Chromebook Review: An adventure in technology

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Disclaimer: I am technologically inept. I fully own my modern era shortfalls. Whenever I start a new job or connect with a new organization, my first outreach is to the IT people; I introduce myself and I give them the head’s up that I will likely be a regular visitor or caller and I ask for patience. I also tell them that I will be the first one to raise my hand and admit when I screw up and I do my best to keep detailed notes about what and how I did what I do.

The time has come – my beloved Macbook is dying a slow and painful-for-me death. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised; I first purchased it in 2009. So, hmmmm. Yep, it’s served me and the family well. Last week, I sat at my desk, pounding my head (literally) against my fist, trying to dreg up enough patience to wait for my document to attach to my online assignment. In the meantime, iTunes (which was not even open) had a schizophrenic episode and Excel “closed unexpectedly.” I had to come up with a creative budget-friendly alternative pretty quickly. Realistically, purchasing a new Apple laptop isn’t in the family budget anytime soon.

I knew what I needed: something that allowed me access to my online class platforms. I needed easy and comfortable internet navigation for school, pleasure, and blog writing. I wanted to be able to easily access the pictures I take from my phone, which happens to be an Android and uploads my photos directly to my Google account. And I wanted something that I could comfortably continue to write on; I have sixteen chapters of a novel written and I want to keep it going.

I was first introduced to Chromebooks by our son; his school had purchased and been gifted Chromebooks for most of the classrooms. As a substitute teacher on his campus, I had the opportunity to see how the kids seemed to comfortably navigate the Chromebooks to do their online lessons and web work. Last year, when we started to consider a device for Shortstack to use for his homework that was largely web-based, I had looked into the cost comparison of tablets and Chromebooks. I was shocked to find out that many of them were priced  less than $300. Seriously!

I texted my wife and told her my computer was dying. Not that it’s a surprise to her – but I’m that kind of spouse who likes to whine and whimper when I’m frustrated. I had pulled up the brand comparisons for Chromebooks as I was texting her and spent some time looking at the functionality and reviews for the ways in which I would use it. Web access – check. Umm, it’s (somewhat) required – we’ll get back to this point. Easy navigation – check. Yes, Chromebooks use Google Chrome. Well, mine does. I’m sure smarty-ass tech people can get them to use other stuff. I’m familiar and comfortable with Chrome. All of my main email addresses (family and personal) are Gmail accounts, my UH account is Gmail-based, Shortstack’s school uses Google Classroom. It works well for me. Photo access – check! My photos from my Android phone upload directly to my Google account and I can pull them directly from there. There does seem to be some fancy-shmancy photo editing and organization options that I haven’t explored yet, but I’ll get to it at some point or another. The only requirement that I was wary of was the writing piece. Up until now, I’ve been happily using Scrivener. The only problem is that Scrivener is device-dependent. You purchase it and can only load it on to one device. I appreciated that I didn’t need web access to utilize it, but there were obviously restrictions. Scrivener does not have a version that is compatible with Chromebooks. So, after so research I found a couple of possible alternatives that I could explore: Google docs, Novelize, Scriptito and a handful of others. So, armed with that information, and with my wife’s encouragement, I made my way down to Best Buy ready to spend some money.

Okay, I suppose I should say that the idea of me walking into Best Buy alone, without one of my tech gurus (Scott, Shawn – I’m looking at you!) is probably a recipe for disaster. My saving grace is that I know how to shop with purpose. I did my research. I knew the brand and model. I knew the SKU. Yes, I knew what I wanted and how much I planned to pay for it. $279. Not a penny more. Until you walk into Best Buy in Hawaii and find that the price is $40 higher. I did what anyone in their right mind would do – I messaged my wife to grumble at her because, of course, this was an issue that she needed to fix.  Obviously. And – she did! Reminder: Best Buy has a price match practice … and they not only price match with their own advertised prices, they price match with other retailers as well. And, looky there … Amazon had the very Chromebook I wanted for $269. So, 20 minutes later I walked out the owned of a Chromebook.

I got home, opened up the box and looked at how simple it was. The device and two charger cords. I couldn’t mess this up, right? And I didn’t. I plugged the sucker in, opened it up, was prompted to log into my Gmail account and all of a sudden, everything worked. So, here’s the nitty-gritty of working with this gadget in my everyday life – it’s Google Chrome. I don’t need to get used to anything that is web-based (i.e. web browsing, accessing my online classes or Shortstack’s online school stuff). I had not worked with Google docs or slides or spreadsheets extensively before (i.e. I opened them up by mistake when logged into my Gmail account on my old laptop but then closed it because I had no idea what I was looking at). In the week that I’ve been working with these programs, they’ve been easy to move through. It’ll take me a bit to learn the ins and outs (let’s face it, it’s taken me years to familiarize myself with Word and Powerpoint) but I do love the ease with which I can share documents. The Chromebook is ridiculously lightweight. It doesn’t get hot and the battery is long-lived (granted, this is it’s first week of use). I did purchase a case for it because life in our house is never without it’s dangers.

Here’s the tough parts … I miss iTunes. I’m one of those writers who create playlists for my writing time. I haven’t yet figured out a fix for this one. I finally settled on Novelize for a writing program. Truth be told, I haven’t spent much time with it yet – partially because family craziness (spring break, men’s and women’s basketball games headed to the Big Dance, my own homework and projects) and partially because I’m not loving how Novelize LOOKS. That sounds stupid, I know. But I love Scrivener – the feel of it, the structure, the corkboard and pins and index cards. <sigh> I have scheduled writing time for myself this weekend and I have promised to give Novelize a true chance before I get pissy about it.

One common concern I’ve read is that Chromebooks need to be wi-fi connected for functionality. Well, yes. And no. Chromebooks are created to be web-connected for full functionality of programs. Fortunately for me, I live in a wi-fi dominated world. The places that I will most likely use my laptop (home, the university, public libraries, coffeeshops, my parent’s house, etc.) mostly have accessible wi-fi. For those rare times when I am not wi-fi connected (when I’m subbing at a school, on an airplane, sitting in a park) I can access and edit a selection of documents via Google docs; any changes I make offline are saved to my drive and when I connect again, everything automatically updates. Don’t ask me how it happens, but it did just this very thing today! WOOHOOO for technology! And for smarter people than me!

All in all, this Chromebook is a VERY affordable option to fit my immediate needs. I know (and have already informed my wife) that when I start teaching I will need a Macbook replacement. But for right now, this Chromebook is ideal. Look, it’s not an Apple Macbook … it’s not all fancy-shmancy. It’s a simple workhorse that will carry you through everyday simple tasks. Would I recommend Chromebooks to others? Yes. Without a doubt. Just know what you’re using it for, recognize its limitations and appreciate it’s simplicity.



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