La Vie en Chrome

This piece reflects the personal experience and opinions of Asha Kinney and does not reflect the opinions or recommendations of the Hampshire College IT Department 🙂 .  

This past summer, the “m” key broke off my ancient PC laptop. I was aware that its days were numbered, but this really hammered it home. I was also starting to realize how quaint it was to have all my family photos stored on a local device- yes, they were backed up, but still. I realized it was time to act in a manner befitting an IT professional and get all that stuff into the cloud, one way or the other.

At around the same time, I discovered that through my Marlboro College alum account I had unlimited cloud storage on Google Drive. Giddy up! I proceeded to upload 200 gigs worth of photos and bade farewell to the Dell of yesteryear. However, I still needed a computer to work on. My work Mac was also starting to feel its age. It took about 15 minutes to boot up in the morning, and a day without a spinning beach ball was a very lucky day indeed.

Enter the Chromebook.

A Chromebook is a small, cheap ($200-$300) laptop that is neither Mac nor PC nor Linux but it’s own thing- totally Google, running Chrome OS. The concept is that your electronic life is entirely in the cloud, and nothing is stored on, or run off of, the actual computer. The computer runs a web browser, and that’s about it.

This reliance on cloud services means the computer itself doesn’t have to do much work, and this means there’s not much to go wrong. It’s super fast. It boots up in three seconds. There are no spinning beachballs, ever. Did I mention the $200 part?

Here’s what it’s great for:

  • Email- using Gmail or Webmail or similar web service.
  • Basic productivity stuff using Google Docs/Slides/Spreadsheets. Any basic file in a Microsoft Office format can be imported and worked on just fine. The computer uses your Google Drive as its main file system. Some stuff can be stored locally, but not much.
  • Managing photos, media, music, etc (which can all be stored on Google).
  • Using any other service or site you access through a web browser. This is nothing to sneeze at, as there are even photo editing, page layout/design, and video editing apps now available through web interfaces.

However, there are lots of people for whom a Chromebook will simply not work. Do any of these apply to you? If so, you’re going to hit a wall pretty quickly.

  • You’re wedded to an email client like Apple’s Mail, or Thunderbird.
  • You rely on Adobe products or like to annotate PDF’s.
  • You want to connect to Hampshire’s network printers or file servers.
  • You use the super-advanced features of Microsoft Office programs.
  • You require any specialized software that is not available through a web browser (and/or does not work with the Chrome browser).

Even with these caveats, you can see how the Chromebook is a great choice for the average person doing average stuff. Many higher-ed and K-12 systems are going Google and are giving Chromebooks to their students. The Amherst Regional System just announced their move to Google and subsequent purchase of Chromebook carts for classrooms.  

Does this all mean selling your soul to Google on a personal or institutional level? Yes, yes it does. Increasingly, though, schools and colleges do the math and decide that they simply cannot afford the luxury of NOT going Google. A lone institution would never be able to provide the cutting edge tools and systems that Google does. Similarly, a $200 computer is a huge leveler for students who cannot shell out $2,000 for a shiny new Mac. Thus, it becomes an internal war of conscience between providing your students access to the best possible tools, versus protecting what little privacy they have left. Google makes this choice easier for schools by claiming to protect the privacy of educational accounts, but do they really?

But let’s get back to our little friend, the Chromebook. I spent about six months living very happily with it. It required re-thinking how I did certain work, but I was able to find a way to accomplish most tasks. This is saying a lot given my job as an instructional technologist! When I hit a wall (see list above) I bumped to my Mac.

But then, something happened. I decided to give my Work Mac a fresh start and wipe the hard drive. It perked right up. No more spinning beach balls. And lo and behold, it could do everything I needed to do, without my having to hunt around for the way to do it. I was forced to admit that for me personally, and with my particular job, I really do need a computer that can just do everything, with no limitations or qualifications.

The Chromebook is still great and useful for lots things, but to loosely quote the late, great Queen of Camden: my odds were stacked, and I went back to Mac.