This is a Guest Post by Mike McLoughlin, a Systems Developer living in Devon, UK

I have been using a 3G Samsung Series 5 for over a year and it quickly became my ‘go-to’ computer due to its fast start times, instant resumes and very long battery-life when I am on the go. However, my boss gave me one of the new ARM Chromebooks to try out in my work environment and this is my attempt at making it through a single day.

For those unaware, Chromebooks run the operating system ChromeOS and are stateless, storing very little locally, so if they fail you can open up another one and carry on from where you left off. You cannot install software on them in the usual sense but can use the many available online web apps to get things done. There is a set of rudimentary built-in apps like music and video player and some offline support for web apps such as GMail, Calendar and Docs.

Setting the machine up is revolutionary, really, as it is a zero touch deployment device - no ghosting or configuring necessary by the IT Team.  I was given a sealed box which I opened and started work immediately. Chromebooks can be controlled using a central cloud-based service for a small fee to Google where the machines can be enrolled and configured en masse if needed, which might be a consideration when bought in bulk.

Having placed the Chromebook on my large desk it instantly was dwarfed by my widescreen monitor. Also, I felt myself naturally feeling for my mouse. I usually use my Chromebook on my lap, often lying down and the trackpad and keyboard work very well indeed but I decided to augment the Chromebook with a widescreen monitor via HDMI and a wireless USB mouse. That seemed much better.

I already work very much in the cloud and my Institution recently opted for Google Apps for Education which is immediately revolutionising our work practices and how we collaborate with students and each other. The Chromebook fits into this model very well, using Google Drive to store files created in Google Docs with GMail and Calendars perfectly suited to the browser.

I needed additional web based tools for my work:

  • For data analysis using SQL on various mySQL databases, I have installed the web service Sidu that is a web client for mySQL and a web-based IDE (Neutron Drive) that talks directly to my Google Drive accounts.
  • Most systems I develop are effectively web apps / pages and use an installed app net2ftp to give me a very clever little web FTP client.
  • I can use Teamviewer as a web client and the new Chrome Remote Desktop app to run anything else on a remote machine (although CRD has been affected by recent firewall changes so was out of action during this day).

For most needed services a web app can be quickly found while the rest can be done remotely somehow.

I managed to work almost all of the day just with the Chromebook but then a rush job coupled with a failing export facility meant I needed to turn on my windows PC. However, the PC took an age to load and then the mouse driver failed to load properly requiring a restart, wasting 15-20 minutes. That experience reminded me very much of why I was trying to leave Windows behind.

The one significant issue I came across was the way the Chromebook  handles its limited memory; basically ChromeOS carries on opening your Chrome tabs until it arrives at a critical mass. At that point, were another tab to be opened, it goes back and estimates which of the existing tab's memory can be 'reclaimed' - less important, so to speak. This is a bit of a hit-and-miss estimation and it might be something I want. When I then go to that tab, it has to reload but it might have been a half-filled form or half-completed-and-unsaved something that would then be re-initialised thus losing your data or place in a doc. There is a ChromeOS  page that shows which tab is at risk: chrome://discards - once the memory falls below 300Mb a discard will probably occur at the bottom of the list. The 550 model or the Chromebox have twice the memory (4Gb) and more processor oomph memory discards are reportedly not an issue.

My experience taught me that ChromeOS devices do indeed have a place in the workplace, although a Chromebook model with more memory would be preferable. For example the 4Gb Samsung Chromebook 550 or the Chromebox, would have handled the hammering better.

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