Tag Archives: Chromebook

HP Chromebook 14 G4 Review

Aug 2018 Update: DO NOT BUY THIS DEVICE! Google pulled support for Android apps and it won’t be getting the ability to run native Linux programs either. Buy a Windows laptop and dual boot Linux (or just use Windows), because it’s worth the slightly higher price tag for a fully functional computer. Don’t buy a Chromebook, unless it’s for kids and it’s cheap as dirt.

Prior to purchasing a Chromebook this year, I didn’t have any hands on experience with them. I had read a fair amount about them and I had played with them in local stores, but I wasn’t 100% sure what to expect.

I’ve been using my HP Chromebook 14 G4 for the past few months as a replacement for my Dell Inpiron 1501 laptop. I am posting this review in the hopes that will be helpful to anyone who may be considering getting their first Chromebook. As such, I will keep it simple and related to how it actually is to use.

Google’s simplified Linux distribution is essentially normal GNU/Linux with very little installed other than the Google Chrome web browser and a custom file manager. As a result, the built in driver support for USB devices is pretty good, apart from printers and scanners, and the system very stable – there just isn’t a whole lot to go wrong. It also boots extremely quickly despite being installed on modest hardware. That said, there is a lot one can do with ChromeOS that can’t be done with the just the Google Chrome browser itself.

“Chrome Apps” are stand alone programs that use the browser as an “engine”, providing access to the hardware and various programmer type things. They are no longer supported on other platforms (and I question how long Google will keep them around), but on Chromebooks they provide a massive amount of functionality that would not otherwise be available. The webstore has many free and inexpensive apps for all manner of tasks, such as writing, programming, drawing, photo editing, document manipulation, and so on. Some are better than others, but for the most part there are enough apps to accomplish all the mundane computer activities.

As for the browser itself, it’s not too shabby. Essentially the same experience as you’d have on the desktop, with only a few extra options in the settings menu. It’s responsive and well supported by every website I have ever visited, so over all, using it is a fine web experience.

The user interface of ChromeOS is about as basic as it gets. The log in screen is an idiot proof “type your name and password the first time, then just click your picture and type your password every time after that” ordeal that will be second nature to anyone after doing a couple of times. There is a taskbar at the bottom of the screen, which Google calls the Shelf. Anyone who has used a Windows 95 or greater computer (or even a Mac really) will know how to use it – Left click the circle on the far left to open apps, right click anywhere to change its settings, click stuff in the tray on the right for their options. Other than that, there are some hardware keys, trackpad gestures, and a boat load of keyboard shortcuts (complete with an onscreen map in Settings > Keyboard > View keyboard shortcuts) that are very useful.

Overall, ChromeOS is capable of being the average person’s main operating system, provided they set their expectations accordingly. It’s not going to let you play 3D games and it isn’t going to run Windows based programs, such as Word and Excel, but works well with the Google suit of software and there is enough third party software to fill in many gaps. You can even create your own HTML5/JavaScript based apps for the Chromebook, on the Chromebook if you really wanted to (personally, I made a simple writing program and a game prototype and it wasn’t a terrible experience).

Android Apps
I can’t say, as they still aren’t supported on this Chromebook even when running the latest beta version of ChromeOS. This device is on the list that will supposedly get them this year, but it’s already November and Google is known for abandoning projects…

HP Bloatware
There isn’t any! There is, however, an app on the webstore from HP that aids in using their networked printers.

Moving onto the hardware itself…


Hardware GOOD

  • The metal keyboard area is smooth and very comfortable to rest one’s hands upon.
  • The keyboard has a standard layout and is nice to type upon. I have not experienced any fatigue or pain while using it on my lap or at the table.
  • The webcam and speaker are good enough for basic communication. In fact, the speaker isn’t too bad considering what it is.
  • It’s light, but well built, making it a pleasure to move around the house with. Combined with how quickly it resumes from sleep and how long its battery lasts, closing the lid and tucking it under my arm has become standard operating procedure.
  • The Micro SD card slot allows for increasing the storage considerably and it’s very close to being flush-mounted when inserted. USB hard drives and sticks are also plug and play, allowing for unlimited local storage of pictures, videos, etc.

Hardware BAD

  • The screen quality is terrible. Inexcusable, really. 1366×768 resolution at 14″ isn’t bad. The problem is the pixel array itself is decidedly low-end, with a very narrow viewing angle, poor colour reproduction, and a dimness that simply gets washed out at both lower and higher back-light settings.
    It’s not good at all and its only saving grace is that it works.
  • The battery in this Chromebook is smaller than other models of the same price range, which knocks down usage time to 6-8 hours, down from 10-14 hours.
  • It gets hot when charging. A while back I remarked that it doesn’t get hot, but it turns out that’s not the case when it is charging.
  • The speakers are poor quality. They are capable of belting out loud, distorted sounds, if that’s your thing. Loud mid range frequencies (especially male voices) will cause vibrations even at 40% volume. They work and they’re stereo speakers, so they are better than nothing.
  • The RAM (2GB DDR3) and hard drive (16GB eMMC) are not able to be upgraded.
  • There aren’t any mouse buttons, rather one is expected to click the trackpad down to click. Unfortunately, the physical click is so stiff and hard to press that it’s not worth using.

And onto some points of general interest about the user experience…


  • “Tap To Click” on touchpads sucks! It would be fine if the damned thing wasn’t so sensitive. Little is more annoying than accidentally selecting all the text in a window and deleting it, because your thumb strayed over the giant mousepad. And various other issues related to the technology itself…
  • The back-light defaults to 100% when turning the device on and it’s blindingly bright (painfully so when fired up in a dark room).
  • The firmware is crippled, such that if you want to run ChromeOS, you basically don’t own your device.
    The hardware CAN run other operating systems, but Google goes out of its way to make it an underwhelming and annoying experience.
  • The SD card is mounted each time the lid is opened and closed, which adds a notification to the tray that does not automatically go away.

Some Good Stuff

  • One can install a real, full GNU/Linux desktop along side ChromeOS using Crouton, granting access to useful programs that round out the functionality of the device. GIMP, Blender, Audacity, and VLC all work well (though don’t expect to be rendering massive projects with Blender).
  • All of the Google suit of software works great. The ChromeOS file browser even has built in Google Drive functionality for upload/download/auto-mirroring. There is even an extension that allows for opening zip files and iso images.
  • Websites, especially browser based games, run far more fluidly than they did on my old laptop. Even full Linux software does as well!

Bottom Line
I like my HP Chromebook 14 G4, because it is capable of doing everything that I want to do with it. For me, the Chromebook was not intended to be a replacement for my desktop PC, because there are some tasks that I do on the desktop that would strain even the most expensive Windows/Mac/Linux laptops. Would it be ideal to have a single device that I could use for all of my computing needs?


Somewhere in my mind, there dwells the nagging desire to pair down to a single device, but the reality is that there exists, as my father insisted, “the right tool for the job”. When it comes to computing, form factor is the largest factor in determining what one should use for a given job. Just as holding a MacBook up to one’s head to make a phone call would be ridiculous, trying to complete detailed graphics design on a Chromebook would be silly. When I temper my expectations and I look at my Chromebook as I would a kitchen utensil, I have to admit that it is a pretty darn good tool for general and casual computing, especially given how inexpensive it was!

If you’re looking to get an inexpensive computer for yourself or your kids and you’d like it to be portable, you can’t go wrong with this or any other $350 or cheaper Chromebook. The laptop form factor is perfect for casual use and the ability to plug it into a desktop keyboard, monitor, and speakers, means it can be used like a traditional desktop as well.

Developing for ChromeOS/Android using a Chromebook

… is not something that is supported by Google, go figure. Heck, neither is using git, which is a bummer indeed!

That said, there are ways one can use their Chromebook hardware to set up a development environment and work flow, by way of installing a Linux distribution or by using “cloud based” development environments. However, neither of those solutions are ideal, nor are they particularly desirable due to their poor work flow compared to simply using a full Windows, Mac, or Linux desktop or laptop for developing Android or ChromeOS programs.

Chrome Dev Editor (By Google)
Google is famous for abandoning projects and unfortunately, much like the web-based App Inventor for Android that came before it, the native ChromeOS IDE (integrated development environment) for Chrome apps is one of those abandoned projects. While it does still work, there are major issues with its user interface that have not been fixed that can prevent it from functioning. Furthermore, it is still a “beta version” (last updated in March 2016) as well as being a hidden item on the Chrome App Store. Finally, this IDE is only capable of creating non-compiled Javascript and Dart based Chrome apps and extensions – Google doesn’t have any Chromebook based support for creating Android apps at all.

With Chromebooks having such a heavy focus on education, Google has dropped the ball by failing to provide a comprehensive, fully functional, and well documented development environment for ChromeOS and Android on Chromebooks. Yes, the hardware comes with a “Developer Mode”, but there are so many problems with using it, such as it being completely locked out on all Chromebooks that are managed by schools, that its existence should not even be a consideration. Even a guy like me who has been using Linux since 1998 and who is quite capable of using Linux on his Chromebook, doesn’t want to use the hack that is “Developer Mode”.

“Developer Mode”: That thing for Chromebooks that your kid can completely erase by opening your Chromebook and pressing the SPACEBAR when he’s prompted to…

Third Party Solutions
The following is a list of native ChromeOS apps, Android apps, and web based products that can be used to create programs (such as tools, games, and editors) for ChromeOS and Android. As a person who has been developing games and game mods using a Linux and Windows desktop for several years, I am going to go ahead and say that all of the following software and workflows are less efficient and more troublesome than simply using the Android Studio and your supporting asset creation software (Blender, GIMP, Audacity, etc.) in Linux or Windows.

If ChromeOS had a native version of Android Studio, the workflow on a Chromebook would be tolerable (when using a USB mouse – develop not with a trackpad, for thou dost not deserve such torture!).

ChromeOS Programming Apps
Caret – Programming oriented text editor
Drive Notepad – Programming oriented text editor
Secure Shell – Use the command line of another computer on your network

Android Programming Apps
Note: Android apps are not supported on all Chromebooks, even when using the beta OS releases (mine included).
There aren’t any, but you can read about how Android apps are developed on desktop and laptop PCs here, here, and here.

Cloud Based Programming
These are subscription based services
Cloud 9 – C++/Python/Ruby/JavaScript
CodeAnywhere – C++/Python/Ruby/JavaScript

Asset Creation
List of Image Creation Tools (Reddit)
Sound: AudioSauna, Audiotool, Beatlab, SoundCloud, SoundTrap, Twisted Wave
3D Modeling: Openshape is the only tool, which happens to be a cloud based web app. Read this if you want to know how well it performs on the standard educational Chromebook.

While one can develop programs for Chromebooks on a Chromebook, in my personal experience with RocketTux, doing so is a lesson in frustration and disappointment for anyone who has access to even a crappy dual core laptop from 2006 that can run a full Linux distribution. The problem is not the specs of the machines, rather it’s the lack of proper software and the abysmal user experience and work flow of the available software that sullies the concept. The good part here is that this is something Google could fix 100% by simply throwing some talented employees at it, but the bad part is… Google probably won’t fix it, because I just don’t think they see it as a problem.

Ideally, Google should have an “Android Studio for Chromebooks” that would be a native ChromeOS app that did everything locally on the hardware (a boon to work flow), with the option to seamlessly compile C/C++ binaries using one of Google’s super computer servers. This tool should be well documented and completely open, such that students can easily use it to learn relevant programming languages, develop good programming habits, and create amazing new software, even on the Chromebooks that belong to their school.

“Android Studio for Chromebooks” would complete the “bigger picture” of Chromebooks, by allowing Chromebook users to create any piece of software they may want to use right there on the Chromebook itself! It’s a crying shame that one still needs a Mac, Windows, or Linux PC to get the job done.

$1299 Chromebook? Google, You’re Not Apple!

Colour me poor and dumbfounded, this Pixelbook device makes no sense to me!

