Friday, May 24, 2013

The Decision to Get a Samsung Series 3 Chromebook


My Linux Background

I have been using Linux for well over 10 years.

Why not Windows?

The reasons I switched from Windows include:
  • Even though I am a profession programmer and have worked mostly on proprietary software, I prefer open source software.
  • I got tired of the Windows security issues.  Windows was initially designed as a single-user system that usually was not attached to any network. So there was no need to worry about security.  Even when multiple users were added and network access became more pervasive, the philosophy of Microsoft was apparently to prefer convenience (i.e. easily download and execute applications) over security.  
  • I worked at IBM for many years and the OS/2 situation certainly left a bad taste. Even though I didn't work on OS/2 myself, it was technically superior to Windows. At one time, Microsoft and IBM worked together on OS/2. At some point Microsoft abandoned the OS/2 project and focused on Windows instead. IBM developed OS/2 itself and project eventually failed.

Which Linux Distribution?

Over the years I have tried many Linux distributions:
  • Caldera Open Linux: This was before they were bought by SCO and SCO sued everyone, including IBM, for using and developing Linux.
  • Mandrake: This was later renamed Mandriva. The (French) company had financial problems, going in and out of bankruptcy and is now an open source project, called Mageia. Mandrake was one of the first significant distributions to use the  KDE graphical desktop environment.
  • Ubuntu: I have been on Ubuntu for well over 5 years. Part of the reason I chose it was because it had such a big and active community.  And it seemed like the people in the community were more interested in helping each other rather than flaming.  On Ubuntu over the years, I have used various desktop environments: KDE, Gnome, Unity, LXDE, Xfce, and others.
  • Others: Mainly at work, I also at various times used Fedora, SUSE, and Scientific Linux.

Which Hardware?

I have mainly used IBM (now Lenovo) Thinkpads.  I worked at IBM over 25 years and used them there. I appreciated the build quality and of course I was used to them. I also like, and got used to, the trackpoint, the little red mouse pointer in the middle of the keyboard:

Because I was so used to the trackpoint, I didn't think I would be as effective with a touchpad. So I was hesitant to switch.

Even though my Thinkpads came with Windows, I bought them for Linux anyway. I basically wiped out Windows and installed Linux right way.  This meant I was paying the Windows tax. I mitigated this slightly by getting my Thinkpads with the lowest level Windows edition (for example Windows XP Home instead of Windows XP Professional).

There were also a few issues running Linux on whatever model of Thinkpad I was using. But there were always solutions and workarounds available and things got better over time.

Why New Hardware Now?

My current Thinkpad T60 is over 6 years old. Even though old hardware runs Linux better than Windows (especially newer versions of Windows like Windows 7 and Windows 8), it seemed like it was time for a new machine. My T60's fan is noisy when I boot up the machine, and the battery life is not great.

Also, although ultrabooks are not saving the PC hardware business (which is in decline), I like the idea. I bought a MacBook Air for my wife for XMAS (replacing her older MacBook) and it is very nice. I like the lightness and battery life.  So while my T60 has a 15.4 inch screen, I was ready for something sleek and light, even if that meant a smaller screen.

What Other Hardware Did I Consider?

Given my history, I of course considered a new Thinkpad. As a former IBMer, Lenovo gives former (and current) IBM employees a small discount.  So I was thinking about a smaller, lighter Thinkpad with a solid-state drive (SSD) rather than a hard drive.  So I considered:
  • Thinkpad X131e: With a 128GB SSD I could get one of these for under $750.  It weighs close to 4 lbs and you can only get a 6 cell battery.
  • Thinkpad X230: With a 128GB SSD and 9 cell battery (for really long battery life) I could get one of these for just under $1000. It has a slightly larger screen than the X131e and weighs a little under 3 lbs.
  • Thinkpad X1 Carbon: This is a really sleek, lightweight model with a larger screen (14") than the other two but still weighs just under 3 lbs. It would cost over $1000 and had many less ports etc. than the other models.
After reading various reviews I had pretty much decided to get a Thinkpad 230. It was light, pretty thin,  and had lots of ports, had long battery life, and was under $1000.

Why Did I Decide on a Samsung Chromebook Instead?

