Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Chrome OS and the Chromebook; a commentary

I have had more computers, tablets, and smart phones than I can recall, and it keeps evolving.

I have moved largely to my iPhone and iPad Mini for the majority of my searching and communication, but neither of those are reasonable when it comes to inputting more than a sentence or two of text or other data rather than simply downloading information.  I bought a keyboard for my Mini, which works sort of OK, but there is still no good way to upload data or media from an external source such as a USB “thumb” drive.  Also, I am attracted to the idea of having my documents and media securely stored and universally available “in the cloud” on a reliable 3rd party data farm rather than my hard drive next to my coffee cup.

Enter Google and the Chromebook with its Chrome OS.  If you are not familiar with this device, then it is a little hard to describe. It is in a very limited way what was marketed a few years ago as a "NetBook", but what makes all the difference is the integration with the Google world. They do look like small, thin notebooks, but the OS works without resident programing.  For example, I cannot load MS Office as a program  into the system (though I can access my MS account and work on Word and Excel documents via the MS Office web app). What Google prefers for you to do is to use Google drive to store your documents in the Google cloud, and to use their versions of document, spreadsheet, presentation, etc applications instead.  Google documents can also be sent or saved as OpenOffice and MS Office formats, and group collaboration over the web is facilitated.

One significant downside for me personally in the use of this device would be the inability to use Dragon/Nuance voice recognition (requires loading a program on the device, which can’t be done), with no adequate substitute available currently from Google.  Also, I am an apple fan, and was less than happy with the Android OS phone I had a few years ago.  Nevertheless, I could give this a try with a small investment, since most Chromebooks sell for ~$200, occasionally less.  

I found a Dell Chromebook on the internet for a discount price, with 4GB (vs the standard 2GB) of memory and the standard 16GB (SSD).  The lack of a large internal drive is the concept that you don’t need a lot of internal drive storage because you will be keeping your data on Google Drive or some other cloud storage server.  

After 3 or 4 weeks with the Chromebook, I will have to admit that I tend to use it 70-80% of the time for checking email and perusing FaceBook, and 98% of the time for working on documents or entering email or FaceBook comments longer than  2 or three sentences.  This has not been by any conscious plan or because of availability, but because the Chromebook seems to work quite well for most purposes other than true mobile uses.

The Dell Chromebook 11 Specs:  4th gen Intel 2955U processor (more efficient and faster than the Celeron 847 in many other Chromebooks), Chrome OS, 4GB DDR3L memory, 16GB SSD drive, WiFi, bluetooth, 1366 X 768 11.6” LCD screen, 4W stereo speakers, audio/mike, USB 3.0 X2, HDMI, SD Card reader.  Battery life >10 hours according to specs (and also some published reviews.)

Though I have only 3 weeks or so of experience with my Chromebook, I will try to share from this experience some of the advantages and disadvantages of the Chromebook compared to iPad/iPhone and my windows notebook computer.Data input is a big advantage over an iPad.  First, the hard keyboard is far superior to the soft keyboard on a phone or tablet.  Siri works pretty well, but not well enough to replace my fingers, and the Dell Chromebook keyboard has an almost perfect tactile response.  The Chrome keyboard is missing a few things that are not important (the windows logo key) and a few more important keys (Caps Lock, Delete), though there are preset keys and key remapping that you can use to get around this issue.  My Dell has two USB 3.0 connections and a SD card reader that makes data/media uploading and sneaker-net transfers easy.

The Chrome OS is not quite as intuitive as Apple’s OS 7.x.x, but it is close.  Anything is better than Windows 8.  What a disaster.  It came with my last notebook purchase and after almost a year I hate it as much as at the start.  MS seems to me to have tried to combine a tablet and desktop OS and failled miserably.  That is a big reason my Windows machine is rarely opened any more.

You can use any of the apps available in the google store, but I have found that I use few of these; why use a limited app designed for a limited mobile device when interacting with a site, when you can have the full functionality of the standard browser interaction.  For example, the popular Yelp dining site has a much richer user interaction on its “Full” internet browser site than on its mobile phone or tablet app. The same applies to Zillow, Chase Bank, Wells Fargo, and others.  Another reason I don’t use apps: security . . .Without question, a Chromebook is safer than Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS or Android. "Security is baked into the design."  Is it totally secure?  Of course not; it is connected to the web.  However, it’s still quite secure without my buying/using an antivirus program or other security software.  Read the link for a Computerworld article all about Chromebook security.

Upkeep is another big advantage.  I have no security software that constantly needs new definitions downloaded.  I have no programs to update or to upgrade.  I have no external hard drive to backup my documents (I suppose if Google has a storage farm disaster my data could disappear, but that is much less likely than my own backup burning up in a house fire, etc.

The need to have internet connectivity is not a problem, but could be an issue when traveling, especially in Europe.   If you usually have WiFi at your home /work/etc. then it’s unlikely to be a problem. Chromebooks with internal 4G LTE are now available.  And you could use a mobile WiFi device or your phone as a hot spot.  It has not been a problem for me (I’m typing in a McDonald's at this moment.)

Since the Chromebooks generally have a larger battery than a tablet, most of them have an external transformer for charging, and this might be an issue if you are a heavy mobile user.  My Dell has a longer battery life than most, and I suspect that is why it’s a bit heavier than some of them, but I can work all day from a Starbucks without running out of juice.

Chromebooks are relatively cheap compared to a standard notebook and even many tablets, yet for many people have the potential to replace most or all of what they use a computer for. If it breaks, just buy another one for not much more than a warranty would cost for a notebook or desktop computer. If you use a good password, you don't even have to worry about theft, as your data does not reside on the Chromebook.

One final thing; you cannot plug a printer into your Chromebook, because as a locked, secure OS it will not download a printer driver.  If you want to print directly from a Chromebook, your printer has to be compatible with Google cloud print  There are dozens of printers that are so compatible, but there are dozens that are not.  There are other options including setting up one of your other computers with the Chrome printing system, or delivering your document with email or a memory key to open and print from that computer.  I am in the market for a wireless printer, and will need to make sure it it Google cloud print capable.

If you have been considering a Chromebook, I hope you find this useful.

What do I know, not know, and believe?

Book Review:  How we do harm by Otis Brawley

Everyone, and I mean everyone, should read this book that is largely concerned with the medical-industrial complex in the USA. Dr. Otis Brawley is qualified in so many ways to write this book as you will discover in the preface/introductions.

"What do I know, what do I not know, and what do I believe?" This is the recurring theme through the book.

We as physicians have a responsibility to act with information, integrity, and awareness of what might be influencing us unconsciously, and to then act ethically with nothing but the patient's best interest as our goal. Because, disturbingly, this often is not what happens, you and I as patients have a responsibility to be informed about our health, and not afraid to respectfully question our care plans. It is NOT as some sensationalists suggest that there is a conscious effort to keep magical treatments from the public, but the subtle and not-so-subtle reasons things are done due to misguided opinion, because someone is lazy and recommending over and over the traditional treatment when science has moved on, or simply to make money. 

The book will also turn your concept that all health screening test are good on its head.

This is one of those rare books that I will strongly endorse to family and friends.