Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Surprisingly good Acer Chromebook C720

Who said netbooks are dead?

I have the Acer AO722 Windows 7 netbook.  It ran Ubuntu ever since.  Everybody in the family was happy with it except me.  I thought it would play full HD video on Linux.  But in Linux you don't have drivers for hardware acceleration.  Updates never came, not that I'm aware of.  Everything else works.

The C720 is a no brainer at $200.  My wife and kids don't know anything Linux even when they are using it daily.  To them the AO722 it's really a net book and then some like word processing.  For school work or writing letters they can fire up Libre Office or anything that matters.  The C720 can't have a weaker CPU than the AO722.  The screen resolution is OK.  It should boot much faster and should fire up the native Chrome browser in no time.  That's all I needed to know.

I have reservations if they all can move into the cloud.  I doubt if dual boot Ubuntu runs smoothly and how much the dual boot annoys them.  But if the C720 can only solve some problems, I can have one more or something else for other purposes.

If you open the Chromebook, it looks like the AO722 at first.  But the screen is soft like TV and monitors.  That I call a surprise.  The AO722 is harder plastic like tablets.  But if the resolution is the same I have no complains.  Some writers complained about the narrower viewing angle.  Though he told the truth that there will be difficulties for a collaborating group in front of the computer together.  For a $200 computer?  The side to side viewing angle is pretty good, unless you are at the same time doing some weird yoga moves with your head positions.  The vertical angle is narrower, but you can tilt the screen for optimum viewing.  That's what netbooks are for.

The C720 actually has a touch screen!  You touch it, it wakes up.  A surprise.

The keyboard area is surprisingly spacious.  The C720 is a tiny bit wider and longer than the AO722, with a crowded keyboard.  Getting rid of one or two windows key can't make that much difference, can it?  The keyboard is a true redesign without worrying about windows compatibility.  Google can afford that.  It even doesn't run on Windows.  The DOS F keys are gone.  In place of them are brightness, loudness and some browser keys like back/forward, refresh and full screen.  There are no more multiplexing blue functions keys.  With the full screen key browsing is much more enjoying.  Never use full screen much if I have to use ctrl-F11.

The touch pad is another surprise.  There are no buttons, no left and right mouse buttons.  It's an obstacle to ask my family to switch.  Kids should be easy but I don't know about my wife.  For me when I got the AO722 I brought a wireless mouse at the same time just as I do with laptops before.  Never use mouse for portables much.  When I got use to the AO722's multi-gesture pad, I got rid of the mouse on my desktop instead.  The AO722's pad has less functions under Linux than Windows.  But still I never need to use the mouse buttons for good.  My lower cost keyboard + pad for the desktop has even less functions, but still I rarely use the mouse keys.  It's not some poor men's compromising.  It's superior that way than using any mouse.

In the Chrome pad, all the usual pad functions work and then some for being netbook.  Two finger tap for right click and two finger scrolling works for both horizontal and vertical.  Dragging doesn't work with half double tap as on Linux.  Surprisingly, the whole pad is a left mouse button that clicks.  In a way it's easier for people used to the left click buttons.

Pinching doesn't work, at least on the browser.  But it's easier to do it on the menu.  Pinching is also replaced by scrolling in some Linux applications and Chrome OS.  In Google Maps, you drag the map to scroll; you scroll to enlarge or shrink.

On the browser, horizontal scrolling becomes the back and forward buttons.  Three finger scrolling moves around tabs.  Four fingers ...... you must be weird to use more than that.

So I doubt very much if the touch screen version is worth it at $100 more.  For the same functions, the trackpad can do it better.  Selecting a folder on the screen takes more effort than selecting that on the trackpad.  If the touch screen is more Android like it will be confusing.

It is surprisingly easy to move into the cloud.  They all have Android so I don't even need to setup accounts for them in the chromebook.  To port their data, I just need to run the Chrome browser in the old computer and upload whole directory trees into Drive.  For Libre office files, you need to turn on the convert option when you upload.  You do not need to do that for other formats that Google Drive supports directly.

Another surprise is that you can't print directly on a printer.  As if some USB drivers will ruin it's cloud only reputation.  You need another computer to install it's own drivers and receive printing materials from the cloud.  I'm not surprised if you signed off your rights so Google can look at what you print without collecting personal information.  Not even a Wifi printer I think.  It have to be a cloud ready printer if you don't have any other computers.  But if you have another, it's trivial, because it's just the routing.

It's a big surprise without an Ethernet port.  Not that I use it.  I have to disable it for wifi to live in AO722.  Being Linux, you can still connect to Ethernet with a USB adaptor.  But you really use an Ethernet port when you backup your drive or download big media files.  But you don't do these on the C720.  You have only 10G anyway.  However, you have dual-band wifi built-in.  I would think you can get away with single band, and that the high frequency band cost a lot more to implement.

