For the last six days, I’ve used a Chrome OS netbook as my primary computer, and it’s been a blast. Using a “just enough”, basically Chrome-only system provides a rare chance to reexamine what it is you really need to be productive.
I was lucky to receive a Cr-48 netbook as part of Google’s “test pilot” for its upcoming Chrome OS. The netbook itself is fairly usable and great for portable computing; I generally agree with Jason Chen’s Gizmodo review on its other points.
You can’t buy a Cr-48 right now, and you might not want a netbook like that at all. Luckily, you can install your own Chromium OS build (and here’s our human’s guide to doing so), or simply take Chrome into full-screen mode and exercise some willpower. Otherwise, you can read this as a dispatch from the not-too-distant future, in which web-focused, instant-on systems become widely available.
Why Going Chrome-Only is Helpful
Why would one willingly restrict themselves to a computer that offers, basically, just a browser with an extended set of preferences? Lots of good reasons, many worth going into. In short, though, I’d argue these points:
Chrome OS is Just “Enough” Computer
I don’t compile code in my line of work, I don’t run CAD programs, and when I need to work with Twitter, IM, or email, there are plenty of web apps available for my needs. But more than just being able to handle my needs, Chrome OS keeps me away from my worst fiddly tendencies. You don’t update the software yourself, the apps install almost instantly, the only real customisations are your Chrome theme and profile picture — heck, you don’t even install the OS.
Sure, the web is there, and it’s basically a monstrous coliseum of distractions. But when you’re forced to face the web head-on, without the crutch of pretending you’re optimising your system somehow, you tend to acknowledge what it is, then move on.
No More “Boot Up and All That” Excuses
We never mind flipping on our phones for a quick text or a quirky little YouTube clip, but when it comes to note-taking, outlining, or sending an overdue email, our minds can make turning on a laptop — and, optionally, plugging it in — seem akin to cleaning the gutters on the Guggenheim. You’re kind of out of excuses with a netbook, even when you’re not at home. It’s built-in wireless data connection (like the one on your mobile phone) gets you 100MB of free data each month, at least on the Cr-48. If you “need to Google something” before you can “get started”, there you go. Now it’s just you and that actual task you need to get done.
Getting Things Done in Chrome (OS)
So, that’s all well and great, but how does one actually get work done on Chrome OS? I wasn’t kidding above — I’ve used a Cr-48 to do all my Lifehacker work, email, freelance writing and pretty much anything I wouldn’t normally do on a phone. That means writing online and off, light image editing (cropping, pasting, annotating), making VoIP calls through Gmail/Google Voice, IM chats with the boss, and reading lots and lots of feeds and other material.
There were one or two exceptions — I had to test some browsers and some Windows or Mac apps, but then again, most people don’t check out new software for a living. Here’s my best advice for living and working entirely in the browser:
Know Your Conversion Apps
Just because you’ve made the choice to simplify your online life doesn’t mean your relatives, friends, or co-workers will do so. But for almost everything, there’s a pretty quick workaround.
- For most Office documents, Google Docs does the job. Hit the Upload button, check the box to convert the file to Docs formatting, and go to town.
- Getting stranger file formats? Head to Zamzar, where you can convert most any document, image, archive or even ZIP file to whatever format you want it to come back in. It sends the results straight to your email, and if you’re using Gmail, it’s usually just a click to open it from there.
- If you’re in Chrome OS, at least in this early stage, you can’t un-zip a file — or at least I couldn’t. WobZip can take in ZIP, 7z, RAR, .tar.gz and most any archive format, and provide you with access to the files inside for download.
Capture, Save and Edit What You See
Since everything you see is through a browser, and since you won’t always have a printer nearby, you need to be able to take the work you’ve created on a screen and save it, whether to your hard drive or a safe online service.
- Aviary’s screen capture extension works best for me, and allows you to choose among a few different editors, with different levels of complexity. There’s a Photoshop-styled Image Editor, a more lightweight Markup Editor (the default that opens when you screen capture, though you can transfer to others), and other editors for effects, colour and vector needs. There’s even a HTML5-based editor for those who aren’t too fond of Flash or just need a quick fix.
- Sumo Paint is another viable, Photoshop-like editor that some may prefer. It doesn’t have an official Chrome offering, but the OpenIT Online extension can send any image file over to Sumo, or other services, from a right-click menu. Picnik’s extension offers the same single-image-sending from a toolbar button, but I found it rough going on the Cr-48.
- You might have guessed it was coming, but having a Dropbox account is essential for getting at files you have saved elsewhere, as well as previewing those files right in your browser. This unofficial Chrome extension puts a mobile-style Dropbox drop-down in your toolbar, making it real easy to open up an image, audio file, document or other bit you need.
- Until Cloud Print becomes more widely used, or unless you’ve got a desktop constantly hooked up to your printer, you’ll be relying on PDFs as your browser’s “print” functionality. Luckily, there are extensions like Web2PDFConvert that take the page you’re looking at and save it as a PDF — which you can then, of course, upload to Google Docs or Dropbox. Heck, you can even use Dropbox for automatic PDF printing from a Windows machine, or via Mac, too.
Keep it Low-Bandwidth and Low-CPU, When Possible
When you’ve got free and speedy Wi-Fi available, the nomadic life is easy. When you’re left to either tether through a restricted smartphone data plan or utilise none-too-cheap native 3G, you want to avoid unpleasant surprises. So do yourself a favour and bookmark the mobile versions of some of your favourite sites, which usually consist of m.something.com or mobile.something.com. When you’re searching out stuff, use the Google Cache link, just underneath each result, to get at the text before having to wait for images to load.
In the same manner, the Cr-48 gets really taxed by Flash, but it’s hardly alone. You can set Flash and other plug-ins to “Click-to-play”, or install an advanced filtering app like FlashBlock, where you set the rules on which pages are allowed to hit your processor with an ad or video burden.
Use What Offline Apps There Are
Eventually, your Gmail, Google Docs and potentially lots of other apps will offer you offline access, so you’re always able to get something done, even when disconnected. For now, there are a few notable apps that go beyond bookmarks, some of which include offline storage. One more I’d throw in is Scratchpad, an online/offline notepad that syncs its notes to a Google Docs label, and which saves every few keystrokes when you’re writing online. Be sure to try it out in full-screen mode — it’s a nicely minimalist writing space with the security of constant backup.
I wrote this entire feature, images and all, inside Chrome OS, but I’m still learning as I get used to the online-only life. Have you made a similar transition? Got a few gripes about the web-focused worldview? Tell us in the comments.