Understanding Chromebooks


Introduction

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I have taken the plunge and acquired a Chromebook which I am using as my main computer. I have been using a Windows laptop for many years, beginning with Windows 2000 and then Windows 7 about 5 years ago. Now Microsoft has released Windows 10, and keeps reminding me, ad nauseum,  to “upgrade”. After its disastrous Windows 8/8.1 release – I thought that I would try a different solution. As my phone uses Google Android, with which I am more than pleased, a Google Chrome OS-based notebook could have some extra benefits. I thought.

After reading some reviews about Chromebooks I decided on the Dell Chromebook 13, model 7310, with an Intel Celeron 1.5 GHz processor, 4GB of RAM and 16GB of SSD memory – which   apparently may be increased. The build quality, screen resolution and backlit keyboard are all near best-in-class. I was keen to explore its capabilities – and limitations.

I had read that there is a surge of interest in the use of Chromebooks by the education sector, in some cases replacing iPads, and I wondered why that should be the case. So, if you want to know, read on.

Setting Up

After connecting the battery charger and switching it on, followed by the on-screen prompts, logging into a WI-Fi internet router it was ready to go. There was an update to the Chrome OS which took seconds. After logging into Gmail everything that is Google related was there on the screen running under the Chrome browser. The browser automatically imported, if that is the right word, all my bookmarks and tabs, which I could organise as on a Windows laptop. The “task bar” in Windows is called the “shelf” in Chrome OS, and can be moved from the bottom of the screen to the side. The most important icon is for “settings”, which hides under a customisable photo on the right hand bottom corner. When you minimise settings it sits in the taskbar as a separate icon.

The first thing I noticed about the keyboard is the different layout compared with Windows. The trackpad is also different – it has no left and right buttons. Left click is a click on the left of the track pad.  Right click is a two-finger tap on the track pad.

A big change (for me) is the lack of a  “home” button. When you are at the end of a document or web page and want to get back to the top without using the up arrow, it’s very convenient to press the “home” button on a Windows laptop. The Chromebook keyboard doesn’t have a “home” button. There is a shortcut which involves pressing the Ctrl+Alt+up arrow buttons, which seems to me to be a cumbersome procedure for a machine supposedly optimised for web access.

Another odd choice by the designers is the lack of a “screen shot” button for saving an image or web page. There is an alternative which uses the Ctrl + “window switcher” buttons. Again, another strange choice for a web-optimised machine. The “window switcher” button is new to me.  It collapses the current window and displays 5 previously opened windows plus the current window arranged on the desktop. Useful if you want to flip between recently viewed screens. Not sure how useful I will find it. In fact, there are many keyboard shortcuts, which will take some time to explore.  These can be revealed by pressing Ctrl+Alt+? which brings up a keyboard on screen, and then pressing Ctrl or Alt to see different options.

As part of my research, before buying a Chromebook, I found this article comparing Chromebooks and low-priced Windows laptops. This shows in some detail how the two machine types differ in concept and capability – and more limitations of Chromebooks – none of which I care about! What I do care about are those items described below.

Noise and Speed

Now for some better news. There is no noise from a fan trying to keep the CPU cool. In a Windows laptop, protected by McAfee from viruses, the CPU is always working at checking things, scanning, protecting and updating. This takes a lot of memory and CPU resources from time to time. And when it does, things get noisy as the fan runs at full tilt. On a Chromebook, at least mine, I have yet to hear the fan do anything. In fact the machine barely gets warm. So it’s silent, totally silent. And – despite the processor being “slower” than my Windows laptop – it has more resources free to do what I want it to do. And it shows, with much faster webpage loading.  So it’s also quicker, as well as quieter, with no sight, so far, of the dreaded “Flash is not responding” message. Two big bonuses for me!

Reboot, where is Alt+Ctrl+Del?

I had my first problem with the Chromebook when the screen froze. There was an incoming message on Hangouts with a lot of photos,  while I was looking at a different page and everything stopped. No mouse cursor, no keypad operation.  And, in Chrome OS there is no Alt+Ctrl+Del to get access to task manager. So I had to restart by pressing the refresh+power buttons. This rebooted the machine within 5 seconds! Problem solved – everything was working properly again.

Task manager (search+esc) in Chrome OS is a sparse and minimal service and bears no resemblance to the comprehensive Windows offering. You cannot, for example, see how much free RAM is available, or processor loading. But, so far, there is no reason for me to find out because, unlike using Windows, I don’t need to know – almost everything runs smoothly. But it would be nice to have it. There is an alternative for geeks however. By typing chrome://system in a browser tab, a complete list of all system operations is revealed. This includes how much free memory there is, apparently.

File Management and Memory

Chromebooks have fast but low capacity (starting at 16GB) SSD for storing the operating system, documents, apps and anything you want to store locally. There is also on-line storage – currently 100GB free for two years – for backing up or using as your main drive. Local storage can also be supplemented using a plug-in SD card. And, as mentioned earlier, the Dell Chromebook SSD can be upgraded if you need extra local storage.

