A rantbox

Sun 05 October 2014

Chromebook: for fun and profit?

Posted by Michiel Scholten in gadgets   

I'm thinking about getting me one of those Chromebooks. Preferably a cheap, light, small one (the 11" Samsung for example), which I can almost literally throw into my backpack and take wherever I go.

The first reason I'd do so is because I'm curious to the platform and the experience. ChromeOS has matured quite a bit in the past years and on Google I/O they announced some nice integration with Android. The tight integration of all the components is something I want to play with first hand.

Second reason is because I'd like to have a light little machine with me on which to write and develop a bit. I can do this on my main laptop, but I don't want to lug around a more heavy, important, more expensive machine. My tablet combined with a bluetooth keyboard is an option too, but not too stable if I need to type in my lap in the train. Same goes for my smartphone which is even more powerful than my tablet, but of course a tad small. My ideas for pieces for this weblog or just some notes occur quite a lot while on the road, but I'm hampered by the virtual keyboards of my devices. While Swype is really quite great (I can type really fast with just one thumb while being flung around in the train), it just can't compare to even a small laptop keyboard.

Preferably though, I'd like to combine all that with a mode in which I have a decent terminal (preferably with bash or similar), vim, Git and Python. That would enable me to thinker with my projects when I've got inspiration. Always having a little 'hacktop' in my backpack just feels right.

Alternatives that I already have lying around, so they are cheaper (free!) than the already quite affordable Chromebooks are my trusty old Asus Transformer Prime (tf201) tablet - which has a 10" 1280x800 touchscreen, decent keyboard and quite a bit of battery life - and my even older trusty Samsung X360 ultrabook laptop. Those are about the same weight (around 1.3kg) but are showing their age a bit. The Prime never was a speed monster to begin with due to it being hampered by its atrocious storage performance. It's perfectly servicable though, even more so through the excellent Terminal IDE which gives me a regular terminal, vim, git and python on Android. The versions of these are getting slightly dated though and I haven't tried virtualenv and pip yet. If these are updated, the environment might be viable.

The X360 is a nice little 13.3" laptop and my favourite candidate for 'hacktop' as it has a full Linux distribution on it, an ok 1280x800 screen, normal keyboard and a nice weight. It's quite slow because of its 1.8" hdd (!) and the 1.2GHz core2duo doesn't help either, but that's more than enough for some writing and developing in terminals. Apart from the slowness, it's not entirely quiet. The fan doesn't make a lot of noise, but it's quite often audible (with a weird oscillating vibe), something I'm just not used from my devices anymore. Its size makes it quite perfect to type on, but 13.3" is not all that small a device to have constantly in my backpack.

So that leaves me looking at small Chromebooks. The leather-look and performance of the Samsung Chromebook 2's might throw me off, and I'm not sure how well it will run Linux (there are instructions for the 13" model for Arch, but the 11" is less popular. Apart from that, Samsung is going to stop selling laptops in Europe.

Good alternatives are the Dell Chromebook 11, but I can't seem to find it here in the Netherlands (would be really great if I could get my hands on one, it seems to be the nicest of the current list; any pointers will be greatly appreciated!). Acer has a few promising models with the C720, C720p (with touchscreen, but slightly more expensive and heavy) or the yet-to-be-released C730. The C720's seem to be in short supply though (except the ones with an AZERTY keyboard for Belgium - yeah, not thanks). The Asus C200 looked interesting at first, certainly with a battery life of almost 11 hours, but its cpu seems not to be all that great. Toshiba's Chromebook series only lists the old model on Tweaker's pricewatch.

After getting a Chromebook, Linux can then be installed along ChromeOS through the excellent Crouton project, which makes it possible to seemlessly switch between the two. Having a 32GB ssd drive is advisable then, or you will need to do magic with an SD card (never a really good idea). Of course you can just nuke ChromeOS from the device, but that would defeat the purpose of my experiment.

I don't mind that the screens aren't all that great on those little machines; they're cheap, light and I'll mostly use them for typing in a terminal. I've got a very decent laptop to do everything else on (and a pretty screen on my Nexus 7 2013 for showing photos on).

However, actually getting my hands on one of the better ones here in the Netherlands seems to be quite a challenge. I've strolled some Dutch fora, but 'wait' or 'pay up' seems to be key here.

So I'm a bit at a loss; currently it seems that I'll just have to make do with the devices I have (or just read a book in the train, always a great idea). Pointers to the Dell or other models are greatly appreciated. The 349EUR listing of the Acer C720p is the absolute max I'll be willing to spend too; the whole intention for it is to be a "let's throw it in my bag for quick hacking and writing".

Ahh, those first world problems...