Saturday, March 12, 2022

Chromebook - the Future?

The Chromebook has evolved from a toy to a serious machine.

The Acer Spin 712 arrived on Friday and it worked without any hassles.  Funny thing, I was at Sam's Club and they had an HP Chromebook with a larger screen, same features, for a little under $600.  And yes, it had an HDMI output.

There were no instructions with the Chromebook, and as it was a "reman" there was not even any packaging.  But it powered right up and walked me through the "setup" steps.  It is as easy-to-use as falling off a log - provided you are already in the Google universe and have an android phone.  It imported all my bookmarks from Google and it was pretty seamless.

It was pretty easy to download all the "apps" I needed, but oddly enough it came pre-loaded with YouTube, not as an app, but as a website.  I hooked up the HDMI output to our old 42" television and worked pretty seamlessly.  You can adjust picture size (font sizes) and resolution, along with orientation, using the setup menu - not very dissimilar to the display setup in Windows, actually.  I set the television to be "on top of" the laptop display (as an extension, not a mirror) as this allowed me to move the mouse from one display to the other and also allowed me to go "full screen" on the television.  There is also a feature to allow you to adjust the edges of the display, which was handy, as it was going off the edge of the television screen.

Speaking of mouse, I plugged in a mouse/keyboard (logitech) dongle into the one standard USB port and it worked right away - no "loading device drivers" nonsense.  Also, when the thing powers up (which I am still not sure how to do this - it just seems to turn on when you open the book up - whoops there is a power button on the side!) it starts up right away.  No welcoming screens or cutesy Microsoft theme songs.  That's kind of handy.

I streamed some videos from Disney and it was flawless - no jitter or other problems, although I used the audio output from the television into a surround sound system.  I tried the bluetooth to a bluetooth speaker and there was a time-delay issue with that.  The picture was really sharp and we were enjoying it until it suddendly stopped and Mark's phone announced it was out of data.  I realized, in horror, that Disney reset itself to HD streaming at a staggering 2GB per hour.  Doesn't take long to chew up your data plan, at that rate.  Maybe that 100GB data plan is in order.

This Chromebook doesn't have the provision for a SIM card, but you can either connect using your phone's hotspot or using the "instant tethering" connection, which looks just like hotspot to me, but is somehow different.  While the Acer Spin 713 doesn't have a traditional SIM card slot, it apparently supports eSIM, which eliminates the physical presence of a chip.  We'll look into that.

As for playing DVDs, that was a no-go and even if it did work, it would be clunky. The site I referenced even mentioned that if you could get it to work, the VLC player would only play individual files - you'd have to watch a movie one file at a time, which would be tedious.

I uninstalled the VLC player as it wasn't working.  I plugged in my Seagate 1TB expansion drive and lo and behold, it plays MP4  video files perfectly.  I guess DVDs are not in the mix, although I have a stand-alone DVD player for the television and if it was really an issue, I could buy a small flat-screen television (probably even a 12V one) for a hundred bucks, for the camper.

Of course, it would not play Windows .wma audio files, which is the format I have over 11,000 songs stored in.  Oddly enough, my phone will play those (!!) but the Chromebook will not.  It will play more conventional MP3 files, however.  I re-loaded the VLC player and tried that, and it pays some video files, but none of my audio files and doesn't recognize any image files.  I uninstalled VLC.  I am not sure why people say it is so great in the first place.

I noticed they had a Quickbooks "app" for the Chromebook, and I downloaded it and quickly un-installed it as well.  The "app" is very simplified and looks nothing like traditional Quickbooks.  And as you might imagine, there is no path to importing my previous data (even back in the day, Quickbooks played that game, requiring you to buy each version of Quickbooks to migrate data.  If you skipped a revision, well, too bad for you!   The "app" requires that you subscribe and they way they pitch this set off my spidey senses. "Subscribe now for 50% off!" it says, giving you two choices - to pay now before you even try the program or click on "No thanks, I'd rather pay full price!"  Once in the app, it offers you a 50% discount for only three months with a timer indicating how long the offer is good for.  In the corner, it says "Quickbooks Beta".   Uh, no thanks paying for a "Beta" version !

You can spot a raw deal from 100 paces by the way it is presented.  And Quickbooks has all the charm of a carnival barker here - pressuring me to subscribe or we shoot this dog.  Since I can't import my data anyway, I guess I'll stick with the old program on my laptop, or migrate to another app which isn't so grating.  Having your own financial records, independent from the bank, is important.  For example, my bank shows a balance of $2500 which is keen.  But since I wrote checks outstanding of $1500, it means my available balance is only $1000.  If you go by the bank's records, you end up bouncing checks.  It pays to understand where your money is going as well, as those idiotic "pie charts" that banks and credit card companies present are worse than worthless as most of your expenses are listed as "other".

But I digress.

At this point in my life, the only two Windows programs I use regularly are Quickbooks and Microsoft Word - the latter I use less and less as I am not working anymore.  Besides, there are plenty of word-processors online (indeed, Blogger is basically one of these, creating HTML from your typing and formatting).  It makes more sense to learn HTML than how to format things in WORD, anyway.  Of course, I am using WORD 2000 - 22 years old!  Maybe newer versions of WORD are HTML-based.  That would make more sense.

So maybe I will migrate to another financial program down the road, but I am not sure which one yet, although readers have suggested several.  Oddly enough, the Quickbooks website presents some pros and cons of using a Chromebook for running Quickbooks.

But for doing anything else - particularly on the Internet, it seems like a very good machine.  I find that I spend most of my time on the laptop on Chrome anyway.  Phones are nice and all, but if you are doing something like ordering online, it is handy to have a large display and keyboard, as trying to find things on the phone, with the tiny keypad and tiny display, is frustrating.  So I think for online usage, it will be a good thing.

Note that like the article about playing DVDs on Chromebook, there are a host of what I think are fraudulent articles about running Windows software on a Chromebook.  This article, claims you can, but what you are doing in reality is running the programs on a Windows machine and "remotely accessing" them from a Chromebook.  You need to leave your Windows computer up and running at all times (with power-saver disabled) and the remote access enabled.  Hardly a practical solution.

There are other limitations as well.  The Chromebook comes with 100GB of Google "Cloud" storage, but of course, as one wag noted, "Cloud" means "someone else's hard drive" and is not exactly a promise of security.  In addition, most "apps" require an internet connection to work, so it isn't very helpful if you like to work "offline" or are forced to (in a remote area, for example).  But again, with 100GB of hotspot (or built-in cellular) data, maybe this won't be an issue.  I need to look into this eSIM nonsense.

The only frustration I have so far is that every time I turn the darn thing on, I have to log into Google, and my password is very, very long.  No, the Acer Spin 713 doesn't have a fingerprint reader, either!

But so fat, it seems like a worthwhile device.  The neat thing about these Chromebooks is that they have no hard drive to break - as you really don't store data in them, but online.  Hard drives are fine and all, but they chew up battery life and since they have moving parts, can be very fragile if, for example, you drop or jar your laptop (most hard drives today have sensors that "park" the read/write heads if they detect jarring, so as to not crash the heads - but even then, hard drives crash over time, eventually).

So far, so good.  But my Toshiba is as comfortable as an old shoe.  And I like having physical control over my own data.  It will be hard to give it up!