The other day Google announced its new (and only) Chromebook, the Pixelbook. It’s an ugly convertable ultra portable notebook that can be flipped around to be used as a tablet (in exactly the same manner as all the other similar devices that came before it). Honestly, hardware wise it is nothing special, again perhaps with the exception of it being ugly (colour, shape, and those rubbery hand pads… bleh!).

Google Pixel Specs:

  • 12.3″ 2400×1600 LCD
  • Intel i5 CPU (dual core, low power variant)
  • 8GB RAM
  • 128GB SSD
  • Aluminum Chassis (that folds)
  • ChromeOS

The hardware, the operating system, and the software do not justify the $1299 CAD price tag. Seriously, you can buy a MacBook Air from Apple for $50 less and it is a computer that comes with a full “desktop operating system” that is capable of running full Mac and Windows software. Heck, you can even run Android software on a Mac using an emulator if you really wanted to…

As I sit here typing this on my HP Chromebook 14 G4, which cost me around $350 CAD, I can’t think of a single use case where paying more than triple the cost is justifiable. I mean come on, the all aluminum, 4GB RAM/32GB SSD, 1080p IPS LCD rockin’ Acer Chromebook 14 was only $400 and the various other Chromebooks that convert to tablets are all $650 or less. As far as use cases go, there are so many things you can’t do with a Chromebook that there is very little you can do on a $650+ Chromebook that you can’t do on a used $125 Chromebook. And… that’s the magic of the Chromebook/ChromeOS concept!

The entire value of the Chromebook concept is that they cost less and do less, but they do enough to be genuinely useful at their lower price point.

The Pixelbook misses that mark by a country mile, for the following reasons:

1. The software doesn’t exist to justify the hardware specs, even when one includes the new Android app runtime for ChromeOS; You don’t need an i5, 128GB+ of storage, and 8GB RAM on a Chromebook, because it’s not going to be utilized in the standard use case for Chromebooks!

2. The hardware itself is over priced – other manufactures are selling the same stuff or better for less money. Amazingly, this even includes Apple, if you’re willing to forego the tablet functionality.

It seems to me that with the Pixelbook, and the Pixel 2 / Pixel 2 XL phones, Google has decided that they are Apple and that they can charge far more for their products than what their worth, all the while throwing we poor folks under the bus. See, not only has Google created these expensive devices, they are also no longer listing Chromebooks and Android phones from other manufacturers on their web store, including the educational ones that are geared toward schools, average folks, and poor people.

That’s right, according to Google, if you can’t (or don’t want to) shell out at least $1,000 CAD for a Chromebook or an Android Phone (Pixel 2 start at $999 CAD) then you’re not worthy of their consideration. I find that change of direction quite disappointing and I would imagine that the various manufactures of Chromebooks and Android phones do as well. It really feels like a knife in the back to the millions of people around the world who made Android and ChromeOS successful in the first place.

I am all for Google selling their own products, but I also feel that they have a responsibility to represent the entire spectrum of consumers and manufacturers of Android and ChromeOS based devices; Google, unlike Apple, made partnerships with manufacturers and a value-oriented relationship with consumers that allowed them to get where they are today.

Google, stop pretending to be Apple. You were awesome just the way you were.

Note: Google does have an iniative called Android One in which they work with other manufactures to create inexpensive Android phones for developing nations. As of today, none of these devices are available in Canada (I guess our poor people aren’t poor enough to deserve help…). Thankfully several manufacturers took it upon themselves to make excellent and affordable devices for Canadians, such as Motorola, Samsung, Asus, Huawei, Acer, BLU, Alcatel, and Xiaomi.

It’s important to understand that our connected world is the result of the hard work and investment by thousands of companies around the world, not just the handful who get all the press…

Chromebooks – Their Functions Keys are Different and that’s OK!

I just realized that in all hullabaloo I made about the keyboard when talking about upgrading my laptop, I totally didn’t mention that Chromebooks replace the traditional function keys at the top of the keyboard with a row of … well, function keys. I also didn’t mention that I think the Chromebook function keys are really cool!

For anyone who doesn’t know what I am referring to, “Function Keys” are the set of numbered keys (from F1 to F12) at the top of PC keyboards that exist as a programmable human interface for software. These keys date back to an era before the mouse and graphical user interfaces were common, at a time when the more keys you had in front of you, the more you could accomplish with the computer in a timely manner. I remember learning programs for DOS, such as Word Perfect and Lotus 123, which had so many keyboard shortcuts that they came with paper overlays for the the keyboard! These overlays mapped the functions visually for the user, because no mere mortal could possibly remember all of those shortcuts. Even today, most software has an array of keyboard functions that stretch far beyond what you see when you look at the keyboard, ChromeOS included, but the function keys remain an integral part of most productivity software as well.

But, what do you see when you look at a standard PC keyboard? Like, what are those F1 through F12 keys for anyway? Unlike the TAB or ESC key, there’s no immediately obvious function for any of the “Function Keys”, so… what are they for?

Again, the function key row exists to help translate the intangible world of on-screen software in to the real where we physical creatures can poke at it. Given that computers can run many different kinds of software, it made a lot of sense to have a single keyboard layout that had the necessities for language as well as some extra keys that a program can use for “other stuff”. Sure, we could live in a world where every program comes with its own custom keyboard that we swap out multiple times a day, but as fortune would have it, the folks who formed the PC market weren’t the same people as those who formed the gaming console market…

Image by GeekPress.co.ukImage by http://www.geekpress.co.uk

So, the input paradigm we have firmly entrenched in the PC market is a keyboard with a set of ill-defined “F Keys” that remain a mystery to many people, because those folks either don’t use software that capitalizes on the existence of the F Keys or because they simply aren’t trained to use that area of the keyboard any longer. From my experience in the tech support industry, I would say that the latter is most often the case, because I can’t think of a single piece of software that doesn’t have at least one useful function that is tied to the function keys, yet I have encountered many people who have no idea what the function keys are for. Judging by what Google has done with the function keys on their Chromebooks, I’m not the only person who has noticed this trend.

