Tuesday, 19 May 2015

My first Chrome OS experience (Acer C720P review)


Have you ever noticed just how much of our daily lives is actually spent online? Or how much we can do online that we used to have to do offline? We can buy movie tickets, book flights and hotels, we can listen to music and watch TV shows or movies, we can connect with friends and family, or even people from other countries, we can shop, we can apply for work, we can pay bills, we can manage our bank accounts, we can play multiplayer games with people all over the world, we can basically do almost anything online. This is why Google decided to challenge the traditional idea of what a computer is, and come up with a new way of computing that's more suitable with our "always-online" lifestyles. Google came up with a new operating system based around the Chrome browser called Chrome OS. For those of you who still don't know what Chrome OS is, this video explains the concept perfectly. Being somewhat of a tech geek myself, I was always interested in trying out Chrome OS. I didn't need a Chromebook back when I first started taking interest, but I recently started working and needed a laptop for work, and so I got myself the Acer C720P Chromebook, and it's been great. I've been sharing my experiences with it on Google+, and now after about three weeks here's a detailed post on what I think about the C720P as a Chromebook, and what I think about Chrome OS as an operating system.


"A new type of computer"
The C720 (and later the touchscreen C720P) was always a favourite of mine, even before I was considering buying a Chromebook. Many reviews praised the great value of the product, offering a great Chromebook experience at a very reasonable price. For me, a smaller and lighter Chromebook was preferable since I would be taking it with me to work, and the C720P fulfilled that need. I got the white model which I think was a good decision. Looks really nice, whereas a black/grey model would've been a little dull I think. The lid is a smooth plastic, like really smooth. Feels nice, but tends to get a little dirty from going in and out of my bag. Luckily though, some wet tissue is all that's needed to wash the smudges away. Opening the lid however can be a bit of a struggle. With no groove or notch to grab onto, you'll find opening the lid a little more difficult than it should be. Another good thing about the white model is that the black keyboard stands out, giving it some nice contrast compared to a black keyboard on a black/grey model.

Speaking of the keyboard, at first it felt a little shallow to me, which was a common criticism in many reviews I read. I guess it's expected? Since the laptop is kinda small and thin, and I imagine many other laptops of this size have a similar keyboard as well. But after using it pretty much daily for a few weeks, I've grown accustomed to the feel of typing on it. I haven't however gotten used to the "laptop layout" of a keyboard. Coming from a full desktop keyboard, I always find myself hitting the wrong keys due to muscle memory. I also dislike not having a Home, End, and Delete key, which I always use on my desktop, but that's probably a compromise that comes with using a small laptop. Less space for the keyboard. There are shortcuts in Chrome OS for those buttons, but pressing "ctrl + alt + up arrow" for home is a tad inconvenient. Remembering every other keyboard shortcut (and there are a lot) is a much bigger inconvenience. But again, that's probably not a problem specific to the C720P, but to small laptops in general. A change that I do like is the removal of traditional function keys and replacing them with more suitable "browser" keys. Instead of having function keys with hidden functions, the C720P (and other Chromebooks) comes with browser specific keys like "back", "forward", and "refresh". There's also a "full screen" key, and an "Overview" key for easy task switching (like on Android). Then you have your brightness and volume keys, and lastly the power key. I love how the power key is actually part of the keyboard instead of being placed somewhere else to stick out like a sore thumb.
I've come to enjoy using the C720P keyboard. Source
The touchpad on the C720P is very smooth. I remember being surprised by it when I first used it. I've owned several Windows laptops in the past, and the touchpads were always a little rough, probably to give users some friction or tactility when using it. But I prefer this smooth texture more. Probably because I've become so used to using a smartphone, which of course comes with smooth glass on the front. Another similarity to smartphone scrolling is the option to enable Australian scrolling on the Chromebook. Instead of scrolling up with two fingers on the touchpad to scroll up on the screen, you scroll down on the touchpad to scroll up on the screen, and vice versa. Which is exactly how it works on smartphones. Chrome OS also comes with a lot of other touchpad gestures, like scrolling up with three fingers to open the Overview. You can also scroll sideways with three fingers in your browser to switch tabs, or scroll left and right with two fingers to go back or forward in your tab. 

On most laptops, those would be the only two input options. But like both generations of Google's Chromebook Pixel, the C720P comes with a touchscreen. Most people might think that a touchscreen on a laptop doesn't really make sense. Then again, a Chromebook is an attempt at redefining what a computer is. In the past, touchscreens might have seemed weird on computers and laptops, but we are now living in a world where almost everyone is accustomed to using touch input on their phones and tablets. So why should touch input be weird on Chromebooks as well? I've certainly found it useful on more than one occasion. Like when I'm just scrolling through my Google+ stream, I just scroll on the screen instead of needing to use the touchpad. Or when I drag my finger across the screen to crop images I want to save. Or when I use my finger to move layers around when I'm creating images in Pixlr. (BTW, using the touchscreen hides the cursor until you use the touchpad again. Small detail, but a good one). I've traditionally preferred using a mouse when using a laptop, because a small touchpad wasn't good enough for me. The limited space made moving the cursor across the screen a hassle. How many times have you needed several swipes on the touchpad to move the cursor from one side of the screen to the other? With the C720P, all I need to do is touch on the screen to "click" a link or a button, instead of having to swipe several times on the touchpad to move the cursor. Having a touchscreen has pretty much eliminated my need for a mouse. That's how useful the touchscreen has become for me.



The display on the C720P has a resolution of 1366 x 768 which isn't great, but considering how most of my media consumption is done on my desktop at home which has a large 1080p display, it's sufficient. I do watch a few YouTube videos on occasion while at work, and on a small 11.6" display that resolution is good enough. Speakers are really loud on this machine. I always just keep the volume at around 40%-50% and it's loud enough for me to hear the audio clearly. The built-in media player is quite cool too. It has a borderless-window design, which makes it look like it just floats above everything else. Remember that "full screen" key I mentioned earlier? If you press it while viewing a video in that windowed mode, it automatically goes full screen. Pressing it again takes it back into windowed mode. And when playing audio, there's a small popup from the bottom right corner which can be detached and placed anywhere on the screen. Google's Material Design is really evident in the media player. In addition to the Files app, the app "launcher", and Calculator, which all look perfectly in sync with Google's other Material Designed products.

So what about Chrome OS? How does an operating system which is primarily an internet browser work in day-to-day use? How useful is it offline? How big of a limitation is it not being able to install programs like on Windows or Mac OS? Well for starters, lets get the notion that Chromebooks are useless without an internet connection out of the way. Like I said in my intro, we now live in a world where we spend most of our time on a computer on the internet. So any time any of our devices is without an internet connection, regardless if it's an iPhone, an Android, a MacBook or a Windows computer, it instantly losses a huge chunk of functionality. A Chromebook is no different. Without an internet connection, you can't use e-mail, you can't browse social media, you can't do online banking, you can't stream music or video, you can't use instant messaging, all the things you can't do without an internet connection is the same regardless of what device you use. So no, a Chromebook is not completely useless without an internet connection. If you have any music or videos stored locally or in an external drive, you can still consume media offline. If you have any documents or spreadsheets you need to work on, you can do so offline. Games however, is another story.
I lost internet connectivity one day at work. Didn't stop me from using my Chromebook.

You can play games offline on your Chromebook, but the only kinds of games you can play (both online and offline) are Chrome apps. There are a few popular titles like Cut the Rope and Angry Birds, and countless others in the Chrome web store, but gaming is just one example of the real limitation of Chrome OS - the inability to install programs. If you are the kind of person who absolutely must have any kind of Windows program on your computer, Chrome OS may not be suitable for you. There are of course online alternatives, but like Microsoft's own online Office suite, the full desktop versions are much more powerful than their online counterparts. Google Drive apps are sufficient, I did do all of my Master's thesis writing in Google Docs, but I needed Excel for my research data analysis. Google Sheets was good for recording my data, not for analysing it. The same can go for Photoshop alternatives like Pixlr and Sumo Paint. And as for gaming, there really is no online alternative other than simple Chrome apps.