Chromebooks have been around several years now and have continually improved. I was intrigued by many aspects of the Chromebooks:
  • They are sleek and light; at least most of them are.
  • They boot very quickly, some in under 10 seconds
  • They are easy to maintain and update
  • They are more secure than Windows, Mac, and even Linux
  • They are inexpensive: some models are under $200
  • You can get a couple of years (or more, depending on the model) of free Google Drive (cloud) storage for free
But is it running Linux? Well, it runs Google Chrome OS, which is a Linux derivative. However, almost everything runs in the chromium browser and there are limitations as to what you are allowed to do (for security reasons among others).  So previously when I had considered a Chromebook I had found them too limited because of the following:
  • No native email client.  Yes there is gmail, but that is really a web based and I don't want to keep my email in the cloud and have it continually scanned, etc.
  • No GNUCash. I use GNUCash for budgeting and tracking expenses.  There is no version for Chromebook.  And I was not interested in some on-line budget/expense tool.
  • No LibreOffice. Yes, I could try Google Docs but I have experience with LibreOffice (previously OpenOffice) and want to continue with it.  There are limitations to doing web-based document editing.
  • No GIMP. I use GIMP to work with images. I don't do anything fancy, but I sometimes need to resize, rotate, or convert to other formats.
  • No scanner access.
  • No way to read data from my Garmin GPS watch. There are programs I have on Linux that allow me to insert my Garmin USB stick and have the data automatically downloaded to the computer. I have another program that processes the data.
  • Other tools, like the PDF toolkit which I use.
So given the above limitations a Chromebook was not a realistic option for me. Then I found posts like this one talking about crouton. With this tool, you can run a separate copy of Linux (in this case Ubuntu) inside the Chrome OS environment. This is somewhat secure, as the chroot environment it runs in has limited access to the rest of the OS and filesystem.

With crouton I can use both the Chrome OS and Ubuntu environments. I can use the regular Chrome OS things that work well, but can use Ubuntu for native programs that I prefer to run or that can only be run natively.  And according to the various discussions I read, you can switch between the two environments with a single keystroke.

Which Chromebook?

Given the idea that I could theoretically use a Chromebook to do what I have done in the past with Ubuntu running exclusively on a laptop, which would I want to buy? I considered the following:
  • The Samsung (Series 3) Chromebook. For $249, it has 6.5 hours of battery life, weighs less than 2.5 lbs, and boots under 10 seconds. It uses an ARM processor and has no fan (which makes it quiet and run cool).
  • The Acer C7 Chromebook. For $199, it has 4 hours of batter life, weighs about 3 lbs, and boots in under 20 seconds. It uses and Intel Celeron processor.
  • The Google Chromebook Pixel. For $1299, you get 5 hours of battery life, it has an incredibly high resolution (and touch) screen, weighs less than 3.5 lbs. It comes with 32GB SSD (the other models have 16GB) and 1TB of free Google Drive storage (the other models come with 100GB). And, as this article discusses, it is used by Linux creator Linus Torvalds.
Lenovo has a Chromebook (based on X131e) which I would have considered, but apparently Lenovo only sells it to schools.

While the Chromebook Pixel looks cool and I might have been able to get one slightly cheaper on ebay (apparently they were given out at the Google IO conference and some attendees were selling theirs), I decided it was too expensive for something I wasn't sure I would really like.  I chose the Samsung Chromebook because it is lighter, boots faster, has better battery life, and has no fan.  Here is a picture:

My only major concern (other than the possibility of not liking the whole Chromebrook thing and deciding to just install Ubuntu) was the fact that the Samsung Chromebook had an ARM chip.  Gentoo (which Ubuntu is based on) and Ubuntu have most packages available for the ARM (armhf) architecture.  However, there are some exceptions. Some packages are proprietary and come from the manufacturer. Since Linux on ARM is fairly new, they may not have ARM versions and if the source is not available, I could be stuck.  That appears to be the case with my Epson all-in-one printer (Workforce 610).  The scan program has source available so I might be able to compile that for ARM. However, the package that allows wireless access to the scanner contains a binary (compiled program) only and is currently available for Intel 32 and 64 bit computers only.  Unless they create an ARM version (unlikely for old models) or make the source available, I probably cannot access the scanner remotely.  If the iscan program can be compiled for ARM, or if the sane/Xsane program handles it as is, I hopefully can access the scanner via USB cable. After all, since you have to put the page to be scanned on the scanner, having proximity (of the Chromebook) to the scanner is not a real issue.


So I ordered the Samsung Chromebook on-line on May 19, 2013 with delivery expected later that week. Future posts will cover the preparation for and initial experience with the Chromebook.

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