Chromebook Function Keys

By explicitly defining what each of the function keys does in ChromeOS and then visually representing those functions graphically on the keys themselves, Google has taken an underused portion of the PC keyboard and made it integral to the everyday use of a Chromebook. A person a can look at the keyboard on a Chromebook and immediately know exactly what every key does. And, all of the things that the keys do are genuinely useful to the normal workflow of the device – letters, numbers, volume keys, navigation keys, brightness keys, and so on, all come together to form a tool whose purpose is as easily recognized as that of a vacuum cleaner or a car stereo.

I commend Google for having the courage to change the icons on the the physical function keys themselves, because such changes to the status quo are quite risky in the computer hardware business. Just as Apple took a risk when they released the iPhone without a physical keyboard, Google’s Chromebook keyboard is a risky step in the right direction for purpose driven computer hardware; The iPhone was designed to be mobile and extremely versatile, so using a touch screen made it possible to pack as much programmable interface as possible into the limited space provided by the chassis; A Chromebook is designed to deliver the best possible web browser experience on a device that is both affordable and optimized for long periods of human input, so it made sense to explicitly define the role of every key on its keyboard.

The function keys available on my HP Chromebook 14 G4 are, from left to right:

ESC, Back, Forward, Refresh, Maximize/Normal-Size Window, Switch Window, Lower Brightness, Raise Brightness, Mute Volume, Decrease Volume, Increase Volume, and Power.

In addition to the predefined functions keys, ChromeOS also has an abundance of keyboard shortcuts, which are complete with their own handy on screen map that can be accessed by pressing the CTL+ALT+? keys.

Finally, it is possible to change the role of the function keys on a Chromebook to be like the function keys on any PC by selecting “Treat top-row keys like function keys” in the keyboard settings dialog box.

It’s Laptop Upgrade Time! HP Chromebook 14 G4 (2016) vs. Dell Inspiron 1501 (2006)

Back in 2007 my wife and I purchased a pair of Dell Inspiron 1501 laptops for $450 CAD each. They came with 1.8GHz single core AMD Sempron processors and 1GB of RAM, running Windows Vista Home Basic. Through the years I upgraded them to 1.8GHz dual core AMD Turion processors (for $13 total via ebay!) and 3GB RAM. At one point I had a 32GB solid state drive in mine, running Linux and it was really quite excellent for everything other than playing 3D games. However, as time passed by it became increasingly uncomfortable to deal with the two major downsides of this laptop:

  1. It had to be plugged into the power adapter all the time, because it could only get about 8 minutes of battery life.
  2. It ran hot as hell!

Honestly, other than that it still is an excellent machine for everyday computing (my daughter uses it with Linux Mint 17.3 at her desk), as it’s able to browse the web, play videos (Netflix, Youtube, etc), play basic games, and do some photo editing and document creation without any noticeable slow downs. The hardware requirements for basic computing haven’t really changed much in the last decade.

And that’s where Chromebooks and their low power Intel processors come in – they have all the computing power of a 2006 era dual core processor (and more) at a fraction of the power consumption. The end result is that today we can buy a small, light laptop that can plug away at basic computing tasks for 5+ hours on battery, while producing so little heat that it doesn’t even need a fan. In fact, if you exclude electrons, photons, and the hinge on the screen, my Chromebook doesn’t have any moving parts at all… And the Chromebooks are even inexpensive too, much like the Dell Inspiron series of laptops.

If you’ve read my article about the Canadian bilingual keyboard, you will understand why I wanted to buy a $399 Acer Chromebook 14, but I ended up buying this $349 HP Chromebook 14 G4 instead. Quite simply, I was able to walk into our local Bestbuy and purchase the HP with the standard US keyboard (the only non-Apple laptop they had with a US keyboard by the way), where as the Acer wasn’t available locally and I couldn’t seem to get a straight answer from online retailers as to which keyboard it had. So for $50 less, no shipping charges, and the peace of mind that I won’t have to return it and start all over (due to having the wrong keyboard), I figured I could live with the lower end HP Chromebook 14. And, I can.

The Acer Chromebook 14 has a quad core processor, 4GB of RAM, 32GB storage, and a 1080p IPS screen in an all metal chassis where as the HP Chromebook 14 G4 has a dual core processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB storage, and a 720p TN screen in a plastic chassis which has a metal keyboard area. Clearly, the Acer is a way better machine for only $50 more, but I just didn’t want the head ache of having to deal with returns due to the keyboard. If you’re in the USA or you’re in Canada and you don’t care about what keyboard you get, I recommend the Acer over the HP.

Comparing the HP Chromebook 14 running Google ChromeOS to the Dell Inspiron running Linux Mint 17.3 is interesting, because there are a number of things that Linux can do which ChromeOS cannot. If I had to choose between one of them to be my only computer, I would choose that old Dell in a heart beat, because point blank: It can do more and it can do it better. However, I am not stuck in that situation, because I have a full desktop Linux machine that I can rely on to accomplish things which ChromeOS can not. When you exclude an array of niche activities and focus on the day to day computing that most of us actually do, then it becomes a lot easier to compare a Chromebook to a Linux laptop.

Browsing the web, watching videos, writing, using Skype video or text chat, listening to music, sharing pictures and video, doing simple picture editing (crop, color, etc), email, making documents and spreadsheets, and playing simple games such as solitaire or web based games like Bejeweled, are what I consider “day to day computing”.

Both the old Dell and the new HP can do all those things, with the difference being that the HP can do them for roughly 8 hours on a single charge, while weighing less and producing an unnoticeable amount of heat.

That’s the big take away here. Sure there are many other things one could consider and absolutely, there are many things a normal Linux laptop can do that a Chromebook can’t, but most of those things aren’t really part of the use-case for a Chromebook anyway; You don’t buy a Chromebook to do 3D CAD work just as sure as you don’t buy a toaster to make coffee. The use-case for a Chromebook then is essentially same as any other low-end laptop, with the only real difference being some of the software you use.

