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Chromebook: A Great Laptop for $150

July 2015

My computer insulted me. I went to the website for The Daily Show and got this bit of insolence: "Your web browser is out of date." Hey, I'm the Computer Guy — I'm always supposed to be up to date. But I couldn't update my browser because it was the latest one that would work with the system software on the old laptop connected to my HDTV.

Around the same time, Google announced their new line of Chromebooks that cost just $150. This message about my browser was exactly the pretext I needed to buy yet another gadget. I'm now the owner of a new Chromebook laptop. And its browser is definitely up to date.

Ever since Chromebooks came on the market four years ago, I'd been curious. Instead of running the Mac OS, or Windows, or Android, a Chromebook runs the Chrome OS. Its operating system is basically just the Chrome web browser. All the apps run in tabs in the browser.

It was a stroke of genius. In this Internet age, connectivity is everywhere. And fairly powerful suites of applications, such as Google Docs, are available for free online. Plus, you can store your documents online using services such as Google Drive and Dropbox. And many people today are using web-based email services such as Gmail and Yahoo. Google's idea was to have a simple computer that uses web services as its software.

If you primarily use a computer for email, browsing the web, word processing, etc., there's no real need for a complex operating system such as Windows or Mac. The Chrome OS works just fine. And you can play some games and use Google Docs for word processing and spreadsheet applications even if you're offline. Schools are adopting Chromebooks in a big way.

The new $150 model is available from two vendors. I bought the one being sold by Amazon that's manufactured by Haier. It has an 11.6-inch display, weighs just 2.5 pounds, and is three-quarters of an inch at its thickest point. It has 16 gigabytes of storage. There's a microSD slot for adding more storage, plus Google gives you 100GB of free storage on Google Drive. Battery life is 10 hours.

The other model, made by Hisense, is being sold by Walmart. It's similar to the Haier but has a faster processor, shorter battery life (8.5 hours), and is heavier (3.3 pounds). But it's slightly thinner at 0.6 inches.

The Chrome OS falls somewhere between the simplicity of the iPhone or Android operating system and the complexity of Windows and Mac. I quickly learned to use it, and connected it to my HDTV.

I've been using this setup to stream the French Open tennis tournament for free via ESPN3.com. The quality is amazing. I'd been doing this previously with my old laptop, but via an archaic VGA connection. The state-of-the-art HDMI connectivity of the Chromebook seems to be much better.

I'll likely also use it when I go on vacation. I can access my iCloud email and my various Gmail accounts via my Chromebook. Because my email is cloud-based, when I get back from vacation, my desktop iMac will be completely in sync with all my email activity while I was away. My Chromebook can even do something my Mac can't: it can be logged into multiple Gmail accounts at the same time in different tabs.

Whenever I restart my Chromebook, it automatically updates with the latest software. There's also Web Store available with lots of free apps and some that are paid, in categories such as business tools, education, entertainment, games, lifestyle, news & weather, productivity, social & communication, and utilities. You can even use a Chromebook to do things such edit photos and videos (though it will never be as capable as a full-fledged Windows or Mac computer).

But I'll primarily use it with my TV. The settings allow me to make my HDTV the primary screen for my Chromebook. It's like having a computer with a 42-inch monitor. Or I can use the Chromebook display as my primary one, while simultaneously streaming other content to my TV.

If you, too, are looking for an option for streaming Internet content to your TV, you have lots of choices these days. On the low end is the $35 Chromecast dongle from Google that streams from your smartphone. Amazon has the $40 Fire TV Stick, a dongle plus a remote. Amazon Fire TV is a $100 set-top box that even includes voice search and games. And soon Google will come out with their Chromebit dongle, which will sell for less than $100 and will turn your TV into a Chromebook. You simply connect a mouse and keyboard via Bluetooth or USB.

I love these gadgets.

© 2015 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen