So I bought a Chromebook 

I’ve had a Chromebook for a while now. My wonderful wife got me the original Samsung Chromebook in early 2012 for my birthday, I think. The device has been a trusted couch companion ever since. I mostly use it to check email, watch YouTube videos, surf the internet, and so on. It has a small 11.6-inch screen and limited horsepower. The little guy was never meant to be used for any heavy lifting. I have a Windows 10 laptop for that.

A few months ago I got the itch to buy another machine. I would dearly love to have a Microsoft Surface Book or Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga. It is my personal belief that these are the two best machines on the market today. With that said, they’re expensive, and honestly, they’re overkill for what I do. I mostly do research on projects and create content, typically in the form of documents, spreadsheet, blog post, and presentations. My presentations can get pretty gnarly in terms of size and media content, but still, a Core-i7 with 16 GB of RAM just feels extreme for my needs. So why not a Chromebook? Yeah, why not, indeed.

So I set about making a list of things that I wanted from a Chromebook. Two of the most important items were:

  1. A 14-inch or larger screen. I’ve historically preferred smaller screens, especially between 12-13-inch. However, I’ve been thinking about trying a laptop with a larger screen for a while. And what better way to do it than with an inexpensive Chromebook?
  2. Long battery life. This is a no-brainer.

After the two items above, my list grew to include:

  • Under $500. Let’s face it, it’s hard to spend more than $500 on a Chromebook knowing that for around $700 I could get a really nice Windows 10 tablet.
  • Good keyboard. I do a lot of typing, so whatever machine I buy has to have a good keyboard.
  • Backlit keyboard. This seems to be a polarizing topic. I feel that it’s important, at least for me. I do a lot of early morning and late night surfing. I don’t always have a great light source, so having a backlit keyboard is nice.
  • At least 32 GB of local storage. Chromebooks are notoriously bad when it comes to local storage. I can’t see buying something with less than 32 GB of storage.
  • Touchscreen. Once you’ve used a laptop with a touchscreen, it’s hard to go back. It would be especially handy should my Chromebook support Android apps.
  • Expandable storage.  Any acceptable way to increase storage, not only an SD card slot. As long as there’s a free USB port, I’m good.

I was pretty excited when I saw the Samsung Chromebook Plus and the Asus Chromebook Flip C302 hit the market. Both have touchscreens and offer a 2-in-1 configuration. The Samsung pulled at me hard, but besides having only a 12.3-inch screen, it was also missing a backlit keyboard, and was at the very edge of my $500 mark. For reasons unknown, the Flip C302 doesn’t capture my interest. It has a backlit keyboard and better storage options than the Samsung, but meh.

After reading a lot of reviews and looking through countless “best Chromebooks of 2017” lists, I came to the conclusion that a 14-inch Chromebook with a backlit keyboard just wasn’t in the cards. I ended up going with the Acer Chromebook 14, in gold. I got a great price at Amazon.  It lacks almost everything on my list, but it does have a 14-inch screen and remarkable battery life.

The Acer Chromebook 14 has an all metal build, a good but not great 14-inch screen, a good keyboard, solid battery life, and it’s snappy. It’s also easy on the eyes. When up close and personal, no one would mistake it for a $2000 premium laptop, but it’s still a handsome device.

I’ve been using my new Chromebook for about two weeks. So far things have been pretty good, but I definitely have some minor quibbles.

There are several keys missing from the Chromebook keyboard. For example, there are no dedicated ‘delete’, ‘home’ or ‘end’ keys. I’m a content creator, so I use those keys a lot. Fortunately, there are Chromebook equivalents, like ‘alt’ + ‘backspace’ = ‘delete’, or ‘search’ + ‘right arrow’ = end of line, etc. I keep a copy of the Chromebook shortcuts handy. Fortunately, you can also remap certain keys. For example, remapping the relatively useless ‘search’ key to CAPS LOCK. Seriously, who doesn’t need to type IN ALL CAPS ONCE IN A WHILE. I’m slowly starting to get used to the keyboard function and layout, but it hasn’t been a smooth transition.

The “right-click” on Chromebooks is not a right-click, at all. In fact, the right click is a two finger tap. This tiny difference is giving me fits. Who knew that I right-clicked so often?