When it comes to the differences in software, let’s have a look at word processing. In Windows, documents and spreadsheets are most often made using Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel, but many people and organizations also use Open Office or Libre Office. In Linux, most people create documents using Libre Office or other open source software, such as Abiword and Gnumeric. In ChromeOS, one can use Google Docs for online and offline document and spreadsheet creation. Chromebooks can also use Microsoft’s online document tools as well as several offline document editors that can be found in the ChromeOS store (often for free and without ads). All of this software is more powerful and easier to use than the WordPerfect 5.1 that I grew up with and it’s all more than capable of meeting the average human being’s personal computing needs. You just have to take the time to learn and get used to the software for your platform. After that, it’s all productivity baby! Well, if you’ve managed not to wander off to Netflix that is…

Taking a look at the physical differences between the Dell 1501 and the HP 14 G4, it’s easy to see which is the more comfortable machine to use on one’s lap.

Left: HP Chromebook 14 G4. Right: Dell Inspiron 1501

Both machines are almost the same width, 13.5″ vs. 14″, which is the perfect size for feeling balanced across my legs without having to clench my butt cheeks or otherwise sit uncomfortably. The same cannot be said for an 11″ wide laptop! The depth of the keyboard area is roughly the same and doesn’t feel any different from a practical standpoint.

As you can see from the picture, the mouse configuration is very different, with the Chromebook lacking the physical mouse buttons and opting for a larger touch surface instead. Personally, I prefer the physical buttons of the 1501 and the edge scrolling of the 1501’s touchpad to the totally new paradigm of the Chromebook’s touchpad, but the difference isn’t a deal breaker. Normally, I hate the “tap to click” feature of touchpads (I hate touch screens in general for their lack of accuracy and their annoying habit of activating everything but what I am trying to activate…), however the touchpad on this Chromebook has consistent sensitivity and accurate multi-touch gesture recognition which have made my transition from real buttons to fake ones fairly painless. Technically, the whole of the Chromebook’s touchpad is one giant button, but it’s so stiff that it’s uncomfortable to press it down.

The last major visual difference is the HP’s 16:9 ratio 14″ 1366×768 screen vs. the Dell’s 3:2 15.6″ 1280×800 screen. Given the similarity in resolution and screen quality, the practical difference really comes down to which one is easier to look at. I think for reading, the 3:2 ratio 15.6″ screen wins for being just a little taller and allowing one’s eyes to focus on the top half of the screen without having to look down, where on the 16:9 screen one would be looking squarely at the top bezel. On the other hand, the 16:9 ratio screen is better suited for video and many websites. So for the screen, it’s a toss up as to which is better, because it really depends on what you’re doing and how you happen to be sitting while doing it.

Weight and comfort wise, the HP Chromebook 14 is hands down way, way nicer to use than the Dell Inspiron 1501, but that’s what a decade of technological progress does for ya! The HP’s battery is smaller, lighter, and cooler, especially when charging. Same goes for the CPU/GPU. The heat difference is such that the Dell can get really uncomfortable after a short time using it, where as the HP remains comfortable for hours, because it only gets a little warm on the bottom. The Dell weighs 7 pounds where as the HP weighs roughly half as much, at just 3.74 pounds – I can’t say enough how silly and fun the HP feels to carry compared to the Dell… I literally giggle a little when I pull the Chromebook out my old laptop carrying bag!

Finally, the typing experience on the two laptops is similar, but definitely not the same. I believe they both have scissor switches, but Dell has bouncy raised key caps where as the HP has flat, solid feeling key caps. I’ve typed a lot on the Dell over the years and I have always found it to be a pleasant experience… it just had a natural feel to it when the keys were pressed down. The HP Chromebook on the other hand has a definitive “hard” feeling to it, such that when you press a key it clicks down and stops moving abruptly. I wouldn’t say that the difference in feeling is bad nor do I think that typing frequently on the HP will be a lesser experience, I’m just saying that typing on the HP is indeed a different tactile experience than typing on the Dell.

So with all that said, I’m really happy with my new laptop and I expect I will be for another several years. If you’re out there still hanging on to an ancient laptop for your day to day computing like I was and you’re feeling it might be time to look for an affordable replacement, I recommend taking a look at some Chromebooks.

One more thing… 

On a related note, there are low priced Windows laptops to on the market that are worth consideration for every day computing. They use similar low-powered Intel and AMD processors and they also deliver long battery life in truly portable chassis. However, if you go the Windows route (and you don’t plan on formatting Windows to install Linux), make sure not to purchase anything with less than 64GB of storage space. Some of the Windows laptops only have 32GB, which will only leave you with 5-6GB of storage for your files and extra programs after Windows updates. Chrome OS running my Chromebook with only 16GB of storage has more than 8GB of free space, but such is the power of Linux (upon which ChromeOS is built). Most offline ChromeOS programs are less than 50MB, which is crazy tiny compared to many Windows programs too, so that limited storage space goes a lot farther on a Chromebook. Even a full installation of Linux Mint 17.3 XFCE edition, with a whack of optional programs installed, only uses about 10GB, so you can easily get by with only 32GB of storage on a Linux machine (16GB would probably be annoyingly small though).

The Horrible Canadian Bilingual Keyboard Strikes Again!

Let me make this perfectly clear: I am Canadian. I was born in Canada. I have lived my whole life in Canada. I love our awesome “cultural mosaic” society. However, none that means I want to use some wacky bilingual keyboard on my laptop computer.

I don’t, at all. Ever. Thank you.

Here is an old MSI Wind netbook with a standard US layout and a Chromebook with the Canadian bilingual layout.

Here is an old MSI Wind netbook with a standard US layout and a Chromebook with the Canadian bilingual layout.

But here’s the problem we Canadians (who have spent 30+ years typing on standard US layout keyboards) face when shopping for laptops online:

Even super “tech savvy” and crazy diligent people such as myself, who literally spend months researching their options and waiting for sales, can fall victim to the menace of the Canadian Bilingual Keyboard. I swear to all things one can swear upon, I couldn’t have put more effort into my pre-purchase research, yet when I flipped the lid of my new Chromebook today, what did I see? That obnoxious tall ENTER key and the super annoying, super short left side SHIFT key!

