Milestone: I'm recommending Chromebooks instead of Windows laptops for civilians

A process, that for Windows would have been fraught with all sorts of issues and fuss, was an instant no-brainer with the Chromebook.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Our third Chromebook arrived from Amazon yesterday. I only started using Chromebooks a few months ago, and now they're multiplying like rabbits.

For good reason: they just work.

I'll give you a moment of background and then I'll explain why I'm recommending Chromebooks to regular PC users -- and why you may soon find yourself doing the same thing.

I've talked before about my work styles. When I work on projects, I need a tremendous amount of performance and capability. But when I'm not working on projects, most of my work lives in my Web browser, and for that, a Chromebook is just fine.

Back in October, I bought my first Chromebook. I bought it because I was heading out of town and didn't want to lug around an expensive Ultrabook or my iPad, which -- with a keyboard and case -- is also expensive, breaking the thousand dollar mark.

The iPad is also less than useful to me for daily work, because the browser can't be customized with extensions. I rely on a series of extensions and working with the iPad often feels like typing with boxing gloves. It's clunky for real work.

Finally, I bought the Chromebook because it's my job: it's important for me to gain experience with these devices so I can tell you about them.

As it turned out, it was really pleasant to use. It was cheap at $249, and it had some unexpected side benefits. It's the side benefits that prompted this article.

Windows hassles vs. Chromebook

The Chromebook is astonishingly easy to set up. I know, most of you have installed Windows or other operating systems, and you have no difficulty doing so. Same for me. But the actual time and fiddly process of installing or tweaking Windows was highlighted with the Chromebook.

Setup for the Chromebook is five minutes. Power it up. Connect it to your network. Login and wait a few minutes for Chrome to do a quick system update and to download all your settings. Done.

By contrast, typical setup for a new Windows PC is long and drawn out. Boot it up (that alone can take a few minutes). Connect to the network. Dig through the Metro interface to find the new location for Windows Update. Run Windows Update. Go to dinner. Run Windows Update again. Install the Start8 program to get back your Start menu. Download Chrome. Set Chrome as your default browser. Remove all the crapware that came with the PC.

At best, you're talking an hour or more.

The PCs are also more expensive. A cheap PC starts at a hundred bucks or more over the Chromebook and if you want something that will really run Windows software well or is as light and small as the Chromebook, you're moving into two or three times the price of the Chromebook.

A few weeks after I bought my first Samsung Chromebook, the HP 11-inch unit came out, with a better screen and a mini-USB port for charging. I decided I liked that model better, so I returned the Samsung to Staples.

Now, think about what you have to do to prepare a PC with data to be returned or transfered. You need to run something like DBAN to zero out your hard drive, or go through a whole bunch of hoops to find the proper way to nuke an SSD.

You either need to put DBAN on optical media or download and put it on a USB key. Then, when you boot the computer, you have to set the computer to boot off of a different boot device than the default.

You might need to run DBAN overnight to make sure the drive was clean. But, once you do that, you have a machine that won't boot. So in order to give it back to the store in working order, you have to reinstall Windows, probably from a backup partition (if you didn't nuke that with DBAN, too).

Again, it's not hard for a technician, but it's not a five minute task. On the other hand, the Chromebook power wash feature is a five minute task.

If you want to prepare your Chromebook to transfer it to someone else, open Settings. Select power wash. Confirm. Done. Your Chromebook is factory fresh in about five minutes.

The rest of the story is on the next page...

Our second Chromebook

Last month, my wife needed to go out of town to tend to a 80-year-old sick relative who was starting to have difficulty managing her affairs. Part of the work Denise was going to do was help the relative catch up on financial affairs and make sure bills were being paid while in the hospital.

My wife didn't want to bring her favorite Ultrabook because she didn't want to expose it to the relatively rough-and-tumble environment of a hospital and care facility. She'd seen me with my Chromebook and wanted one for herself.

It was cheap enough, so we ordered one. When it came, my wife easily set it up. After all, it's just a matter of booting up, connecting to the network, and logging in.

Denise found the Chromebook very convenient to use, it connected to all the financial services she needed to work with, and Chrome was the Chrome she was familiar with at home.

Once again, it just worked.

Our third Chromebook

Last week, Denise took another trip to visit our relative. This time, the elderly woman was home from the hospital, which made everyone very happy. Unfortunately, something had happened to her Windows laptop and it wouldn't boot up.

While our relative wasn't up to managing financial affairs, she still wanted to keep in touch with family and friends, write, use her Gmail account, keep her calendar, and more.

Denise is a pretty sophisticated PC user, but she's not a technician. Although she's installed RAM and drives into machines, she doesn't really have the technical chops to field strip a broken laptop in the field and set it back to rights.

She thought about going out and buying our relative a new Windows laptop. Our relative was familiar with XP and Windows 7, but had never seen Windows 8. Denise didn't have the time to go through the Windows setup and update dance I described above, train our relative on Windows 8, buy and install Start8, and all the rest. It just wasn't practical.

On the other hand, Denise had her Chromebook. There was an easy answer. It took five minutes to power wash the thing, another five minutes to log our relative into her Google accounts, and they were up and running.

Denise left that Chromebook with our relative, and her replacement machine arrived on Monday. That's the third Chromebook I mentioned above. All told, transferring the machine to a new owner, configuring it to that owner, and setting up a replacement machine for Denise took 15 minutes. Total.

Chromebooks are for civilians

Now look, there's no way I'm going to stop using Windows machines. I'm writing this on one now. Tablets are also here to stay, but they're not laptops. Sure, you can add a keyboard and simulate a laptop, but that starts to both get pricey and fiddly.

By contrast, the Chromebook is drop-dead-simple. Five minutes and it's up and running. It's inexpensive. It's small, light, and easy to carry. It's the tried-and-true laptop form-factor with a keyboard and good-size display.

For people who don't need all that Windows has to offer, for those who live in their browsers, Gmail, Facebook, and such, for those who write simple documents and need simple spreadsheets or presentations, for those who just need to get something done quickly and easily, the Chromebook is an ideal choice.

But it wasn't until I realized how viable the suggestion of "just give her your Chromebook" was that it became clear. It was far more practical to recommend the Chromebook. A process, that for Windows, would have been fraught with all sorts of issues and fuss was an instant no-brainer with the Chromebook.

That brings us to this milestone. I am now recommending Chromebooks instead of Windows laptops for civilians. That's got to be a worry for Microsoft.

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