Everything being in a browser tab will take some getting used to. I’ve been using the Windows OS for more than 20 years. I’m comfortable with a bunch of little windows on my screen, not just a single browser with multiple tabs. Changing some of the web apps to “open as window” has helped. I did this for Google Docs and Google Music. It has nothing to do with functionality, but it makes my screen more familiar, which ultimately makes me feel better. Don’t judge me!

I’ve always considered myself a heavy user of web-based apps. I spend most of my time in the Chrome browser flipping through websites, reading literature, using Gmail/Google Calendar/Google Keep/Google+, using the web versions of Twitter and Facebook, and so on. Working in “the web” is great, except when it’s not. There are some web applications that simply don’t measure up to their desktop counterparts.

Here are some examples:

Evernote – I’ve been trying to extricate myself from Evernote for quite some time, but I haven’t found a suitable replacement. The application is too valuable to the way I work, so for now it stays. Unfortunately, the Windows 10 desktop version of Evernote is significantly better than the web version. Converting back to the “old” version of the web app has helped, but it’s still not the same.

Microsoft Office vs. Google Docs – As a content creator, I use Microsoft Office 365, a lot. I create documents, blog posts, spreadsheets with graphs, and presentations. For the most part, replacing the web versions of Word with Google Docs hasn’t been an issue. For example, I’m using the online version of Office 365, Word specifically, to write this post. I used Google Docs for Sunday’s post. Both worked fine. I prefer Word, but Docs is usable. Replacing Excel with Sheets is ok, but I’m struggling with graphs. Google Slides is another story. Slides is way behind Microsoft PowerPoint in my opinion. The desktop version of PowerPoint is much better than the web app, and the web app is still much better than Google Slide. This might be a deal-breaker for me. I’ve found a few workarounds for PowerPoint Online, but honestly, I don’t like workarounds. It’s not all terrible. I do like the auto-save functionality when using Google Docs or Office 365 Online. Every change I make is automatically saved. No more losing 20 minutes worth of work because I was too lazy to hit ‘CTRL S’.

Zotero – I’m a pharmacist. I read literature. I’m also a digital pack rat. I collect and store lots and lots of journal articles, whitepapers, presentations, and so on. I refer to them when composing blogs or papers and when building presentations. Using a reference management tool is a must. In my case, that reference manager is Zotero. I collect all my references in Zotero. It pulls complete bibliographies from digital object identifiers (doi’s), allows me to link to full article PDFs stored in OneDrive, and gives me the option to attach notes to each entry. New projects – articles, blog posts, presentations – get their own folder. Each time I reference a journal article for the project, the reference gets copied into the project folder. When the project is complete, I simply print a bibliography of all the references used. It works great. Fortunately, Zotero has a nice desktop application with great functionality and it’s free. Unfortunately, Zotero’s web app is an abomination. I don’t know how it’s possible to have such a great little desktop app and completely ignore “the web”. Of all the things that have given me trouble, this is the biggest. I don’t know if I can get past this one. The inability to use Zotero on the web has had a negative impact on the way I work.

Notepad – Yep, one of the simplest applications on the planet. I use it a lot. Sometimes I’ll use it for nothing more than a quick, disposable note. Other times I’ll use it as a quick and dirty way to eliminate all formatting associated with a bit of text, i.e. copy the text and paste it into notepad; this is a great trick when I’ve tried some crazy formatting and can’t seem to back out. Notepad is always open on my Windows 10 desktop. While there are lots of note-taking apps for Chrome, I haven’t found an equivalent. For the time being, I’m using Google Keep. It’s not the same, but it works.

In many ways, the Acer Chromebook 14 meets my expectations: it has a solid build, it has a nice 14-inch screen, good keyboard, the integration with my Android smartphone (Samsung Note 5) and Google Home is nice, it has ridiculously good battery life – I’m getting ten plus hours per charge — and it’s nice to look at. In other ways, the Acer Chromebook 14 has failed to meet my expectations: lack of a backlit keyboard, Android apps not yet available even though the device itself was introduced over a year ago, and lack of solid web-based apps. In all fairness, that last item isn’t the Chromebook’s fault, but it makes a big difference.

Overall, I find that the Acer Chromebook 14 is a great machine. I’m sure it could be a Windows 10 laptop replacement for someone, but probably not for me. At the moment, I’m still on the fence about keeping it. At sub $300, it might be worth keeping around. But then again, a new Windows 10 tablet would be nice.

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