chromebookWhile I am in the “Computer Room” on my heavy-duty desktop computer, my wife is often in the kitchen on her old HP laptop that is well past its expected lifespan. The battery has long died, but it still works plugged into an electrical outlet. It clearly was living on borrowed time and needed to be replaced.  I picked a Chromebook. (“Mine” and “Hers” only signifies what we use most.  We both will use the other when appropriate, without asking permission.  We have been married for over 55 years.)

A Chromebook (available from several manufacturers) does only one thing—it connects by WiFi to the online Google Chrome browser.  It has no hard drive or DVD/CD drive.  The only memory is solid-state, like the memory on a camera card or a thumb drive.  It mostly holds the operating system.

My Chromebook happens to be an Acer, but that hardly matters.  I used to only buy a computer with the latest generation of Intel chip, but I don’t even know what is in this one. I used to know how much RAM (random accessible memory) my computer had, but not in this one.  It has enough to work, that’s all.  It does have Bluetooth that can pair with my soundbar, but that is only a convenience.  And it has a wireless mouse.  (I hate those pads.)

For most of us, that’s all we need. We can use our email just as it always appeared by connecting from Chrome to our old mail website, and we can search for anything anywhere on the Internet. We can watch movies. We can find places on maps. We can create Word or Excel documents by using Google’s programs running in the cloud, not on our own computer. All of our documents and photos are also stored on Google’s cloud (the “cloud” is simply a website where you can store your data or run a select few programs under your own password). Some may be concerned about security, but I am not. They are better at protecting my data than I am.  Having everything on the cloud  means no more updating programs, no more transferring data from an old computer to a new one, and no more periodic backing up files.  If I lose my Chromebook while traveling, my data is stored safely on the cloud behind my password, and I could even access it from someone else’s computer.  Nothing is stored on the Chromebook itself where a stranger could get to it.  At my age, technology is getting too complex, and this is a big step towards simplification.

If I get up one morning to find the Chromebook dead and smelling of burnt insulation, I would just buy another and proceed from where I left off.  Nothing would be lost.  Nothing would have to be reloaded.

I bought mine from Costco to have 90 days to evaluate it and return it, but I have already found enough reasons to keep it.  And there seems to be more to find.

A Chromebook is cheap. Mine was under $300, about a third the cost of a laptop. It looks like a laptop and has a high resolution screen. Its solid-state memory is faster and more reliable than the mechanical disk drives, just not as big.  In my long experience with hard drives, they are the source of many failures. For most of us, the hard drive on our computer has been spinning at high speed since the day we first plugged it in, perhaps years ago. How long can this continue? Besides, reading data from a hard drive into a computer’s memory where it can be used is the slowest thing the computer has to do—hundreds of times slower than anything else. As for my DVD/CD drive (now called an “optical drive”) on my desktop computer, I have not used it in years. Good riddance to these trouble-prone devices that are no longer needed.  No more heading to Staples or Best Buy for new or updated programs that I now download from the Internet (disks are often not even available).

That these drives work as well as they do are marvels of technology, but solid-state memory, such as those in thumb drives, have improved, too, and they have gotten so big (in data storage capacity), more computers besides Chromebooks are moving to just those.  They will never be as big as a disk drive, but we no longer need them with the Internet.

My grandson’s school will be handing out a Chromebook to each 6th grade student.  Smart move.  Train them early to do everything on the Internet, in the cloud, in cyberspace.  Running programs on a computer will someday be only something quaint his grandpa once did.

But there are downsides, and a Chromebook is not yet for everyone. It will not store a movie that you can play in the car while driving to Ohio.  Without a WiFi connection, it is just a doorstop, but WiFi is available almost everywhere I go—just not while I go.

I have thousands of photos stored on my desktop computer and backed up on a terabyte external hard drive. Google gives me 15 GB for free, plenty for family photos, but they would charge me to store my huge number. A high quality photo may take as much as 5 megabytes (MG). A gigabyte (GB) is 1,000 megabytes. A terabyte (TB) is 1,000 gigabytes. The numbers have become unimaginable. Documents are much smaller than photos, often only a few kilobytes ( KB, 1/1,000 of a megabyte). Just one photo can require more memory than all of the text documents, notes, address lists, and bookmarks you have created in all of your lifetime.  Even now I could junk all of that backup equipment and just keep the old family photos on thumb drives.  My years of work collecting, scanning, and editing those old photos could hang on a key chain.

I know the hardest part for most of us is trusting Google to keep those photos of our grandchildren safe and accessible.  Like you are such an expert?

Skype, surprisingly, does not run on a Chromebook. I expect that will soon change, but, in the meantime, Gmail has a similar video phone service.  Apps that I downloaded onto my small Nexus 7 tablet, do not run either.  It will only run apps from the Chrome Store, which are far fewer that the thousands available for my tablet.  That is because the apps I run on my tablet are the same ones that people run on their smartphones,  and there are far more smartphones than Chromebooks.  It does not make financial sense for a company to write an app for the few Chromebooks.   I expect someday there will be a website accessible through Chrome that will run any app I load into it.

Google Earth is an optional view in Google Maps.  A Chromebook remembers WiFi connections, so if you once visited Longwood Gardens and connected to their WiFi with their password, it will automatically connect the next time you are there.  It does not have GPS, but still knows where you are from the WiFi signals.  Maps will show your location.

Google’s Chrome browser was only released in 2008, so some suppliers of add-ons still have some catching up to do.  Java and Microsoft’s Silverlight that run videos are the big ones I have noticed.

The bottom line is that computer technology is changing rapidly, and what was once necessary is now expensive overkill. I used to buy the most powerful computer I could afford, but now I look for the cheapest that will still do what I need.  Development seems to be moving in the direction of the cloud.  You have to stay flexible.  Think Internet, I kid you not.


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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