it connected--no problem.
Next was a screen with Terms and Conditions which I accepted.

Next was a screen to enter my Google ID (which I already have) and password.  Then it was ready. By the way, they said this model of Chromebook would start up in about 10 seconds and it really does. 

It took me through some screens showing me about using the touchpad, which was useful to me since I always used a trackpoint in the past instead.

The Desktop

The 11.6" (1366 x 768 resolution) screen is quite sharp.  Here is a screenshot of my Desktop:

On the bottom left are various applications, some of which are running. Thus this area is both a launcher and running application indicator. The leftmost icon is Google Chrome (browser).  Then comes Gmail, Google Search, etc..  If you look carefully you will see that there are little horizontal lines under 3 of these icons. They indicate applications that are currently running. The first of these running applications is showing the Ubuntu symbol. This is actually the current tab of the Chrome browser that is running (the Ubuntu Google+ Community page). Next to this is the music player symbol, as I was listening to music when I took the screenshot.  Next is the Files application. The rightmost symbol is the  Apps window. This icon is similar to what you see on some versions of Android.

The one thing that is a little strange is the current tab of Chrome has an icon showing (as running), but Chrome itself is not shown as running. I guess there is some logical reason for this, but it isn't obvious to me. (It appears this may have been changed in a later update of Chrome OS).

The bottom right has a status area, including the time, network (WiFi) indicator, battery status, and the icon for the logged in user. Chromebook does support multiple user accounts on the same device. If you click on that status area it pops up a little window which shows who is logged in, the network you are connected to, the volume, battery status, etc. It also has a settings icon (wrench) there.

File Storage

The whole idea behind the Chromebook is that you mainly use the Cloud for storage.  So although there is some local storage, it is limited.  My Chromebook has a 16GB SSD. Obviously part of this is used for Chrome OS. I think there is less than 11 GB for local storage.  If you bring up the Files app, you will see just a few names (folders). Downloads is the local storage. If you want to store local files, it has to be in Downloads or a folder (subdirectory) underneath. Given that, I wish it were called "Local Storage" or something like that, instead of just "Downloads".  But I guess the idea is that you normally should use it for temporary downloads. I did add a Music folder under Downloads to store some local music files.  

In addition to Downloads, there is the Google Drive shown as a separate name (folder).  This is where you are expected to store most of your stuff. If you sign up for Google Drive, you get 5 GB free. I read recently that this will be increasing to 15 GB soon. With most Chromebooks, you get 2 years of an additional 100 GB free. The Chrome Pixel comes with 3 years of 1 TB free I believe.

If you plug in a USB flash drive or some other external storage card (like an SD flash card), this will show up as a folder as well.  In fact when you plug in a USB flash drive, it seems to open up the Files app automatically for you.


If you click on the Apps icon it brings up a window containing installed applications. The first one I see is the Chrome Web Store, where you can find additional applications and Chrome browser extensions. Many of the applications listed are from Google, such as Chrome (browser), Google Search, YouTube (owned by Google), Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Maps, Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Slides, Google+, Google Play (for Media, Books, Movies). There are also some utilities like the aforementioned Files, Scratchpad, Games, Camera, Calculator, and Video call launcher.  You can add apps of course from the Chrome Web Store. One I added was Netflix, which now does run on the Samsung Chromebook (previously it did not).

The Chrome Web Store has both apps and extensions.  The differences are sometimes subtle, but basically extensions just extend the functionality of the browser and don't really have a separate user interface (UI). Apps can have their own UI, outside the browser. I plan to try writing some simple apps or extensions. More on that hopefully in a future post.

Running (Only) in the Chrome OS Environment

As I explained in a previous post, I only decided to get a Chromebook when I learned I could run some native Linux applications in addition to what was available in the normal Chrome OS environment.  You can either dual boot (for example using ChrUbuntu) or switch between Chrome OS and Linux using crouton.

However, to this point in this post I have only described running in the Chromebook using the normal secure Chrome OS environment.   You can definitely do a lot using (only) this environment:
  • You can create documents, spreadsheets, and slides using the web-based Google applications.
  • You can play music
  • You can open various types of files, including documents and pictures
  • You can browse the web
  • You can play YouTube videos
  • You can make audio calls with Google Voice and Hangout.
  • You can watch movies with Netflix.
  • You can  print to your printer with Google Cloud Print. I got this working with my Thinkpad laptop prior to getting my Chromebook.
I am sure I left quite a few things out. The Chromebook experience is based around using Cloud storage and mainly web-based applications.  Since it arrived a few years ago, the experience and capabilities have improved pretty rapidly.  I have read lots of reviews of Chromebooks, and most conclude with something to the effect that they are nice for what they can do, but they are too limited.

Although I come somewhat to the same conclusion, I am a professional programmer and am used to tinkering and even writing my own programs when needed.  However, I can see some real advantages to the approach.  During my time at IBM there were some projects (and discussions) of locked-down desktops.  The idea was to provide an environment with the needed tools for the user community, limiting the ability to add to it. By limiting modification, you limit security issues and make it much easier to support. In fact, for many types of users (sales, marketing, etc.) typically a company provided image was provided when a user was given a new laptop or desktop.  In many cases if you called the IT Support staff for help, they might refuse to help you if you were not using one of these images.