So now that we got the weaknesses out of the way, what exactly is so great about Chrome OS? It is after all, nothing more than a browser on steroids. Well, that's exactly why it's so great. If all you do on a computer is go online, if all your computing tasks can be completed in a browser, then Chrome OS is perfect for you. Chrome OS removes all the extra fluff that comes with other operating systems, and just throws you straight into your browser. The simplicity and ease of use is evident from the very first time you boot the system up. Upon opening the C720P for the first time, I was greeted by a white splash screen, and taken straight to the setup page. By the way, opening the lid turns the Chromebook on automatically without needing the power button to be pressed. Very convenient. After signing in to my Google account, that was it. Setup was complete. Just like that. My profile photo was already there, my Chrome preferences, bookmarks, apps, and extensions were installed automatically, and, well, that's it! The ease with which a Chromebook can be setup is a great first impression which really represents the simplicity of the platform.
This was basically the only setup I needed to do.

And every time I open the lid of my Chromebook, that simplicity continues to shine through. After opening the lid, the sign-in page is there in just a few seconds, and after signing in the browser will automatically launch and my pre-set tabs will automatically populate the browser, so I can get straight to my tasks. With an extremely quick boot up and an automatically launching browser, it's clear how user friendly this operating system really is, getting you online with minimal effort and minimal delay. Some features which are usually programs in Windows are actually built right into Chrome OS. The media player for example, isn't a "program" you can launch, it launches when you open a media file. Another example is you can easily take a full screenshot by pressing "ctrl + Overview", or take a partial screen shot with "crtl + shift + Overview", and it will be saved instantly. On Windows, I would either need to launch the Snipping Tool, or press the "print screen" button and paste in paint to get an image. 

Updates is another aspect of computing that Chrome OS handles brilliantly. Instead of forcing you to restart your computer to install updates, which can take several very long minutes, Chrome OS updates in the background as you use it. Zero interruptions. The next time you boot up or restart your Chromebook, the updates will have already been installed. Another benefit of Chrome OS is that you don't need any sort of anti-virus program. It's already built right in, and updates itself along with Chrome OS. Besides, without the ability to install programs, most executable malware just won't work on Chrome OS. The only real security threat would be if you install malware posing as Chrome apps and extensions. Even then, Google has already made a stand against apps and extensions which are not in the web store, blocking their installation in a bid to further tighten security.
Annoying updates don't bother you on Chrome OS.

There are a few things I think Chrome OS could improve on. Smart Lock for starters could use some optimisation. It's just too slow to be useful. I can type in my password faster than it can detect my smartphone. It is in beta after all, so hopefully the final version will be much improved. Also, there is quite a bit of a learning curve to using keyboard shortcuts and touchpad gestures. There is a very handy guide built-in that you can always refer to, but I think it would've been better if there were hints and tips that would popup once in a while for the first few days of use, just to ease people into it.

Lastly, just some general performance notes from my usage. I got the 2GB model, and throughout my usage I haven't come across any stumbling blocks in performance. No slow downs, no stutters, no crashes or freezing. Having said that, if the 4GB model wasn't RM400 more expensive (the 2GB model was on sale, thus the large price gap), I probably would've gotten the 4GB model, just in case. Battery life is adequate for a single day of moderate use. My C720P is my sole computer at work, and it has never died on me. The lowest it ever got was 9%. Disclaimer though, I work in a lab, so my time is split between doing lab work and using my Chromebook. As always when it comes to battery life, your mileage may vary. The C720P doesn't have an ethernet port, so you'll need a USB-ethernet adapter if WiFi is a problem for you. And finally, my keyboard language setting was changed from US to UK on several occasions, and I have no idea why or how it happened.

Now, how do I end this post? If you're wondering if you should get a Chromebook, you first need to ask yourself if you can survive on Chrome OS. Even though I think Chrome OS will easily fulfil many people's needs, at the same time it also can't fulfil many others'. The only reason I am able to survive with a Chromebook is because I already have a Windows desktop at home. So all my media consumption, gaming, and if necessary, Microsoft Office use can be done at home. Besides, in some cases having a larger desktop monitor trumps a small laptop screen. I wouldn't dare use Chrome OS exclusively. Not in its current form anyway. But if you can live in your browser, if you have no need for Windows/Mac programs, and you do little to no gaming, then Chrome OS will suit your needs better than any other operating system. Get a Chromebox for home or the office, or a Chromebook for the road, or even a Chromebit for your living room. I'm sure you'll be just as impressed with Chrome OS as I am.