I've been a Linux user (traditional desktop Linux distributions) for years and years. And Android (which is also Linux, though I don’t really consider it a traditional Linux distro) has been one of my primary computing environments over the last year or so.
But there’s one Linux-based system that I've never really given a fair shot: ChromeOS.
Time to change that.
For the last five days I’ve been living completely on a Chromebook. All of my work and play has been done on this laptop: writing, email, graphic design…everything I do all day. During this experiment, I have had the good fortune of being able to use a Chromebook Pixel. So I should be having the optimal ChromeOS experience.
To start, I should say that I was extremely skeptical that I could get my daily work done on ChromeOS. With a few exceptions, my skepticism has proven to be rather misguided. This system is surprisingly capable of doing the vast majority of what I need a computer for.
I wasn't terribly worried about my ability to write under ChromeOS. Google Docs, after all, provides a pretty capable (if a tad lightweight) word processor. But, just the same, I’d be lying if I said I wasn't at least a little hesitant.
LibreOffice has been my writing home since…well since before it was LibreOffice. I’m used to it. It’s comfortable. And, perhaps even more importantly, my drive is overflowing with files in the OpenDocument Format.
It turns out that that hasn’t been an issue at all. Google Docs can import and export OpenDocument files like a champ. I've yet to hit a single formatting snag, which means that I've been able to continue working without even a slight hiccup.
Now, here is an area I was worried about. Living in ChromeOS meant two things that made my very soul tremble and quake with fear: No Gimp and no Inkscape. I rely on those two applications on a daily basis – how could I possibly find something that would take their place on a platform that is so heavily based around a web browser?
For most tasks, I found Pixlr Editor to be gosh-darned capable. Pixlr Editor is basically a free, web-based, layered graphics editor with a user interface that’s fairly similar to Gimp or Photoshop. To my surprise it was astoundingly fast (I have yet to feel like I’m sitting around waiting for a webpage to load) and pretty full-featured. It doesn't have quite the assortment of features and filters that you come to expect from Gimp or Photoshop, but it certainly does most of what you’ll need.
Finding a replacement for Inkscape has proven more challenging. Google Drawings is a pretty lightweight vector drawing application (I think it’s more focused on diagramming) that does a decent job. And, as a bonus, it exports as .svg (and .png/.pdf). It works in a pinch, but I’m still on the lookout for a more design-focused vector drawing application.
I mostly use Google Hangouts for instant messaging nowadays. So I was in good shape there. Hangouts, for obvious reasons, works wonderfully in ChromeOS. I’ve even been using Hangouts on ChromeOS for the majority of my phone calls this week. This is something I've been doing for quite some time on other gadgets, but it's nice to see it working well here on a Chromebook.
The only thing I missed was instant messaging with other networks – for which I’d relied on Pidgin. But that wasn't a huge deal.
Obviously, email is fine. Because, you know, web browser.
Google Play Music and Netflix work like a charm. So I can listen to music and watch The Tick to my heart’s content.
Games, however, are another story. There are plenty of web-based games, of course…but none have really grabbed my attention yet. There are also a few emulators available, but they aren’t exactly top notch at the moment. There is an NES emulator with no sound and a version of DOSBox that runs glacially slow.
The one area where things start to fall apart is audio and video editing. There are web-based tools available, but none that I’m ready to put the Bryan-Stamp-Of-Approval on just yet.
One nice touch, in this regard, is how ChromeOS handles USB audio and video devices.
I plugged in two different webcams (including a Logitech C920) and both worked great without even the slightest effort on my part. USB Audio devices, on the other hand, I haven’t had much success with (my Focusright 2i2 USB audio box is detected by ChromeOS, but it doesn't seem to function fully).
When you connect a USB audio device (or a set of headphones) the volume control user interface updates to show a little icon of the type of device connected (a pair of headphones or a USB icon). Clicking on it allows you to toggle between what device you want to use for input and what device you want to use for output (they can be different devices).
That user interface is just way too obvious, clean, and handy. Traditional Linux desktop distros could use a look at how ChromeOS handles UI. I dig it.
The 'Always Connected' Concern
I like the ability to be offline. If the power goes out, internet connection drops, or I’m just sitting in a cafe in the middle of nowhere, I still want to be able to get some work done.
I’m not exactly sure how well that works with ChromeOS yet. Everywhere I've gone so far has had good internet connectivity. So it just hasn’t been a problem. Maybe that means this is less of an issue that I think it is.
This next week, for part two of this review, I’ll simulate a blackout and see how things work out.
Going full-on Linux?
You'll notice that I haven't mentioned installing a traditional Linux distro on this Chromebook yet (either by dual booting or running Linux in a chroot via crouton). I’m trying to see how well I can live in plain, vanilla ChromeOS for the moment.
And, you know, so far it's working out rather well.
There are a few things I still need to overcome (figuring out a good vector graphics editor and getting USB audio input sorted out – I'm open to suggestions on those!) but, otherwise, I'm rather happy with this system. Far happier, in fact, than I thought possible.