My month with the Acer C710 Chromebook

A whole month with nothing but a Chromebook to use for writing, browsing, image editing, emailing, and communicating. It wasn't easy, but it was easier than I imagined.
Written by Ken Hess, Contributor

If you recall, back on January 31st, I proclaimed that "February 2014 is Chromebook month for me". Little did I realize what I was getting myself into and I almost backed out because I thought it would be impossible. Doing anything new for thirty days is pretty tough. When I first thought of the idea, it seemed like it was going to be fun and easy. February 1st was no picnic for me and I was scared to start this Chromebook-centered test.

So, my three pound companion and I set off on a thirty day partnership to explore the strangeness of a browser-based, no applications—in the traditional sense of the word, minimal operating system called Chromium. As a former Chemist, I feared my exposure to Chromium would be harmful until I found that it wasn't the much loathed heavy metal hexavalent chromium of my days in the lab.

This Chromium (Chrome OS) had much more promise than that of the aforementioned carcinogenic variety. In either case, I saw it as a challenge and as a chance to overcome my fear of not using a "standard" operating system.

Figure 1: The Chromebook Shelf

The first few days were a little painful because I kept looking for my regular applications. You see, since my personal conversion to the Mac mini, I look to the application dock at the bottom of the screen. At work (Windows 7), I rely on a half screen full of icon shortcuts and a taskbar for easy access to applications. In Chrome, you have the analogous "Shelf" where you can create shortcuts to your favorite apps. On mine, as you can see in Figure 1, I have the Chrome browser, Gmail, Google Drive, Files, Dropbox, and YouTube.

On Chrome, you have apps that collect themselves into a little box in the bottom left corner of your screen, (See Figure 1) where the Windows Start button (Windows 7 and back) resides.

"If you can use a browser, you're already competent with a Chromebook".

There's not a lot to tell about working with the Chromebook, unless you've never used a browser or the Chrome browser, specifically. All apps are Chrome browser-based. Even ones such as SSH are browser-based. This is not particularly offputting to those of us who've used web-based management tools such as my favorite, Webmin.

The Chromebook, other than being basically a browser-based operating system—at least on the surface, but at its core, it's Linux. Having Linux as the operating system brings the user experience to a new level of enjoyment. That enjoyment comes in the form of no reboots due to constantly arriving patches, annoying freezes, or other anomalies. It comes in the form of a responsive and out-of-the-way user interface. There are just no hassles with a Chromebook. 

The Chromebook receives updates automatically, but allows you to choose when to install and restart the system. The Chromebook is easy to use. If you can use a browser, you're already competent with a Chromebook.

If you need an application to perform some task that you can't find via a standard browser search, Google provides an App Store for you to use. Apps are basically website shortcuts that perform a specific function. For example, I was worried that I wouldn't be able to edit pictures with the Chromebook. I need to edit stock photos and my own photos for ZDNet posts and other gigs as well.

I found the Pixlr Editor app to assist me with that. Pixlr allows me to open images from a variety of sources, edit them with a range of tools, and then save it to my computer (including Google Drive as an option), to a Pixlr library, to Facebook, to Flickr, or to Picasa. Problem solved.

I used Google Docs for my word processing and storing files. Google Docs, regardless of what you've heard or read, is very handy and never fails me. If you haven't tried it, give it more than a cursory look to see for yourself. 

The one problem I did have was finding a Skype replacement. I discovered Google's Hangouts, which allows you to make voice calls using your Google Voice number. The Chromebook has a camera so all calls are video calls unless you disable that feature.

You can see a good example of a Hangout call with the gang from Practical Chrome Podcast and me for their 13th Episode titled, "Tell me what you really think"*. The guys and I discussed all sorts of topics but we focused on my Chromebook experiment, which I used for the podcast. My sound wasn't great and I should have used my headphones but not having a lot of experience with sound and video on the Chromebook, I just used my earbuds and the Chromebook's builtin microphone to pick up my voice. That was a bad idea.

The other guys had headsets and I should have followed their lead by using an external device. In all, it went pretty well. I apologized to them for my bad sound but the video quality is pretty darn good, so it's not all bad news.

So, if you're going to use the Chromebook for phone calls or video calls in Hangouts or any other such app, then use a quality USB headset. USB, they tell me, has better noise cancelling than the standard sound and microphone input jacks do.

My experience with the Chromebook was good. There were really two things that kept my experience from being great: the lack of Skype and no way to interact with the system via a terminal window**.

So, if you're looking for a recommendation, I'll give you one. Go get yourself a Chromebook. It's more than a tablet and less than a regular computer. It's very light and is an "instant on" computer, so you don't waste time watching it boot up. As soon as you open the lid, it's on and ready for you to login. It does almost everything that a regular computer can do and it does it without all the hassles.

*As I told them on the show (referring to the show title), "They must be familiar with my work".

**There is a minimal terminal window where you can do a very short list of things. It's not enough for those of us who like to tinker a bit. For that, there's the developer mode, which is a drastic system intrusion, but more on that in another post.

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