Let’s Talk About Home Computing Form Factors

When I say “form factors”, I’m talking about the general ergonomic thing we humans mash our meat mitts upon, as apposed to what the Wikipedia entry for the subject entails. In my estimation, there are ten form factors, each having their own benefits and drawbacks, but for the most part today’s computing world has really been honed down to just three. Let’s start by having a look at all of them, starting with my favourite!

Commodore 64c with Samsung LCD TV

Computer Inside the Keyboard

Commodore PET 2001

Desktop All-In-One

IMac G5 Rev A - Photo By Matthew Welty (fiveaside) from Sacramento, USA - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Computer Inside the Monitor

ATX/mATX/Slim Tower

Horizontal Desktop

Laptop/Notebook

Tablet with Keyboard

All-touch Smartphone

Smartphone with Keyboard

Single Board Computer

If you’re alive in 2018, you probably already know that the top three form factors are:

  1. All-Touch Smartphone
  2. Laptop/Notebook
  3. ATX/mATX/Slim Tower

Let’s look at why this is the case…

All-touch smartphones, especially the large “phablet” ones, absolutely are the most common home computers, even though their form factor is significantly different from all of the others. People are now able to carryout all of the same type of tasks on their all-touch smartphones as they are on any of the other platforms, with the biggest differences being the human interfaces and the software capabilities.

Where the all-touch smartphone fails to meet people’s needs, most often in the areas of entering large amounts of data and using specialized software that isn’t available on smartphones, the laptop/notebook form factor easily comes to the rescue. This design has the benefits of being ergonomic to use, all in one, and easily portable, making it probably the best overall computer design for average home use (or human beings in general). Most laptops are able to connect to external keyboards, mice, and screens as well, which dramatically increases their potential to meet the user’s needs, unlike the vast majority of smartphones which remain limited in this regard. As a result, laptops tend to be the most popular home computer systems for everything other than playing modern 3D games and extreme/niche productivity applications.

Finally, where both laptops and smartphones fail the user, the common ATX/mATX/Slim Tower (aka “Desktop PCs”) swoops in to fill every imaginable niche. Being that there are several standardized sized for the towers and only a handful of complimentary standards for the hardware components that go inside, people are able to mix and match components to build home computers that meet their specific needs – provided those needs do not include being effortlessly portable. It’s this versatility, along with the high requirements of hardware to play to modern PC-exclusive 3D games, that keep desktop PCs in homes. As game consoles become increasingly more powerful though, the need for “desktop PCs” will continue diminish, as nearly all the other home user’s computing needs can be satisfactorily met by laptops and smartphones.

Where does that leave all the other form factors?

With the exception of TV connected media player style computers that somewhat resemble Horizontal Desktop computers (yet are most often operated by remote controls or a combined wireless mouse/keyboard), the only remaining form factor of note for home computing is that of the Single Board Computers. The interesting thing about both media player computers and single board computers is that the diminutive size of their components and the low processing requirement of their software generally mean their form factors can be as large or as small as the user would like. In fact, many media player computers are indeed built using single board computers, such as the Raspberry Pi; In many respects, as far as home computing goes, they’re one in the same. Of course, single board computers are small enough to also being useful as hobby devices which can be integrated within robots and other electro-mechanical devices within the home. And with those exceptions behind, let’s look at why the other form factors have fallen out of favour with home computer users.

Computer In the Monitor
I’m sure Apple would disagree, but I think the truth here is that apart from people who like the specialized Apple ecosystem, most home computer buyers are leery of tying the heart of their computer purchase to the size and quality of the screen. If they want something bigger later, they’ll have upgrade the whole system. If the screen breaks and the warranty is up, chances are it would be cheaper to buy a new system – but if they had a tower, with its separate monitor, they could even go so far as to make due to a used $10 monitor. And perhaps the combination of laptop level performance, limited upgrade options, and lack of portability just makes this style of computer less attractive to the average home computer user.

Desktop All-In-One
No one has made this style of computer, with the screen, keyboard, and computer all built into a single chassis, for a very long time. This is probably largely due to the reasons I mentioned above. Indeed, if one part breaks or simply no longer suits your needs/desires, you’re likely facing the decisions to replace the whole unit rather than fixing or replacing the one aspect that needs attention. I’m not surprised this design fell out of favour relatively quickly (by the early 1980s). Still, as we can see with the Commodore PET line, the concept is capable of creating some very handsome and inspiring machines!

