Monday, August 1, 2011

Google Chromebook on Virgin America

I flew yesterday on Virgin America, and took a spin on one of the Google Chromebooks the airline is loaning to all takers this summer on its routes between Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, and Boston. Yeah, I know, that makes this blog post something of a shill-piece. Still, the concept -- a lightweight machine that relies on network for most everything it does -- is worth thinking about if one thinks at all about how technology is evolving. So, here goes...

I've been on a few flights in the past year on which interent is offered for twelve or fifteen bucks, but it just hasn't been worth it to me to fork over even a few dollars for the privilege of being tethered to a screen while tethered by a seatbelt. I like having a good excuse to spend hours off-line. But the freebie, and knowing I was too brain-dead to do much else following back-to-back three day meetings -- one for work, and one with writers in my critique group -- led me to the "Chromezone" station at my boarding gate in Chicago. And there I was an hour later, drafting this post on a Google Chromebook at 34,175 feet and 478 mph according to the screen on the back of the seat in front of mine.

The loaner machine Virgin America is providing this summer is a Samsung Series 5 (note that Acer makes a Chromebook too). The basic machine feels solid, though the hinged plastic doors that cover the ports feel pretty flimsy to me. I decided not to exercise them too hard: a condition of borrowing the device included a 'you break, you buy' agreement signed with my credit card at ORD's Gate L3.

It was a bit strange to be on-line in an aisle seat, complete with intermittently wailing 15-month-old beside me (an iPad seemed the most effective device to keep her calm). At the same time it felt a bit too normal. A bit too much like being matrixed in, you know? Doesn't matter where I am, I'm in GoogleWorld, drafting a Google-hosted blog on a Google Chromebook, using Google Docs, keeping an eye on my Gmail account, and broadcasting the fact that I'm on-line and in the air at the same time on Google+. It was almost enough to make me feel the back of my neck, to make sure I wasn't actually hardwired to the headrest.

This matrixed-in mode is meant to be a feature not a bug. The Chromebook FAQ answers the question "Who should use a Chromebook?" as follows:

Chromebooks work best for people who live on the web - spending most of their time in a browser using web applications.

Yeesh... Live on the web?

Maybe I'd have more to say about the device and the experience if I were a "real" reviewer (check out David Pogue of the NY Times, who doesn't recommend the Chromebook concept).

From my perspective? The Chromebook is a limited-function laptop that works reasonably nicely if you've got network. That's the story in a nutshell. (For what it's worth, the Samsung feels more like a laptop than a netbook to me, but my comparison point is a work-issued Macbook Air, which is more-or-less the same size and weight as the Chromebook I test-drove).

Bottom line, the Chromebook doesn't run software oriented to local storage, let alone to finding oneself offline. Yeah, you can plug in a flash drive and use or save files to actual hardware, yeah, there's some functionality without network ... but basically the Chromebook is a screen, a keyboard, and a Chrome browser. Nothing wrong with that, but it's pretty limited once you step away from wi-fi (you can buy 3G access if you've got the the $500 model of the Samsung device, or tether to a phone with a data plan ... but you still need a cell tower).

To be fair, you can't overlook the fact that Samsung is selling the package for less than a third the price of the Air. And you don't have to pay for OS upgrades, at least not yet. I suppose the cloud-based bit-box model might work for some people.

It was fun to do some in-air IRC, but the novelty wore off fast. In the end, I'm not one of those people who wants to live on the web. I was pretty much done with the device when we reached San Francisco and it was time to hand the loaner back to the guy at the gate.

But, hey, if you happen to find yourself flying Virgin America between now and 23 September, why not give the Chromebook a test drive?

Thanks to Andy Sternberg for the image of the Samsung Chromebook Series 5, on Flickr.


  1. Thanks, Steve, for the review. I do like flying Virgin America and will see whether I get a chance to test one of these machines myself. At this point, I'd rather buy another iPad than pay for a Chromebook.

  2. yes and also for over 75 crowd steve..the ones I know mostly have a way overbuilt system for what they want to do w it...why the ipad should work for them, too, but they actually need less...they get sold the latest and greatest but struggle to use it...

  3. @Raymond -- iPad is a much more sensible comparison device based on price ... there I might say the biggest differentiators are weight and keyboard.

    @Karen -- Chromebook makes much better sense for 'the over 75 crowd' if all of what's wanted is e-mail, web-surfing, and cloud based data sharing like Flickr, YouTube, Picassa. There you're on the mark: why buy & maintain a complex and expensive machine for activity that doesn't require anything more than a Chromebook.