Saturday, January 11, 2014

What do you think of using a Chromebook for writing?

The first draft of the novel that seems to be turning into these "Life in Beatty" stories was downloaded onto paper via an IBM Selectric typewriter the winter of 1984. And to make the experience even more antiquated, one of my college professors taught me that it was a good idea to stick carbon paper between two sheets of typing paper to create a "copy" of whatever was being typed. And I think I actually did that most of the time (even though I have no idea what I did with the "copies"!)

For my birthday that following winter Wifey bought me my first computer, a Tandy/Radio Shack! The school where I was employed that year had a few Apple IIe's that I enjoyed using. So when I opened that big box and saw that computer, my mind started racing! Here was my opportunity to not only use my own computer to crank out assignments, etc. for my students but to continue writing my novel from the year before!

Funny how things sometime work out differently than planned ...

I did, however, use that Tandy computer to write my Masters thesis. Whoa! was it a challenge to make what was printed from those saved pages (that were saved on those wonderful 5 1/4 Mylar floppy disks!) to look anything like what I wanted a Masters thesis to look like! To say it was a frustrating experience is an understatement.

Jump ahead about 4 years and I'm flying to Kobe Japan for a week-long teachers' conference ... and I was blessed to have along with me a friend's "portable" computer! We lived in Taichung Taiwan at the time and had a pretty nice desktop computer, loaded with MSDOS 3.0 along with Windows 3.1 so it wasn't like I didn't have access to something better than my old Tandy (which we did BTW bring with us to Taiwan).

In 1993, those foldable-screen computers weren't called "laptops" and I don't remember calling it anything but a portable computer. I had plans to "log" my adventures in Japan using that little beastie ... but because of the strange keyboard and not having a mouse to navigate the OS with, my plans fell through completely.

Flash forward a few more years (to 2003 to be exact) where I was given a true laptop ... I think it was a Dell. The administration at Jefferson City HS asked if any teachers would like to add PC projectors to our classrooms -- which included the Dell lappys -- and I jumped at the chance. So there I was, with a desktop along with a fast laptop in my classroom, and what did I do? I created Powerpoints, charts, and even some tests ... that's what I did! Even though the Dell came with a mouse which made it feel quite a bit like a desktop PC I still did not like typing on the laptop keyboard. It just didn't feel right: I liked both the sound and the tactile sensation of a traditional keyboard. (Like right now, as I'm typing this blogpost, I'm using a desktop with a traditional "click-clack" springy-key keyboard!)

In the spring of 2007 I bought an IBM Thinkpad off Ebay. It cost only 50 bucks ... and it ran like a charm! It wasn't nearly as fast at the Dell I used at school, but it was mine! And I could even connect to the Internet wirelessly via one of those wireless cards. So what did I use it for? Not for typing anything, that's for sure!

(I really should try to bring this rambling to some kind of a logical transition)

There are two laptops and two desktops in our house. One of the laptops is used primarily by Wifey for streaming Pandora into our bedroom while I cart the other with me when I take care of my part-time responsibilities at church. As could be predicted, nearly all of the typing/writing done within the King house is done on the two desktops.

A few months ago, I stopped in BestBuy to look at computer monitors and was attracted to the Chromebook display there. I had read a bit about Google's venture into the laptop/netbook market but up until that point had not taken the time to examine one. And guess what? I was quite impressed!

Chromebooks are full-powered laptops that run between $200 and $300. They come with a complete software package ... or so it seems. In order to use a Chromebook, a stable and fairly-fast connection to the Internet is required. Why? Very little operating software rides within a Chromebook; its "operating system" located in "the cloud". The process of a Chromebook running software programs that aren't actually installed on the laptop is called "cloud-based computing".

Now these Chromebooks look real tempting. But are they as good as modern laptops like a Macbook or are they more like netbooks like the Acer EEE? And, most importantly (as it pertains to writing), how feasible is it to use a Chromebook for writing novels?

Let's check in with the fine folks at The Writers' Cafe to see what they think!

First of all: Those who have, like or plan to buy and use a Chromebook

"So here's my dilemma: right now I'm doing most of my writing on a 5+ year-old 13" Macbook in Scrivener, which is a great workhorse but the battery life kinda stinks even with a new battery and it's too heavy to lug around everywhere I go really. Add to that the fact that this Macbook has literally my life on it, so even though it gets backed up pretty religiously it'd still be a major pain to lose or drop it. So here's my question: is anyone out there writing using a Chromebook and if so how has it been? The new Acer C720 is under 3 pounds, less than an inch thick, and only $200 with I think something like 8 hours of battery life. It seems like I could use Scrivener's sync functionality to sync .txt versions of my chapters to an external folder (Dropbox or Google Drive) and then use something like to edit from there. I've tried it out and it works pretty well, but I'm just curious if anyone has written on a Chromebook for extended periods and if they liked it. A $199 light, 11" laptop that I can bring to the coffee shop just to write with would be pretty ideal."

"They are flipping fantastic. My writing output probably doubled last year because of all the writing I was able to do whilst commuting. And because of the short boot time, and the flash memory, I basically boot up on Monday morning, and shut it down on the weekend (treat it like a phone, or a tablet, there's rarely a need to actually power the thing off). I have a Samsung 11.6", the keyboard is amazing and comfortable - it doesn't have A CAPS LOCK  FOR CONVENIENT SHOUTING but that's it's only fault, and in six months, I think I've noticed that maybe three times. In short: they're cheap, light and work well for writers - buy one at your earliest opportunity."

"I purchased a Samsung Chromebook in October and am thoroughly enjoying using it for writing.  I get about 6.5 hours of battery life on a full charge.  It's light and comfortable to carry around (I bought the Techair Z Slipcase): from bed to desk to park to library to meetings.  And as you mention, it's not the end of the world if it gets broken because everything is saved in the cloud.  I left my PC for the family to use so I use Chromebook for everything.  My only frustration with it is I don't have the use of Scrivener (and a few other downloaded software programs) and am not sure how I'm going to format/upload my new book to Amazon.  I'll be doing the opposite of you and buying a Macbook Air as soon as I have the money.  Since you already have a MBA for the heavy lifting and just want something low-cost to write with, I can definitely recommend the Chromebook.  There's a new model out now called Chromebook 11."

"I use a chromebook and have been very happy with it. I bought it instead of a more fully functional laptop specifically because I didn't want a full on second machine to worry about maintaining. The chromebook is basically just a remote terminal for my desktop. It's cheap, light, the battery lasts ages and it's instantly on whenever I feel like opening it. Personally I think they make wonderful little second machines. I was already using gmail and chrome, so setup was almost done just by logging in the first time. If you really want, you can dual boot linux/chromeos. I haven't personally, so I can't tell you what the performance is like. A lot of people seem to do it though. My experience with Google Docs for writing is that it works. I won't sugar coat it and say it's ideal, but it gets the job done and it's been easy to collaborate with my editor through sharing. Things like Word and Scrivener are obviously more fully functioned. I have had to write offline occasionally, and it has synced up just fine when I got back on wifi. (You do need to remember to enable offline editing for Docs when you first get going on the chromebook.) It's maybe worth mentioning that android phones (and iphones I believe) allow you to easily share their internet connections with other devices. It's built in functionality that turns the phone into it's own little wifi network that you can connect to. We did this the other day with my husband's galaxy s2, and it worked perfectly for getting our chromebooks online."

