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I was planning to travel for several days last week and have previously lived off an iPad for short trips, but for longer stretches, or if I know I'll have to do some serious writing and editing, I'll normally drag along a MacBook or old Dell Latitude reinvigorated by Ubuntu. But this time, having bought a Chromebook last fall for some testing, finding it to be quite usable and having no fear of being offline thanks to Verizon's impressive LTE network along with a data plan allowing tethering (more on that later), I figured why not give the cloud a try? After all, the Chromebook is lighter than either of my laptops and I'd used it enough to have apps and services set up for all of my basic IT needs.
The PC hiatus started on a Saturday as I tweaked the Chromebook, but the real sink-or-swim moment came when I decided there'd be no last-minute cheating, so I disconnected my trusty Mac Mini from its monitor and plugged in a Chromebox I'd picked up on eBay (with the best of intentions of turning it into a YouTube-streaming set-top box, but I never overcame bouts of procrastination and the inertia associated with setting up a new device).
I knew the Chromebox was snappy, since I'd snagged one of the limited edition models running a Core i5 that Google distributed at last year's I/O Conference (this same basic configuration has recently surfaced as a commercial product), but its performance reaffirmed my conviction to stick with the strategy. It may be overkill for a lightweight OS like Chrome, but like all Chrome devices, the first thing you notice is how fast this thing boots: under 10 seconds (8.43 to be exact as per Chrome's system diagnostics), while its desktop CPU can handle as many browser tabs you care to throw at it. Having satisfied myself that I wasn't missing anything important on a local disk drive, I set out, Chromebook and iPhone in hand.
[ Want more about the Pixel? See Google Chromebook Pixel: Hands-On Review. ]
I am actually a perfect test case for Google's cloud-based enterprise strategy. I've moved my personal domain to Google Apps, relied upon Gmail for both personal and business email and scheduling for years, use Google Sheets to track invoices and Google Docs for many shorter columns, replicate all of my business-related files from local storage to Google Drive, don't edit video ... In sum, there's virtually no service or application that ties me to a native client running on a PC. Still, I've had PCs for decades and much of my research and writing workflow remained centered on native applications. Old habits die hard, so just in case, I loaded a copy of all my important work folders onto an SD card, providing gentle reassurance as it protruded out the side of my Chromebook.
Although Google has made great strides at making Chrome look more like a standalone OS and less like a browser with lots of tabs, it still often looks like a browser with lots of tabs. Unless you specifically configure apps to open in their own window, which I highly recommend for many of the more self-contained apps and utilities like Drive, Gmail, Calendar, IM+ (a multi-platform IM client) and Calculator, clicking an icon in the launcher just opens up another tab on your last-used Chrome window. But, if you've used Chrome on a PC, it's a very familiar experience.
The real beauty of Chrome isn't so much the UI (while lacking the polish of OS X or the novel look of Windows 8 or Ubuntu Unity, it is certainly not ugly), but its speed, stability and simplicity. The thing just works -- fast and without software maintenance. Chrome OS updates download and install automatically, and the cloud-based apps are inherently auto-updating. There's also no data maintenance, since, unless you make a conscious effort to store something locally, it's all online, meaning there's no need to worry about making copies of email attachments or to save documents you're working on -- Google Apps literally don't have "save" functions. Chrome devices are also inherently self-replicating: your environment, settings, profile, apps, bookmarks and data are automatically synchronized to the cloud and show up on any Chrome device you happen to be using.
Speaking of apps, the one criticism of Chrome OS Pixel that reviewers never fail to mention is a lack of applications. Indeed, in terms of sheer numbers, this is quantifiably true. But I've found that for common office and communication needs, nothing's missing. Obviously, anything you already do in a browser works on Chrome OS, but outside of Gmail, my go-to software is Google Apps, a complete and constantly improving office suite that does everything I need while offering better collaboration features than the leading desktop alternative.
But the Chrome Web Store offers a surprisingly complete slate of applications, including niche categories I've found useful like mind-mapping software (MindMeister), outliners (The Outliner of Giants), photo editor (Pixlr), even a secure shell terminal emulator. And for those times when you absolutely, positively must use a PC, there's the Chrome Remote Desktop or VNC Viewer apps that allow you to remote into a Windows, Mac or Linux system.
As the week wore on and my Chrome savvy grew by the hour, helped in no small part by the active, open and incredibly helpful Chromebooks community on Google+, the disconnect between my experience and the generally dismissive spate of Pixel reviews became apparent. Sadly, as the Pixel coverage reinforced, Chrome OS is still tarred with plenty of FUD and half-truths, the most prominent being its dependence on a constant network connection. Not true. All Chrome devices include local storage, typically 16 GB, expandable via SD cards. Also, many apps, including Google Drive, Apps and Gmail, can be configured for offline access.
While this is great for long airplane rides, I think the offline issue should be put to rest. At least for me, no device is worth much when I'm offline, and network access is never a problem today. Wi-Fi is available almost everywhere and cellular data fills in the gaps. If you frequently travel, just make sure your data plan (you do have a smartphone don't you?) includes a tethering option. Chromebook plus smartphone means never having to worry about being offline. If your travels take you to remote (domestic) locales, allow me to put in a plug for Verizon; its LTE network is simply amazing. Part of my week was spent in a one-gas-station burg an hour from the nearest city. Even in this Podunk, Verizon gave me five-bar LTE service with 15-20 Mbps downloads and 3-5 Mbps uploads. This meant that tethered to my iPhone, my Chromebook was getting nearly as much throughput as in my home office. (Why use in room Wi-Fi when it's one tenth the speed?) Conclusion: outside of midflight, there's no such thing as offline anymore.
Another common gripe with Chrome OS is printing. Those of you that still use dead trees as a display medium will be happy to know that the Cloud Print service works quite well. For people like me that replace printers about as often as they buy a new car, i.e. we don't have a cloud-ready printer, you're stuck configuring Cloud Print from a PC running the Chrome browser, although some NAS boxes, like the stellar Synology Diskstation line, also support the protocol. Just remember, don't ever turn off your print server.
My PC-free week went so well that, back home now and having written this piece entirely in Google Docs on Chrome OS, I still haven't found the need to fire up the Mac other than to test the remote desktop feature. In fact, I've rewired the secondary monitor formerly attached to the Mac Mini into my Chromebox and now enjoy almost 4 megapixels of Chrome desktop goodness sprawled across two displays.
Maybe Google wasn't going crazy; something tells me there's a Pixel in my future.