The C720 and other Chromebooks are Fort Knox's.  A big surprise.  They are using the same latest encryption system I'm using on Ubuntu, and on selected directories in my external drives.  Chromebooks use it for the whole internal disk, which is more secure than part of the file system.  Your Google password is also your encryption key so it is transparent.  If you change your password and forget the old one, your things in your local drive cannot be recovered.  It is designed for you not to put things on the drive and it's not a problem for most.  I have my machine generated Google password doubly encrypted and remembered on a PC browser.  I need to change it to one that is easier to remember and type.  Once the password is updated on Firefox, the old one is overwritten.  That's how I lost everything on the chromebook drive.  But I think I never put any user data in there yet.

You can't encrypt your external drive yet.  But if you get into a terminal, you mostly can.  It's just Linux with the Linux file system encryption.  But you need to mange your key carefully. [you can't]

You can use a Chromebook as a guest and no trace will be left whatsoever once you exit guest mode.  It's like a telephone extension on the corridor for anybody to use it.

Chromebook is more multi-user than traditional computers with the cloud in the equation.  Your disk area is separately encrypted.  Your data are mostly stored in your Google cloud account, encrypted.  I don't think any superuser can even log into the chromebook while you are using it.  I mean not even from the local network.  There's no superuser on a normal Chromebook.  You can't do anything if you are not in the developer mode.  And if you are in the normal mode, there's nothing you can install other than approved by Google.

Your bookmarks and browsing history are all at the cloud.  It's just not on the chromebook for someone else to hack.  Google has your encryption key but you have the option to keep it locally.  Also, encryption keys are easier to handle securely than private raw user data.

The video player on the chromebook is awesome.  It plays HD video on the usb drive with no problems whatsoever.  The awesomeness is on the fast forward and backward keys, < and >, which is standard on any keyboard.  It's like setting good alarm clocks.  If you don't release the buttons, time will travel faster and faster.  Perhaps not.  Because the cpu and usb 3 is fast enough, the keys are responsive.  You just need two keys for each direction to skip secs or mins.  Backward is as good as forward even in HD.  In Linux you have 3 different sets of keys to program different skip time like 10s, 30s, 5min etc.  Some players have the option of changing playing speed with a slider.  The chrome player makes them all obsolete.

Now there are nasty surprises on the video side of things.  WMV is not supported.  AVI is, but you know there may be all sorts of codecs within.  DLNA is not supported it seems, so you can't stream your movies into the C720.  There is a DLNA app but doesn't work for the unix server rygel.  There is a total solution with PLEX.  There is an app for that in Chrome OS.  It works because that's just an URL into your PLEX server.  You can stream movies.  If the format is not supported in chrome os, Plex will transcode the stream in real time, changing the format as you watch.  But that is CPU intensive and needs a decent PC for the server.  PLEX works for PS3, XBOX, WII U, and comcast.  So it's worth it.  But however you stream, the awesomeness of the chrome player will be lost.  Really, it's not bad carrying around a 1TB usb drive the weight of an android phone one or two years old model.

A silly way to get around streaming and unsupported format is the remote monitor.  It is as easy to setup as Netflix and you can control a remote computer in front of the chromebook as if you are sitting in front of the remote computer.  You can play and watch anything on the remote computer as if you are using the computer.  Movies playing on the remote computer is watchable on the chromebook, but not as good.

How about docking?  Nobody talks about that for sometime now.  Your data is always in sync as there is only one copy in the cloud.  Your main storage and backup storage is on the cloud.  Another desktop is what you want instead of docking.  But the C720 is not bad for even a desktop, or call it a nettop.  You need a bigger monitor.  No problem, just plug in the HDMI.  You don't need another keyboard and mouse.  Those on the C720 is better than the one I'm using on the desktop right now.   The only problem is that the chromebook screen getting in the way of a bigger monitor.  But it can be done depending on the size of your monitor.  The screen of the C720 at the lowest incline angle may go behind your monitor from under it, with the keyboard right in a good position.  But you can always use a bluetooth keyboard instead.

Chrome OS supports VPN natively but I think in a more secure mode of exchanging keys and certificates.  So, only if a VPN provide explicitly says it support openvpn or L2TP/IPsec FOR the chromebook, don't go for it.  Few supports it.  I tried and it just doesn't work if the servers are not setup for chrome OS.  But if you go into developer mode, it may be easy with or without another Linux. [doesn't work in dev mode either]

To get VPN it's may be cheaper to get an extra wifi router that supports VPN to be a repeater of your main browser.  Then you have a dedicated access point to connect for vpn while all other traffic are not encrypted with your IP from ISP.  I would also use this "channel" for guest access without a password.  The traffic is encrypted and your IP is protected.  I don't know if that's such a think but you can probably do it in dd-wrt installed routers.  Just to setup VPN for everybody in dd-wrt isn't easy.  Instead of using the UI, the one that works use scripts to generate config files, run steps with a few secs in between to make sure that something did ran.  You can also setup only one access point (SSID) with VPN, or only to a subnet.  But there's no simple cookbook scripts for everybody to do it.

So far I'm quite happy and enjoying my chromebook, not keen on installing Ubuntu on it yet.

I can see schools and corporates can make good use of chromebooks.  There's no maintenance.   There's even no need to setup on the chromebook.  No virus to worry.  No updates.  It's more than no maintenance because it is secure.  You are strictly limited to the apps on the chrome store.  It is secure enough to Google's standard, unless your standard is higher and you don't trust Google.

No comments: