Life with a ChromeBook

by Howard Dyckoff

(Linux Gazette’s correspondent Howard Dyckoff received a beta Chromium 48, or Cr-48 unit and put it through the wringer. He tried to use it as his primary computer and finally succeeded after a few major OS updates. His experience is detailed in the article below.)

Notes on New ChromeBooks and Some History

During May’s Google IO developer conference, the first netbooks using the Linux-based ChromeOS were announced from Acer and Samsung. This was a public follow up from the very public beta of ChromeOS netbooks kicked off in December. One of the morning keynotes was dedicated to describing the new netbooks and their features. In June, the ChromeBooks finally shipped and were available for purchase from Amazon and Best Buy. Amazon actually sold out of Samsung Chromebooks in the first week.

ChromeOS was the cover topic 2 years ago on the July 20th (2009) issue of Information Week. In that article, the bottom line was “… Google has a shot at gaining respectable consumer market share if it produces a slick, fast, secure OS that delivers a great web experience. And if Google succeeds with consumers, it is logical to expect it to steer that momentum toward the enterprise.”

So now, some two years later, we have real products coming out and a quicker focus on business users than anticipated. The new netbooks are fairly fast and fairly secure and at least the beta boxes had some slickness and aesthetic appeal. It is a very good web experience, partly due to its HTML 5 support and Flash plug-in. But is it “good enough” for business users?

I have to say “yes, but” due to one flagrant short coming: without an exposed Java Virtual Machine or JVM, most meeting and webinar software does not currently work with these new devices. I had raised this issue twice during the beta period and took the announcement of ChromeBooks for Business as a signpost that the problem was either solved or almost solved. But as I tried to get more information from Google spokespersons and their PR agency in Mid-May, it became clear that no one there wanted to address the topic.

Ironically, Google held a webinar on May 18th titled “Chromebooks for Business: New computers for the browser-based world”. It was hosted on WebEx and my Cr-48 still could not join in. The problem continued in June. I had emailed the host, Raghu Kumar, the day before athe webinar nd he only mentioned there was a VDI solution in development at Citrix. So Google is not working on this problem directly and they don’t seem to acknowledge that it is a major issue for business users.

To be fair, Citrix is also in beta on using a Flash-based meeting client for the ChromeBook and other web-only devices. There is no timeline for this solution yet, and Citrix GoToMeeting is not the dominant platform for web-based meetings. This problem still remains for the near future.

Why would any business user or techie put up with this limitation? Because getting to a web page from an unpowered, inert device is wicked fast . The cold boot takes under 10 seconds, with part of that time typing your password. And returning from standby mode is barely a second. Yes, it is that fast – unless I have over 30 tabs open and then the Chrome browser gets bogged down. At 20 tabs and under, my Cr-48 has great performance.

So what do you actually get with a ChromeBook? Google has called the Cr-48 beta unit a laptop, mostly due to its 12 inch display and full size key pad, all of which is greatly appreciated. But it weighed in at under 4 pounds with only 2 GB of RAM and a single-core N455 Atom processor. The new ones weigh between 3 and 3.5 pounds and may be a little thinner. I would call that a netbook. There is also some GPS hardware but it is not currently used by the OS. It very fast at web browsing, its senior-moment simple to use, fairly secure, is safely shareable, and it looks like a thin black 13-inch MacBook . There is is also a Linux kernel to play with under it all.

The Cr-48 beta device looks almost identical to the soon-to-be-released Samsung Series 5 netbook, right down to the large hinge and dedicated web browsing keys, but Samsung has stated that it did not build the Cr-48. Both have Lithium Polymer batteries that last 8 hours or 7-8 days in standby mode (my unit lasted more like 6 hours or 6 days, but I won’t quibble). The new Samsung unit has 2 GB of RAM and a snappier 2-core Atom processor plus a brighter LED screen (see the table of specs at the bottom of this article).

Taking notes had been a challenge in December when the CR-48 was originally sent to lucky beta testers as an early Xmas gift. Since the file manager wasn’t working then, users initially had only a local scratch pad and the Quick Note app by Diigo that is cloud-based and stores short docs with some formatting. It looks like a page on yellow legal pad which is retro and comforting.

After a February update to ChromeOS, both note-taking apps became usable with writing supported when no connection was available. Of course, you have to synch up with the Cloud to save your work but the 7-8 day battery life in standby and the built in 3G cell service could take care of that.

