Going native on Google Chromebooks

Where’s my desktop gone? That’s the obvious immediate first reaction for any Google Chromebook user.

We road tested a Lenovo Chromebook 11 500e (Robo 360) and an HP Chromebook x360 11 G1 EE (Snappy) to ‘go native’ on the Chromebook experience and assess the upsides and downsides of life in the rather more virtualised world (when compared to Windows, Mac OS/X and Linux desktops) of life on Chrome OS.

Let’s dive straight into first impressions and key usability factors for users that have never been exposed to the degree of essentially online (although a lot of them work offline, as we will cover) tools and apps that exist on any Chromebook.

Initial look and feel

The ‘auto-on’ function that drives a fully powered-down machine to start-up once you open the clamshell cover seems to make a lot of sense. The Lenovo machine sports this function, the Dell one still requires a punch on the power button.

It’s important to play around with your settings A LOT to make sure everything is set up the way you want it. For example, you might want to disable WiFi when the machine is in sleep mode (why would you leave it on?) because it is default set to on and will drain your machine unnecessarily until you turn it off.

Offline is always going to be a leap with an essentially-online-connected machine, but so many of the core Google apps work really effectively when offline including Gmail, which (obviously) requires an Internet connection to sync again if you have performed any delete, send or file actions while offline.

A focus on Gmail

Remember, Gmail offline is going away and has now become part of the core Gmail app itself — the best way to set this up is to open Gmail offline and get redirected to the optional changes and settings you will need to accept and opt in or out for in Gmail itself.

So what about saving emails? How can you keep a record of important transactional communications? It’s a simple enough process achieved by clicking the ‘download message’ option from the three-dot drop down menu on an actual Gmail itself.

The file generated is an .eml format and this can be opened again by simply dragging it into your browser when running Gmail (if you’ve saved it on the desktop of a ‘traditional’ machine or a USB disk for example).

Saving a mail in and out of Google Drive isn’t quite as straightforward because Google Drive doesn’t appear to support the opening of .eml files without the use of a third party plugin. Google told us that it was happy with the EML, MHT Viewer with Drive tool, which you can add as an extension to Chrome or use from within Google Drive itself as shown in the image here (right).

Other impressions

We initially thought that the right click touchpad function on the device we tested was broken (probably the result of it having been tested by several sausage-fingered journalists before it got to us, right?)… but in fact, there is no right click option on the Chromebook.

This quick 52 second YouTube video will show you the three ways you can still perform a right click for additional ‘on screen’ menu (also sometimes called the ‘context menu’) options when using any Chromebook.

For the record, those three methods are:

  • A simple double finger tap on the Chromebook touchpad.
  • Hold down the ALT key while ‘left’ tapping (actually, tap anywhere, there isn’t any right click, remember).
  • Connect a mouse and use the mouse’s right click key, which is supported by Chrome OS on Chromebooks.

In term of other thoughts… Miniclip Pool appeared to play slower than on an Android smartphone or an iPad. Or was it really? The app is really targeted at smartphone users, so it may well not ‘stretch’ fully to an 11-inch screen usage.

Alongside the Lenovo unit, we also tested an HP Chromebook which has a prettier shinier case and practically the same functionality all-round. But, when both arrived… and we only had time to really set up and road test one unit, somehow the Lenovo machine seemed like the more appealing option. Could that be down to HP’s legacy as a Windows player harking back to the days of WinTelPaq (Windows, Intel, Compaq)… remembering that HP bought Compaq? That’s the only logical reason we can come up with.

Google for Education

Google had initially reached out to us for product tests as a result of its recent focus on the Google for Education initiative. Google is announcing new partnerships and features for Chromebooks to (hopefully) help educators and schools improve the learning experience.

What kinds of things has Google done to make learning easier then? The firm points to admin management, deployment options, accessibility features, input options and a number of quality apps that exist for educational purposes.

The new Chromebooks features include visual aids, stylus support, voice typing and audio support.

New partner features include Texthelp’s Read&Write: the literacy toolbar offers additional support for ENL learners, dyslexic students by reading out loud, researching assignments, and proofing written work.

Soundtrap is an app that can nurture student voice through music, podcasts, language, literacy training Plus, teachers can assign lessons through Google Classroom. Kami lets you annotate Docs and PDFs, making note taking using a stylus and the web much smoother.

More on Lenovo

Some extra feedback on the Lenovo unit as this was the one we concentrated on (sorry HP!). The classroom-resistant full-sized keyboard includes a sealed touchpad which claims to be able to resist liquid spills of up to 1.39 cups (330ml). We didn’t test that function, but we got the message… right then students, no beers larger than 330ml while working okay?

Lenovo also says its machine is drop-resistant up to 29.5″ (75cm) – roughly the height of a school desk. Again, no school desks were available to help validate this claim at the time of testing.

Both Chromebooks feature 360-degree hinges, two-way cameras and both offer options for on-screen writing. Battery life is similar on both at around 10 hours (ours wouldn’t quite pump out that time scale), which is supposed to be enough to cover an entire school, or indeed office, day.

No HDMI port was available on either machine, which seemed like a shame.

Overall, the move to always-online is somewhat inevitable, yet few people you meet in day-to-day life appear to be sporting a Chromebook from any manufacturer. It’s worth having a go and seeing how quickly you can get used to one of these devices because the overall experience is positive and you may soon forget the fact that you wondered where your desktop was… if you like your Android phone, then you’ll probably like a Chromebook.

Lenovo Chromebook 11 500e

HP Chromebook x360 11 G1 EE

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