7 days in the cloud: My week with the Samsung Chromebook

It was the best of devices; it was the worst of devices.

When I first agreed to write about a week working with nothing but a Samsung Series 5 Chromebook, I knew I was asking for trouble. Although I already knew and liked its Chrome Web-browser-based Linux operating system, ChromeOS, I also know how I work.

You see, on a normal day, I don't work on just any one computer, or even just one operating system. I usually work on at least three systems and one of those is always running Mint Linux, while another is usually running Ubuntu and one keeps flipping its little mind from Windows 7 to XP depending on what I'm doing to Windows that day. Me? Work on just one computer, and that a small laptop to boot? This wouldn't be easy.

But, brave soul that I am, I decided to give it a try. This is what I found. I warn you now, it's a tale of both triumph and tragedy. Well, OK, so it's really a story of what worked and what didn't work, but you get the idea.

Sunday: All is well with the world

It's Sunday, so how much work am I really going to get done in the afternoon? The answer is "not much." So all I tried to do with the Chromebook was the bare basics of cruising around the Web and reading e-mail. It was with this last that I ran into my first 'hitch' with the Chromebook.

[ 7 days in email hell ]

I use Gmailall the time, but I only use it for about 10% of my mail. The vast majority of my e-mail goes through my own Vaughan-Nichols & Associates domain. So, to get to that mail, I had to set up Gmail so that I could use it to get to my vna1.com Post Office Protocol (POP) server.

Now setting up a POP client, like Outlook or Thunderbird, to get mail from Gmail is pretty straightforward. Using Gmail as a client to a POP server, that's a bit more complicated.

To do this, you need to go to the Gmail's Gear icon on the upper right and go to Settings/Accounts and Import. On this tab, select "Add POP3 Account." You'll then be asked several questions about your POP account such as what port to use and whether your server uses Secure-Socket Layer (SSL) for the connection and so on.

So, while I was quickly reading all my e-mail from my Chromebook, if you use another system besides Gmail for your e-mail, I'd be sure to set this up when you have time to work on it and there's help available rather than setting out on a business trip and then finding out that you're in over your head as an e-mail admin.


Monday: So far, so good

I very rarely print anything. I think that if God had wanted us to still put marks on paper he wouldn't have given us a computer display. So, of course, today I had to print out a PDF form for a contract I'm working on. Reading the PDF document wasn't a problem. ChromeOS, and thus the Chromebook, comes with Adobe Reader functionality baked in. Printing from a Chromebook, that's a little tricker.

You see, while the Samsung has two USB 2.0 ports, ChromeOS doesn't directly support printers. Instead, you need to use Google Cloud Print. The only printers that directly support that at this time are the HP ePrint line. Fortunately, you can connect your old printer to the Google Cloud Print so you can use it instead. If that is, you have a printer that's accessible from a Windows or Mac OS PC. You can't do it -- yet -- from a Linux desktop but that's coming. See, I knew there was a reason I kept Windows PCs around!

To do this you need to download and enable the Google Cloud Print connector in your local PC's Chrome Web browser. It's pretty simple, and once you're done with it, all you need do is leave Chrome on your PC or Mac and you can print to any printer it can reach. In my own case none of the printers are attached directly to a PC. Instead my printers are connected to network printers that hang off an openSUSE 11.4 and Windows Server 2008 R2 server. Chrome doesn't care about that part though. If your resident PC with Chrome Cloud Print set up on it can find a printer, your Chromebook can use that printer.

Tuesday: Hate the touchpad; Love the battery.

Oddly, while the Samsung's touchpad is capable of multi-touch, two-finger scrolling is the only multi-touch command that it currently supports. It also has this nasty habit of not responding the way I think it should. When I'm still pressing on the touchpad, but not moving my finger, and I click I get a meta-menu instead of the click acting on the menu item my pointer is resting on.

So, I've given up on the touchpad and I'm now using a mouse via the USB port instead. Life is much better now. Here's a hint to all laptop vendors everywhere. Pony up the money for the IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad pointer interface and use it instead. It's been better than any touchpad I've ever found for about a decade now.

