My time with a Chromebook…and Linux

For those of you who know me, this is my laptop. It’s massive. It’s heavy. It gets a little under two hours of battery life in power save mode. And I wait for nothing. I game with the best, I render video with the best, and the 3.5 terabytes of storage means that I don’t delete anything. As a pet project, I adopted a second laptop. This is that laptop. It’s small, it’s not nearly as powerful, I had to order a 64GB SD card to give it any meaningful level of storage, and it doesn’t even run Windows. It’s a major change.

This time around, running Linux has been easier than my prior attempts. I’ve been running Linux Mint, and it’s been the epitome of the term “mixed bag”. Now, don’t get me wrong, installing Linux on this particular Chromebook was quite the challenge, and involved some incredible support from Mr. Chromebox, who is a wonderful individual to work with, and highly recommended for anyone looking to embark on a project similar to mine.

The usability of the Linux-running Chromebook has been greatly assisted by the number of applications available for it. Between my remote access software for work having a Linux port, along with our chat software and VPN client, the majority of my “daily grind” applications are covered, though the real assistant has been the number of browser-based control panels I interact with. Having all of that covered and genuinely not needing to worry about battery life, while also carrying it around in one hand with no need for a bag of accessories is a huge help. For the first time basically-ever, the suspend/resume function works so perfectly, I don’t shut it down. My relatively-obscure Samsung printer was automatically found on the network and configured without ever needing a driver download. The Synaptic package manager does an incredible job of being an “App Store” for actual applications, making it easy to find needed programs and browse through categories while also ensuring that updates are handled effectively. I really do like all of these, and when combined with the lack of concern regarding telemetry from either Microsoft or Aunt Google, it really is a good experience.

I used the word “good”, not “perfect”, with intention; it’s the little things that get frustrating. ‘Home, ‘End’, and ‘Delete’ are conspicuously absent. The F1-F10 keys have their Chromebook functions on the caps, requiring me to add P-Touch labels for their “F-Value”. Conversely, the lack of any sort of an “Fn” modifier key means I have to use system try icons for screen brightness and volume, rather than shortcut keys. Actually, the biggest issue has been the audio; despite following a tutorial I found online, I still can’t get audio playback independent of the HDMI port. Then again, in this day and age of autoplaying video ads, one may argue that it’s not a bug, but a feature.

The one application I was not able to find a reasonable analog for was Outlook. Now, don’t get me wrong, Linux has no shortage of e-mail clients. What it does have a shortage of, however, are mail clients that work with Activesync. I tried Eudora, Evolution, Thunderbird, Zimbra, and one or two others, none of which natively supported Activesync. In this process, I did manage to find out that it’s possible to install Android apps, which led me to installing the excellent Touchdown client. This solves my problem, but not without issues of its own. Using a touchpad as a replacement for a finger-driven UI paradigm makes it difficult to select text for copy/paste, instead generally assuming you want to scroll or change focus. Additionally, it is amazing how much there is a necessity for multiple windows when dealing with e-mail, which mobile apps simply don’t provide. My Remote Desktop client connects seamlessly with Windows servers, but I cannot copy/paste text through the RDP session.

You’ll find no shortage of articles online discussing different people’s takes on why Linux has not become a viable contender in the desktop market. I think there’s at least a grain of truth in some of the major ones – my Adobe production studio and DJ software will always ensure I need to keep Windows around, at least provisionally. However, what about the “Word and the Internet” crowd? I think that there are no shortage of people for whom desktop Linux would be more than practical, as can be seen in the success of the Chromebook itself.

I do think, however, it’s largely psychological. People “know Word” and “know Excel”. There is a sense of familiarity that will always be tough to overcome; I would argue that the splash screen that says “Microsoft Word 2016” is the most desired feature of the suite. On the heels of that, I submit that formal computer education today teaches “Microsoft Word”; it does not teach “word processing”. When software titles are taught, rather than principles, it makes change more difficult because there is more perceived different than what truly exists. I think that this reason, along with the “death of a thousand paper cuts”

My experience of “switch hitting” between Windows and Linux will continue to evolve. I am happy I did it. 

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