Using a Chromebook for academic work

I’ve been thinking about getting a Chromebook as a cheaper laptop alternative, especially since I use Google apps and services extensively. While I was initially sceptical about a browser-based operating system (i.e. ChromeOS), I’ve heard good things about Chromebooks and so I was pretty excited to be offered a demo model from Google Education to try it out. The machine I got was a C730, which is a low end device and so is quite inexpensive compared to a regular laptop. I’ve been using it almost exclusively for the past week and thought Id share my experience as an academic using a Chromebook for work.

This post should be read with the following caveats. Firstly, this is not a technical review of Chromebooks. There are many other sites devoted to reviewing the hardware, all of which do a better job than I could (see this review of the best devices for 2015). I’m going to review the Chromebook from the point of view of an academic interested in a low cost secondary mobile device that could be used to accomplish most of what I do in my daily work.

The second point to note is that I am not an average user. I use multiple devices that run multiple operating systems, including a Windows machine at work and Xubuntu on my desktop at home. I have a laptop running the latest version of Ubuntu, a Nexus 7 running a custom ROM (Cyanogenmod), and an iPad. All of these devices need to fit into my workflow, which means that (almost) everything I use is cross-platform or, at the very least, web-based. My point is that the way that I think about – and use – technology is probably quite different to most academics. So with that in mind, here are my thoughts after using a Chromebook for a week.

Hardware

I’m not going to harp on about this (see previous comment regarding reviews sites) but I thought I should briefly mention the device itself. I was worried that the Chromebook would feel cheap considering how much it retails for, but it doesn’t. The keyboard is solid and feels good to type on. The i3 processor, even though it is relatively slow compared to regular laptops, does a good job, which is not unexpected since the operating systems is basically just a browser. Battery life is also very good, allowing me to work on it for a full day without needing to charge.

Setting up

If you’re already invested in the Chrome ecosystem with regards Google services and Chrome apps, setting up the device is simple. You login, go make a cup of coffee and – assuming you have a decent internet connection – all of your usual apps will be up and running by the time you get back. The other thing that is quite nice is that multiple accounts are managed very well, making this quite a nice device for sharing with others – maybe a departmental computer, or having a few that you pass in around in class for groupwork.

Files

The thing that is probably going to be the initial barrier for most people is the fact that the file browser is actually an alternative front-end to Google Drive, with another folder called Downloads. Downloads is the only folder that automatically keeps files for offline browsing so if you’re offline you don’t have access to anything unless you’ve already saved it for offline use, or have previously saved it into Downloads. If you’re already using Drive and get how it works this wont be a big deal. It seems that there are different options available for offline access on various devices, depending on what OS you’re running. Strangely it appears that if you use Drive on a regular computer, you can set it up so that – by default – all of your files are synced for offline use. I thought it was odd that I couldn’t enable offline access on the Chromebook but maybe the assumption is that this device is really meant to be used with an internet connection. Or I just couldn’t find the right setting.

I Having said that, I was impressed with the file browser. It’s clean and simple and works very well if you’re online. I didn’t spent much time trying to rearrange the folder structure (it just pulls down my file system from Drive) even though how I use Drive is not quite the same way that I use my local file system. Where Files really shines is its integration with the Google ecosystem (Gmail, Docs, Sheets, etc.). Obviously.

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Email

If you’re an academic, you live in your email client so this was obviously something that needed to work very well. For me, this wasn’t going to be a problem, since I route my work email through a Google Apps account, which means I’ve been using Gmail for work for years. if your institution uses Google Apps for your email, or if you send your work email to a Gmail account, email is going to just work. You sign into the device with your Google Account, open Gmail and you’re up and running. However, if your institution uses something like Groupwise, you are going to be able to access your email via the browser but you may end up running into issues with things like attaching files. However, I didn’t test this so I may be wrong.

Calendar

Another thing that I need it do a lot of is scheduling. Since I use Google Calendar via Sunrise, this was also not a problem. After signing into the device, all of my Chrome apps began installing automatically and after a few minutes I could open Sunrise and see all of my appointments. Sunrise also runs offline.

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Writing

On my desktop and laptop, I use LibreOffice as my word processor, along with Google Docs (and Sheets and Slides) for collaborative work, Evernote and Keep for note taking, and a plain text editor for early drafts. Since academic work involves a lot of writing, getting a good sense of what writing apps are available for the Chromebook is a good idea. In addition to what I’ve listed above, there are many other apps that also work well. For me, these ones are the most useful since they have brower-based user interfaces, as well as mobile apps that are cross-platform.

Google Docs / Sheets / Slides: I use Google Docs, Sheets and Forms extensively – as do our students – both for our undergraduate curriculum and for collaborating with colleagues. This is important to note because if you, your colleagues and your students are not already using Google Drive, the ability to integrate within an institutional ecosystem is going to be a challenge. Its not impossible but I don’t think it will be easy. Since many of my students submit work on Docs, I already use Google services for that work, which means that the Chromebook is a natural fit for my situation. Even when not working collaboratively many of our students prefer using Docs and submit their work that way. If you’re starting to move your department towards cloud-based services, then a Chromebook could definitely be considered but even then, you would probably need a few months to let things stabilise before committing.

Evernote: I use Evernote for taking notes in meetings, collecting resources for papers, and writing outlines for proposals and articles. You can either use Evernote in the browser if you’re online, or as a standalone Android app (see below), which has offline access. Since the text is quite small in the app, I suggest only using this version when you don’t have access, otherwise the web interface is better.

