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Goodbye, Chromebook, hello...Chromebook!

Michael Brown  August 21 2016 12:21:34 AM
It was my birthday last week.  One of my treats was a brand-new Toshiba Chromebook 2, bought to replace my aging Samsung model.

The latter has slowed down to the point of being barely useful.  To be honest, it was probably underspecced when I bought it three years ago, having an ARM processor and only two Gig of RAM.  But the truth is that Intel processors at the time simply could not mach the battery life of the ARM processors:  the Samsung could give me over 8 hours of battery, which I'd never seen a laptop before!

However, that ARM processor and also came with some limitations, which I hadn’t appreciated when I bought it.  For one thing, some Chrome Apps didn't even run on the ARM version of the Chromebook; they would only run on Intel versions, which was something of disappointment.  Maybe that’s less of a problem today.

Full Linux Install

Another problem was with the full Linux installation that I’d always intended to put on any Chromebook that I bought.  (With a Crouton-based install, you can switch instantaneously between ChromeOS and a full Linux install, which is a pretty neat trick!)  What I hadn’t realised though was that ARM versions of a some Linux packages simply aren’t available.  Most of the biggies are present and correct, e.g. Chrome, Firefox, LibreOffice, Citrix Receiver, GIMP, as well as developer packages, such as Git, Node/npm and various web servers.  But the killer was that there’s no SublimeText, boo hoo!  SublimeText maybe cross-platform, but it’s not Open Source, and its makers have showed zero interest in making an ARM-compatible version so far.  Sadly, I was never able to find a truly satisfactory replacement for that one.  I finally settled on the Chrome-based Caret editor, which does a half decent job, but it’s no SublimeText.

The New Toshiba Chromebook 2

Intel had to raise its game to respond on the battery life front, and give the Devil its due, that’s exactly what Intel did.  Battery life is now on a par with the ARMs, but with the benefit of extra power and also that Linux package compatibility.  For example, here's Sublime Text running in an XFCE-based Linux installation, in a Chrome window on my new Toshiba Chromebook:

SublimeText on a Chromebook

Other benefits of the Toshiba over the Samsung:
  • More powerful (Intel processor & double the RAM) so much faster performance
  • Much better screen: full HD 1920x1080 vs 1366x768 on the Samsung
  • delivers to Australia!!  And likely to other countries too.  (Good luck finding any decent Chromebooks actually on sale in Australia!)

Local Storge

Local SSD storage is the same on both models: a disappointing 16Gig.  You'll often hear ChromeOS aficionados telling you that local storage doesn't matter "cos' on a Chromebook you do everything in the cloud".  IMHO, that's a bunch of crap.  Local storage is important on a Chromebook too, especially if you have that full Linux install eating into it!!

Now both of my models do come with an SD card slot, which allows me to boost that storage space significantly, and at no great cost.  But it's the Toshiba that shines here too, as you can see from the two photos below:

Samsung Chromebook with SD CardToshiba Chromebook 2 with SD Card

In both of these photos, the SD card is pushed in to its operational position, i.e., that's as far in as it will go.  See how far it sticks out on the Samsung?  What's the chances of my throwing that in my bag and then retrieving it a few hours later with the card still in one piece?  Not high, and that's why I never do it.  It sounds like a small thing, I know, but it's a royal pain the rear to fish around for the SD card in my bag whenever I need to use it.  With the new Tosh, the SD card sits absolutely flush with the edge of the case, so I can leave it there all the time, giving me a permanent 48 Gig of storage!!

That Other OS

The cost of this new baby?  $300 US on, which translated to just over $400 Oz, including postage.

At which point I have little doubt that somebody is waiting to tell me "but for that kind of money you could have got a proper laptop that runs Windows apps".  But as you've probably worked out by now, I already know that.  And if I'd wanted to get a Windows laptop, then I would have got one.   The thing is that I don't like Windows much.  I don't like the way it works (or doesn't work), and most of the dev tools that I now live and breath don't work natively on Windows.  (Although there is, apparently, a native Bash terminal coming in Windows 10 at some point, courtesy of Canonical.)

And what kind of Windows apps would a $400 Oz machine even be able run?  Microsoft Office?  It might run; as in it might actually start up.  Adobe Photoshop?  Ditto.  And how about all those Windows games?  Well, I suppose you might coax the new Doom into a decent frame rate, as long as you were prepared to compromise a little on the graphics!

Doom (circa 1993)