Monday, April 07, 2014

Laptop vs Chromebook vs Tablet

I have played around with an Acer C720 Chromebook on and off for the last two weeks -- trying to see where, if anywhere, it might fit into my digital life.

My primary computer is a laptop, but I use a tablet from time to time, and, the bottom line is that the Chromebook is not ready to replace my laptop, but, it trumps the tablet.

I came to this conclusion by considering my digital applications and the hardware. Let's begin with a look at my applications


Consuming Web content: I often have fifteen or twenty browser tabs open That is no problem for my laptop, which has 8 GBytes of memory, but, I worried that the C720, with only 4 GBytes of memory might not be up to the task. I did not have to worry -- the C720 surfs as well as my laptop.

Casting tabs: The C720 easily outperformed my laptop in smoothly, quietly (no fan noise) casting video streams to the Chromecast device on my TV set. The Chromebook wins this application hands down since my laptop is unusable for video tab casting. In testing tab casting, I also noticed that its display colors are cooler than the TV set or laptop.

Email: I use the Thunderbird email client for most of my email and my primary account is on my university's Exchange server. I prefer Thunderbird because I am used to it, but Outlook Web App (OWA) runs in a browser and is an excellent client. I could easily give up Thunderbird and use OWA on the Chromebook. I could also access it on the tablet, but want a real keyboard for writing email.

Drafting documents and HTML pages: On my laptop, I usually draft documents (like this post) and edit HTML pages with a text editor and paste them into an application like Blogger or Word. Google Docs or Word Online could replace my text editor. The Chromebook and laptop are about even on this score, with the tablet a distant third, for lack or a keyboard or precision pointing device.

File transfer: Edited HTML pages must be transferred to my server and I have not found a browser-based FTP client with the features I take for granted when using FileZilla on my laptop. If anyone knows of a good one, let me know.

Microsoft Office apps: As a teacher, I create a lot of Powerpoint presentations and frequently need to write a formatted document. Neither Google Docs nor Office Online can match Office. I expect the next big clash between Google and Microsoft to be in the browser, and, if I were in charge at either company, I would put a lot of resources into these applications, but, for now, I'm sticking with my laptop.

Image editing: I have not found a Web-based image editor with the speed and features I need. I do not need a high-end image editor like Photoshop, but do need speed and features like layers, magic wand and other selection modes, effects and adjustments, fat bits, etc. provided by the editor I use, If you know of a tablet or Web-based image editor that can keep up with, let me know.

Audio editing: I only work with speech, not music, so don't need a professional editor. I use Audacity to record, capture and edit speech and have not yet found a Web or tablet based equivalent.

Video editing: I use Camtasia Studio for capturing and editing video. It has plenty of features for what I do, but, unlike open source Audacity and, it is expensive. I would love to find a "good enough" video editor editor for my laptop or online or on a tablet.

Podcatching I download a lot of podcasts using iTunes and listen to them on a small mp3 player. I've never used a cloud-based podcatcher -- are there some good ones?

Writing programs: I don't do a lot of programming these days, but occasionally fire up Visual Studio for a utility example or in teaching. Microsoft is moving in the direction of a browser-based version of Visual Studio and Google is developing Spark, a browser-based development envirionment, if I were at Microsoft, I'd speed up that effort. For now, I need the laptop for running Visual Studio.


As we saw above, the C720 is fast. With 30 browser tabs open, I was able to stream video smoothly and there was no noticeable delay when changing or opening tabs. Checking memory utilization, we see that it nearly all being used:

In spite of that, the Chromebook operating system and swaps between memory and the solid state drive are so fast that I did not notice slowing.

So, the system hardware is fast, but what about the input/output devices?

Screen: The larger, high resolution screen on my laptop allows me to work comfortably with two windows open -- the Chromebook screen is cramped when creating content.

Keyboard: Typing is easier and faster on the laptop, with its larger, deeper keyboard. I don't have a tablet keyboard, but, if I did, I would want one that was full size.

Pointing device: The trackpad on my laptop is smoother and more precise than that of the Chromebook and there is enough physical space for real buttons rather than the virtual buttons on the Chromebook. I like the two and three finger gestures on the Chromebook trackpad, but that is not enough for me to favor it.

Summing it all up

As a content creator, I prefer my laptop because of its input/output devices, but as a content consumer, my laptop cannot compare to the security, simple set-up, battery life, quick charging, instant on/off, size, weight and $250 manufacturer's suggested retail price of the C720. The Chromebook is comparable to a tablet in convenience and simplicity, but is more useful for casual content creation and light editing. If I have one computer, it would be the laptop, but, if I could have two, the second machine would be a Chromebook.

Of course different people have different applications. I let my 11 year old grandson Lucas use the Chromebook for a while then asked him how he liked it and how it compared to his iPad. He said he likes the touch screen of the iPad and missed that on the Chromebook, but he said the Chromebook was better for the "Interweb" and there were more games that he liked. He did not like the feel of the Chromebook touchpad, but liked the keyboard because he could type things like he does with Microsoft Word. The bottom line question -- I asked if he could have only an iPad or the Chromebook, but not both, which would he choose, and he preferred the Chromebook.

My wife reads email, consumes Web content, does Skype calls, takes photos and plays games. She would probably prefer her iPad to the Chromebook. And, geekier folks might get around some of the Chromebook limitations by installing Crouton, which would allow them to run Linux-based applications like Audacity, the audio editor I mentioned above.

How about the future? What about five years from now, when I hopefully have at least 100Mb/s connectivity, a much faster CPU and a Chromebook that runs HTML 6? I suspect that I will be doing more in the browser, and the Chromebook will look better than it does today, but I will still want the form factor and input/output devices of my laptop for content creation. So, I bet I have a laptop and a small Chromebook in five years, but I don't expect to own a tablet. Sorry Apple.