You could see it coming. My wife’s 6-year-old Lenovo notebook was having trouble holding a charge. The hard drive was doing strange things. Then the plug for the power supply started getting wobbly. Kelly loved the ugly old thing and cranked out many a TreeHugger and MNN recipe on it, but it was dying.


Since retiring from the recipe world, her computer needs have been reduced to email, library and Cute Overload, so I suggested a Chromebook might be what she needs. She resisted, saying she didn’t want to learn a new system. I suggested that it wouldn’t be hard and she acquiesced — though not particularly excited about prospects. I was really curious: could a Chromebook replace a computer running a full operating system? Can a user really live within a browser window? I wanted to try it out.

Writing as I do about the Internet of Things and how everything is getting connected, I wanted to see how well a cloud-connected computer would work. Conceptually, our Windows and Mac computers are relics of the pre-Internet days when they had to stand on their own, with memory and full operating systems. The Chromebook offloads much of that to the cloud, which makes it lighter and cheaper. That has implications; I would not recommend one of these for Edward Snowden, but for anyone else it might be more secure. However it represents a sea change, where the computer is just the terminal and viewing tool for the Internet and it's no longer a truly stand-alone device. But can it do the work of a "real" computer?

A search of the review sites reveals that right now, the two top-rated Chromebooks are a Dell Chromebook 11 with its fast processor, and the Toshiba Chromebook 2, with a 13-inch high resolution display. I thought going to an 11-inch screen would be too much of a transition from Kelly's 15-inch Lenovo, and having a Retina Macbook, I'm really in love with high-resolution screens and decided on the Toshiba. On the downside, it's a bit more expensive, and it's a Toshiba. (My last PC notebook was a Toshiba, and I did not love it or their support.) The computer I wanted was out of stock in local stores, so I ordered it from the Toshiba website, which looks like it hasn't been updated since I was last on it in 2009, so I had my doubts. No need; it arrived in two days.

Setting it up

This is where the fun begins. You unpack and open the computer and there is none of that Windows welcome splash with a thousand questions and security updates, or even the shorter but still time-consuming Mac setup and software update. You simply connect to the Internet, log into your Gmail account and you're done. On the bottom bar there are icons for Gmail, Chrome, Google search and Google Docs. There is another button that opens up to show you other apps including Google+ Photo and more. There's absolutely no learning curve. Kelly had it figured out in seconds and was happy as can be. The sound quality from the Skullcandy speakers is the best (and loudest) I have heard on any notebook. The registration of the computer on Google Drive takes seconds and gives you 100 gig for free for the next two years.

The high resolution 1080p monitor (1920 x 1080) is simply wonderful. I work on a Macbook 15-inch with retina screen and found it easy to switch to the Toshiba. It's not quite as bright and crisp as the Mac, but it is very close. Kelly, switching from a 15-incher running at 1366 x 768, says the puppies on Cute Overload have never looked cuter.

Careful about the keyboard!

keyboard on Chromebook

I wrote yesterday's post on the Chromebook, and am writing this in Google Docs, which is much improved, certainly as good as the dumbed-down latest version of Pages that I've been using on my Mac. (Oh Apple, why did you ruin a perfectly good word processor?) The only serious complaint with the machine is the terrible keyboard; the shift and return keys are half the size of normal and there are two extra keys driving my crazy. Instead of getting a shift, I am hitting this silly backslash key. Why did they do this?

Then I check online and find that in Canada, they sell this so-called bilingual keyboard that works for French, and has these two keys to deal with the extra accent marks and different quotation marks. Just look at the ridiculous shape of the return/enter key at right. The American version has a perfectly normal keyboard, and my baby fingers are now getting the muscle memory for the extra stretch, but if you don't type French, don't get this keyboard!

When you work all day on the Internet you develop tricks and tools, and switching to the Chromebook means losing a lot of them. The hardest thing to adapt to is dealing with photos; no dragging them to the desktop, no Easycrop software to quickly crop and resize, no Photoshop. However the online Pixlr app takes just a bit longer — a matter of seconds really.

There are things that it simply cannot do, most notably Skype, which we use as our office water cooler. However, the Google Hangout works and Slack is taking over the world. Others have noted that it doesn’t have the guts to deal with 50 tabs open at once, but I have not noticed a problem, tending to be economical with tabs even on my Macbook Pro.

To be perfectly honest, I'm seriously impressed with this. The build quality is good, (the top is a little flexy) The keyboard is fine except for the stupid French keys on the unit they sell here in Canada. It has the same weight, the same 4 gigs of RAM as a Macbook Air and a better screen (1920 x 1080 vs 1440 by 900), at less than a third the price. I'm not a gamer and I don't do video editing or other seriously CPU intensive activities. But I cannot come up with a single good reason why anyone who else who meets these criteria (and who has a stable, high-speed Internet connection) needs any more than this 3-pound $300 wonder.

I suspect that if most people analyzed what they do on their computers all day, they would find that they are already in the cloud most of the time. There no longer is much point in paying for or carrying around a hard drive or a lot of expensive SSD, or booting up a bloated operating system any more. Just get what you need to plug into the cloud, which is exactly what the Toshiba Chromebook 2 provides. 

Now how do I hit save? Oh right, I don’t have to, it’s in the cloud. Google Docs saved every keystroke. I’m sold.

Related on MNN and TreeHugger:

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

Can a Chromebook do the work of a 'real' computer?
Toshiba's Chromebook 2 offers real competition for computers that cost 5 times as much.