How could this be? I did everything right. I read all the documentation and sales information…. Well, it all boils down to two things:

1. Online retailers don’t give a damn about providing the correct product information. This goes for every major online retailer and every OEM hardware vendor unfortunately. For instance, SOME will say a device has a bilingual keyboard, yet NONE will say a device doesn’t have one.

2. Online retailers will send you whatever the hell they feel like and there’s nothing you can do about it. No amount of research can save you from their whims.

This Curse of the Canadian Bilingual Keyboard issue isn’t new and has indeed been covered in the past mainstream media outlets such as The Globe and Mail, with articles dating back to the mid 2000s. I knew about it and because I purchased my Chromebook explicitly to type on it all the time, I paid very careful attention to the issue (while researching an upgrade to my Dell Inspiron 1501 laptop over the last couple years). And… I still took a tall ENTER key to the knee…

I guess the bottom line here is this:

When it comes to an important physical tool, such as a keyboard, a mouse, an electric drill, or other such device with whom your hands will become intimately familiar, it’s truly worth paying the “brick and mortar store price premium” to actually see, feel, and use the item at the time and place of purchase. The upside to making purchases in “brick and mortar” stores is that the new device in your hands can’t lie to your senses or leave out critical physical details about itself.

The downside, here in Canada, is that unless you live in one of a handful of major cities, you simply won’t find most current products at all and the ones you do find will often be marked up by 30 to 500 percent or more. As ludicrous as this would sound to any European, for we folks who live in the minor cities of Ontario, it’s literally more cost effective to drive a car 200Km down the 401 and buy computers and computer parts in down town Toronto than it is to buy the same items locally. I’m all for the “Buy Locally Owned” mantra, and I am sure many of its proponents wouldn’t appreciate me sharing that nugget of wisdom with you, but it’s simply the truth.

If you’ve ever wondered why some online retailers boast about how excellent their return policies are, this is it. Perhaps the old saying, “you get what you pay for” could use an amendment for life in our modern times, “… unless you bought it online, because then it’s more like a box of chocolates…”.

Chromebook: Hmmm…. x86 or ARM CPU?

I’m just going to get this out of the way before I start going on about stuff that the majority of humanity couldn’t care less about…

CPU doesn’t matter! Buy the Chromebook that you physically like the best.

There ya go folks. You’re welcome. Now, if you’re interested in how I came to this conclusion, by all means keep reading.

Just as Mac OS is not Windows and Windows is not DOS, ChomeOS is not Linux or anything else either. It is important for the buyer to accept this concept going into their purchase of a Chromebook, because it sets the proper expectation. A Chromebook is not a desktop PC or gaming console crammed into a convenient notebook form factor. A Chromebook isn’t even a traditional notebook (aka “laptop”), but that’s OK, because it’s not trying to be one. Instead, Chromebooks are designed to do specific things that comprise their “core functionality”, such as:

– Browse the web in its full, standard format – for fun, research, whatever!
– Media streaming, such as Youtube or Netflix.
– Managing personal media and online storage.
– Simple content creation, such as documents, blogs, books, basic photo manipulation, etc.
– Video conferencing with Skype, etc.

When you think about the countless reasons why one would “browse the web”, from looking up a recipe to troubleshooting that strange sound their car makes in the morning, the browser functionality of ChromeOS alone makes a Chromebook an exceptionally useful tool. However, ChromeOS does have its own app market place, where Google and other developers offer programs for specific tasks and functions.

So what kind of processing power is required to do that stuff?

Not much, really.

A modern dual core x86 (Intel or AMD) or ARM (Samsung, Nvidia, Rockchip, and many others) CPU can handle all of those things without a problem. In Chromebooks made in 2014 and later, you’re most likely to find a quad core ARM or a dual core Intel x86 CPU. If you care about those choices enough to have read this far, I think the choice really boils down to two simple questions,

1. Do you plan on running an alternate Linux environment?
– If “Yes”, buy x86 (Intel)

2. Do I need the battery to last longer than 10 hours?
– If “Yes”, buy ARM

As I said in the beginning, neither of these things are important to the majority of people who would be interested in buying a Chromebook; They could pick either CPU type and be happy. A Linux user on the other hand would be much better off to use an x86 based Chromebook, simply due to the sheer compatibility between virtually all GNU/Linux (open source) software and x86 CPUs. As a Linux user, why jump though hoops to get the software you want to work on an ARM based CPU when you just don’t have to? And if you don’t care about any of that Linux stuff, but you really want the longest battery life possible, then you’re better off buying an ARM based Chromebook, because you will get longer battery life and you’ll most likely never notice a difference in CPU performance.

Let’s take a moment to have a look at some of the processors that I have found available in Chromebooks at various retailers in Canada. This should give you a better idea about how I came to the above conclusions. Of course, for more information on each chip and for benchmark data, hit up your favorite search engine! Lot’s of great reading out there on the web.

Intel Celeron N2830 / N2840
– Dual core x86 CPUs, with the N2840 having a higher standard and turbo speed than the N2830.
– Built using the power efficient 22nm (nm = nano meters) HKMG process.
– Turbo clock speeds over 2.4GHz make these CPUs significantly better than Intel’s older low power CPUs, delivering the kind of performance one would expect from a basic office desktop/notebook.
– Can run full versions of Windows XP/Vista/7/8/10, Linux, as well as ChromeOS.
– Graphics are good enough.
– Battery life is actually pretty good, comparable to quad core ARM CPUs when paired with a slightly larger battery.

Nvidia Tegra K1
– Quad Core ARM Cortex A15 CPU
– Also has a 5th hidden Cortex A15 core, which is specially fabricated to be extremely low power. It is used seamlessly to maximize power savings when system is idle, by shutting down the 4 main cores and using itself instead.
– Has a powerful Nvidia graphics processor that is useful for video and games.
– Can run ARM variants of GNU/Linux software.

Rockchip 3288
– Quad Core ARM Cortex A17 CPU
– Has some more advanced features than the Cortex A15 designs, but lacks the special low power 5th core.
– Built using the 28nm HKMG process, which is competitive in terms of battery life savings.
– Least expensive quad core ARM, while also benchmarking close to the competition.

