Sunday, September 1, 2013

Living with the Acer C710 Chromebook (Review)

The end of the financial year saw me with a few spare dollars to put back into the business for tax reasons. Now, I've moved a lot of my business technology over to Google (and GoDaddy) and have grown to appreciate the convenience and functionality of my Nexus tablet and phone, so the obvious next step was to investigate a Chromebook. Fortunately, JB Hi-Fi had a special deal on the Acer C710 Chromebook that weekend, so I hopped in the car and an hour later was unboxing the new beast in order to explore further.



Hardware

The left side of the C710, showing (L-R) Ethernet, VGA, HDMI and USB ports.
I had chosen the C710, rather than the more expensive Samsung Chromebooks, for one simple reason - I do a lot of presentations, and need VGA output to drive an external projector. The Samsung devices offer HDMI output only, while the Acer has both VGA and HDMI. However, despite the low price, the Acer machine is quite nicely built. It has the grey finish made popular by recent Macbooks, although it is obviously made of plastic. The 11.6" screen opens up with an even force on its hinges, and is coated with a glossy, reflective finish. The right side of the machine has a slot for a locking cable, inlet for the external power adapter (which is just a largish wall-wart), two USB ports and the headphone jack. The left side has wired Ethernet jack (another plus for the Acer compared to the Samsungs), VGA, HDMI and a third USB port, while the front edge conceals a dual SD/MMC memory card slot.

At 1366 x 768, the screen is a little smaller than I'm used to (my main laptop is a Thinkpad T500, since it does duty as a backup development workstation), but it is sharp, the colour saturation is good and it is quite bright. The keyboard is a weak point, though - the keys feel slightly spongy, with only short travel; while it's quite usable, it's not in the same league as the Thinkpad (but then, it's darn near one-tenth of the price). The trackpad is quite usable, with various shortcut gestures (e.g. sliding two fingers to scroll a window), although I still prefer the Thinkpad's Trackpoint - this is more a matter of taste, though.

Finally, my model came with a 320 GB hard drive. That really is ridiculously large for a machine that's intended for use with Google's cloud services, and I note that the current model now ships with a 16 GB solid-state drive. In fact, the day I bought my Chromebook I also ordered up an additional 4 GB of RAM (which upped it to 6 GB in total) and a 120 GB Samsung SSD. When I opened up the Acer to swap the drive, I noticed that the construction was quite solid, with all the parts securely mounted in a very confined space, yet easy to work on. The only moving parts left in my machine are the CPU fan and the power button, so I'm expecting it to be quite reliable.

The Software

While Google already has a platform for its cloud and email services in the form of the Android OS and the related tablets and phones, the Chrome browser represents another platform which has made strong inroads, becoming the dominant browser in the marketplace. Google's enterprise business (as opposed to its ad-sales and analytics business) is based on the SaaS (Software as a Service) and PaaS (Platform as a Service) cloud service models (see NIST SP800-145, "The NIST Definition of Cloud Computing").

For most individual users, the SaaS component of interest is email, delivered as a cloud-based application presented in a browser. (In fact, from teaching undergraduates how to encrypt email, I've learned that a whole generation has grown up not knowing that there's such a thing as an email client!). However, Google has extended Gmail into related services such as contact management and calendar management.

This has led Google to enterprise customers who require additional functionality - hence Google Apps, which additionally provides word processing, spreadsheet and presentation graphics functionality. The technology that underpins these is AJAX (Asynchronous Javascript And XML), which allows Javascript code, running in the context of the browser, to dynamically communicate with a web server while updating the onscreen window via the DOM (Document Object Model). This allows what are sometimes called "single-page web apps", i.e. web applications which present as a single, continuously-updated page, as opposed to older web applications which required an entire page refresh when a form button was pressed. Remember what a breakthrough Google Earth was? AJAX.

What has really made this possible is the maturation of JavaScript as a programming language, along with the development of libraries like JQuery. I admit, I used to be somewhat dismissive of JavaScript, relegating it to such tasks as mouseover graphics (pop-ups, etc.) and basic form validation (although the server always has to perform its own input sanitization for security reasons).

But the fact is that, whether by accident or by good design is not clear, JavaScript is actually a rather sophisticated programming language with some advanced features, such as closures and the ability to treat functions as first-class objects. These functional programming paradigms are then capitalized on by libraries like JQuery to achieve a high level of productivity for the programmer and a high level of functionality for the user.

Because they are pushing JavaScript and the DOM pretty hard, it was obvious that Google would try to minimise cross-platform problems by developing their own browser. The result is Chrome, a browser based on the Blink rendering engine. And one important component of Chrome is V8, a JavaScript engine developed by Google in Denmark. V8 is actually an incremental compiler - it compiles JavaScript down to machine code (for 32-bit or 64-bit Intel, ARM and other architectures) then performs sophisticated optimizations at run-time - and therefore achieves high performance. And although it was developed for the Chrome browser, V8 has also found its way onto the server, in the form of Node.js, making JavaScript an option for both client- and server-side development.

The result is that JavaScript, today, isn't your mother's JavaScript. People have made it do some bizarre things, down to implementing a virtual machine that can boot and run Linux - in the context of the browser!

As a consequence, Google has been able to implement quite a high level of functionality in the SaaS applications. As an initial test, I exported the introductory slide set for my "CISSP Fast Track Review" class in Powerpoint format (I usually maintain them in Libre Office, for historical reasons) and then imported them into Google Slides. While there were some initial alignment and scaling issues, I was quickly able to clean them up and the result has been quite effective.

Given that these applications run in the context of the browser, there is no longer a need for many other native applications and utilities. Without them, a lot of other OS and run-time library services can be dropped as well. All that is really required is a stripped-down kernel that can boot a restricted graphical desktop on which the browser is the major application. And that's ChromeOS. Install it in flash memory on an otherwise diskless machine, and you have a Chromebook. Although most are laptop devices, Google also sells (in some markets) a desktop (or -side) device called a ChromeBox, which works with an external keyboard, mouse and monitor.

The Chromebook boots near-instantaneously, since the operating system is minimal. On first startup, the purchaser is offered the opportunity to register a new Google account or to sign in with an existing one. Since I already have three corporate/education Google Apps accounts, I signed in with one of them, and immediately the device displayed my photo (probably from my Google+ profile) and the browser bookmarks were immediately populated with my desktop Chrome bookmarks.

The operating system binaries are signed and checked on startup via a public key stored in the TPM (Trusted Platform Module), although it is possible to install other operating systems such as variants of Ubuntu and other Linux distributions. However, the result is an unmodified OS kernel on every boot; soon after initial setup the latest OS will be downloaded and a reboot is all that's required for installation - it happened last night and took less than 10 seconds.

Applications

By default, the Chromebook has icons arrayed in a launcher at the bottom of the screen. Where Windows would have a "Start" button, the Chromebook has a "Chrome" icon, which just launches the browser. There's also an icon for GMail, and a 3x3 matrix which pops up a window with all other application icons (rather like the equivalent on Android). However, you can "pin" other application icons to the launcher, and so mine now has icons for Google Drive, Plus, Keep, Slides, Docs, Sheets, etc. Each icon can be configured to open the application as a standard tab (default), as a "pinned" tab, as a window or maximised.

I don't propose to review the major applications here - they're software which is, to some extent, external to the hardware - especially since, if you want to explore their functionality, all you need is a free Google account and a browser; they work fine in both Firefox and Chrome. What you will find is that they do not provide all the functionality of a high-end suite like Microsoft Office. However, they work adequately well for personal, educational and small business use, and are continually being upgraded and improved. The Docs word processor, for example, is considerably more powerful than a cloud-based note database like Evernote, and not far off the capabilities of Open Office or Libre Office.

The applications also have their own unique capabilities - for example, it's possible for multiple users to edit documents and spreadsheets simultaneously, with coloured highlighting (and a key at top right of the window) indicating the cells or locations where each user is currently working. This makes collaboration easy - a popular feature for students working on group assignments and projects. However, I've also used it myself, to work on two different areas of the same document simultaneously.

Apart from the usual office productivity applications, you also get a scratchpad app of dubious value - the Google Keep application does that kind of thing much better - Google Forms for data collection, Google Drawings, Blogger, an SSH client, Google Play books, music and movies, a calculator, camera and web-conferencing apps (Google Hangouts). There's also a "Files" application, which allows management of both local and cloud-stored files.

Google Keep started life as a very basic notebook program, but has been revised to add functionality such as checklist formatting and reminders, so that it now fills a niche for those simple to-do list and shopping list requirements that do not justify the use of a full word processor. And this is one of the nice features of Chrome - the applications are continually evolving and because they load from the cloud on startup, you always get the latest version. There's also no obvious way for a virus to infect the programs - another subtle benefit. And more apps are on the way - there are hints (search in chrome://flags) that Google Now cards are coming to Chrome in the future.

Additional apps - as well as extensions and themes - can be obtained from the Chrome Web Store (https://chrome.google.com/webstore/category/apps). These are mostly apps that run  within the browser itself.

By default, all work files are stored in Google Drive, and the Chromebook comes with 100 GB of cloud storage, free of charge for two years. As a Google Apps customer, I already had 30 GB of storage, shared transparently between Gmail/Calendar/Contacts and Drive, and I've used less than 1% if it so far, even with a number of quite large documents in it.

