I’ll come clean right from the outset – I’ve been a user of Chrome OS (the operating system used on Chromebooks and Chromeboxes) for a couple of years now. For over a year, my main laptop has been the HP Chromebook 14 and my Windows laptop has hardly been used in that time. Call me biased if you like. Maybe I am, but then it seems most reviews of Chromebooks etc are subjective and bring with them the biases and prejudices of the reviewer. I’ll try to be as objective as I can but bear in mind I’m a fanboy.
What is a Chromebox?
You know your desktop computer? It runs Windows or OSX. This is a desktop computer that runs Chrome OS instead. So What? Well, this has a number of advantages that result in two main benefits:
1) Chromeboxes are cheap – this model costs £149 including VAT in the UK.
2) Chromeboxes start quickly – once you’ve experienced being able to sit down and start work within 9 seconds, you’ll never want to go back to a heavyweight operating system again for your writing.
The HP Chromebox is a mere 12.6cmx12.6cmx3.9cm slab of plastic so it’s the epitome of unobtrusive. It’s almost silent when running although occasionally the fan will spin up. It has four USB 3 ports (backwards compatible with standard USB 2.0) so you can plug in your standard wireless keyboard and mouse – this, as with everything else about Chrome OS, simply works. It also has an HDMI port and a DisplayPort, err, port. Pop in a cheap DisplayPort->HDMI adaptor (£5 from Amazon) and you can connect it to two monitors at a time and spread your desktop across both – exactly as you can with a standard desktop.
Unpack it, connect it to mouse, keyboard, power and monitor(s). Within seconds, your desktop appears and you’re invited to sign in using your Google account so, if you have a gmail address, you’re ready to go immediately. All your browser settings are brought across so there is practically no acclimatisation needed.
Chrome OS – Pros and Cons
Chrome OS is deliberately lightweight. It’s essentially a platform for running the Chrome browser so the more time you spend on the internet, the more likely it is that Chrome OS will suit you. Because it’s lightweight, it boots up from cold in seconds. My main Windows 8.1 desktop takes only around 30 seconds to get to the login screen but a further 20 minutes to become fully responsive after I’ve signed in. My Chromebox, on the other hand, is ready for work in less than 10 seconds. This is a big deal when you actually experience it since it brings tablet-like responsiveness to the desktop.
Updates to Chrome OS happen at a similar speed so if you’re used to the torturous update process in Windows, this will be a revelation. Chrome OS needs no virus checker because it has no way of installing programs on the SSD memory that replaces a traditional hard disk – it’s therefore about as safe to use as it’s possible to be.
I love the simplicity and minimalism of Chrome OS. As a writer, I spend the vast majority of my writing time using the Google Docs wordprocessor which I can force to go full-screen and the fact that I can simply sit down, log in and go is extremely appealing.
The main con is that it isn’t Windows or OSX – under the hood (though not to the user) it works in a fundamentally different way. For heavyweight purposes such as video and photo editing or designing your cover (which you would only be doing if you had some expertise in any case, wouldn’t you) you need a heavyweight computer and the Chromebox will not do. This means that, for most of us, if you can only afford one computer, it would need to be a full-fat PC or Mac. Having said that, the Chromebox is only £149 and it makes the most important part of self-publishing (the actual writing, in case you were wondering) much more productive – for me, at least.
Sadly, there’s no way to run Scrivener on a Chromebox but, personally, I prefer to rattle out the first two drafts in Google Docs which provides a much better editing interface and makes it possible to work on any connected device. This is important to me – most of my work is done at my desk but I love being able to flop down on the sofa, pop up the lid of my Chromebook (the laptop equivalent of the Chromebox) and, within seconds, complete the sentence I’d started in the office. I could even, at a pinch, edit on my tablet.
The HP Chromebox is cheap because Chrome OS works well with a modest, low powered, processor. At the heart of the Chromebox is an ultra low voltage Celeron 2955U chip which draws around 15W when in use – this power rating includes the integrated Intel graphics so, aside from the fan, that’s pretty much the entire power use. On paper, the chip is a pretty modest beast but the lightness of Chrome OS means it performs very well in practice.
Here’s an example. The CPU benchmark figures for this chip suggest that my wife’s 2 year old Windows PC which uses an i3 chip is roughly 3 times faster. However, if you run a browser speed test (SunSpider in this case), you’ll find that, in practice, the Chromebox completes tasks much more quickly – taking just over 35% the time the more powerful Windows PC takes. This is because the entire purpose of Chrome OS is to run the browser efficiently, whereas the Windows PC has many other hats to wear.
In practice, the Chromebox performs at least on a par with my more powerful Windows Desktop and its 4GB of RAM means it can cope with plenty of browser tabs open at once.
You will probably want to print your manuscript out for at least some of the editing process. You can’t connect a printer directly to the Chromebox but you have two options for printing. If you have a Windows PC connected to a printer, it’s very simple indeed to set up the Chromebox to print from it. If you don’t, just make sure your printer is compatible with Google Cloud Print and follow the setup instructions. It really isn’t a problem at all unless you want to print from an ancient printer with no wireless connection.
It’s £149 – let’s begin there shall we? I absolutely love my Chromebox and prefer it to my Windows desktop for every task except, as I said, photo and video editing and design. I just have to remember to turn on the Windows beast at least 20 minutes before I want to use it.
I think the Chromebox makes the perfect companion to a laptop if that’s your main computer. By using a Chromebox, you get the benefit of being able to use a big monitor and proper keyboard very easily and its fast boot-times and ease of use mean you can come in from Costa, put your Macbook Air on to charge and pick up where you left off at your desk. Assuming you’ve been using Google Docs in Costa (Google Docs works offline, in case you were wondering, so you don’t need an internet connection to write). Call me old fashioned if you dare, but you can get more work done on a big monitor and, whilst it’s possible to connect a laptop up to monitor, mouse and keyboard, that is enough of a fag to put me, at least, off.
I’m an unashamed geek and so my needs for a computer are greater than most but, even for me, 90% of what I do is now done on the silent, responsive, tiny Chromebox.