Oh, right, I have to explain about the cell service. All new purchases of a ChromeBook get a free 2 years service contract with Verizon for a minimal 100 MB download account. You can pay for additional monthly download capacity if you need it, but if you are a bit miserly and turn it off when you really don’t need auto refreshes, that 100 MB is just enough for occasional work without WiFi. I usually have 20-40 MB left at the end of the month, but twice I had to suck down all 100 MB and waited only a few days for my next allotment of 100 MB. As a Cr-48 beta tester, I actually only get 1 year of minimal Verizon service, but that is still a great perk. Both Samsung and Acer sell ChromeBooks without the cellular modem for less cash upfront but the cost difference is probably less than what the minimal service and modem would cost. I recommend a 3G model if its in your budget range. It may save you from calamity.

Let me also note that this web device does not have an Ethernet connection. I rediscovered that fact at the RSA conference when there was a wireless crash and I was given an ethernet cable for the duration. But there was no connector. I have recently read that Cr-48 users have successfully used an Ethernet-to-USB adapter but I don’t know which brands work.

During the beta test, the most difficult aspect was the hypersensitive touch pad that acted as crazy as a trapped weasel, selecting different tabs randomly and highlighting and replacing blocks of text randomly. Those dark days ended after the second OS update and improved steadily there after. If it hadn’t, I’d have violently thrown it against a wall. There were other problems with the new Flash plug-in and other aspects of use, but these were almost entirely improved or solved by the time of the Google IO announcement of production chromebooks. Of course, if I open more than about 30 tabs in 4 or 5 windows, some plug-ins crash. The security sandboxing seems to consume a little more RAM than FireFox or Opera would and the 2 GB that is standard on the new hardware will help greatly with that. I think 3 or 4 GB would be better. However, I understand that the beta unit and the future Samsung ChromeBooks will NOT allow memory upgrades. That is unfortunate. If I could put a new and bigger SIMM in my CR-48, I would be a very happy camper.

Both Oracle and its recent Sun acquisition have tried and failed to get traction with businesses on thin clients in the Client/Server era of the 1990s that was dominated by Microsoft. But after the start of Web 2.0 period, and the more recent adoption of HTML 5, web-based user experiences are much more like that of native applications. The apps in the Chrome store go further toward erasing the remaining differences and new pressure from iPad adopters is making the new wave of web users first class citizens for corporate IT. Furthermore, the appearance of a web-based version of Microsoft’s Office suite, which should run on a ChromeBook, makes a web-only device more acceptable. Since I have been using Google Docs and Calendar and Mail, the transition was very simple and fairly satisfying.

To sweeten the deal for businesses in these tough economic times, Google is providing both the operating system and hardware as single package for $28/user/month ($20 for schools and, presumably, non-profits that get a big discount on Google Apps). This is like renting a “Chromebook” and getting support as well for about $300 a year. In recent years, the Gartner Group research firm has estimated that supporting a corporate computer user can cost $3.000 or more each year. This estimate is for hardware, software applications and OS, patching costs, security, and technical support. Because of the the Cloud-based and web-centric model, the usual IT patching cycle is provided by Google. Thus, the IT savings for supporting Business users via ChromeBooks could be up to 90% per user. That is significant scratch.

“For the first time, hardware and software are being packaged together as a service,” said Sundar Pichai, Google’s vice president for Chrome Development, during the Google IO keynote introducing the new ChromeBooks. (I think he meant as a package by Google.)

The secret sauce here is that every device is interchangeable – only a little bit of set-up data resides on the individual device. All the documents and emails are entirely stored on the web. If your ChromeBook dies, or is dropped 3 stories from a hotel balcony, you get a replacement ChromeBook that can login and resume where you last left off. The OS itself and most of the specialized web apps are updated automatically and these never go long without being patched.

Google has been paying bounties – but only occasionally – at hackathons where all the major browsers are tested. There have been very few successful attacks against the Chrome browser, and the lack of local storage and a verified Linux kernel make a ChromeBook a difficult target.

There is a ChromeBook YouTube channel for Google videos of Chrome and ChromeBook features. This security video is one of the more interesting ones.

I should add that the beta units have a developer switch in battery compartment that allows the CR-48 to boot up in Linux mode with full shell access. However, the security features, including verification of the kernel at boot time, is by-passed in this mode, making it significanly less secure. In this mode, you can install and select a different Linux distro and add other applications and security packages. Yes, you can run Ubuntu if that’s what you want to do.