Using file manager, selecting the “downloads” sub directory, and clicking the three dots icon, shows how much free memory there is on the SSD; in my case 8.4GB. That’s all the information available; no idea what is taking up the rest of the 16GB of memory, but most of it is presumably the Chrome OS.

Random access memory -RAM- can also be expanded, either physically or virtually using data compression. This creates a “swap” file. (A swap file is a space on a SSD used as the virtual memory extension of a computer’s RAM memory. Having a swap file allows the computer’s operating system to pretend that you have more RAM than you actually do.) By pressing Ctrl+Alt+T the Chrome Shell opens. This is a bit like DOS and can be used for debugging and to modify the operating system.  Anyway it can be used to set up a 2GB swap file by typing “swap enable 2000”.

How about managing files?  There is a file manager accessed by Alt+shift+M. This opens a window which shows various “drives” and storage devices and directories where items may be stored, starting with Google drive.

My Drive;  the space allocated to my Chromebook. Within that are several sub directories;

  • Chrome OS Cloud Backup; which stores anything you want to put there by ticking the popup box that appears when you want to save something. It includes two sub directories;
  • Google Photos; which stores all your photos on line.
  • Shared with me; seems to be a random selection of documents other people have sent me. Can be deleted.
  • Recent; seems to hold a random selection of files that my computer has opened at some time, including this document. Cannot be deleted.
  • Offline; seems to be a selection of documents that can be opened when offline. No idea how they got there. Includes this document. Cannot be deleted. Chrome OS automatically manages whether a file is available offline or not, so there doesn’t appear to be a way to remove the offline copy of a file. However, you can force a file to be available offline – right-click a file and ensure the “available offline” option is unticked. If this option is ticked, your Chromebook will always keep an offline copy of this file, taking up more space.

 

Downloads; files downloaded from the web that are stored on the local SSD by default unless you specify an alternative destination in settings. (If the SSD is full they will be deleted automatically). Can be copied, moved or deleted. The downloads subdirectory contents can be moved to an external SD card to free up SSD memory by dragging and dropping files and then deleting the moved files from the downloads subdirectory.

Some or all of these are synced in some way between the Chromebook and Google drive. Settings provides a check box but it’s as clear as mud.

Then there are files stored on an SD card, in various sub directories which you set up.

Basically I’m baffled by this and hope I get to understand it over time. Google help doesn’t.

Photo Management

One of the strengths of Google’s product range is Picasa, the photo management program, which allows you to upload from your camera to a well organised directory, edit photos and store them online, very simply and efficiently. Unfortunately there is no Picasa for Chromebooks. This is a huge omission!

So you have to find something else that will do a similar job. Firstly file management and organising photos relies on the file manager described above, which is a black art. It is not possible, for example, to export photos from the photo editor to my Picasa online album without first exporting them to file manager, where they are already stored (before any edits). Secondly, to edit photos there are several apps available in the Google Web Store. I chose Polarr, which provides enough options for me to edit my snaps. Except it doesn’t do collages. So I use Collage Maker by Fotor for that. To store my edited photos to my online Picasa album used to be easy – now I have to copy them manually from Chromebook. I may have to use my Windows pc again until Google comes up with a solution!

Update: Chromebook has an integrated image editor. It’s not listed in the Chrome app launcher – you have to open the file manager and then an image file.  Double-click an image and it will open in the “gallery”, an image viewer with a slideshow and some image-editing features, including automatic saving to drive and a sharing feature via email.

Using an Android phone to unlock the Chromebook

There is a feature called “smartlock” which recognises your smartphone and unlocks the Chromebook when it’s close by – assuming you have enabled “require password to wake from sleep” box ticked in settings. This is also set up using a simple procedure in settings. The phone has to be unlocked, so the Chromebook is automatically unlocked without entering a password. So choose a simple PIN on the phone otherwise you end up having to enter a password on the phone instead of on the Chromebook and you are no better off. Alternatively, don’t bother with passwords!

Talking about “sleep”. When you close the lid of the notebook the screen switches off.  There is no way to set up what happens when you close the lid – like in a Windows machine where you may choose between shutdown, hibernate and sleep – although there is a “keep awake” app from Google to provide some activity when the lid is closed.

Using Google Docs

Everyone knows that Google has the equivalent of Microsoft Office available which allows documents to be prepared online and automatically stored in Google drive. This document was prepared using the “word” program.

Conclusions

If you spend most of the time online and doing internet related things a Chromebook takes some beating. If you want to understand what’s happening “under the hood”, Chrome OS is very basic.  If you want to create documents, edit photos and manage files, Chrome OS just about cuts the mustard, but could be better.

However, a Chromebook gets my vote simply because it’s quiet, works quickly and is secure. The rest is secondary.

 

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2 thoughts on “Understanding Chromebooks

  1. You make this sound a good choice. When we were asked to go to Windows 10 I really found some things not so good. Now I am used to it again. What I hate in the noise. My computer is really soundless but hubby’s and son’s laptop are both noisy!AriadnefromGreece!

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