"I have an Acer C7 and have been using it for several months.  I got a refurb for only $120.  That's a fraction of the cost of a MacBook and less than I've seen any other netbook.  At that price, it was too hard to pass up.  It's small and very portable.  Having a computer boot up in less than 7 seconds is great. I absolutely love it.  I've been using Google Docs/Drive for my writing for the past three years.  I love not having to worry about having to save files to USB drive or deal with emailing files.  Plus, I've used the offline feature a few times when I didn't have internet access and it was seamless. I even got my editor to edit my last manuscript in Google Docs.  The commenting feature was almost as good as Word and I've actually had some serious issues with track changes in the past. If you watch for deals, you can usually find a bargain on them. As for those who say you can't do actual work on them, I say pfaugh!  Along with writing, I have a 'real world' full time job and do 85% of my work (word processing, spreadsheets, and even presentations)."

"Get a Chromebook. At $200 you can drop or destroy five or ten of them before achieving the cost of a Mac, or two or three or four for a windows 8 laptop that has as much learning curve as the Mac or ChromeOS anyway. Install libreoffice but google docs will work for most tasks. However, do think about where you will use it most to write and if there are any problem wifi signals that will cause issues working to the cloud, local-apps is a good consideration. I'm also a netbook (HP) user for travel - it came with windows 7 but I immediately installed Debian Linux and LibreOffice."

"Wow, lots of Chrome venom in here from folks who've never used it. I've tested out and am saving up for one. Chrome isn't Windows? Good. Not everyone wants Windows. I would love to see Chrome OS merge with Android OS at some point. But failing that, I love what I've seen so far. I used Google Drive for a while before picking up Scrivener and it works fine.  I prefer Scrivener, but I was able to move projects back and forth between Drive and Scrivener just fine, and fast. I use Scrivener on my desktop but I want my next laptop to be a Chromebook for other reasons and using Drive is better than using  Word for me. My only undecided bit is if I want to spend less and get the Acer 720 with the Haswell Celerons but the terrible trackpad and loud keyboard, or if I want to spend a bit more for the HP 11 with the nicer hardware but less powerful processor....  Or maybe wait until they have more 4GB RAM models out. I love Scrivener, but I won't let that dictate what laptop I use as my out-in-the-living-room, distracted writing laptop. I like Chromebooks and intend to own one soon, so don't let the Windows and Mac zombies dissuade you. A Chromebook can be a fine solution."

"I have a Samsung Chromebook, which I bought specifically for writing on, but now I am about to buy something new to replace it. I like the Chromebook itself. It's a convenient size, and it's easy to use, but I don't like the Google writing software. I also don't like that once I'm away from the Wifi, most of the apps I've downloaded are useless as they only run when connected to the internet. I want to go back to my Microsoft Word, which I preferred far more. I'm now looking at an Asus Transformer T100, which I believe comes preloaded with Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013. I like the look of it because you can use it as a tablet or with a keyboard. My only concern is that it might be too small."

"I have a Samsung Chromebook that I bought to allow me to write in the summer when my office gets too hot (yes, I was just looking for an excuse) and I like it. It's very light, starts up very quickly and given that all I'm using it for is writing and the odd bit of web browsing when I should be writing, I don't have issues with speed or functionality. I haven't had a problem with the dependence on wifi yet. Google Docs is okay for writing, although I don't try to keep a full novel in one file, I break it down into multiple docs. I've actually done more writing since I got it because it allows me to find a more comfortable location to write - the library or sitting on the bed. What I don't do with my Chromebook is large amounts of editing. I've just started revising a new novel and I'm going to be doing that on my desktop PC, in Scrivener. I tend to write on the Chromebook (or my iPad with a bluetooth keyboard) then move it into Scrivener for revisions and editing.
That said, I wouldn't want to use it as a traditional laptop and if I was in the market for a solution to my overheating office right now, I'd be looking at a cheap Windows 8.1 laptop. Primarily so that I could work in Scrivener all the time and use Google Drive to sync between all my various machines."