Samsung Exynos 5250
– Dual core ARM Cortex A15 CPU
– The only thing this CPU has going for it is battery life, simply because it only has two cores to draw power.
– Built using the older 32nm HKMG process, which means every transistor inside the chip is a little bigger than on the 28nm HKMG CPUs, such as the Rockchip 3288. This means each 32nm CPU requires a bit more electricity. But… the Exynos 5250 only has 2 CPUs which actually makes it more power efficient in the long run.
– Graphics chip is “OK”.
– Definitely geared for modest use, such as reading, writing, low resolution Youtube (480p), and general internet browsing.

Samsung Exynos 5410
– “Octo-core” CPU, which in reality is a dual quad core design, because it only ever uses one group of 4 at a time. They refer to this as big.LITTLE.
– Quad Core ARM Cortex A15 paired with low power drain quad core ARM Cortex A7.
– Really smart design, but probably not as power efficient as the Nvidia Tegra K1 design in general use, because the Tegra K1 would definitely use less power while idle.

Intel i3 and i5
– Dual core x86 CPUs with Hyperthreading. They act as quad core CPUs in many workloads, but they use less power, because they achieve this with half the physical hardware as a true quad core CPU.
– Full sized or standard mobile processors, these are essentially low clocked desktop processors with strict power management features to maximize battery usage. You’re trading battery life for CPU speed, which may or may not provide tangible benefits to you on a Chromebook. It really depends on what you’re doing – devices with 1080p or higher resolution screens and folks who use 20+ browser tabs at a time might see some benefit.
– Offered only in premium priced devices (none of which I can actually find for sale in Canada at this time), usually paired with a high quality chassis and screen.

And that’s about it for what I can actually find on the market these days. There is a surpising amount of selection out there, with new Chromebooks ranging in price from $189 to $799. CPU choices seem to be evenly spread out over the whole price spectrum as well, which means it’s likely that you will be able hit your personal “sweet spot” of chassis quality, hardware features, cpu power, battery life, and pice. As far actual makes and models of Chromebooks go, suffice it to say that when I do buy one, I will tell you which one I bought and why I personally chose it, but no one is paying me to advertise for them, so… I won’t; This site is a resource for you and a creative outlet for me.

Personally, my priorities for a Chromebook are:

1. x86 – While I really love the concept and battery life of ARM based Chromebooks, I do plan on using additional Linux software, so I may as well make that as easy as possible.

2. A keyboard with a normal sized ENTER key and otherwise traditional layout/size.

3. Replaceable battery with 10+ hours life.

4. Chassis that won’t fall apart for at least a few years.

In a perfect world, I would buy a MacBook Air, but an x86 based Chromebook is sufficient for a notebook, while also having just the right amount nerdiness to be entertaining. Realistically, a Chromebook is all I need.

Macbook? Chromebook? Notebook? What’s best for me?

If you’re anything like me, you’re sitting there reading this on a 2007 era notebook running a dual boot of Windows Vista and a Linux distro of some kind. Maybe the hinge is loose, perhaps you’ve already upgraded the CPU and RAM, and I am willing to bet that the battery in your old notebook is as dead as the battery is in mine. So what do we do? It’s not like the old beast isn’t sufficient for browsing web, watching a video, and other notebook type tasks, but it sure would be nice to get back to having a truly portable computer, wouldn’t it?

In my case, I could pick up a replacement battery for my Dell Inspiron 1501 for around $40 or so, but the reality is that even when it was brand new and running only a single core processor, the battery life was terrible. $40 isn’t the end of the world and the o’l beast still works, so that’s a good way to go, right? Well… not really, no. Here’s why:

Issues with my old notebook:

  • It produces an uncomfortable amount of heat on the keyboard.
  • Battery life is poor.
  • The screen hinge is loose.
  • The ATi video adapter is no longer supported by the AMD drivers for Linux.
  • It’s heavy.

I actually really like this old “laptop”, mostly because it’s comfortable to type on and has proven to be easy to disassemble and work on. However, it’s 15″ screen on that loose hinge combined with the heat and necessity of being plugged in (all the time and frequently even with a new battery) make it less than enjoyable to use. So in a practical sense, it’s time to replace it. But… what should I replace it with?

Let’s get this out of the way upfront. There are only two reasons why I am not getting a 13″ MacBook Air:

1. It’s too expensive.
2. I couldn’t afford to replace it if got broken.

If those are not considerations for you, then by all means, buy a MacBook! They have a strong chassis, good battery, and good cpu/gpu. Even if you’re not an iPhone or iPad user, the Apple ecosystem is pretty nifty and given that MacBooks are built with standard PC hardware these days, one can still install Windows and Linux on them. When money is not an issue, it’s hard to turn one’s nose up at a solid chassis, nice screen, excellent battery, x86 cpu, and a polished *nix type operating system.

Moving on… there are plenty of affordable 15″ notebooks running Windows 10 these days, but finding the magic mixture of solid chassis, good keyboard, acceptable CPU / RAM / Video / Hard Drive, good battery life, and reasonable screen is a tougher than one would think. Compounding those issues, chassis quality and keyboard feel are, understandably, impossible to judge when shopping online. Issues one does not encounter when shopping for a MacBook! 🙂

Form my poking around, prices for Windows notebooks seem to range from $300 to $3,500, which should mean that there’s something in there for everyone. Indeed, HP, Dell, Lenovo, and Toshiba all offer notebooks in chassis that compete with the quality of the MacBook for similar price points and there are plenty of offerings in the low, mid, and insane price ranges as well.

When it comes to my portable computing needs, the performance of my current 1.8GHz AMD Turion64x2 with 3GB of DDR2 RAM is fine in Windows Vista (32Bit Home Basic) and Debian 8 (64Bit Linux). That being the case, the new “low power” CPUs from Intel, AMD, and various ARM-based manufacturers are attractive, because their performance is on par with my 2007 era dual core CPU, yet they are an order of magnitude more energy efficient. Power saving on a desktop isn’t a super compelling talking point, but in the portable space, the difference can mean 10 hours of use rather than only 2 hours! Not only that, but the low power processors end up achieving their longer up time while using batteries that are smaller and lighter than notebooks powered by traditional mobile CPUs. Given that the entire point of using a notebook is for it to be a portable, if not mobile, experience, then moving to something that is “good enough” while also having 10+ hours of portable up time is kind of a no brainer!

