I switched my main Macbook pro out for a Chromebook for a week. This is how I got on.
I picked up a Asus Chromebook flip for £147 on Ebay. This was a little over a 10th of what I paid for my Macbook Pro that was a year old at the time, £1300.
Why would I make such a insane move? Well price, portability and curiosity. I have far to much of the later.
I’d read stories of others making the switch and I figured that as a web developer I didn’t need the power of my Macbook. I was very curious if I could make the switch too and whether I would appreciate the benefits of a versatile and light weight machine. I read many stories of people successfully switching to a Chromebook and other lightweight alternative machines like development on a iPad, surface pro or some sort of high bred.
But then just because you could, doesn’t mean you should. Would it impact productivity? How much would you need to be out and about to justify it. Mostly, would I miss my Macbook Pro. Well I certainly wouldn’t sell it until I’d answered these questions.
The idea of having one device that I could travel really easily with, use as a tablet, play android games on, plug into my monitor was super appealing.
But would it work?
Not the main motivator to me, as productivity is the most important factor, but it would be nice to get another grand in my account by selling my Macbook. There was always something very nerve wrecking about that Macbook too. The idea of dropping it, spilling water on it, having it stolen or having the motherboard break was terrifying. With a cheap laptop your not that worried if you scratch it or break. Not that I would mistreat any piece of tech, but I can certainly afford to relax a bit.
A 13” Macbook is pretty portable too but this 11” Chromebook is the ultimate in portability at just 0.89kg. My wife’s Macbook air is 1.4kg. When I travel it’s nice to be able to throw this in my backpack and hardly notice it’s there.
It’s really nice writing on this machine. Even though the keyboard is a little cramped, it doesn’t seem to be impacting me too much. It feels convenient to pick this up and start writing out my thoughts. There is little distraction and little to interfere with the process. It’s on my table I open the lid and just start writing. With my laptop it tends to be in it’s bag as it takes up more space on the coffee table.
When I have a idea, it’s nice to have little friction from idea to typing. This Chromebook provides that.
The keyboard is fine, it’s not as nice as using the Air or Pro keyboard, but it far from bad.
Access to USB drive
This was a big downside for me and to a large degree thwarted my plans. No one had mentioned this in any article I read. There is no access to SD and USB devices from android apps! I couldn’t find any workarounds either. Considering the limited storage on most chromebooks, not having access to those is pretty rubbish.
I had planed to use android apps to aid my development, knowing that chrome apps would be limited. So if your planning to do this then make sure that you get a bigger SSD so you aren’t relying on external storage.
I prefer using external storage regardless of space so I can quickly switch between my machines.
The android storage is emulated and only gives you access to the internal folders. Creating a symlink to a internal folder just showed an empty folder.
Android & Linux
I really liked the idea of having both Android and Linux. Unfortunately I made an error, I got a Chromebook with the arm architecture. This means my access to Linux software is limited as I absolutely refuse to get involved in compiling ( been there, didn’t love it ).
So that means that if it wasn’t for android, I would mostly just have the Chrome Apps with the exception of a the few Linux apps that where available to me. I have gimp and transmission but I don’t have Atom ( editor ), Plex ( media server ) or Sublime Text ( editor ).
If you have a Intel processor then Linux software will have all you need for programming. But generally creative apps are rather limited. With android you have a bigger selection of creative apps. It’s nice to have access to the android Lightroom for example.
Yes you could run wine, but that’s another area I refuse to get into again. Too much hassle. That’s why I’ve been using OSX for years, before I had to duel boot Linux and Windows. Android is filling in a few gaps that ( unfortunately ) are missing for me in Linux. Only you don’t have to reboot, android apps run natively and Linux is assessable with a few key strokes.
If you have an ARM processor then having android becomes more important because otherwise you only have access to the limited chrome and online apps. Which would probably do, but I don’t think that I’d be too happy not having the android apps.
What size screen? Plenty of developers work on an 11 inch device. But it’s not for everyone, it’s going to largely depend on what your doing. If you like to have your editor next to your design then it probably wont do. But if your for the most part in your editor and don’t need them next to each other I think that 11 inch does fine.
It’s certainly nice to have the extra portability of a 11 inch device.
But to be honest, it’s really something you have to trial to be sure how it would work for you. If your keen on not having to switch out to a 13 device ( say your buying new ). Then the 13” device is definitely the safer bet. If you don’t need the ultra portability of a 11″, then I would definitely advise going for a 13″ modal.
Chromebooks can be exceedingly light. Which is nice, but but how important is this? It should be considered whether the lightness is important over loss of other features. For me, I like to travel so having something with me that is super light is nice but I’m not convinced that, for me, the lightness is worth the sacrifice.
To have something heavier just means that I will have a bit of a heaver suitcase – maybe not something I should be changing my setup for.
If I planned to do more writing out and about, in the park and in coffee shops, then the size and light weight would be great. I would happily carry this around with me all day.
I wouldn’t take this particular Chromebook out and about though, despite how small and light it is because it’s screen is pretty much a mirror. It has the worse gloss I’ve seen. Again, not something that came up in the reviews I read.
You would have to whack that brightness to the max to see anything which hurts my eyes and kills the battery.
If I were to get another Chromebook, I would be looking for a less glossy screen. Unfortunately matte screens are not very common any more.
Why would you want to?
Primarily this is cost and weight. I saw older ultrabooks at the same price point on Ebay, but these were usually a lot heavier.
