Captain Microchip

The new Chromebook created by Samsung and Google is the first commercially- available computer to run Google’s Chrome operating system. That’s a step into the future of our reliance on cloud computing. Unfortunately, there are some operational difficulties. It isn’t often you come across a computer that makes you wish it ran Microsoft Windows but the new Chromebook Series 5 laptop manages that feat. The idea is that you use the cloud, which is the Internet servers themselves, to replace many of the functions traditionally handled by the computer hardware. It’s as if you were feeding into a massive mainframe server that houses everyone’s files. As much as I like the accessibility from everywhere, I always keep originals backed up on my Windows-compatible PCs and laptops. This approach is like canceling your cable TV subscription and relying on the Net for all your video entertainment. It may be more attractive in theory than in fact. [expand]

The Series 5 is available from www.amazon.com and Best Buy at $500 for a 3G-enabled model and $430 with Wi-Fi only. It is less than an inch thick and weighs 3.3 pounds. It has a 12.1-inch screen, two USB ports and a card reader. The keyboard is comfortable, and there’s a track pad for navigation that is generously sized. Software doesn’t reside on the computer itself. You use online alternatives like Gmail and Google Docs to create your word-processing, spreadsheet and other documents. You don’t store those documents locally on a hard drive because they live in the cloud where they’re accessible to you through any Web-connected computer anywhere. The obvious problem is what if you can’t connect to the Internet, or, worse yet, the files evaporate somewhere in the cloud? I guess my inclination to never rely on one device to do all things for me makes sense here.

There is an Intel Corp. microprocessor, two gigabytes of memory and 16
gigabytes of solid-state storage, which is less than you’ll find on many smart phones. The time from startup to login screen is eight seconds. Samsung claims the battery will last 8 and ½ hours in normal use. If you know how to work a Web browser, you know how to work Chrome. All functions—even accessing files, playing games or watching movies—run through the browser. You can acquire new apps customized for the operating system from the online Chrome Web Store. Upgrades to the operating system come in the form of incremental, over-the-air improvements. There may be problems entering onto a Wi-Fi network, but we all experience those issues on a variety of devices. Printing can be complicated because you’ll first have to enroll the printer you want to use with Google’s Cloud Print service and then send it your document via the Internet. Hooking the Series 5 directly to the printer with a USB cable won’t work. The Series 5 isn’t cheap. For the same cost, you can have a choice of highly functional Windows machines. PC maker Acer Inc. is coming out with a couple of slightly lower-priced Chromebooks.

Someday, when the Internet is even more ubiquitous than it is now and connectivity is more available, the Chromebook may make sense. For now, it is neither as convenient as a tablet nor as powerful as a PC. When you don’t have a usable Wi-Fi signal, Verizon offers prepaid month-to-month data plans starting at $20, and a $9.99 unlimited day pass.

A bigger problem is the lack of an offline mode for Google Docs, Gmail and Google Calendar. If you are where you can’t get an Internet signal, you can forget about being able to do anything productive. Google says it expects to introduce off-line functionality sometime this summer but you can always lean back and watch a movie. [/expand]

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