2014 March 28 19:08

With a somewhat heavy heart I sent back my second HP Chromebook 14.

The fan, it turns out, was just too loud for me. Both Chromebooks had loud fans, but I think the second may have been even louder than the first.

For Google’s sake I’ll repeat: the HP Chromebook 14 has a noisy fan with a whiny, tinny buzz to it – like a tiny refrigerator. Oddly, a lot of people are not bothered by it, but for me it was a dealbreaker. It’s very subjective thing. People wrote reviews praising the “nearly silent” fan. And yet I could hear it across the room! Even when watching a movie with headphones on I could still hear the whine.

And if an annoying constant background whine wasn’t bad enough, a couple of times, while video chatting with a friend, the fan started speeding up and slowing down in an almost comic, but very distracting, way. He could hear it on the other end!

After wondering if I was alone in being bothered by this, I found a Chromebook forum post praising the Acer C720 and blasting the HP Chromebook 14’s hideous fan. While I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, I’m glad to know I’m not the only person bothered by this.

Sadly, Acer seems to be phasing out the 4GB model of the C720. I only see 2GB models for sale.

2014 March 05 11:40

Pretty amazing logistics. I dropped my Chromebook off at Fedex after 6pm on Tuesday. Wednesday at around 6pm I got an email from HP saying that they had received it, and just after 11pm the same night they shipped my new one, overnight delivery. It arrived at 9:15am!!

And the new one?

At first it seemed everything was hunky dory. The top row of keys is better. But the fan seems louder – and the fans on these machines have a sort of “whine” to them that makes them seem even louder. If it was just white noise it would be better. I’m also cursed with sensitive hearing – this wouldn’t be a problem for most people.

However, I just noticed something else – the Search key – which I have switched to be a Ctrl key, and which I use all the time – is funny. It’s a wide key, and should have some kind of parallelogram thingy underneath so that wherever you press on it, it goes straight down, while staying parallel to the other keys. Well, this key is messed up somehow! The side nearest the “a” key – which is the part of the key I’ll most likely hit with my pinky – is lower than the other side, and doesn’t “click” properly.

some time passes

Ok, so I’ve fixed the Search key. It turns out that the little metal bail underneath the key wasn’t properly hooked under its metal loops, so the key cap couldn’t clip onto it. I managed to get the key cap off – scary! it seems like something will break, then it finally comes loose – re-affixed the metal bail, clipped the key cap onto the bail, and pressed down all around it... Now it works great!

But it’s more than a bit disappointing to have had two machines with keyboard problems – the first with two mushy keys (and I’m curious now if I would have been able to fix them); the second with one. In this case, HP’s quality control isn’t very impressive.

Having a working keyboard is rather nice. But the fan noise may be too much for me – the whine, especially. I haven’t used the machine in the last few days; after fixing the keyboard I needed to take a break from it. But turning it on now reminds me how annoying it is.

Maybe I should get rid of this one and wait until either a much faster ARM machine comes out (perhaps the new Samsung Chromebook), or a Bay Trail Atom-based fanless Chromebook? The performance of this machine is really nice, but given that there are no other moving parts, having a whining fan is a let-down.

2014 February 26 14:17

Yesterday I sent my Chromebook back to HP.

But not to return it; I’m exchanging it. The two middle keys on the top (function/special purpose) row of the keyboard – switch window and brightness down – were not quite right. They were mushy – lacking the nice “detent” that every other key had.

They worked fine, but because they lacked that detent I was worried that something had happened to them in manufacturing, and that they might fail prematurely.

So, back to HP it goes. A new one should be here by the end of the week.

Overall, my initial impressions still stand – both the hardware and software of this machine are pretty sweet. But I did find a few things that were odd. One of my settings – perhaps “tap to drag” – caused a change in the behavior of Ctrl-click – it no longer opened the link in a new tab. This is a feature I use a lot, and having it stop working was worrisome. I need to get to the bottom of this, and probably file a bug.

The last week that I was using it I mostly used the browser and SSH plugin. I SSHed in – across the room – to my old laptop, which was connected to some funky hardware via its serial (not USB!) port, to work on some microcontroller code; this worked great. The SSH extension/plugin for Chrome is awesome.

I didn’t further explore the world of crouton and chroots. I’d still really like to install Nix; I just need to figure out the best way to “hand roll” a simple chroot to put it in.

