My Month With a ChromeBox: How I Survived Without Windows or Mac

Just about a month ago, I stopped wrestling with an operating system and learned to love the Web. Windows? Gone. My MacBook? Hardly touched. Instead, I’ve relied on a Samsung Chromebox 3 running Google’s ChromeOS for virtually all my daily computing needs. And I not only survived, I actually prospered.

Up until recently, it would not have been safe to attempt such a stunt. When Google launched ChromeOS in December 2010, the idea was to forget loading software, tweaking settings and downloading the latest utilities in favor of just one thing: get you onto the Web just as fast as it can. Because, really, why else do you use a computer these days?

Even back then, the idea was compelling. But the reality was marred by a number of niggling omissions and problems. For example, users do need some basic capabilities: a file manager, peripheral support and the ability to print, at the least. And the early ChromeBooks had a file manager that took forever to scan something as simple as a USB stick. With ongoing updates of the operating system and the release of new Chromebook laptops and the ChromeBox compact desktop in May, however, those issues have largely been resolved. At least enough for me to give the ChromeBox a try as my go-to computer.

Why I Tried the ChromeBox

My little experiment was not conceived entirely by choice. Over the past few years, Google has offered developers, analysts and journalists early models of its hardware via its Google I/O conference - and this year the company handed I/O attendees a ChromeBox - along with some other goodies. And as the conference ended this year, I found myself returning my former employer’s ThinkPad and in need of a new computer. Since I already had the ChromeBox, rather than buy another computer I thought, “What the heck, I’ll give it a try.” 

I took the Chromebox home, plugged it in to my existing monitor, attached a USB keyboard and mouse (the Chromebox also includes a Bluetooth 3.0 connection) and an external hard drive. I pressed the power button in front, booted up in just seconds, entered the username and password for my Google account, and, well, sat there.

Done.

Heck, setting up an Android phone is marginally more complicated than that.

Day-to-Day With My ChromeBox 

Since then, I’ve relied on the Chromebox for daily use, including writing, editing and filing stories. Since Chrome is now the most popular browser worldwide, I don’t really worry about compatibility issues from a browser perspective. And, of course, publishing on the Web means Web-based publishing tools. I do occasionally check platform-specific issues on my wife’s Windows PC or my MacBook, but by and large I don’t ever need to leave my ChromeBox.

One reason is that because Google seems to be living up to its pledge to “constantly iterate,” frequently tweaking and upgrading ChromeOS. In practice, that just means that Google downloads updates in the background, with a little “up arrow” appearing on the screen next to the system clock. With Windows or even the Mac, updating can mean a laborious process of saving, shutting down and rebooting that can take minute after endless minute. With the Chromebox, the whole process took me 21 seconds the last time - including being restored to what I was doing before I upgraded. And it felt faster than that 

Since Google I/O, Google has also integrated Google Drive into the ChromeOS, so that there’s always a cloud backup available. Google also created a “Downloads” folder to make it easy to find PDFs or other files that you’d like to have stored locally (the ChromeBox includes a small amount of internal storage).

Interestingly, I’ve found that I no longer bother to place files in a folder hierarchy. There are two reasons: first, a Google search box at the top of the file manager window quickly finds any file; and second, because that search box doesn’t seem to have an option to search subfolders. Google also doesn’t list - anywhere, from what I can see - the free space available in either the local or cloud drives. I’m generally creating minuscule word-processor files, but I’d still like to know how much space I have.

The Web Is My Shepherd

Naturally, a Web-centric operating system means living and working entirely on the Web. Here’s where some hassles start to creep in. I’d characterize working on a Chromebox as living life in the big city without a car: there’s abundant public transportation to take where you want to go, and the Web’s population and services are ever-increasing. Still, giving up you car (or your local storage, etc.) entails some sacrifices in convenience.

For example, Microsoft’s Office Web apps still aren’t quite good enough for full-time use. Worse, I’ve experienced a disturbing frequency in the number of times that Microsoft’s service drops the connection, preventing me from saving a file or running a cloud-based spell check. At that point, the only option is to copy all the text to the clipboard, reopen the file and paste it back in. While I prefer Microsoft’s user interface, Google Docs seems to offer a more stable working environment, and I’ve pretty much made the choice to use it instead of the Web version of Microsoft Office.

Adequate Performance

The ChromeBox also passes muster for entertaiment and other uses. First of all, ChromeOS supports Flash for dealing with websites that haven’t yet discovered HTML 5. And the experience is more than acceptable: Engadget characterized the $399 1.9GHz dual-core Intel Celeron B840-based Chromebox as just fine for 1080p YouTube and streaming playback, and I’ve had the same experience with the more-powerful Core i5-based model Google distributed at I/O.

MOG’s Web music player works just fine, even though it asked to downgrade my version of Flash. (I didn’t.) Spotify lacks a Web-based version, so you’re out of luck there. But I’ve never had any problems playing the Flash-based games on ArmorGames. For those who want something more, Gaikai has promised to bring PC-quality gaming to the ChromeOS.

What’s Missing From ChromeOS?

The most notable drawback? A lack of media utilities and file support. I really miss the VLC media player’s ability to work with just about any video format. ChromeOS is crying out for a good media manager.

I also haven’t been able to convince my older Dell multifunction printer to scan into ChromeOS; I’m still forced to go to Windows when I need to scan a document.

Ironically, the biggest thing missing from ChromeOS is actually a big positive: the lack of day-to-day management tasks is a joy and a time saver. I don’t need to constantly worry about upgrading numerous browsers, software, apps and patches. There’s no reason to believe that I’ll ever need antivirus software and the constant updates and scanning that entails. Google’s ChromeOS upgrades themselves bring new features, not compatibility concerns.


Granted, working entirely on the Web isn’t for everyone. You won’t find a full-fledged HTML5-based version of Adobe Premiere, for example, or AutoCAD in a Web-based version. On the other hand, Adobe does offer a PremiereExpress Web-based tool, and AutoCAD WS lets you edit and share from within a Web browser. Even AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) has a Web-based version.

For most people, the biggest missing element is likely to be some beloved utility, game or other piece of software that just isn’t available online. For me, that was a small image resizing utility that allowed me to tailor a JPG file to the size I needed, right away. ]

I’m not going to claim that Google’s ChromeOS is perfect, by any stretch. Nor am I going to argue that you’d be better off buying a ChromeBook or ChromeBox rather than a standard Windows or Mac PC or notebook.

But I would say that the ChromeBox sitting on my desk provides almost if not all of what I was used to within the Windows environment, without many of the hassles. ChromeOS may not yet be what some would call a “prime time” OS, but over the last month it’s certainly proved an effective one for me.

 

Photos by Eliot Weisberg/ReadWriteWeb.