I have been using a Samsung Netbook for several years. It has served me well, but now several of the keys are starting to stick. Also, the keyboard has always seemed a little cramped. Just before Christmas I decided I would try out a Chromebook. I wanted a light computer with decent screen and a keyboard large enough to type comfortably on. I wasn't convinced that Chrome OS would have everything I needed, but I could install ArchLinux on an SD card and dual boot.

The netbook had a 160 GByte hard disk. However, everything I need or day to day use is in plain text and will comfortably fit on a 16GByte SD card. If I needed more storage I could always take my portable usb hard drive. My only other concern was internet connectivity away from WiFI. However, by installing ArchLinux I could tether the Chromebook with my phone. The Chromebook is much lighter than my old Samsung netbook, which makes it much more likely that I'll take it with me.

Getting up and running with Chrome was just about the most painless computer setup I have ever done. I turned on the Chromebook entered my Google login details and I was away, no further configuration needed. All my bookmarks and account info synchronized with the Chromebook.

Installing Arch was more complicated, but nothing the average geek couldn't handle. I chose to install Arch on a 16GByte SD card. The trickiest part was installing U-Boot. I chose to use Xfce as a desktop environment, as it's lightweight and easily customizable.

The most important functions I required on the Chromebook were:

  • Emacs. I manage just about every aspect of my life using Emacs org-mode. It's also the application I use for writing everything from business letters to complicated reports containing tables an graphs. For a very good overview of how to use org-mode to manage your like see Bernt Hansen's excellent site.
  • A terminal. At the moment I am using terminator running full screen.
  • A web browser. Obviously this being a Chromebook I use Chromium.
  • git - I keep all my Emacs org-mode files in git repositories. I commit my changes regularly.

Using git means I can easily recover accidental deletions and I can see what changes I have made to various documents over time. It also makes working on different computers easy. In the past I have used Dropbox, but this had several problems for me. I often work on several different computers, some of which may be disconnected from the Internet for various lengths of time. Dropbox would often be unable to automatically resolve conflicts and create files like "blackys-conflicted-copy-of-my-file.org". While Dropbox never lost nay data sorting out the various conflicts was time consuming.

Now I have a git branch for each computer. I usually work on my laptop, on the "laptop" git branch. If I know I am going to be working on a different computer, or at regular intervals I commit the changes from my laptop and push them to my repository on my Linode server. If I am working on the Chromebook I pull the "laptop" branch from my Linode server and merge it with the "chromebook" branch. Sometimes I get merge conflicts where I have been working on the same file on both computers between commits. However, git is designed to handle this situation and fixing up things is normally very easy. Also I have the complete history of all my changes, so if I make a mess I can simple go back to square one and redo things until I get a smooth merge.

Limitations of Running Arch on a Chromebook.

For me the only limitation is that 3D graphics acceleration isn't available when running Arch because of the closed source nature of the binary drivers. Even though Chrome OS is based on Linux at the moment third parties can't use the 3D graphics drivers. This isn't really a major problem, if I want to watch a video or something on Netflix I just reboot into Chrome OS. The boot process is so fast, there is almost no noticeable delay in switching OS.

The Chromebook keyboard is a little different to a standard keyboard. There are no Function keys. In Chrome OS the top row of keys is dedicated to functions such as volume, screen brightness and various browser control keys. Luckily in Arch ten of the top row of keys are mapped to F keys. This is essential to me as I have mapped many Emacs functions to the F keys. So F3 will close the current buffer and F7, m brings up the magit version control interface.

Chrome Apps I Find Useful.

There are many application available for Chrome OS. This is a list of those that I find useful:

  • Secure Shell. Does what it says on the tin. Very useful ssh terminal that supports ssh key authentication. If required I can run Emacs on my Linode server.
  • Hotot a fancy pants Twitter client.
  • Amazon cloud reader - read your ebooks.
  • Google Keep - a very simple, but useful, notes app.
  • Quick Note - a more fully featured notes application.
  • Netflix.

If you are interested in more cloud based text editors see my review here .

Chromebook Versus Nexus 7 Tablet.

I have a Nexus 7 tablet, which duplicates many of the things I can do on the Chromebook. So what are the advantages of also having a Chromebook:

  • Bigger screen - I can see more text.
  • Much better keyboard. I have a blue tooth keyboard for the Nexus 7, but it's very cramped and I wouldn't want to write for a long time on it.


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