2014 February 13 23:16

I realize that I neglected to share two videos that helped to persuade me that the HP Chromebook 14 was probably the machine for me. The author of these videos is a web designer, and is trying to use a Chromebook as his “daily driver” for work. One thing so far missing – for him – is a good SVG editor. For now he relies on installing Ubuntu (via crouton) and running Inkscape. But he really liked the screen size and keyboard of the HP 14.

Here are his videos. A warning: though he is thorough, these are not funny or exciting. The HP-Acer comparison, in particular, has a very long shot of two machines sitting side-by-side on the floor while he talks – for minutes – about them. However, both are informative, and in fact he swayed me away from the Acer toward the HP. I liked the Acer’s size and its matte display, but I was worried about the keyboard (and screen size, actually) for serious daily programming use. Because his use case is also work I gave his impressions extra weight.

Without further ado:

2014 February 13 18:30

I had to put my Chromebook away – I boxed it up in the shipping box that it arrived in – so I could work on another project that was pressing.

The last thing I managed to do before boxing it up was to install crouton, and via crouton, Ubuntu (precise). After apt-get installing several packages – I forget the list, but it included git-core, vim, gcc, and make – I was able to clone my muforth git repo, build it, and, rather amazingly, plug in my JS16 USB board and chat with it over USB! I will definitely be able to do Forth development directly on this device. That’s awesome.

However, I’ve never been much of a fan of Ubuntu, or even Debian, for that matter. The only Linux I’ve used extensively in the last few years is Arch, which I loved for the first few years, but it morphed into something bigger than I wanted, and I was also annoyed by the necessary administration overhead. Compared to BSD systems, that’s generally my experience with Linux.

But all that aside, I think what I’d really like to do is figure how to get a basic command-line Linux installed via Nix, which has the advantage of being very easy to bootstrap, and is chroot-friendly, since the basic idea of Nix is to isolate packages in their own directories, with no external dependencies. I’m not sure if I can use crouton to set it up, since crouton is based on debootstrap (which I don’t begin to understand), but I’m pretty sure that if I’m going to be stuck with Linux, I want to use Nix.

Chromebooks are sexy, compelling devices. I easily spent a week with mine, trying to get my head around how ChromeOS is put together, and what it would take to turn it into my perfect development machine. Chromebooks are fun!

I also spent time reading (and worrying) about weird security problems with Chrome, and further “abuses” by Google of their users.

I’m still pretty sold on the idea of Chromebooks, though. After it had sat in a box for a week, I pulled it out, turned it on, logged in, and all my tabs were right where I had left them. It took a few seconds, tops. I think that’s a pretty sweet user experience.

2014 February 05 00:54

I bought a Chromebook.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to or not. I read a lot about them beforehand, and the night before I ordered my Chromebook I was really depressed about Google and the direction they appeared to be heading. The particular thing that set me off was this discussion about the then-new “one account – all of Google” feature. It just felt like Google was relentlessly pressuring people to consolidate their online identities to be more easily trackable. (I came across other threads about the same problem with YouTube.)

I’m no less concerned now than I was a few days ago about this trend on Google’s part, but after doing some more research about their login system I convinced myself that “things weren’t too bad” and the next day I ordered a Chromebook 14 from HP. Just to be clear about where I’m coming from, I don’t exactly live my life in the cloud. Yes, I’m an avid Gmail user, and my domain is registered with Google Apps (and grandfathered in as an Apps for Business freebie!). But other than Gmail, I don’t use Google Apps. Or Docs, Blogger, or Sites. I’ve tried them all; I just don’t like how they work.

I have Facebook and G+ accounts that I never use, and should probably delete.

I have a handful of pics on Flickr and Picasa; both were experiments, and haven’t been touched in years.

I do, however, keep code in the cloud. I have repos on Bitbucket and Github. And the challenge I’ve set myself is to be able to comfortably code on a Chromebook; more precisely, to write, document, and publish code – mostly, at this point, code for microcontrollers. To do that I need a bit more than a stock Chromebook offers: a C compiler, Lua, a text editor, and (command-line) Git and Mercurial.

So, with that introduction, here are my initial thoughts and impressions.

To start with, I want to clarify exactly which Chromebook I have, because there are several variants of the HP Chromebook 14 that differ in subtle ways. This is not an exhaustive list, and these may be available from other sources, but the variants that I’m aware of – ignoring the teal barf (q020nr) and pink slime (q030nr) versions – are as follows (these are all white):

I bought the q070nr.