"I'm still using a Macbook as my main computer, but using Scrivener's syncing feature to put .txt versions of everything in the cloud using Dropbox or Google Drive. I've used the syncing in the past to have copies on my iPhone and it works pretty well. I bit the bullet and picked up a Acer C720 for $200 from Best Buy yesterday and love it so far. It's definitely not going to win a beauty/build contest against a Mac, but I'm really impressed so far with how responsive it is considering the price and love the fact that it's about the size/weight/battery life of an 11-inch Macbook Air for 1/5th of the price. It won't replace my main computer, but for $200 it's so far been pretty great for distraction free writing using the full screen mode and for just general purpose web browsing on the couch."

"I have a Chromebook which I use for a pseudonym. I like it, to be honest. Yes, having a wi-fi connection helps in that the file that is open will update automatically, but you don't need it.  If I want to write for a long period of time, I just turn off wi-fi until I get home.  There, I plug it into the power to recharge the battery and let it update itself when I turn on wi-fi.  There are no games (OK... no good games... OK... no Borderlands 2) on Chrome which means a majority of the distractions I have are gone.  Yes, I had to make a new Google Account, but it was fast, painless and easy.  I can export files to my choice of formats (.docx, .doc, .rtf) and from there put them through Windows Office if I need to change things there or make them ready for conversion to Kindle or any other e-book format (not that I would do such a thing...I wuv you, Kindle!) Downside?  Yeah. The .mp3 player app doesn't work for me, so I have to use either Google Play (I have issues with how *that's* set up) and buy music or find a streaming audio service. But all in all, if you want something that's a little more business oriented and fairly inexpensive -- I've go with Chrome."

Now those who don't want to mess with Chromebooks

"I considered a Chromebook for the Mrs who wanted a cheap second machine for web browsing. However, web browsing usually turns into 'Oh, and I'll just edit this document while I'm here, and save this photo in Evernote, and listen to some music, and maybe watch this video' etc etc. So I researched a bit, to make sure Chrome OS was up to it. The other problem I had was that the Acer is $199 in the US, and €299 in Europe - what's up with that? Acer make a full featured Windows 8 touchscreen laptop for the same price. Needless to say, no Chromebook was purchased. Ubuntu or Crunchbang on an old netbook is far more flexible, and cheaper."

"My old Toshiba laptop started to die on me last October. I went through the pain of researching absolutely everything I could find because this time I wanted something I could carry in a bag to work and on flights etc. Colleagues have Ipads (and are always demonstrating how wonderful they are) but they don't use the range of software that  I use (I use Photoshop, CorelDraw etc. as well as the Office Suite.) and I didn't want to compromise or have to buy a second machine to use all my favorite programmes.  I already had a small (cheap) android tablet for reading ebooks so I'm familiar with touch screens etc. I'm also a fully trained touch typist and the tablet screen keyboards drive me mad. I know I could have an additional keyboard but that then set me off looking at Chromebooks as it seemed like a good compromise.  However, I couldn't work out if I could use my favorite programmes in flight mode, so I was put off these. In the end, after weeks of consideration I bought an ASUS 200e, a hybrid between a tablet and netbook which has a touchscreen, windows 8 and it still has the traditional windows desktop as well. Unfortunately it cost almost twice as much as a Chromebook (and prices here in the UK are significantly higher than in the US), but it does cover all the functions I want from it and it is light at 1.3kg. It has turned out to be perfect for my needs."

"I have a Samsung 550 that I use. Once finished, I copy the file to Word to clean up then format. We got two of our kids the Acer 720 for Xmas. The battery seems to last a long time. I really like mine, and I can obviously access all of my files anywhere."

"I only have a CR-48 running Chrome OS (okay, I'm bragging, I have a CR-48), but I've never been a big fan of Chrome OS. It was already kinda when we received the beta machine. Fine for web browsing, but nothing else. (Including watching videos in that browser...) Once they updated the OS so that it resembled an actual OS, it...still only really browses the internet. But it's more disappointing because it looks like it should do other stuff well. (It doesn't.) As others said, I'd just repurpose an old netbook and install your Linux distro of choice."