The Google Infrastructure and Ecosystem

As mentioned above, Google also sells PaaS cloud services. Developers can write applications in their choice of JavaScript (Node.js), Go, PHP or Java, and deploy them in the Google cloud. The result is a large collection of applications that are available to Google Apps customers - the enterprise market for Google. Additionally, Google Apps customers have access to a device management console which they can use to enforce corporate policies across Chrome devices.

Wi-Fi Dependence?

Because the applications are written in JavaScript, they load at run-time from Google's servers. At first glance, this suggests that the Chromebook is of no use without an Internet connection, but surprisingly, that isn't the case. The device comes with GMail for offline use as standard, and this can be used to read and reply to emails, schedule appointments, etc. In addition, Google Drive - the storage application for Google Apps - has an option for "Offline" which can be used to cache folders and files for stand-alone use - rather like Windows' "offline files" and "Sync Center" feature.

My Hardware

Feeling that 360 GB was far too much local storage for this type of machine and that rotating media wasn't the most reliable for a lightweight, highly portable computer, I pulled the drive out of mine and replaced it with a 120 GB Samsung SSD (solid state drive). The result is even faster to boot and shut down.

I also upgraded the RAM from 2 GB to 6 GB - it's easy to slip in an extra DIMM, following the instructions at http://normcf.net/~john/chromebook/Acer/acerChromebookUpgrade.html. However, examining the memory usage in the system configuration report (chrome://system) it appears that it rarely gets much above the 2 GB usage level anyway.

Misconceptions

It's not a netbook. Netbooks were typically underpowered, especially those machines which ran a stripped down Windows XP and were built down to a price in order to fund the MS Windows software licence. In addition, many netbooks offered no cloud storage, but were totally reliant on local SSD storage only, and ran minimalistic sets of applications.

The trick is to realize that JavaScript today has moved to fulfill the promise of portable applications, originally made by Java. Whether by accident or design, it's a very powerful programming language with functional programming idoms such as closures, functions as first-class objects, etc. When coupled with AJAX capabilities and libraries like JQuery, running on a fast, low-powered processor, it can deliver extremely sophisticated applications that happen to run in a browser.

And then there's Google's PaaS cloud - you also have the ability to script the server side with JavaScript, or run entire Java, Python, PHP, Go and Node.js applications - and that, in turn, has created the applications that we see in the Chrome Web Store and the Google Apps Store.

In essence, then, the Chromebook is a low-maintenance thin client backed up by Google's cloud services, and not a simple cheap laptop.

Usability

It's nice to have a lightweight machine for working outdoors.
I am already well-catered-for, in terms of computing resources - my desktop machine is an i7 quad-core box with 32 GB of RAM and 5 TB of disk, while my regular laptop is a large-screen Thinkpad T500. I use these large machines because I develop and run large simulations using Eclipse and Java. But I find that I do some of my best creative thinking away from my desk - over a coffee or in a quiet library, or even, as shown above, sitting on the deck wishing the pool was just a little warmer (it's only the first day of Spring as I write this).

While I have a Nexus 7 tablet, and am experimenting with a Bluetooth keyboard for it, I find that the Chromebook occupies a rather nice niche - it's much lighter than the Thinkpad, but much more useful for serious work than the Nexus 7. In fact, I sometimes find myself using the two together - the Nexus 7 to display reference documents and the Chromebook to write. It's also light enough to carry as a backup laptop - the week before last I took it on a business trip and worked in the evenings, using the Chromebook by itself at a restaurant table, and the three-screen combination of the Thinkpad, Chromebook and Nexus 7 at the desk in my hotel room.

In addition, like many others, I've moved a lot of my work from the local desktop to separate compute engines, either on dedicated servers or in the cloud. For example, as I write this, I have another tab open to perform complex calculations (calculating the transition probability matrices of Markov Decision Processes, if you must know) using Sage on one of my servers. The resultant output renders just fine on the Chromebook and because the number-crunching is done on the server, there's no difference in performance compared to using my desktop machine.

Summary

My conclusions are that the  C710 Chromebook represents a highly attractive platform for several types of user:
  • Business customers using Google Apps
  • Education customers using Google Apps
  • Those who need a spare computer
  • Those who want a lightweight, simple (nearly no management) computer
  • Those concerned about loss or damage, with consequent loss of their work
The latter is highly appealing to many users who are losing patience with the issues of patching, securing, backing up and generally maintaining more conventional (Windows, Mac and even Linux) computers. Essentially, the Chromebook represents the most successful implementation yet of software as a service - all the stressful maintenance is taken care of by the provider, and the user can simply concentrate on getting their work done.

At $US199, I'd say the C710 Chromebook is tremendous value, and the potential for ongoing savings make it better and better.
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