So I Played With a Chromebook

The other morning I had some time to kill at SFO, waiting for my flight to start boarding, and I decided to seek out the Google Chromebooks that were on display at Terminal 2. I’d been meaning to give them some hands-on time to see what it was like. I only had about 15 minutes’ worth of time, but these were my three main observations.

Confinement is not liberating

I don’t fault Google for their efforts and attempts at making the world live inside of a browser and rely on nothing more than the Web. That said, living inside of a browser should not be taken literally. The Chromebook does, as far as I could tell: you’re in a browser, and that’s it. You have tabs at the top and can open apps or sites inside each, but I could not figure out a way to get “outside” of the browser.

The idea of having no concernible desktop or home screen-equivalent felt confining. It felt like all I had been given was access to a terminal that happened to surf the web using a very capable browser. Not a computer of my own to do with what I wanted. For a company that touts the “open” nature of Android at every opportunity, their Chromebook product felt like the most walled-garden experience I’ve had since the mid-80’s. The experience was also a polar opposite of the one I had when I got an iPad.

This problem has nothing to do with it being a web technologies-based environment: webOS is more similar than different to ChromeOS, but it sports a proper home screen and a sense of separation between operating system and applications. With the Chromebook that line appeared so thoroughly blurred that it felt unnerving.

An easy way to overcome this is to adjust the UI so that the default tab view simply becomes a regular desktop or home screen, from which (web) applications can be launched just like they are on native desktop operating systems, which, under the hood, simply open up a tab view containing said web application. At least that way you’ll feel like you can go out of the browser, and see your computer.

(by the way: if it is already possible to exit the browser on a Chromebook, then it is very much not self-evident how to do this)

Computers are not toys

No matter how you want to position the iPad, its hardware design—aesthetically and physically—is easily one of the most sleek and professional in the market. Even those who think the iPad is “just a toy” for people who “don’t do any serious computer work” will admit the hardware feels very refined.

Not so much with the Chromebook, which felt like a My First Netbook kind of product. The feel of the plastic casing, the keys and, in particular, the mediocre trackpad, all amounted to me walking away being that much more impressed with Apple’s hardware chops. I forget whether mine was made by Acer or Samsung (they had both at the stand), but they all seemed similarly decent. And I use that word pejoratively, because after years of using MacBooks (Airs and Pros) my expectations are set to great hardware.

The overall chassis and lid of the Chromebooks felt robust in that “sturdy plastic toy” kind of way, not in a “modern hardware” one. It was definitely not flimsy, but it didn’t feel like a professional product either. And the mediocre trackpad was frustrating to use, as it caused occasional lag to and jumping of the cursor. The trackpad also felt “sticky” to the touch, likely a correlating issue, though there wasn’t always a correlation to the trackpad being sticky and the awkward cursor movement.

Our hands aren’t made for straining

I know that the majority of people come from a Windows world in which keyboard shortcuts center around the Control key, not the Command key. That’s fine, but it’s still ergonomically outdated. Let’s do a quick test:

Put your hands down on a desk or table in front of you, the way you typically have them when typing—so don’t flatten your fingers; they should form an arc. In this position, your opposable thumb with independent mobility should be able to slide effortlessly underneath the palm of each hand. On any Apple-made keyboard, both thumbs can reach a Command key without straining a single muscle or require any movement of the hand overall. If you have a non-Apple keyboard, you may or may not be able to reach the keys adjacent to the space bar easily.

Next, put your hands on a keyboard in the optimal typing position: left index finger on the F key, right index finger on the J, and the remaining fingers in resting position on the keys next to them. Now try reaching either Control key with a finger or a palm without moving the rest of the hand. You can’t; you physically cannot do this. Even with very large hands there will be some tilting of the hand or some strain on a ring finger when moving the pinky finger down to hit that Control key.

Now, if you’re a Windows (or Linux) user you’ll have gotten used to this, perhaps even decry the ergonomic superiority of the Command key and its placement. But no matter how much you may be used to it, ergonomically your hands endure more strain when using the Control key—and if you don’t feel any, that’s actually a bad thing.

On the Chromebook, there are only Control and Alt keys, and no Command key. And all commands are triggered via Control, keeping this bad ergonomic practice alive despite having no Operating System inheritance to justify it. It’s just another case of “that’s what people are used to”, done without thoroughly thinking it through.

Suffice to say, my left hand felt a little strained after using the Chromebook and having to switch to using Control as the command key. (For reference, I did not have this strain when I switched from Windows to the Mac, so in my body’s particular case, that switch was a clear and immediate ergonomic improvement)

Conclusion

Given these three observations, I have a hard time imagining any current Mac user being happy with a Chromebook, but I can see how a PC/Windows user that really doesn’t do much more than surf the web could get by with it, and even enjoy the simpler experience.

Google promotes the Chromebook using the phrase “Nothing but the web.” It’s fitting, but not a very compelling argument in a world where apps have reached a strong dominance in the (computing) market. Web apps have yet to make any kind of real dent in that dominance, and the Chromebook doesn’t particularly help in this regard.

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