By Gene Wilburn
Until recently I’d shied away from Chromebooks. They didn’t seem like real computers to me and for the price of even the basic ones, you could often pick up a used laptop with more overall functionality. I have several programs, such as Photoshop and InDesign, that require a high-end computer and I use both MacOS and Linux computers for these heavier-duty computing needs.
What softened me to the possibility of using a Chromebook was my iPad. It changed the way I used the Web. Between the iPad and the advent of reasonably-priced cloud storage, I began using the iPad more than my laptop computers, especially for writing. I went from being a touch typist to a single-finger poke typist on the iPad’s virtual keyboard. Occasionally I augmented this with Bluetooth keyboards and the combination of an iPad with a wireless keyboard made me wish for something along the same lines but in a single, integrated unit, similar to but not expensive like the Microsoft Surface.
I was intrigued by an announcement from Google in the fall of 2017 that they would soon upgrade ChromeOS to allow it to run both Linux and Android apps concurrently with ChromeOS apps on their Chromebooks. Linux is my favourite operating system and Android apps are pretty much identical to the apps on my iPad. It was beginning to look very interesting.
Deciding to take the plunge, I found the Chromebook unit that had the specs I was looking for in the Lenovo C330: 4GB RAM and a 64GB eMMC drive, plus extras that I thought of as gravy, such as a touch screen and a 180 degree pivot of the LCD panel. At roughly $360 Cdn, it seemed reasonably priced.
Setup and Experimentation
The first thing I did when the machine was in front of me was hold it up so I could check out the whereabouts of the I/O ports. On the left side, facing the machine, is one USB-C slot which the power supply uses but which can be shared with other peripherals. One USB3 slot for backward compatibility plus an SD card slot. Nice touches these. The right side of the unit has a mechanical volume control, on/off switch, and an earphone jack. Did you hear that, Apple? An earphone jack! A lot of us still have good wired headphones we’re satisfied with. It’s a real courtesy to customers to not expect all of us to upgrade to USB-C devices in one fell swoop. Kudos to Lenovo.
I opened the lid and feasted my eyes on the keyboard. An honest, full keyboard with all the keys exactly where I want them. Wide shift keys, easy-to-hit Enter key, full-size numeric keys, and a set of arrow keys at the bottom right, underneath the right shift key. The keys are coated in a kind of plastic that feels slightly rubberized. Response is on the soft side, but so far I have not witnessed any sign of keyboard bounce. Speaking as a writer, the Lenovo keyboard passes muster. It’s not as good a feel as my Macbook Air (old style non-butterfly) keyboard, but given the difference in price level, the Lenovo keyboard holds its own.
As I was about to turn on the unit, I paused momentarily for a big breath. I’d never before in my life ever used a Chromebook and had no idea what to expect, other than its reputation for ease of use. When it booted into the Chrome logo it asked the same kinds of setup questions you get on any tablet, such as network and password. It assumes you have an email account with Google. That’s mandatory, I believe, so I put in my Gmail ID name and password, and it began the setup, already familiar with my profile. There was the usual keyboard question, defaulting to US keyboard but I chose the Canadian-English spell checker. Boom, it was done. Installed and ready to go. Anything else you want, visit Settings and help yourself.
Naturally the default browser is Chrome. It went straight to my Gmail account and right into my Google Docs documents and folders. Seamless.
I studied my way through Settings next. I tested the Bluetooth adapter on a BT speaker and a pair of BT headphones and they both checked out fine. The only disappointment for me was that I didn’t see anything about Linux. I then guessed, rightly in this case, that ChromeOS wasn’t up to date so I updated it, rebooted, and this time in Settings, there was a new Linux section, with Install Linux as an option. It warns that this is still in beta, but I’ll take a beta Linux over no Linux any day.
When it finished installing Linux I opened the Terminal app. After a few seconds wait as things initialized in a KVM (kernel virtual machine), a beautiful Linux system appeared, at the command line. It turned out to be pure Debian, the latest version of Debian at that, which delighted me. I’ve been a Debian Linux fan since the mid–90s. I used Apt to update Linux and now both ChromeOS and Linux were up to date.
The desktop of ChromeOS has a bottom panel called the Shelf that contains an icon for the Chrome browser, Gmail, YouTube, and Play Store. Play Store is where you find Android apps. I’ve populated my Chromebook with some of the same apps I use on my iPad: iA Writer (a writer-oriented Markdown editor), Netflix, a File Manager utility, Dropbox, Snapseed, Great Courses, plus a few more. Each, so far, has worked as expected. An Android app, such as iA Writer, has access to that same shared Downloads folder that is shared by ChromeOS and Linux, meaning you could edit the same document from three different operating systems, which I did out of sheer curiosity.
One of the noticeable things about using Android apps is that the fonts are not as crisp as you might like. The fonts have a slightly fuzzy, artificial look, unlike the well-formed ChromeOS native fonts. This is not a show stopper but it makes the Chromebook more of a Grade B tablet when running Android apps. I would not care to read an ebook with the Android fonts.