"I used to use one of the little Asus Eees to do my writing. The lightness and convenience was great. The Linux OS occasionally drove me insane. Cheesy I have an Asus T100 now, and I think I'm happy that I shelled out the extra $200-300 for it."

"One thing that seems to be true when using anything related to Google (Chromebook or Google Chrome) is that Google will have copies of your book even before you publish."

"I've been using my Asus eee PC since 2008--it's been around the world with me. Great little machine. Unfortunately, 1 GB of RAM just isn't enough to cut it anymore, not to mention the replacement battery has been giving me some issues. For Christmas, my parents gave me some money for a new computer, so I bought an Asus X200CA with a touchscreen, as well as a 128 GB SSD. One I figure out how the UEFI and secure boot work, I plan to replace the hard drive and install Ubuntu 13.10 (I don't really have the patience to try Windows 8, and besides, Linux is so much better). But dang, I'm going to miss that old eee PC."

"Another Asus user here. I looked at the chromebook and came across the same reviews, saying that it's useless for actual work. I paid under $300 for it last summer, and it's on Ubuntu (I don't like the looks of Windows 8. Does that make me a Luddite?) Don't forget the drops and spills warranty!"

"Is there some reason not to want have just another macbook? I just bought MBA13 mid2013 and this little tricky juggernaut can run 21 hours on single battery charging. And if I work with wifi + scrivener + evernote + spotify it's still more than 12 hours."

"You're probably tired of no, I don't have a Chromebook, but.... But that's what I'm saying anyway. I'm another with an Asus Eee, 11" screen. I wrote one novel on it and liked it for the weight, etc. Running Scrivener on that small screen was a crunch, but what made me go and get a 15" Samsung laptop in the end was the reflective screen on the Asus. Here at home I had to position myself carefully with regard to windows and lights, and when I took it to the library, it was almost impossible to get in a position where it wasn't a problem. The one time I tried to show a friend something on it outside, suffice it to say she never saw what I tried to show her. Of course I don't know what kind of screen is on Macs and the Chromebook, but the reflective screens are almost ubiquitous these days, so I thought I'd mention it. I could only find Samsung and one other brand that made laptops with matte screens and only the Samsung was affordable. This thread makes me want to take the Asus out, charge it up and try Linux just to see what it's like."

SALESMAN: Hello, sir. How can I help?
CUSTOMER: Hi, I need a new car for my commute to work. I was looking at this Acer Chromos. Seems cheap, is it any good?
SALESMAN: Oh yes sir, a nifty little runabout. They use cheaper parts to get the price down, but it's a great car and gets excellent mileage. I'm sure it will be perfect for you.
CUSTOMER: Oh, right. Sounds interesting. Does it do everything a regular car does?
SALESMAN: Of course! I mean, you can't carry passengers, and there's no trunk, but apart from that it's just like any other car. Oh, you also can't use it on all the roads.
SALESMAN: Not all roads are compatible with this car. But don't worry, the manufacturer supplies their own road network, and new roads are being upgraded to support the car all the time.
CUSTOMER: Fair enough, I suppose that's a reasonable compromise given the price. As long as I can use it on the freeway to get to work every day, I guess it will be fine.
SALESMAN: I'm afraid it doesn't go on the freeway, sir. But don't worry: you can take the backroads. You might have to drive around the houses a bit, but you'll get to work in the end, and it won't take you much longer.
CUSTOMER: I see. What about that one over there? The Acer Winos? Does that go on the freeway?
SALESMAN: Yes, but--
CUSTOMER: Does it have a trunk? Take passengers?
SALESMAN: Yes, but--
CUSTOMER: Oh, look, it's exactly the same price as the Chromos. And it says I can even change the wheels and go off-road if I want to--
SALESMAN: Please! Sir! Stop drinking the Kool Aid. Don't be a zombie. You mustn't let your choice be influenced by where you actually intend to drive the car!"

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