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Text editor: As part of this experiment I also looked for a simple text editor. Over the past couple of years I’ve been using plain text editors for my early stage drafting. I use Markdown for basic structure, which allows me to focus on getting ideas onto the page without getting distracted by formatting. While not necessary, I had a look for a  text editor that would run offline on ChromeOS and very quickly found Minimalist Markdown Editor. The app loads quickly and is very fast to work in, so for a low-powered device like this Chromebook, I would almost go so far as to recommend using something like this instead of Google Docs. It supports keyboard shortcuts (e.g. Ctrl-S for Save), multiple tabs and can be set to show a preview alongside the plain text (see below). Files are saved either as plain text (.txt) or Markdown (.md) in the Downloads folder in Files.

Screenshot 2015-05-12 at 11.11.44

Keep: I use Evernote for work-related notes and for saving webpages, images, links, etc. that are relevant for long-term projects, and use Keep for short-term, ephemeral notes that I’m not going to keep for very long. This might be a short tick list, or something that I need to remember for a meeting. There’s no reason that I can’t use Evernote for the same thing but it works for me to keep them separate. Being a Google app means that Keep works well on the Chromebook. It also works offline.

Dropbox

Since most of my work is synchronised across devices via Dropbox, I was hoping that the integration of Dropbox into ChromeOS would be seamless. I was disappointed. While I can use the browser to find and view files in Dropbox (see below), there is no easy way to edit them. I also can’t browse Dropbox as if it was part of the file system. The Files app seems like it could easily include a Dropbox folder into the left-hand navigation panel and, if I’m signed in to Dropbox, should allow me to navigate the folders as part of the file system. I should then be able to open Word documents in Google Docs, and to save those files back up to Dropbox. This would also be useful for attaching files in Dropbox to Gmail. For example, in the Gmail app on Android, I can browse through my Dropbox folder and attach files to emails directly, so I thought that it would be similar on the Chromebook.

Screenshot 2015-05-12 at 10.44.10

I’m not sure that there’s any technical reason why this isn’t possible and was really disappointed that the only way for me to access files in Dropbox was to find it with the browser, download it into Files / Drive and then open it with Docs. I suppose this wouldn’t be a problem if I migrated everything from Dropbox to Drive but this obviously isn’t something that I would do for this test. Google does offer 1TB of cloud storage to Chromebook users for free, for 2 years but this doesn’t seem like a good deal for most people (if you have 1TB of content that you’re working with, a Chromebook is probably not the best option for you). If you do decide to commit to a Chromebook, then a full migration to Drive from Dropbox (or whatever cloud-based storage service you use) would resolve this issue.

Mendeley

For any academic, a PDF management app like Mendeley (or some alternative) is absolutely essential for your workflow. I’ll focus on Mendeley because that’s what I use. Mendeley is cross-platform and has a really nice web interface that is quite usable on a Chromebook. However, if you want to do serious work with your articles then it you might find the web UI a bit cumbersome. It’s not impossible, but it is slow and unwieldy. If you just need to find a specific paper and read it, its fine. But if you want to work with multiple papers and make notes on them, it becomes more difficult to manage. However, the nice thing about web-based platforms is that updates can be rolled out quite quickly and who knows, the ability to keep files locally and access them through the browser might be in the pipeline. It’s not technically impossible. So, the article manager is available but not great.

Screenshot 2015-05-12 at 10.52.00

Printing

Printing was problematic. Within an hour of setting up at work, I had a student come to see me asking for a letter of reference. Creating the letter in Docs was obviously no problem but setting up Googles Cloud Print wasn’t trivial. You need to set it up via another computer first, which I suppose isn’t a big deal but more than I felt like dealing with at the time. I never did get around to setting up cloud printing on the Chromebook because honestly, it’s not something that I need to do often. And, since that’s the kind of thing you only need to do once, it’s not going to be a deal breaker for anyone.

Final thoughts

After using the Chromebook at work for a week, here are my final thoughts:

  • Even with the underpowered i3 chip on this Chromebook, ChromeOS is fast. Overall, I was impressed with the performance of the device.
  • If you, your students and your colleagues already use Google services extensively, you wont have too many issues integrating with that ecosystem at work.
  • Related to this, signing in and getting your apps up and running automatically works seamlessly.
  • The integration of Google’s services on the device works really well. If you route your work email through Gmail and combine this with Drive, then this alone would mean that you could probably do about 70% of your work with a Chromebook. If your students also use Drive, I think you could do almost all of your work.
  • If you already use Chrome apps via the browser for some of your work (e.g. Keep, Any.do, Sunrise), you’re not going to find any problems moving to a Chromebook. However, if you’ve only ever used Chrome as a browser and are not comfortable with installing apps you may find the laptop limited while you find your feet.
  • I didn’t really look into any of the special offers that come with the purchase of a Chromebook, but I’m assuming that some of those might also influence your decision.

If you’re an academic and are thinking about buying a Chromebook that you’re going to use for work, I suggest that you really commit to cloud-based services, preferably Google’s. The main problem I would have is a migration from Dropbox to Google Drive. Dropbox is (barely) usable via the browser, whereas Drive is integrated into ChromeOS. You have a few storage options with Drive: If you just use this for work, the the free 15GB will be fine. I can’t imagine you would use more than that with Word documents, slideshows and PDFs. If you need more space, you can pay $2 a month for 100GB. No academic is likely to need the 1TB that Google offers free for 2 years, especially if this is a secondary device that you intend using for work alone. If you already use web-based services like Gmail, Calendar (or Sunrise), Drive, Evernote, and Keep (I also use Any.do and Pocket extensively – both are browser-based with mobile apps), then switching to a Chromebook will involve a bit of restructuring and management but after that will most likely be fine.

Thank you to Karen Walstra (Twitter, Google+) at Google for Education, who very kindly offered me the use of a demo Chromebook for this experiment.