These images were not locked down though. They were just a consistent starting point.  Users could still add additional programs. Although there were software repositories of supported programs that could be added, users were not limited to these (at least not to my knowledge).  I am sure the IT organization would prefer that users only use one of their created images and only add programs from a supported repository.  In terms of support cost (and security), this makes total sense.  However, there can be lots of additional applications out there that can make the user more productive. By not allowing them to add these applications, you can limit that employee's effectiveness to the organization. Over time though, with a rich enough application set, something like the Chromebook could provide a sufficient tool set for users. In that case, the IT support costs and security issues should decrease dramatically.

As it is today, I think the Chromebook seems like a reasonable tool for certain types of users. One such group is students, especially elementary, middle, and high school.  I assume schools don't want to spend a lot on IT support staff nor deal with security issues (viruses etc.).  In addition, they want the computers to be used for directed learning activities. I don't know if schools can limit access to certain things in the Google Web Store (like certain games), but clearly the Chromebook does not allow installing any old Windows program in existence.  Additionally, in many businesses, I think a Chromebook might make sense, depending on the role of the user.  Although a Chromebook running Chrome OS is probably not what is needed for a professional programmer, for many other jobs the Chromebook may be sufficient, at least if the company is OK with using Cloud storage and mainly web-based applications.

In addition to the reduced costs to a company that uses Chromebooks (because of reduced support costs), it is important to understand the reduction is problems and issues the individual user may experience as well.  The Chromebook can be automatically backed up and updated.  As someone who has lost things because I didn't back up frequently enough, I know the value of backups.  Not only that, but if most of the things are stored in Cloud storage there is little chance of losing much even if something does happen (crash, lost or stolen Chromebook, etc.).  The Chromebook environment greatly reduces the possibility of viruses and other security issues that render your computer unusable, or worse, cause your information or even money to be misappropriated.  Everyone knows that Windows is a security nightmare.  Mac and Linux are better but they are still a target of various exploits as well. 

Because of these factors, the Chromebook is a candidate for personal computer users as well, outside of business and school environments.  If the user is willing to work mainly with Cloud storage and web-based applications, then the cost, convenience, security, and ease-of-user cannot be beat.  It would be interesting to know that if the initial personal computers had been like the Chromebook, whether the inability to customize with zillions of different (and potentially insecure applications) would be such a big deal. 

Limitations of the Chrome OS Environment

Having described the Chrome OS secure environment and many of its assets, it is important to understand some limitations:
  • It cannot work with many (most) external devices. For example
    • It doesn't know how to work with scanners, which many people use.  That said, many scanners allow you to scan to a memory card or flash drive which you could then work with on your Chromebook. 
    • More specialized devices. I have a Garmin ANT+ USB stick which allows me to download activities (running, cycling) from my Garmin GPS watch to my computer.  There are provided Mac and Windows programs that work with this device and, thanks to volunteers, there are Linux programs available as well.  If the device you have can be treated as a USB mass-storage device, you can access it. However, my ANT+ stick is not like than and when I plug the stick into my Chromebook nothing happens in the normal Chrome OS environment.
  • Many applications are not available for it.  Yes, as stated earlier, there are many applications (like office applications for documents and presentations), mail, and calendaring that are available for the Chrome OS environment.  However, if you are used to a many types of applications on Windows, Mac, Linux, etc. chances are they aren't available on the Chromebook. You then start looking for a web-based alternative.  Take for example financial software like Quicken, or GnuCash which I use.  Quicken acquired Mint, which provides an online personal finance solution. This may be sufficient for some users, but I doubt business users would have their needs met. I have to admit though, over time, there are more and more web-based alternatives to popular native programs.
  • Most of your data is in the Cloud.  Whether it is data you store in Google Drive, or whether it is stored under the auspices of a web-based application, you don't have as much control of it.  There are two major concerns:
    • The company controlling the storage may access and use your data. For example, Gmail scans your mail for advertising and other purposes.  Even though they don't necessarily do anything nefarious with it, they also have a reputation for caving into requests from the government for user data  (including I assume email) without necessarily requiring legal justifications (i.e search warrants). 
    • Your data may get stolen or even modified. Stories of stolen user information, including personal identification and credit card information are common.  It is also common to hear of emails linked to the press or various websites.  So it is an issue of both security and privacy.  Although people like Scott McNealy (then of Sun) and Eric Schmidt (then of Google) are famous for downplaying privacy, a lot of people are still concerned about it.
As I stated in a previous post, there are several applications that I want to run that I can't run in the secure Chrome OS environment:
  • My scanner: With my laptop I an access my scanner images wirelessly. I hope to at least be able to use the USB cable to do so with crouton. Admittedly though, storing to a flash device and then inserting this into the Chromebook would not be the end of the world.
  • GnuCash: I have been using GnuCash for a long time. I am used to it, and more importantly, I don't want my financial information in the Cloud under the control of some company who may not safeguard it appropriately.
  • Email: I could use Gmail or an alternative web-based email client, but I prefer not keeping my emails on the cloud either, for privacy and security reasons.
  • GIMP: This image manipulation program is what I use to work with image files, including resizing and rotating.  I might be able to try something like Pixlr, I don't know.
  • My Garmin ANT+ stick. I need to download my activities from my GPS watch to my computer. I don't know of any way to do it with my Chromebook.
Admittedly, at this point it is not a long list. There will probably be other things I will need native (Linux) applications for, but were it not my aversion to having some data kept in the Cloud, the only definite thing I cannot handle right now is the Garmin ANT+ support.

It is also interesting to note that I was assuming I would need the linux chroot running alongside my Chrome OS environment all the time. However, except for email, the other things I need Linux for are only needed at most once a day.  Perhaps an email notifier for my Chrome OS browser that tells me when I have new email is what I really need. This would let me know when I should start up the linux chroot to look at email.

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