In praise of Chrome OS

Generally I like Rui Carmo‘s take on things (at least what concerns computers, that’s all I know about him), but I couldn’t disagree more with this recent comment of his:

And it wouldn’t be a great loss if Chrome OS faded away, really.

I don’t know what he has got against Chrome OS, but for me personally it has been one of the most enjoyable discoveries of recent years. I have been using an HP Chromebook 14 (1st gen.) for the past two years, and I have only just acquired an Asus Chromebook Flip to be my dedicated reading and note-taking device. If anything, I wish that other OS’s would start up and operate as fast as Chrome OS does, and every time I’m in a Windows environment these days, I’m wishing I could be using my Chromebook instead. And I say that as a massive fan of lots of Windows apps (just check out my Favourite Tools list), and someone who has just bought a Windows mobile workstation, albeit somewhat reluctantly.

I also own an Android tablet (a Hudl 2), but if I had to choose between the two platforms, I’d rather have Chrome OS survive as a tablet OS than Android, for the simple reason that you get a full desktop browser with all the extensions that you want. In fact, the Asus Flip is a step in that direction. If Chrome OS and Android ever merge (I hope they don’t), I hope it will be Chrome OS running some Android apps, rather than the other way round.

But putting aside the fact that Chrome OS is an absolute pleasure to use (and since I bought my first Chrome OS device two years ago I have been slowly converting members of my family, young and old, to use Chromebooks, and without exception they love them), why would you wish that in the rarified olygopolistic market of operating systems we would lose one of the players, especially the one that is challenging the established order? I remember the days when Microsoft had 90+% market share. What was so great about that? I don’t see who could benefit from the reduction of diversity in the operating system market other than the duo of Microsoft and Apple–certainly not the consumer. In fact Chrome OS being a Linux-based system, it even works as a ‘gateway-drug’ for curious people to dip their toes into Chrouton and then Linux, thus increasing diversity in the market further.

By the way, the notion that Chromebooks are only for children and grandparents is also completely misplaced. As you can see at the Chrome OS Reddit,there are some very sophisticated users of Chrome OS out there who know far more about computing than I do, such as computer programmers.

So what is so great about a Chromebook? Besides the fact that it boots in a few seconds, it is instantly on when you wake it from sleep, ready for note-taking or blazingly-fast web surfing and work in the cloud. Add to that the minimal maintenance (you don’t even need to know or notice when you are updating the OS), and the lack of viruses, what is there not to love? And if you are worried about your computer spying on you, just log on as an anonymous user. Oh, yeah, and let’s not forget about the 6-12 hours of battery life, depending on the model you own, so you can say good-bye to lugging your charger around. And if we are talking about lugging things around, Chromebooks also tend to be thinner and lighter, thanks to the lightness of the OS. Some of them don’t even have fans, so they are perfectly silent.

But I can understand the initial skepticism of people who have never tried a Chromebook. A computer whose operating system and main interface is effectively a browser indeed does not sound like a terribly exciting proposition. I was one of those doubters myself: here is the evidence. In the case of Chromebooks you really need to try one for a while to fully experience the benefits which otherwise are not that easy to convey, such as how it affects your computing, note-taking and browsing habits when your computer is instantly on, is highly portable (just check the size of the Asus Flip), and when web pages load in an instant. It is a new way of experiencing the web.

OK, Google, you should really send me a complimentary Pixel 2 LS for standing up for you like this! :)

A comprehensive guide to Chromebooks

I mentioned the other day that since January 2014 I’ve been using a Chromebook as my iPad replacement. Originally I was just looking for a low-cost note-taking solution, but it turned out to be a lot more. Not only is my HP Chromebook 14 my go-to machine for note-taking, emailing and web browsing, but it is also my mobile office, thanks to the ability to access my home PC via Chrome Remote Desktop.

Considering that Chromebooks have only been around since mid-2011, it’s not all that easy to come across comprehensive and unbiased comparisons of the various models on the market. One exception is Zipso’s Chromebook specs & performance comparison chart, which also serves as an excellent introduction to the world of Chromebooks and Chrome OS. It is well worth a look, if you are Chrome-curious :)

Notable PDF is getting there

I’m not sure if I mentioned it here before, but last year I got myself a Chromebook (a 1st gen. HP Chromebook 14), to replace my aging and increasingly decrepit (or should I say decrapit) iPad 1 as my main portable note-taking and web-surfing machine. I quickly became a Chromebook convert, especially after I discovered how easy and convenient it is to use Chrome Remote Desktop to access my Windows 7 PC, thus always having my office with me.

The only area where my Chromebook and Chrome OS were lacking and where my iPad 1 (with the GoodReader app, for instance) was still superior was PDF annotation. It was certainly possible to read a PDF on a Chromebook but there was no satisfactory solution to annotate a book-sized PDF, both online and offline, and then be able to export the annotated PDF file or the annotations themselves. Not until Notable PDF appeared on the scene that is. I have been using Notable since its beta days on and off, but until recently I kept running into problems that made me return to annotating on the PC or on my old iPad.

However, in recent weeks I checked back again and I was very pleasantly surprised that Notable have ironed out some of the obstacles that kept me from adopting it permanently. Finally I was able to download my annotated PDF file and open it in PDF XChange Editor on the PC, and I saw all my highlights and annotations in place. It is still not perfect, as the highlights in XChange Editor show up as some kind of colour overlay rather than XChange’s own native highlights, but hey, I can live with that. What is more important is that I am now able to read and manipulate my Notable annotations in XChange Editor.

Moreover, Notable has some tricks up its sleave that give it a distinct advantage over some other PDF annotating options. Notable PDF is a Chrome browser extension, which makes it cross-platform on desktops, as long as you have Chrome installed on your other machines.* It appears to save the annotations in the cloud, which means that it doesn’t matter where you keep your file, and how many copies of your file you have, it will sync the annotations to that file (and its copies) across all the browsers. You can even have two different copies of the same PDF file open in different machines in Chrome, and the annotations will sync live and automatically, in front of your eyes. This feature of course would be very useful for collaborations, as you can see instantly what others are commenting on that file.

To me, this feature means more flexibility. For example, the copy of  the PDF file I’m reading is saved on the hard drive of the Chromebook. When I’m offline, the annotations are saved offline, and then synced when I’m back online. However, I also have a copy of the same file on my Google Drive account in the cloud, and if I’m on another machine, let’s say a PC at work and I do not have my Chromebook with me with the original file, I can just open the copy from Google Drive, and Notable recognises it as a copy of the annotated file and it populates it with the annotations saved on their server. I find this rather clever and very useful.

In any case, I just wanted to say that I’m happy now to include Notable PDF among my favourite apps and recommend it to others, especially Chromebook users. While it’s not entirely perfect for my needs (I wish the yellow highlights could be converted to native highlights in PDF XChange Editor, so they can be extracted from there), it is probably the best option for PDF reading and annotating on Chromebook today. Also, I have been following them for the past year, and development has been on-going, so I am hopeful that Notable will continue to be improving.


* Having just looked at their website more closely, it turns out now they also have a web app, so in fact you can use their service on any browser, not just Chrome.