When it came to replacing my laptop, I didn’t want another Apple product, so I did the unthinkable and bought a Chromebook.
It started last month during a video conference call, when the fan on my MacBook Air started to sound like an old WWII Spitfire. Then the T key fell off, and it overheated.
I’d held off replacing it, even though it was a late 2010 model (1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo) with an 11-inch screen running OS X Mountain Lion, because nothing else really appealed to me. I don’t play games on my laptop, so the Nvidia GeForce 320M 256MB was fine. Until it wasn’t.
I’d been pondering a move away from Mac since 2013, when I traveled to South Africa on a business trip. I took my MacBook Air, but so did everyone else. I joked that all the humans looked different, but the Macs were interchangeable. I vowed then that when I upgraded, I was going with something else. But what?
Apple and I go back a long time. When I was a journalist at a national newspaper in England in the *coughs* early 90s, we had green screens with DOS prompts. But when the first art directors bought Apple Macs, it was an event. Gods among men.
At home, I had an Apple LC, which I’d bought secondhand. I loved it all: the happy Mac face, the pixelated icon schema, the sound of the 56K modem. When the sad Mac face arrived, I didn’t hesitate to buy the next available model in my price range, and so on for 20+ years. Until this week. Because slowly, without even realizing it, my phone’s functionality had superseded my laptop.
My former job sent me to Asia several times, and I’d fallen in love with sleek Korean tech. So when I moved back to the West Coast, I chose a Samsung Galaxy Note 4. I appreciated the level of customization allowed. Logging on to the Android device with one of my several Gmail accounts, I transitioned easily to using the various apps, saving everything to Google Drive. I found the Chrome browser to be nicely intuitive, if a little creepy at times, given that it synced all data across my sessions.
I also stopped carrying my laptop. It was too heavy and ran out of juice too quickly. I bought a Targus foldable Bluetooth keyboard for the Note 4 and left the Mac at home.
But the phone couldn’t do everything, and it was definitely time to upgrade my laptop. I had my eye on a Chromebook, so I did my research and went to the sci-fi themed Burbank branch of Fry’s, where store manager Cesar Perez set me up with a helpful sales assistant, Jeremy Cline.
Cline pointed to a Microsoft Surface 3 with enthusiasm. “To me, it’s the most impressive out of the lineup I’m going to show you,” Cline said. “Especially the Pro version. The graphics power behind it, the screen resolution, is all superb.”
Tempting sales patter, but not a good bet price-wise, considering the amount I’d already spent on my phone. “Can we look at Chromebooks?” I asked.
The first one, a $199 Lenovo ThinkPad X131e, looked like the kind of scaled-down laptop that a mean parent would buy a high school student when they really, really wanted an iPad for Christmas.
The Dell Chromebook 11 wasn’t much better; the company’s devices are still road warrior in style, steel shells, heavy and rather bulky. “But much faster processors,” Cline pointed out. Good point, but I can’t do ugly.
Cline said most consumers have seen the advertising for Chromebooks but don’t understand what they’re actually designed for—a totally cloud-based experience. “Consumers are often disappointed. They see it on TV and think it’s a full computer for a really great price, but it’s not. It’s something else. If they want to do gaming and full word processing, it’s not the machine that fits their needs.”
We then looked at the Asus models, but I was underwhelmed.
Then Cline disappeared to the storeroom and returned with a white Samsung box. I lifted out the Chromebook XE303C12 to reveal a shiny silver casing, solid hinge, and elegant, slight curvature. It was very promising. Of course, Samsung does have an Apple-trained designernow, and it shows. I turned it on. The 11.6-inch LED 1,366-by-768 HD display was stunning.
Talk about plug and play. Logging on with one of my Gmail accounts, everything was there on my Google Drive: docs, sheets, presentations. The ARM processor was speedy, and I didn’t care that the hard drive was only a 16GB SSD; everything would be stored in the cloud anyway.
In the Chrome browser, I opened a new tab, logged onto Soundcloudand there were my playlists (goodbye iTunes); the speaker had a lovely resonance. After hunting for the USB port (it’s on the back), I connected my Sony Voice Recorder, and it configured itself seamlessly; no download required. A small window popped up on the bottom right of the screen with all controls needed for playback.
The only drawbacks? One of the companies I freelance for uses Zoomfor conference calls. It won’t run in the browser, so you have to download an app to run it. Sadly, there isn’t a Chromebook version so I’ll have to use the Android app via my phone for those meetings.
Another piece of software I rely on is the VLC media player. I have a bunch of vintage British television programs on flash drives (don’t ask), and it’s the only player that works.
Cline said he’d heard rumors: “Apparently there’s a debug version of VLC in the works to run off a browser. But I haven’t seen it yet.”
Of course, I’ll need to be connected to Wi-Fi at all times or the machine won’t function. At home that’s not a problem, and in the U.S., one is never far from a library or Wi-Fi-enabled coffee shop. We’ll see how troublesome that is when I travel. Maybe I’ll look into tethering. The price more than makes up for it.
Fry’s matches online best price, so after Cline did a quick search to find the lowest offer elsewhere, I walked out of the Burbank store with a Samsung Chromebook for just under $255.
Finally, a decent alternative to the Mac. Now comes the real test, seeing how it runs and functions on a daily basis. For starters, I wrote this article on the Chromebook for several hours, and the battery level barely budged. Opening multiple tabs didn’t appear to be a problem. I’ve customized the desktop wallpaper and theme (moody nighttime shot of the Tokyo skyline, thanks for asking) and it’s all saved in Drive and ready to share with my PCMag editors. So far, so good.