I knew I wanted a Haswell-based Chromebook. Given the current offerings, that dramatically limited my choices. But I wanted the great battery life that Haswell makes possible. The ARM Chromebooks not only had poor battery life, but also got dinged in online reviews for their poor performance: stuttery video playback, jumpy scrolling, etc.

I also wanted, if possible, 4 GB of RAM. Many early Chromebooks shipped with “only” 2 GB – which seemed like a limitation. Reviews suggested that people with lots of tabs open were running out of memory. I wanted as flexible a machine as possible. For a potential Windows machine, my minimum is 8 GB of RAM. A Chromebook should be able to thrive with much less than that but given the built-in limitations of the device, I didn’t want to further handicap it by starving it of memory.

The only other machine that I seriously considered was the Acer 720. Another Haswell-based device, it’s much smaller – with an 11.6 inch screen and slightly undersized keyboard – but because I have big hands and old eyes, I worried that it wouldn’t be a good fit. The Acers can be found with 4 GB of RAM, but mostly what I saw on offer were 2 GB machines. Its two big advantages over the HP: it’s much smaller, much lighter, and much cheaper.

It’s not yet a totally done deal. I’m not sure that the HP 14 isn’t too big and heavy (at four pounds!), but so far I like the big-ish screen and the full-sized keyboard.

I’ve only had the device for a few days at this point, but I have some initial impressions.

First, the positive.

I love the interface. This is the simplest, slickest, fastest, cleanest GUI I have ever used. I’ve used Linux since the mid-1990’s, FreeBSD from 2000 to 2007, and OSX since 2008, and I’ve helped lots of people with Windows. I hated all the X Window desktops and window managers, and always felt that X11 was an ugly hack bolted onto the side of Linux. OSX took some getting used to, but within six months it became my favorite system. I loved using FreeBSD in the early 2000s, and having those BSD genes and userland available on the command line was really refreshing.

Compared to OSX, ChromeOS is really streamlined. Some people have complained about this, but I find it really refreshing. It’s also crazy fast. Anything you do just happens instantly, including rebooting the machine. Even changing from the stable channel to the beta channel – which involves essentially a re-install of the OS – is a download and a reboot away. On restart, after doing this, I logged in and dropped back into the browser with my tabs exactly the same. A document I was reading had scrolled to exactly where I left off reading when I rebooted. It was pretty mind-blowing. I’ve re-installed Windows and Linux zillions of times, and it takes a while. All day, for Windows, and a few hours – an hour at least – for Linux. Having a fresh install available at my fingertips in literally a handful of minutes is nothing short of astonishing.

It’s also been strange to live in the “logged into Chrome” world that Chromebooks and ChromeOS force you into. For privacy reasons – real or perceived – I never did this on my desktop Chrome browsers. But on Chromebooks an amazing thing happens. When you, for instance, “powerwash” your system, or change dev channels, on reboot/login you start up exactly where you left off: your apps are all there, your touchpad settings, your keyboard mapping – everything. I’m used to having to clone a Git repo of my dot files, or edit a few files before things are even close to the way that I want them. Having all this happen automagically is disorienting – in a good way. I like the change.

Today, for the first time, I switched into developer mode and, by running the crosh shell, poked around the filesystem. What I found was interesting.

First, these devices do in fact run X11. Google has, for the first time in my experience, tamed X and rounded off its rough edges. Running ChromeOS convinced me that X can be beautiful – a first (for me). There is no window manager – at least as I understand it – and the keyboard mappings make pretty good sense (though there are strange ChromeOS-specific keys as well). Overall, none of the glitchiness and hare-brained keyboard config nightmares that attended my past experiences with X.

Second, home directories are mounted via an encrypted filesystem. I’m no Linux guru, but I’ve never seen this before on a Linux system. I really like this idea. Though Linux systems have a lot of real and perceived “security” cred, if someone gains physical access to your machine and knows what they are doing, unless you have a password on the BIOS they can easily boot into single-user mode, reset the root password, and read everything on the machine.

Chromebooks lack this “feature”. First, there is a verified boot system, which checks the integrity of the OS before booting it. In order to install a backdoored OS, which might help an attacker gain access to files on the machine, the machine must be switched into developer mode – but that process erases all local user data. Second, because of the encrypted home directories, even if someone were to steal your laptop they would have non-trivial work to do (assuming you used a decently-strong password) to read your files. Of course, being a cloud-centric device means that your files (probably) aren’t sitting on your Chromebook anyway.