For me the Linux subsystem (still in beta) is the jewel in the crown of the Chromebook. As mentioned, the default installation is based on Debian GNU/Linux, and there are hints that other distributions of Linux might be offered sometime in the future. Oddly the Chromebook default Downloads directory does not appear in my
/home/gene personal space. Instead it’s mounted at
/mnt/chromeos/MyFiles/Downloads. To make this more convenient I immediately made a symlink to that from inside my personal workspace with:
$ ln -s /mnt/chromeos/MyFiles/Downloads/ Downloads
At this point the system was ready to easily share files among the three operating systems.
I used the Debian Apt utility to update Linux and install certain pieces of software to try. Among my downloads were Gedit, Wordgrinder, Joe, Emacs, Pandoc, and LibreOffice. All worked well, though there was occasional background screen flashing when using Gedit. I experimented with writing a bash script but could not get the system to chmod my file to an executable, even using
$ sudo chmod a+x filename. It appears that the basic ChromeOS file system is mounted with a ‘noexec’ flag and at this time I haven’t yet figured out if this can be changed. The good news is that the shell script can be run as
$ bash scriptname.
I installed and tried out a couple of different standard Linux terminal programs, Gnome-terminal and Konsole, and unlike the default terminal they can be launched in multiple instances either in separate windows or in tabs. The default terminal can only handle one thing at a time and there are no tabs for additional instances. What it does have, however, are better looking fonts.
There are occasional glitches in the Linux subsystem. Once in awhile, if I’d switched between environments several times while using Linux, it would lose its pathing and respond with “command not found.” When I closed the terminal app and opened it again everything returned to normal.
At a user level, the Linux subsystem generally works well, but I wouldn’t try any development in the environment, at least not at this point in its evolution. All the Linux utilities I tried worked normally, including the many text utilities.
I gave the Linux subsystem a serious workout by installing LyX and all its TeX and LaTeX components. It took four tries. The subsystem crashed three times, once with a segmentation fault, requiring me to shut down and restart the entire Chromebook each time, but it picked up each time where it left off after the previous try. Eventually it finished and I was able to run LyX and preview a typeset document. Not bad, but the Linux subsystem is not yet what I’d call robust. At this point it’s best to think of it as Linux Lite.
Choosing the Best Writing Editor
As a writer who is also a techie I’ve usually eschewed word processors. I like working with text files because they’re non-proprietary and there are many good utilities that work with them, but, like writers everywhere, I often need to italicize the title of a book or movie or a record album and sometimes I want to boldface a word. I also want to put hyperlinks in my text that point to places on the Web. To handle this, in plain text, I use the excellent Markdown system of notation.
My go-to editor for the past couple of years has been iA Writer, which comes in Windows, Mac, Android, and iPad versions. It’s a text editor wrapped around Markdown, making it easy for writers to use, and it has a first-rate HTML export function built in. It’s uncluttered and has a focus mode and a night mode that allows the writer to concentrate on the writing rather than the writing environment. The Android version is similar enough to my Mac and iPad versions that I suspected it to be my editor of choice on the Chromebook.
I’m also addicted to Linux text editors and as long as I was setting up shop anew on the Chromebook, I gave them a spin, using them with Markdown. I tried a number of console editors, including the very basic word processor called Wordgrinder, Joe, which has WordStar/Borland style keyboard shortcuts, and my favourite console editor, Vim, with stands for Improved Vi. These all work flawlessly in the Linux subsystem, and they’re light on resources. Occasionally, when I’m feeling exceptionally brave, I dabble with Emacs.
On a whim, however, I decided to try Chromebook’s featured editor, which is Google Docs. I’d used Google Docs occasionally to store information, but I’d never taken it seriously as a writing tool. I was surprised at how much I liked it, not least because the fonts are excellent and easy on the eyes. I wrote a few paragraphs then tested its various export formats. All were very good except for one quirk when it saves output to a plain text file. In text files it puts two blank lines between paragraphs where I only put in one while I’m typing.
Not being too sure about Google Docs, I asked writers in the “Canada Writes” Facebook group if any of them used it and what they thought about it. I got back several replies from writers who say they use it nearly exclusively and have found it to be stable and excellent for all their writing, including client work. That was enough to convince me it was worth a try and this review is my first piece written in Docs. I suspect Google Docs will become my main editor.
In the short time I’ve owned the Lenovo Chromebook C330, it’s become my favourite writing machine for drafting stories. It’s also a pretty decent machine for listening to music or watching streaming video. To be honest, other than seeing that it works, I don’t make use the feature that allows me to fold the viewing screen back 180 degrees. I already own an iPad which I greatly prefer as a tablet.
For the most part, the Chromebook is a writing machine with the side benefits of being a very good web browser and Gmail viewer. I use the Linux terminal to run utilities on text files, and to SSH (encrypted remote login) to my other Linux and Mac computers.
It has met my expectations and then some. Overall I’d give it high marks in the bang-for-the-buck department. At $360 Cdn, it’s a bargain, and a writer’s delight.