When it comes to computers, we’ve been trained that more is better. More power, more CPUs, more RAM, more hard drive, more of everything. But with the rapid shift to cloud computing and cloud services, the power is also moving from the personal computer and into the cloud.
When is less way more?
Two months ago we hired a tester to increase the quality of the software we create for our business clients. As part of the onboarding process, I repeated what I had done for other new team members - we walked to the Apple Store and picked up a shiny new MacBook. As a tester he didn’t need that much computational horsepower, so I opted for a low-end MacBook Air. With tax and AppleCare (Apple’s extended warranty) it came to $1250. Not bad I thought, considering fully outfitting a software developer with a high powered MacBook Pro and a large secondary Apple Thunderbolt monitor can run $3,000.
But was that $1,250 MacBook Air really a deal? After about two weeks I realized that he was using it only for a few things; email, online chatting with the team, and accessing GitHub, an online code repository we use to share code and track issues on our projects. I wondered...did he really need all the horsepower of a MacBook Air?
Enter the Lightweight
The Chromebook is a low-powered laptop that only runs Google’s Chrome browser. There’s no disk drive, no Ethernet, no overbearing operating system like Windows or OS X, and there is no way to install “normal” programs on the Chromebook. Everything you do on the Chromebook is done through the web browser. Although I had been aware of Chromebooks for several years, I had written them off because as a programmer I use several heavy-duty programs to create applications, query databases, and to generally perform my craft.
But realizing our tester used only email and a browser, I wondered, Could he use a Chromebook instead? I asked if he was interested in an experiment, he was, and we embarked on a quest that has since changed my outlook on computers.
His Chromebook, or mine?
I drove to the local Best Buy and picked up a $230 Asus Chromebook. It has a 13.3” screen, a stylish matte black finish, is ultralight, and runs for 10 hours on a single charge. It weighs about one third of what my beefy MacBook Pro weighs. I brought it home and figured I’d better try it out before I hand it over to someone else on my team so that I’d be aware of what I was getting him into.
Bootup was quick - about two seconds. I quickly connected to WIFI and logged in using my existing gmail credentials (we use Google for Business at 80|20, so we all already have gmail accounts). At first it was underwhelming because, well, it’s just a browser. But then I discovered there’s a Chromebook an app store.
An app store!
And with that a whole new world opened up. I downloaded a couple of productivity apps, and within 5 minutes I had decided that I was keeping the Chromebook for myself. I was obsessed and had to play with it more. I later ordered him the exact same model on Amazon.com for only $200 (free shipping via Amazon Prime!).
Going 100% Cloud
Although I knew the Chromebook would work for my tester, I wasn’t convinced it would work for me.
Up until that point I was about 75% cloud. By that I mean that I was already using a cloud service in one form or another for ¾ of the work I did day in and day out. Our code and task tracker is in GitHub (a source code repository in the cloud), our finances are kept in QuickBooks Online, we use gmail for email, all of our websites run on Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform, we communicate using a free online chat tool, and we videoconference using Google Hangouts using only the browser). I had even moved my software development environment onto a Windows 8.1 virtual machine in Azure, a move which had previously shifted the heavy-duty developer programs off of my laptop and onto an virtual machine in the cloud.
But I was still using Apple Mail and Apple Calendar to sync to gmail (there were always some issues syncing), and I used either Apple Pages or MS Word for word processing and either Apple’s Numbers or MS’s Excel for spreadsheets.
Becoming a Chromebook user meant transitioning from a 75% cloud user to a 100% cloud user. Going from 75% to 100% is a big shift, and requires you to alter your workflow a bit. The biggest change, I feared, was shifting to Google Docs - Google’s productivity suite similar to Microsoft Office and Apple iWorks. But in retrospect, it was an easy move.
Google Docs is for word processing, and is just like Word. Google Sheets is the equivalent of Excel and is a perfect replacement unless you are a hardcore number-crunching CPA. And Google Sheets is the replacement for PowerPoint. Their user interfaces are all extremely similar to their Microsoft and Apple counterparts, and using them is familiar because they’re just like other word processing or spreadsheet applications. Since these programs are all cloud based, it doesn’t matter what computer you use; your documents are always available to you. Even if you’re offline, which hardly ever happens anymore, as well as from their handy phone apps.
And if you’re not ready to walk away from Microsoft Office; no problem. There’s an app for that. Office 365, Microsoft’s online version of the standard Microsoft Office that you used to buy shrinkwrapped off the shelf, is 100% online. One of our clients uses Office 365 and it works great on a Chromebook as well as with any other computer with a browser. So for normal office productivity (email and documents), the choice is yours - Google or Microsoft - they both have web apps for that.
There were a few other programs that I had to download to replace my normal workflow. Chromebook has a way to take screenshots, but I needed to download an app for annotating those screenshots. I also needed an app for editing and signing PDFs, and I needed a remote desktop app to get to my virtual machine in the Azure cloud. For documents I continue to use Dropbox, although Google has a competing product named Drive. And instead of playing music from iTunes I instead stream music from Amazon which comes free with Amazon Prime. It was also easy to connect to printers at home, the office, and at client sites. I can even initiate scans from the Chromebook.
The Chromebook App Store has tens of thousands of apps to choose from, all the apps I picked were free, and I’ve had no issues using the Chromebook and cloud services for doing everything I need a computer to do.
The Cost Differential
You may be thinking, So what? Business owner - take note - Chromebooks are cheap. They are very cheap! A $200 Chromebook replaced my tester’s $1,250 MacBook Air. That same Chromebook model (which I paid $230 at Best Buy, but could have bought for $200 on Amazon) replaced my $2,000 MacBook Pro. So for $430 I outfitted two people and saved $2,820. That’s huge!
Instead of spending $3,250 on Macs, I could instead buy 16 Chromebooks. Imagine having a stack of ready to use Chromebooks at the office and when an employee comes in they literally grab any one of them off the top of the stack. Regardless of which they log into, the Chromebook automatically configures to the user’s profile. It even downloads their apps and installs app icons on the toolbar in the exactly the same way the user had set it up previously.
IT and security wise, they’re a breeze. It’s a browser and traditional viruses that come in the form of email attachments and EXEs just won’t run on the Chromebook. There is no way to install a virus on a Chromebook because it doesn’t install software in the normal sense. And the entire Chromebook is automatically backed up real-time in the cloud. If it crashes just grab another Chromebook and you’ll be back in business in minutes. How much will that save you in IT support?
Will I stick with Chromebook?
My concerns about using an underpowered Chromebook, as compared to my overpowered MacBook Pro, were unfounded. Sure, there were a couple of workflow issues that I needed to work through, but I’ve been able to resolve each of those issues easily. It’s been two months since I bought my Chromebook and since then I have yet to find a reason to fire up my expensive MacBook Pro which now collects dust on my desk.
And yes, I’m writing this article on my Chromebook, and it’s automatically being saved to the cloud with each keystroke.