Slick, fast, secure, and simple. Not bad for a “desktop” operating system.

Overall my first experiences of ChromeOS have been positive. What about the hardware of this particular machine?

The keyboard is pretty good. I’m not sure I’m in love with it – nothing compares with Apple’s keyboards (except, oddly, the keyboard on my thirteen-year-old Toshiba Portege!) – but it doesn’t feel cheap, and it’s not rattly or clackety. I do find that I inadvertently capitalize the first two letters of words more than I’d like – not a great sign. And I’m not typing super fast on it yet – though this is the first time I’ve really put it thru its paces. (Yes, I’m typing this on the Chromebook! I’ve ssh’ed into my Mac where my publishing pipeline lives.) I need to install some command-line tools on the Chromebook before I can publish directly from it.

The trackpad is awesome. It’s big, glassy, smooth, precise, and easy to love. The two multitouch gestures that I care about – two-finger tap (to right click) and two-finger drag (to scroll) – both work seamlessly. My only complaint is the trackpad’s mechanical click action, which is stiffer than I would like. I avoid using it, preferring to tap instead. But sometimes – like to select and drag – you have to click.

I don’t own a MacBook – my Mac is a desktop iMac – but I have used the trackpads on those machines, and they are quite nice. I can’t say definitively that this comes close to that experience, but I think that it does. I’m pretty impressed.

Thanks to the Haswell (4th-gen) Intel processor inside, the battery life is pretty great. Not as great as the truly awe-inspiring battery life that Apple gets out of the new Haswell MacBook Airs (14 hours) and Pros (10 hours or so), but respectable. I haven’t tested it myself, but online reviewers have seen nine hours from a single charge.

Previous laptops I have owned have had terrible battery life – three to four hours, tops. While I don’t plan to work “off the grid” that often – since I have to sacrifice already scarce screen brightness on this machine for battery life – I love the idea that I can unplug for an entire day. Together with the built-in cellular radio, this dramatically increases the machine’s work-anywhere usefulness.

What’s not to like?

So far I’ve found nothing about ChromeOS that really irritates me. I thought I’d found a showstopper: it seemed that it wasn’t possible to cut from a web page (eg, a URL) and paste into an SSH window (where I’m writing now), but not only did I find the relevant keystroke (Search-.) but I also discovered that Ctrl-V can be enabled to paste into SSH (it’s disabled by default). Just look for “ctrl-v-paste” in the options for the Secure Shell Extension.

I wanted to find things to be annoyed by. I’m surprised that I haven’t. Instead, I’m mostly impressed by both the engineering and user interface choices that have been made. It’s not over yet. I’m sure I’m going to find some annoyances. But it’s a pretty good sign that I haven’t run screaming already.

However, on this particular machine, a few things do annoy me.

The screen isn’t great. It’s a cheap TN panel, 1366x768. And it’s glossy. I would love to have more pixels, less glare, more contrast, and better viewing angles. And maybe even an aspect ratio more suited to reading and writing than to watching movies. The Pixel’s 3:2 aspect ratio seems like a step in the right direction. This “let’s build displays for watching movies – and screw everything else” idea is simply wrong.

At least one online review called the display “horrible”. I wouldn’t go that far. But put it next to any old MacBook and it’s clear that it’s not in the same league.

I haven’t spent enough time with it yet to decide if it’s good enough for real-world everyday use or not. Not incidentally, that’s my intention for this machine: I want to be able to do everything I do on a computer on this machine – ideally without having a twisted workflow or too many compromises. We’ll see if that’s possible.

In addition to the weak screen, there is an audible fan. While not loud, it emits a high-pitched whine. Even though I’m getting on in years, I’m still sensitive to such things – I often hear them when others don’t. A lot of new electronics have a similar high-pitched whine. Try listening closely to a compact fluorescent lamp or your laptop’s wall wart transformer. If you hear something, you’ll have an idea of what the fan sounds like.

It’s annoying to have to listen to a fan on a machine with no other moving parts. This is a disappointing reality of Intel-based Chromebooks. To the best of my knowledge, ARM Chromebooks can get by without fans. But in Intel-land anything more powerful than an Atom processor needs a fan.

One good thing about the fan is that, unlike on a Windows machine, the fan doesn’t speed up and slow down like crazy. It’s steady, so it’s a bit easier to “put into the background”.

So, at long last, those are my initial thoughts about the machine. My next step is to install a set of command-line Linux tools via the nifty crouton project.