Greetings to all my fellow techies. This week, I decided to investigate what the Chromebook phenomenon was all about, and see if these new types of notebooks could find a home in government service.
Chromebooks currently represent less than 1 percent of total notebook sales, though there is evidence their popularity may be growing. That is enough to worry Microsoft, which produced a commercial using the stars of the TV show “Pawn Stars,” who suggested Chromebooks were not real notebooks.
I got my hands on an Acer Chromebook C720 to find out what these new types of devices were all about. I will say that for someone used to working with more traditional notebooks, the move to a Chromebook can be a bit of a shock. Then again, it can accomplish what most users, even business and government workers, need to do at a fraction of the cost of a Windows-based notebook. The C720 is priced at just $250. The cheapest normal ultrabook I could find for basic operations was more than $600.
So how does a Chromebook work, and how is it different from a regular notebook? First off, Chromebooks run the Google Chrome Operating System. This is a very svelte OS and doesn’t seem to give users too much control of how it performs. However, the advantage of this is that it’s incredibly quick. The C720 boots in less than 6 seconds. With a modest 1.4Ghz Intel Celeron chip, I was able to have multiple apps and browser windows open without seeing any hint of a slowdown. Also, devices plugged into either the USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 port were instantly available without having to transfer a bunch of drivers back and forth. I attached an older external hard drive to the USB port to test it out. Amazingly, the contents of the drive came right up in a window without any noticeable delay.
Another factor that may give some users pause is the fact that to do most tasks with a Chromebook, you need to be online. The login is tied to a user’s Gmail account, part of the Google ecosystem that the company is building. The advantage to this is that Android-based apps you have purchased on other devices, even your smartphone, are immediately available on your Chromebook too. And there are thousands of apps on the Chrome Web Store to add to your collection. The C720 has a 16G solid state hard drive, although you have to be online to get access to many applications. However, most productivity apps like Google Docs are available offline too.
While many of the criticisms in the “Pawn Stars” commercial were somewhat valid, to say they were exaggerated would be an understatement. One of their biggest complaints was Chromebooks couldn’t run Microsoft Office, which is true. However, they can open and edit Microsoft Word documents, on or offline, so that’s not going to be much of a concern for most users. When using Google Docs, users can collaborate and co-edit files using one of the nicest collaboration packages I’ve seen, especially when used alongside the HD webcam.
There are a few other major reasons why a Chromebook like the C720 would appeal to government users. For one, all data stored on the local the drive is encrypted. Unless a user picks a particularly weak Gmail password, nothing can be snooped if a device is stolen. It also supports multiple users, so someone could have one login for themselves and then another for their kids so they could play with all the fun and educational apps that are available without endangering any work data.
Also, all data can be configured to automatically upload to the cloud. The C720 comes with 100G of free storage space on Google Drive, and most Chromebooks have something like this, which basically extends the size of the drive without adding weight or cost to the main unit. With everything saved to the cloud as backup, even if a Chromebook becomes damaged or outright stolen, nothing is lost. The data can still be accessed using another Chromebook, a PC or even a smartphone.
I found the C720 has more than 8 hours of battery life during extensive testing, which is pretty darn impressive for a 2.5 pound notebook.
When I first started experimenting with the C720, I was a little wary of using it for anything important. However, its performance, security and the available applications eventually won me over. For someone who just works with email, surfs the Web and performs basic productivity tasks, a Chromebook is going to work just fine for the money invested. I won’t be tossing out my Windows notebooks, tablets and desktops anytime soon, but the next time I take a business trip, I may scoop up the little C720 and bring it along for the ride instead. I suspect it will be just fine as a worthy traveling companion.