Sunday, April 30, 2017

Another Chromebook Use Case

Recent restrictions on traveling with laptops have caused difficulties for business travelers.

My better half recently booked airline tickets to visit family in the UK, traveling with a codesharing combination of Qantas (Sydney - Dubai) and Emirates (Dubai - Birmingham). This is a much more convenient alternative to taking QF1 all the way to Heathrow and then organising land transport to the Midlands, but even QF1 still transits through Dubai, so would be subject to the same problem.
The Acer Chromebook 14, in Luxury Gold trim.

The Problem

Recently the US instituted a ban on passengers traveling from several Middle Eastern airports carrying electronic devices in their hand baggage. The ban applies to tablets (including some of the older, larger Kindles), laptop computers and other personal electronic devices, and apparently is based on received intelligence on bomb-making techniques.

This occurred a few weeks after my wife had bought her tickets, and we were initially unconcerned - until the UK followed suit, and specifically added Dubai to the list of ports concerned. Although this was a family visit, my wife needs to run her business while traveling, maintaining contact with clients and working on project reports and presentations. She had previously taken her Windows laptop for this purpose and so we initially considered how this could be done in the light of the new restrictions.

The most obvious alternative to hand luggage was to put the laptop into checked luggage. But there are problems with this approach.

Firstly, airlines (and aviation regulators) have specific rules for the carriage of dangerous goods, and lithium ion batteries feature quite prominently in the dangerous goods list. For example, Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority provides quite detailed advice to passengers ("Travelling safely with batteries and portable power packs", available online at https://www.casa.gov.au/standard-page/travelling-safely-batteries) and is quite clear that spare batteries must be in carry-on baggage only, because of the risk of fire.No advice is provided in relation to batteries installed in devices, probably because of the expectation that passengers will carry expensive and fragile devices as carry-on baggage anyway.

However, a laptop packed into a suitcase - especially a zip-up lightweight suitcase - poses its own risks. First, there is the possibility of theft; I have personally had electronics stolen from a checked bag, presumably by a baggage handler. Secondly, there's the possibility of damage - suitcases are stacked up in containers for loading into the freight holds of large aircraft, and a lightweight suitcase at the bottom of a pile could be subject to considerable pressure and deformation. Finally, the natural inclination is to wrap the laptop in soft clothing to provide protection against the shock of dropping - but what if pressure on a power switch or deformation of the case causes the laptop to power up? It is quite likely to overheat since the clothing will block the air vents - and the clothing is also likely to be highly flammable.

For these reasons, we rapidly ruled out the idea of packing the laptop in a suitcase - and I hope everyone else does, too.

The airline eventually proposed a scheme in which passengers transiting Dubai could surrender their laptops for carriage in the hold - but this is unattractive, too - since the laptop bag is the obvious place to store travel documents (e-ticket, passport, etc.) and in-flight requirements. Surrender the bag, and you lose access to those, or have to have yet another bag to carry them; surrender the laptop without the bag, and it is unprotected. Both cases still leave an exposure to damage, loss or theft. Not a comfortable option, either.

The Solution


What to do, then? Fortunately, there is an easy alternative: order a Chromebook in advance of travel, for delivery to a UK address, and that is what we chose in the end.

I drew up a short list of requirements for the various alternative solutions to the problem:

  • Functionality. The device has to support essential business applications: email/calendar, word processing, spreadsheet and presentation graphics.
  • Low cost. If we acquired a device just for use on visits to the UK, it would only get used for a few weeks each year, so a high-cost device is not justified. This requirement extends to software licences as well.
  • Low maintenance. The machine would lie unused for three to six months at a time, and if the first task on arrival was to install updates and patches, requiring multiple reboots and lots of interaction (e.g. via the Help -> About menu option in Mozilla applications), that's time badly spent on a short trip - but if not done, security exposures would result.
  • Security. If the device is stolen, lost, lent to a third party, etc. there should be no exposure of sensitive data on the device and no threat to system integrity.
  • No interruption to work, and no work lost. Locally-stored files, e.g. on the hard drive of a Windows laptop, could accidentally be left behind, requiring work to be done all over again.
  • Simplicity. We wanted to avoid complicated schemes of copying files to and from USB keys or compact flash. This poses too much risk of an old file over-writing a newer version.

Fortunately, the use of a Chromebook meets these requirements perfectly. Since my wife's business uses Google GSuite (formerly Google Apps), she is already familiar with some of its components and uses them, particularly for collaborative projects. So we knew the functionality requirement was met. We already have another Chromebook and a Chromebox, so the device is familiar, too.

The Chromebook meets the low maintenance requirement quite easily, as there's very little on the device itself to be updated, and that is taken care of with a few minutes downloading and a ten-second (at most!) reboot. All applications are cloud-based and continually updated.

Security, simplicity and the requirement for no work to be lost are dealt with by the fact that the Chromebook and GSuite are cloud-based. All she had to do was transfer more of her work to GSuite in the weeks leading up to the trip, and all her work documents were available immediately upon initial login. Similarly, she can leave the Chromebook behind and upon arrival, immediately resume work. Everything is stored in the cloud; nothing is stored on the machine. And because we use two-factor authentication with security keys, there's no real possibility of someone using the machine to gain access to her data. For the same reasons, the family member charged with storing the device is relieved of a lot of responsibility.

Finally, cost: the Acer Chromebook 14 is only GBP199.00 from Amazon.co.uk (see https://www.amazon.co.uk/Acer-Chromebook-CB3-431-14-Inch-Notebook/dp/B01MY6VFL3/). That is sufficiently inexpensive that the low utilization is not a problem - it's a reasonable price to pay to solve the travel problem.

The Pudding


The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. The trip is almost over, and my wife reports that the Chromebook worked well. Even as a non-technical user, she was able to get it unpacked, set up and working with minimal effort, and she has used it for ten days to complete a variety of work tasks. Not having to worry about taking a laptop was a load off her mind, and not having a laptop case to carry was a load off her shoulders.

The Chromebook is now permanently stationed in the UK for use on future trips, and travel - especially via Dubai - will be a lot easier. The whole exercise has proved yet another use case for the Chromebook, and it has turned out to be a useful addition to our business technology toolbox.
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