If you have a CR-48 and want to look at ChromeOS in developer mode, the following web page has a good summary of the steps and includes photos. Google will soon be linking the partner infrastructure it is developing for Google Apps to a partner program for Chromebooks that will resellers to bundle apps and additional services for Google’s 3 million enterprise users.

Glenn Weinstein, who is CTO at Google partner Appirio, told CRN Canada: With Google Apps, we started as an implementation partner, and there was a period of time when customers could only buy their Google Apps licenses directly from Google. They then introduced the reseller program which allows us to be a more complete solution provider. We expect a similar evolution with Chromebooks, where Google initially provides the machines to customers directly, but relatively quickly expands the partner reseller programs to include Chromebooks as well.

ChromeOS is actually developed by the Chromium projects, whose web site is at: http://www.chromium.org/

The Chromium projects include Chromium and Chromium OS, the two open-source projects behind the Google Chrome browser and Google Chrome OS, respectively. The web site houses documentation and code related to the Chromium projects and is ia good starting point for developers interested in learning about and contributing to these open-source projects.

All-in-all, a ChromeBook is a very adequate travel netbook that can provide a lot of user security. Once the Webinar and Web Meeting issue is addressed, this can also be a very compelling option for business users. I greatly prefer it to my lighter but smaller 10 inch Asus EEE netbook, except when I need a local OS and native apps. But that need occurs less and less often as great web apps begin to take the place of native apps.

Comparative Specs for Various ChromeBooks

Here are the Cr-48 specs and parts from a Dec 14 posting on the chromeos.com blog:

Processor: Intel Atom Processor N455 1.66GHz 512K Cache
Chipset: Intel CG82NM10 PCH
Motherboard: Tripod Motherboard MARIO   6050A240910   MB   A03
RAM: Hynix 2GB DDR3 1Rx8 PC3   10600SRAM
Read Only Memory: ITE IT8500E Flash ROM
SSD Drive: SanDisk sdsa4dh-016G 16GB SATA SSD
Wireless Wan: Qualcomm Gobi2000 PCI Express Mini Card
3g Adapter: AzureWave 802.11 a/b/g/n PCI-E Half MiniCard
Bluetooth: Atheros AR5BBU12 Bluetooth V2.1 EDR
Weight: 3.6 pounds

The Cr-48 has a 12 inch LCD screen, one USB port, an SD card reader, and some dedicated web browsing keys.

Samsung Series 5 Chromebook

Here’s an overview of the specs for the Samsung Chromebook:

Size: 0.79-inch case, 3.3 pounds total
Memory: 2 GB RAM, 16 GB SSD
Processor: Intel dual-core processor (Samsung and Google didn’t disclose processor speed) Update from Amazon: an Intel N570 Atom Processor running at 1.66 GHz
Screen: 12.1-inch LED Display, 16:10 resolution   Samsung claims it is 35% brighter than an LCD display.
Battery: Up to 8.5 hours of normal usage, up to 5 hours of video playback
Software: Google Chrome OS. Bootup time is less than 10 seconds
Peripherals: Two USB ports and an SD/SDHC/MMC card reader
Price: $429 for Wi-Fi. $499 for the 3G version, which includes 100 MB free per month for two years

Acer Cromia Chromebook Specs ($349 Wifi Only, 3G TBD)

Display: 11.6″ (1366×768) HD CineCrystal LED
Weight: 2.95 lbs, 1.34 kg
Processor: 1.66 GHz Intel Atom N570 Dual-Core
RAM: 2GB DDR3
Storage: 16 GB solid-state drive (SSD)
WiFi: Wireless-N Wi-Fi(802.11b/g/n) and 3G Radio (optional)
Other features: HD Webcam with noise cancelling microphone, High-Definition Audio
Ports: 2 USB 2.0 ports, 4-in-1 memory card slot (SD, SDHC, SDXC, MMC), HDMI port
Keyboard: Fullsize Chrome keyboard
Pointer: Oversize fully-clickable trackpad
Battery: 6-cell battery for up to 6 hours of use

About Howard Dyckoff

Howard Dyckoff is a long term IT professional with primary experience at Fortune 100 and 200 firms. Before his IT career, he worked for Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine and before that used to edit SkyCom, a newsletter for astronomers and rocketeers. He hails from the Republic of Brooklyn [and Polytechnic Institute] and now, after several trips to Himalayan mountain tops, resides in the SF Bay Area with a large book collection and several pet rocks. Howard maintains the Technology-Events blog at blogspot.com from which he contributes the Events listing for Linux Gazette. Visit the blog to preview some of the next month's NewsBytes Events.
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