That was the day's bad news. On the plus side, I've finally had to plug the Chromebook in for a recharge. I've managed to get over twelve hours of useful work from one battery charge. I like this. I like this a lot.

Wednesday: A certain lack of documentation gets in the way

Normally, I'm not the kind of person who reads documentation. You see, I make a living from analyzing technology. In an hour, I can get the hang of a new operating system. In four hours, I can tell you what's wrong with it. That said, there are some times even someone like me needs documentation. And, boy does the Chromebook not have documentation.

For example, I wanted to take some simple screenshots of the Chromebook in action. It turns out that's really easy -- press control and the windows button and the shot's taken. The shots are stored on the Samsung's built-in solid-state drive (SSD). To get there, you bring up the file manager -- Control and the M key -- and head to the File Shelf > Screenshots directory. But, to figure that out, I had to search around, with Google of course, to find out how to do it. I don't know about you, but I don't like having to search for how to do something as basic as taking a screenshot and getting to the file manager.

Just finding the Chromebook keyboard shortcuts can be a pain. Even more annoying, the keyboard combo "Ctrl-Alt-?", which is meant to show you the keyboard overlay for all the keyboard shortcuts doesn't show all of them. Believe it or not, Ctrl-M, the keyboard combo that opens up the file manager, isn’t on the overlay. What were they thinking?!

Before turning this story in, I checked and there was a new ChromeOS update. I installed it. Guess what? Ctrl-M for the file manager still isn't on the overlay. Ack!

[ 7 days using only keyboard shortcuts: No mouse, no trackpad, no problem? ]

Thursday: File Type Confusion

So far, I've been doing all my work quite happily. I've been writing stories in Google Docs and life has been good. The 802.11n network connection has been working like a champ and all is well. Then, I get a WinWord Doc file from an editor that needs work. "No problem," I think. I download the file, open up the file manager, and click to open it: Problem.

While Google Docs is, of course, the default document editor, and can handle both .DOC and DOCX file formats with aplomb, it turns out ChromeOS doesn't know what to do with these file formats. It also can't figure out what to do with LibreOffice's ODF. When I double-clicked all I got was an unknown file type error message.

It turns out that while various Google programs "know" what to do with various file formats, no one has connected the dots for ChromeOS's file manager. It does understand that it should either show you or use the Picasa Web site to work with graphics, but the only way I've found so far to determine what ChromeOS will do with a local file type is to try to open it up and see what, if anything, happens. This is unacceptable.


Friday: Dropbox and other applications

So the next day I got a clever idea. If the file manager can't figure out file types, maybe I could loop around this problem by using Dropbox. I was wrong. First, Dropbox doesn't work with ChromeOS. I find that really annoying since Dropbox works with practically all my other devices up to and including my Android phone and my iPad.

There are lots of other programs available through the Chrome Web Store that work just fine with my Chromebook, but that fundamental problem with working with files directly still grates on me. I know the Chromebook is meant to be used online 99% of the time, but the SSD is there so you can still do something with local files when you're offline. Or, at least I thought that was the case anyway.

Saturday: Summing up

When all is said and done I found the Chromebook to be annoying and excellent. When it did things right, it was great. It's fast for its size and processor, it's light, it lasts forever and the the screen is a pleasure to use.

But, and this is a big but, there are some fundamentals, like the lack of documentation and that blasted file manager, that really annoy me.

In addition, although it didn't bother me in this go-around, the limited support for Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and, once again, the poor documentation, would drive many business users up the wall. Oh, and by the way, Google... What the heck is the Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol/Internet Protocol Security (L2TP/IPSec) VPN doing as an 'experimental' feature in a shipping operating system? I mean, come on, it's a Web-enabled operating system, don't you think a fully-supported VPN is pretty much a necessity? I do.

Looking ahead, though, Google is already working on improving ChromeOS. In a few months time, I'm sure Google will have fixed all these problems. Come that day, I'll be able to recommend a Chromebook to anyone who wants to use a handy workingman's laptop. For now, though, only early adopters should bother with it. It's just not ready for primetime yet.

Read this next: 7 days without social media

This story, "7 days in the cloud: My week with the Samsung Chromebook" was originally published by ITworld.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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