Monday, March 7, 2016

Chromebook Review - Ready for Prime Time

Toshiba Chromebook 2 - Review and Thoughts

I've been using a Toshiba Chromebook as my primary computer for the last 4 weeks, with an eye towards "can a small, inexpensive laptop be an effective business tool?"

First of all, let me describe the Chromebook I'm using. It's a Toshiba Chromebook 2, model # CB35-C3300. (that model number is important, because there are different versions with the same name.) The basic specs are:
  • Price: $329
  • Memory: 4 gb
  • Processor: Intel Celeron
  • Hard drive: 16 gb
  • Extras: the screen and speakers are terrific, and the back-lit keyboard types well.

Secondly, let me say this isn't my first foray into the super portable computer workspace; I've run through a number of portables over the years:

Asus Eee PC. In 2008 I bought an Asus Eee PC. It was (at the time) the coolest looking laptop ever - super small, extremely eye-catching, and ran Windows XP. I had high hopes for this netbook.

The Asus Eee PC 700 Series, circa 2008

I closed a $500,000 transaction while on vacation with this netbook, so I can't say it was worthless. However, patience was a major requirement when using it. I think it lasted about 6 months before it's portability and cool-factor weren't worth the frustration of using it.

Ipad / Samsung Tablet. My son uses an Ipad, and my wife has a Samsung Galaxy tablet, and while both are great devices for consuming content, they aren't quite as "take with you anywhere" portable when you need to also bring a keyboard for typing. Also, neither device is very good at tasks requiring more than basic input, such as web site design and modification. For someone who maintains a few blogs, this is important. I haven't been able to justify the expense of buying one of these for myself - they're cool and sort of useful, but not quite fully functional for my business needs.

Gateway Netbook. I tried another netbook in 2011, thinking maybe they had gotten more powerful in the three years since my previous netbook. The Gatweay LT28 was every bit as portable as the Asus Eee PC; unfortunately it was probably about the same speed. I'm not sure this netbook lasted a full month before I retired it to a closet shelf in disgust.

Gateway LT28 netbook - 2011's version was inexpensive, slow, and mostly useless

Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone with Bluetooth Keyboard. For the last couple of years, I've carried a bluetooth keyboard in my backpack, and I've used my phone w/ keyboard as a "blog from anywhere" tool.


This setup is extremely portable, but it has also been frustrating at times. The small screen is, well, small, and the tablet-like inability to do little more than inputting text means all work needs to be completed from a real computer later. That being said - I already own my phone and bring it with me wherever I go, and the $20 keyboard works great. This has been a good setup from a value standpoint, but I'm looking for more functionality.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 CB35-C3300



All this leads us to where we are today - using a Toshiba Chromebook 2 as my primary computer. And as a heavy computer user, I tested this Chromebook extensively, asking it to do large quantities and quality of work. It turns out this Chromebook excels at most tasks, although there are a few things it simply can't do and a few others where it does ok but where it's not the best tool for the job.

Tasks the Chromebook can't do - these are the tasks I do each month where Chromebook has no chance of replacing my big bad Windows machine:
  • Microsoft Access Database - I run a couple of large, complicated databases with multiple tables and queries. These are not "average consumer" uses, but they also aren't possible on the Chromebook.
  • Family Photo - Video Management - I'm as neurotic a photo-file-manager as you'll find, but my process has worked well for 16 years now, so I'm not ready to switch yet. (We went digital shortly after our oldest was born, and I have every photo organized.) Each month I:
    • compile photos from various cameras, tablets, and phones.
    • rename them to a common naming convention.
    • sift, sort, and edit through them to pull out the good ones, the shareable ones, etc.
    • share and file them as appropriate.
    • double backup to external harddrives.
  • Extra large data exports - sometimes I pull data out of ARMLS, and the export file is 50-100 mb. The Chromebook doesn't have enough storage space to hold the data file.
  • Data storage and backup. I'm a data-hoarder, and a backup fanatic. I haven't made the jump to cloud storage because I have too much data to be cost effective, and because I would want to keep a 2nd copy locally anyway. Instead, I keep EVERYTHING locally on a 1TB portable drive, with 2 backups stored in different locations. I'll rethink this when Google Drive gives me a free 1TB of storage, and Dropbox lets me easily mirror all files. (and that might not be too many years away.)