Maximizing one’s value for the dollar while purchasing a notebook with a low power CPU is a challenge! Spend too much and you may as well buy a notebook with a full mobile CPU/APU that will give you enough performance to play games, edit videos, and compile software in a timely manner. You can always buy an additional battery, right? But how much is “too much” to spend on a notebook with a low power CPU? See, even that question tough to answer, now that we have convertible devices!

Here in 2015 we can buy a Microsoft Surface Tablet or an Asus Transformer (examples off the top of my head) that have low power ARM or x86 processors for tablets, yet they come with a keyboard sufficient enough to allow them to fit the role of a traditional notebook. However, such devices tend to come at premium price that conflicts with the raw performance one can get for the same price in a traditional notebook. Do you want to use your notebook as a tablet? Do you mind paying a premium for such a feature? Personally, I am not interested, but I think it is a valid consideration for many people, particularly those who are buying their first non-smartphone computing device. In theory, for folks who are primarily content consumers, creating little more themselves than documents and the occasional image, convertible tablets are certainly more convenient than desktops and definitely handy in terms of managing one’s data (it’s always on a device that can be used anywhere). This device paradigm may well be worth the price premium for some (if not most!) notebook users. Microsoft sure has put a lot eggs in this basket, if that means anything to ya!

Setting aside convertibles and notebooks with traditional CPUs and limiting the price range to what makes sense to spend on a CPU that is just “good enough”, puts us into Chromebook and low-end Windows 10 notebook territory. But what does that mean?

Hardware wise, when it comes to the standard Chromebook or low-end Windows 10, here’s what you’re likely to get for your $250 (give or take $50):

CPU: 2.16GHz Intel Celeron N2830 or 1.8GHz Quad Core Cortex-A17 ARM
Storage: 16GB or 32GB Solid State Drive
Screen: 11.6″ 1366×768 resolution of modest quality
Keyboard: Standard notebook size and design
Chassis: Quality varies, but most are sturdy.
Battery Life: 6 – 12 hours, depending on CPU, battery size, and operating system.

Honestly, that modest setup is fine for browsing the web, watching videos, writing, and most general desktop/notebook tasks. And if you use online storage or an SD card or USB stick, the small and speedy solid state drives are a boon rather than a problem. I guess the downside comes along when you buy one of these low end Windows 10 notebooks and try to use it for software that it’s just not designed for, such as video editing and big games. Would it be better to have a notebook that could do more? No, not if you’re not actually going to do any of those things with it!

So it turns out that biggest considerations are ChromeOS vs. Windows 10 and chassis quality.

Most of the world is already familiar with Windows in general, but what is this ChromeOS thing all about? Well, to put it simply, ChromeOS is a heavily customized Linux based environment created by Google that is centered around their Chrome web browser. The browser handles most of the tasks one needs, but there are other “apps” one can download and use off-line as well. So… ChromeOS isn’t Windows, but it’s not trying to be and… that’s OK!

Another interesting aspect of ChromeOS is that (when it is set to developer mode) one can use a script called Crouton to install a fully functional Linux desktop environment, such as XFCE, that one can toggle to and from at any time with a simple key combo! This is made possible due to the use of a full Linux environment that is essentially the same as any other Linux installation (unlike Android, which is a Java runtime environment running on top of the Linux kernel). This means that stuff like the full LibreOffice suit, GIMP, and various other open source software can run on a Chromebook without much fuss. This solution isn’t without its drawbacks, but I have to say that it’s actually a really elegant solution that is a step ahead of the standard dual boot setup.

Speaking of dual booting operating systems, it can be done on most Windows 10 and ChromeOS devices, but ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS do your research on a device before making a purchase, because BIOS/Firmware for computers is not standardized and some products may actively prevent the user from dual booting. A Chromebook will usually allow you to dual boot when developer mode is enabled and a Windows 10 notebook may or may not let you dual boot operating systems. Keep in mind that storage space is at a premium and a dual boot on a Chromebook may require using a USB drive or SD card.

From what I have read, on the same type of hardware there isn’t much difference in battery life between Windows 10 and ChromeOS. Battery life is a little better in both operating systems on ARM based hardware rather than Intel or AMD x86 based hardware, but it’s no longer a huge deal thanks to the low power x86 CPUs. So with that in mind, I feel that the choice between a Windows or a ChromeOS device really boils down to personal preference based on these factors:

  • Do I need software that only runs in Windows?
  • Do I need software that requires an x86 processor? (Intel, AMD, VIA)
  • Do I mind the fuss of dual booting, etc?
  • Does the hardware meet my needs? (Screen, keyboard, ports, connectivity)

In my case, as a long time Linux enthusiast, I actually very much appreciate the setup of ChromeOS running a Crouton-installed Linux Desktop Environment. This is my kind of geekery! For many years I have dual booted Windows and Linux and if I have learned anything it’s that even if rebooting only takes a few seconds, it’s often too much of a pain in the arse to bother with. For instance, I wrote this in Windows Vista, because that’s what I booted up to use a particular program. Normally I would use Debian on this machine, but for managing the blog it really doesn’t matter what OS I use and I couldn’t be arsed to reboot.

Anyhow, another feather in Chomebook’s cap for me is its price. Without endorsing any particular brand or retailer, suffice it to say that I can pick up a new Intel based Chromebook with above average specs for about $100 less than a low end Windows 10 notebook with average specs. For a Linux user like me, the value built into some Chromebooks is as hard to ignore as a MacBook is for a person who has money to burn. However, you may find that the Windows or Mac ecosystems are more suitable for your needs and thus add significant value beyond what spec sheets, price tags, and good old physical prodding can determine.

For me, a Chromebook is more than “good enough” – it’s the portable Linux machine I have been waiting for. Now all I need to do is pick one… 🙂