My First ChromeBook

1209 wc

My 2013 MacBook Air died recently. Don’t ask how, because it’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever done with an expensive piece of electronic equipment. Okay, I dropped it in some water. It wasn’t in the water for more than a second, and only the keyboard part was submerged, but that was enough. It continued to work while wet, surprisingly enough, but I immediately turned it off to let it dry out, and it hasn’t powered back up since. (Probably because laptops are never entirely “off.”)

It was just as well. The trackpad was starting to get a little wonky. It used to have a very satisfying, well-built metallic click but it disappeared one morning, turning into a mushy, sticky, intermittent hassle. I don’t know what happened but I suspect my cat was involved somehow. I thought it would still last a while longer, so I wasn’t quite prepared to replace the laptop so soon. Over the years I’d gotten quite used to having a thin-and-light laptop for living room and carrying-around usage, and a large percentage of my blogging and writing in general took place on it, because the feel of the MacBook Air keyboard was a thing of beauty. When it was gone, it was like losing a limb.

But, while I loved the feel and sturdiness of the MacBook Air build quality, I didn’t care that much for iOS and the Apple ecosystem. And of course it had taken years to get used to the Apple-style keyboard layout, and I still fumbled with basic text editing navigation functions like jumping between words and lines and paragraphs.

So I didn’t really want to buy another MacBook Air. They’re also expensive and I’m not exactly dripping with cash right now.

So first I looked for a thin-and-light PC laptop. Amazingly enough, there *still* aren’t very many thin-and-light PC laptops to compete with a MacBook Air. The Microsoft Surface thingys are probably a great choice but they are even more expensive than Apple products. Then I looked long and hard at a Dell XPS 13, but it also has a pretty hefty price tag.

Considering the prices, I started to think about the tasks that I actually *did* with the MacBook Air over the last couple of years. Did I really need one at all? Could I get used to life without one? I didn’t run anything like ManicTime on it, but I can estimate my usage:

  • Web browsing with Chrome, mainly TweetDeck, YouTube, and WordPress.
  • Playing video files from my NAS drive.
  • Running EverNote.
  • Running Scrivener on files from DropBox.

And that was about it. So in those terms, it seemed like quite a waste of money to buy a full laptop of any kind. But I still wanted a keyboard. After ruling out a Mac and a PC, the only thing left that has a real keyboard is a ChromeBook.

Picture blatantly stolen without permission. Awaiting DMCA notice.

A quick search on my standard computer shopping web site (NewEgg) revealed the Lenovo ChromeBook S330. It’s roughly the same size and weight as the MacBook Air it would be replacing. It’s got a 14″ 1920×1080 display (technically a bit better than the 2013 MacBook Air). I’m beyond the age where I care to nitpick about every single detail of every hardware spec (number of cores, processor speed, memory, etc.), so I just went ahead and bought it. Most computers can handle most everyday computing tasks these days, the biggest exceptions being heavy gaming or rendering video.

Anyway, my first test of the ChromeBook was this very blog post. It’s working so far.

My biggest concern with ChromeBooks of course is the lack of a caps lock key on the keyboard. I’m one of the (apparently) rare people who still uses caps lock in everyday usage. Mostly in programming, but occasionally in writing. Whenever I type an acronym I use caps lock. With that in mind, I did some quick research beforehand to see if you can remap the search key and found that there is, indeed, an OS setting to remap it to a caps lock. That knocked down my biggest barrier to buying a ChromeBook.

It’s a good thing, too, because I unconsciously mashed that crazy search key with my pinky within minutes of pulling the ChromeBook out of the box, watching in utter confusion as a search box popped up seemingly out of nowhere on the screen, stealing focus from what I was typing.

For some reason, ChromeBooks also continue the Apple tradition of getting rid of the delete key, leaving nothing but a backspace key. I’m assuming they’ve done tons of focus group testing to determine that nobody uses a delete key. I, of course, personally use delete as much or more than backspace, but I’ve gotten used to the extra, inefficient right-arrow key you have to press to use Backspace as a Delete. You can press Alt-Backspace to do what Delete does if you get desperate.

In summary, the first 24 hours seems to be going well. It’s relatively responsive for web browsing, which is about all I’ve done so far. The screen works. It’s not immediately noticeable whether it’s any better or worse than the MacBook Air. The build quality is okay, although it’s all plastic and it definitely feels like plastic. It feels like a a Toys-R-Us laptop compared to a MacBook Air. The keyboard is not as good, but it’s serviceable. The keys are the standard low-profile keys of any laptop. They feel just slightly bigger than the MacBook Air, or at least a little bit more spread out, as if there’s just a little more space between the keys. There aren’t any function keys, just a top row of thinner keys with symbols that you have to stare at to figure out what they mean, but only use maybe once a week.

The only real negative I’ve noticed on the first day is the beefiness of the speakers. They aren’t very loud. They sound more diffuse than the MacBook Air. Maybe it’s doing some kind of crazy and unnecessary 3D sound processing. As an example, it’s difficult to hear the Critical Role videos from YouTube (which are somewhat high in dynamic range to start with) unless you’re right in front of the screen. It could be problematic for me because I will often set the laptop somewhere in the kitchen and cook or wash dishes while listening to videos, and I’m not sure these speakers are going to be loud enough for that. A software gain setting might fix it, but I haven’t seen one anywhere. Maybe there’s an app.

I’ll have to figure out how to do Scrivener from the laptop someday. I use Scrivener mainly for creative writing. On the other hand, I could always write in EverNote and copy it into Scrivener on the PC. When I’m writing I can just drop plain text into any text editor, I don’t use fonts or much of any formatting. There’s also apparently a way to remotely access a Windows PC from a ChromeBook so maybe I can try that.

But otherwise, so far so good. It’s certainly not better than a MacBook Air by a long shot, but it’s functional.

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