Tasks the Chromebook can do, but I'm better / faster using Windows - there are some things where it's nice to have a mouse and two large monitors to work with, or a desktop version of an app is more robust than the web version:
  • Evernote - content creation, better formatting, more font choices, easier to add multiple tags, moving notes around, batch-editing. The Windows version of Evernote is terrific - much more robust than the web version. If I'm writing a format-heavy note, or if I'm organizing my notes, I'd rather be on the Windows version.
  • Quick Image Manipulation - grab a couple-few screen clips, paste them into Microsoft Excel, add some text/graphics/highlights, and clip the combined image into a new jpg or png file. Handy for blog content and instructional how-to info for coworkers. Not to say this can't be done on the Chromebook, but it's faster-easier using a mouse on my Windows machine.
  • Real Estate Transaction Management - when I'm working on a lot of files, or a complicated transaction, or in a rush (and the desktop is already on), I like having a separate mouse and 2 full-sized monitors to work with. It's a bit more efficient.

Tasks Where Chromebook is Awesome - the few items above not withstanding, this Chromebook does the vast majority of my work very well:
  • Instant On. I can't over-hype this. My previous laptop took 6 minutes from power-on until it was ready to open Evernote. With this thing, I open the lid and start typing.
  • Email - full power and full screen Gmail. Nothing more to add here.
  • Social Media - Facebook, Google +, Pinterest, Instagram - there isn't a difference between Chromebook and Windows.
  • Evernote - content review, finding content, adding new notes from websites and screenclips, and adding new simple text notes.
  • Blogging - no shortfalls at all. Writing and publishing new content, editing drafts, and designing a new website haven't skipped a beat. The majority of building 8DollarFarming website was done using this Chromebook.
  • Newsletters - no problems with MailChimp - email lists, multiple accounts, newsletters - all without a hiccup.
  • Spreadsheets and Docs - Google sheets is easier and more powerful than most people give it credit. I have a number of journal/tracking type spreadsheets (spend vs budget, car maintenance, running mileage, etc.), but I also have some complicated, formula-heavy, pull data from one sheet and pass results to another file type of sheets.
  • RunKeeper - reports, stats, activity list, maps - everything is the same as my desktop.
  • Amazon Music Player (or Pandora, Google Music, or whatever online music service you prefer) - I use Amazon Music, and it works great on the Toshiba. In fact, the speakers are really loud!
  • Online Banking - I access my bank and credit accounts regularly. No delay or limitations here.
  • Real Estate Transactions - From MLS Data, to Tax Data, to ZipForms, to Docusign, to Email, and save finished document into Evernote or Dropbox. No breakpoints noticed at all.
  • Youtube - Chromebook was made for Youtube.
  • Netflix - Chromebook was made for Netflix, too.
  • Flickr - photo viewing and album management works great.
  • Web browsing - general online-type stuff. This is what a Chromebook is supposed to be best at. (and it is.)
  • Lots of Stuff at Once - I usually have about a dozen tabs open at a time, sometimes while streaming music or netfix in the background. I haven't had a delay, or a glitch, or any buffering, yet.
  • Bonus 1 - Light and Nimble - Lighter and more nimble than any laptop I've ever had in the past. (People say it's similar to a MacBook Air.) It feels more comparable to a tablet than my old clunky laptop in this regard.
  • Bonus 2 - Keyboard - Chromebook's keyboard, keyboard shortcuts, and trackpad swiping features make navigation more efficient than my desktop. I can get from one tab/window to the next, and back, and back to data entry, without barely moving my hands.
  • Bonus 3 - Battery - I get about 8 hours of use on each battery charge. And since I'm not sitting in front of this computer all day long, I haven't had to worry about the battery at all yet. I plug it in to charge overnight every few days.


Summary

I've been waiting for a good mobile computing device for a long time, and it's finally here. This Toshiba Chromebook makes my life better by being very good at the vast majority of what I use my computer for. It's not quite ready to replace my big workhorse desktop, but it's good enough that I'm using it for about 95% of my work, without having to slow down, or wait for lagging software, or dumb down my processes with work-arounds. It flat out does great work.

You can find the specs here, and read a much more detailed review here.

I've read online where some people have complained it isn't as functional without an internet connection, while others have pointed out there are plenty of functions available offline. For me, I have wifi at home and at my office, and I can turn on my smartphone as a wifi hotspot in about 10 seconds, so this has been a non-issue; I have access to the internet from pretty much wherever I am.

Overall, considering price, form, function - the whole package.. This might be my favorite computer purchase ever, and I can't recommend it highly enough. While it's not powerful enough to replace my big desktop computer (or a full-powered $1,000 laptop, for that matter) - it blows away anything I've ever seen or used in this price range.

The Toshiba Chromebook 2 CB35-C3300 is definitely ready for prime time, and worth your consideration if you're looking for a portable device to compliment your business.

- Chris Butterworth

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