The Asus Flip also gives the versatility of having an android tablet too. However, after a week of use, I didn’t make use of the tablet functionality which I did suspect would happen. But I did make use of the android apps heavily.
This is being written in an android app.
Chromebook VS linux ultrabook?
Now having used this for a week, I probably would choose a Linux ultrabook.
The benefits over a Chromebook is that they are cheap, yet modern. Being modern comes with benefits. If I were to get an ultrabook for the same price, it seemed that it would need to be a couple years older and much heaver. They also tended to have non SSD drives, so I would also need to factor the cost and accessibility of changing the drive over.
I think some manufacturers of Chromebooks have released Intel versions of their Chromebooks. So one of those would be worth considering. But again they often came with non SSD drives.
I think this is due to the fact that Chromebooks are made for the net so it’s assumed that you don’t need much space. Meaning they could put in small SSDs.
I would have been happy with a small internal HD but not being able to access my USB made the small hard drive problematic for me.
Another possibility would be to choose a Chromebook modal that Gallium OS supports. Which would mean wiping the Chrome OS and replacing with Linux.
But it’s actually the Chrome OS that many buy a Chromebook for. Most of us do spend 90% of the time in a browser, so a browser based OS makes sense for a lot of people.
Ports & Dongles
Being a small portable machine, it’s hardly surprising that ports are a issues.
However, I do have 2 USBs which is more then can be said for a recent Macbook pro. I also have a mini HDMI, although it feels flimsy and requires a adapter or a new lead.
The power port seemed pretty fragile too, one hardish knock ant that would prob be it. With the amount of times my magsafe comes out, it would prob not be long till that broke.
Crouton or installing linux
I liked Crouton in theory. I liked the idea of being able to switch between Linux and Chrome OS without rebooting. I liked the idea of being able to open Linux in a new tab. But I found it a bit clumsy.
You have to put it into dev mode which means that you have to cntrl+d every boot. If you press spacebar it will wipe the computer. You do have to confirm but still, it seems a bit risky. I wasn’t storing my files internally though.
There is some effort involved in getting Crouton up and running, understanding it and getting used to it.
I ran into some issues where I couldn’t get the load in tab feature to work which others also reported. It was due to a update of Chrome OS.
This reminded me that the system could be fragile, not something you want from a work machine. Chrome OS could update and your Linux stuff could break. You wouldn’t be happy if you had work to do that needed Linux apps.
As I was very limited with Linux apps, and because I wasn’t able to launch anything in a tab I mostly stuck to terminal usage.
I found it very convenient to run the term in a chrome tab. I could switch between the term and web front end by using CNTRL + #. That I really liked. So I could run vim in one tab and have WordPress in another.
It was a bit convoluted starting a shell though as you had to open a dev tab with a key combo, type shell then type
enter-chroot then enter your password.
But once you had it open, you could leave it open. Until your battery died or it crashed so you had to reboot. So it wasn’t a big deal.
It was useful for running servers, I would spin up a a WordPress server with
WP CLI and do any command line database tasks, then switch back to the tab with WordPress open.
Beware of the arch CPU
I made the mistake of buying an Atom processor. This was very limiting.
A lot of the apps I like to use wheren’t available without compiling. So I was limited. For example, I couldn’t run atom or sublime making the machine not that useful to me.
I recommend getting a Chromebook with a Intel processor.
There are lot’s of models available at 2GB that are very cheap. But I found that people generally recommended 4gb models. So this is what I opted for and I am glad I did, I sensed that any lower and it wouldn’t have been snappy enough. But then, I can’t know for sure as I’ve never used one.
I really liked the launcher. I had a dedicated key, press it and the launcher opens. I use the launcher on mac all the time, so was glad it had one. It’s not as feature rich as the mac launcher though.
WordPress & PHP
I ran a WordPress install very easily using the PHP inbuilt server. I just needed to install PHP and MYSQL in Crouton. I ran the server via WP CLI. I had no problems with this.
The nice thing is that the local host is accessible by the Chrome OS, so you don’t need to do everything in the Linux side, in fact you don’t even need to install a GUI. You can just use Linux to run your server and do everything from the terminal and the chrome OS.
I was able to run a server via the terminal in the Chrome tab and do everything else via the Chrome OS. Including the editing.
What was tricky was the editor. I really like the Zed editor which is a pretty nice Chrome app. But I didn’t like having to get used to a new editor and I missed my Atom plugins.
I could have got back into using vim but the terminal was basic and although I did a little googling it didn’t seem like I was going to easily replicate the experience I get using Linux directly. I could have done it all in the Crouton side but it was a little sluggish.
But if you have a Intel based Chromebook, you should be able to use Atom or Sublime no problem.
So would I recommend using a Chromebook for development? Yes, but with certain criteria :-
- Intel based
- Supported by Gallium OS – in case you want to go full Linux, it’s good to have the option.
- Would be easier to be familiar with Linux.
- 4GB RAM
- Low gloss or matte screen
My Chromebook has been sold on. Although I would be willing to try a Chromebook again with the above, I’m going to try a different route next.
But I think that a Intel based ultrabook, with a SSD would be a better choice if ultra light wasn’t super important. In the past I had a ultra book that wasn’t too heavy, was 13” and that worked well for development.
But the problem I had with that and other low cost laptops is their build quality doesn’t match the higher priced Macbooks ( obviously! ).
So at the end of it, yes you can develop with a Chromebook no problem. But if you want durability it may not be the best bet. You pay more, but then you might as well get a second hand air.