I think I’d also consider the “luggable” computers, such as the early Compaq, Commodore, and IBM machines, as all-in-one desktops, rather than laptops/notebooks. None of those machines physically operate in a manner similar to how laptops operate (like the front and back covers of a book) and all of them are as heavy or heavier than your average modern PC tower. So yeah, the luggables of yore are effectively all-in-ones too.

Computer in the Keyboard
I really like this design, probably in large part due to nostalgia, but it does have a number of practical merits as well. Firstly, the keyboard mechanism is far easier to replace than a screen would be, so provided the person likes using it, the having the keyboard built into the computer isn’t a big deal. Again, provided the keyboard isn’t made such that the computer is uncomfortable to use, having all of the computer parts inside the keyboard that’s going to be sitting on the table/desk is pretty handy. Really, a modern laptop is essentially the same thing when it’s built in screen is removed, which truly is a testament to the portability of the “Computer in the Keyboard” design. I like the concept, because it puts everything right where my “monkey tools” are interacting with the machine, thereby making the whole experience more tactile and personal. Yes, I am looking up at the screen, but I am always touching the keyboard! That said, it was the advent of the cheap rubber dome keyboard that caused this style of computer to fall out of favour in the mid 1990s. It just made more sense for OEMs to put the expensive parts into a cheap generic tower so they could plug in cheap (and easily replaceable) keyboards and mice, and so that’s how the industry evolved over the years. It’s a crying shame, because when you look at the variety of units that were made by Atari, Acorn, Sinclair, Amstrad, Commodore, Amiga, and other companies from the 1970s to 1990s, there’s just so much inspiring industrial design and personality to touch and feel and love! I really wish this form factor would make a comeback!

Smartphone with Keyboard
It seems that Blackberry is the final holdout in the smartphone with a keyboard market. Unfortunately, in my personal opinion as a former Blackberry Bold/Curve/Q10 user, I think their current products completely miss the target. What made the Bold 9900 such an excellent device was that it could be used with one hand – literally every function could be accomplished using only my thumb! I miss that so much that I would honestly trade my Samsung Galaxy S8 for a Bold 9900 that had an updated camera, because as a communications device, the Bold 9900 is perfect. These new “Key” branded devices on the other hand are so tall that they are unwieldy, meaning you’re really better off to just use an all touch smartphone with an on screen keyboard. It’s not like the on screen keyboards are as tiny and inaccurate as they used to be. I think eventually Blackberry will stop making phones with keyboards, because the devices they are making are for a niche of an already niche group, rather than being targeted explicitly towards busy people need a quality device that excels at calls, SMS/MMS/BBM, email, and pictures.

Horizontal Desktop
As much as I do like the cutesy looks of the IBM PS/2, Commodore 64D, and Apple IIGS horizontal desktop computers, I think they fell out of favour for logical, if mundane, reasons. People got used to looking at the 4:3 LCD monitor that was plunked on their desk as work. I know I did for a few years, until I decided to prop my monitor up on a box in the hopes that it would help me stop slouching (it has helped!). Putting the “computer box” on the floor meant people had more room for stuff on their desk. That said, I imagine the single biggest factor in shoving the desktop computer to the floor was that hard disk storage capacity displaced the need for removable media – people simply didn’t need to fiddle with storage media anymore, so the box may as well be out of their way! Again, this makes me a little sad, because I really like the physical and auditory aspects of using 3.5″ floppy disks. It’s too bad we don’t have anything similar anymore, but really, it’s not very often I need to plug my smartphone into the computer, let alone use a USB stick or CD/DVD. Yup, with so little reason to touch the desktop “box”, off the desk it went.

Wrapping Up
I think as time goes on we’ll see more of the tablet/laptop hybrid devices in people’s homes, as processing power increases, power consumption decreases, and software becomes more optimized for lower power devices. Eventually gaming consoles will be robust and cheap enough to cross the point where “gamers” won’t bother with the extra issues PCs bring with them. Instead they will, like most everyone else, do the majority of their communicating and data processing on their smartphones, while filling in the holes in their productivity with a convertible tablet/laptop style machine. Perhaps in as little as a decade the only computers resembling the “ATX Tower PC” will be the workstations that power content creation and research in the business and education sectors, with the most powerful home computers essentially being the laptops we’re using today. On the whole, I think that’s probably a positive progression for home computing, as the laptop/notebook form factor really is the culmination of all the aspects of computing that we humans enjoy. And hey, if the screen breaks at least you’ll have your very own modern-retro computer when you hook it up to an external monitor! 🙂

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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…”.

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
RAM: 2GB DDR
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… 🙂