Monday, July 18, 2022

Secure, Fast & Customizable: Why I Ditched My Windows PC for a Hot Rod Chromebook

Go to Phandroid Article: "The Incredible Asus Chromebook Flip CX5..."


In this article I explain why, after over 40 years using personal computers (mostly Windows-based), I  switched to a powerhouse Chromebook. And I'm loving it! If you're in a hurry (and you're willing to skip my carefully-crafted prose­čś×) you can skim through the stuff in bold to find the big ideas. Or you can just scroll down to one of these main sections:
  • After 30 years, enough with Windows, already!
  • Chromebooks dominate in education because they're powerful & easy to use.
  • Chromebooks are REALLY secure.
  • Chromebooks are fast! (Thanks to the ChromeOS.)
  • Chromebooks are customizable.
  • Buyer beware! It may be cheap, but when does that low-cost Chromebook expire?
  • My Chromebook: Part of a Powerful Ecosystem of Google Tools
  • Final Thoughts: How 40 Years of Personal Computing Has Led Me to a Chromebook
  • Bonus Tip: Don't throw away that old Windows PC or Mac. You might be able to make it a Chromebook!
[FYI: This article contains over 60 links to references for further research. Enjoy!]

After 30 years, enough with Windows, already!

It's been over 40 years since I used my first personal computer. (See last section for details.)  The most recent of those 30 years were spent working with Windows operating systems, starting with Windows 3.1 in 1992. So I've had a lot of experience dealing with different PCs and their support (or lack thereof!) of useful, user-friendly software. Worse, I've spent a lot of time learning about the latest threats from hackers, downloading security updates, then updating, rebooting, etc. 

Until recently I was convinced that the only way I could get the computing horsepower I needed was with a Windows-based PC (or a Mac, you say? Uh... no, thanks!). My go-to software for decades was Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Google's Chrome browser. Eventually, as I began online collaboration with teams using documents on a shared Google Drive, I learned to use Google's versions of my big three: Google Docs, Sheets & Slides. Over time, these tools evolved and became as powerful and feature-rich as the Microsoft tools. And the workspace for all this was online, via Google's Chrome browser, where I spent much of my PC time anyway researching, surfing the web, emailing, visiting YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. and generally consuming lots of media. In short, pretty much everything I have been doing on my computer has been through the Chrome browser on the web. And, better yet, I was able to do many of these things kicked back in a recliner, without the PC, by connecting to the web on my phone or tablet.  

So recently, when our 10-year-old Windows-based Asus PC began to develop signs of aging and requiring all sorts of Windows updates, I decided to take the advice of my favorite tech podcaster & radio host, Leo LaPorte, and see if a Chromebook wouldn't be a better choice. Leo has been saying for years that the only reason to get a Windows PC is if you absolutely must run unique, Windows-only software or if your company/business demands you run Windows. Since neither of these applied to me, I began my Chromebook investigation. Here's what I found.

Chromebooks dominate in education because they're powerful & easy to use.

The first Chromebooks went on sale in June of 2011. They were developed for use in the classroom as a low-cost and safe tool for kids who were working with the net. Since then "... according to analytics research by Edweek Market Brief in 2019, Chromebooks make up 60% of the devices sold for K-12 schools in the U.S. This figure since then has only seen improvement as Chrome OS continues to dominate the educational sector..." (from Chrome Ready's post 9 reasons why schools use Chromebooks instead of laptops)

Over the years Chromebooks have become much more powerful and able to run all sorts of programs, apps and tools used by creators. This has largely been driven by the needs of teachers who demanded Chromebooks help them with complex classroom presentation, communications and distance learning and networking chores. Today, those ever-improving Google programs (like Docs, Sheets & Slides) are in the hands of most of our kids, along with other classroom-specific tools that greatly enhance their learning. And for most of us, we will never need more tools and computing power than those kids and their teachers are using, right there on their Chromebooks. 

What's more, this latest version of the ChromeOS comes with Screencast, a real video-creating powertool. It lets anyone easily make, record, and edit screen-based videos while automatically generating a searchable transcript! And there's no additional software needed! Engaget explains:  "[Screencast is] a new built-in app that allows teachers to build a video library of lessons and demos students can turn to if they miss a class or need help with a homework assignment. Available as of ChromeOS version M103, the software includes tools for trimming and transcribing clips." (from Google's Screencast app for Chrome OS lets teachers record video lessons...

Check out this YouTube video from Chrome Unboxed for more on the super-cool Screencast features... and consider all the things you could do with it, even if you aren't a teacher: 

Chromebooks are REALLY secure.

Many tech experts recommend Chromebooks for banking and other uses requiring strong online security. Here's a quick list of what makes Chromebooks so secure. The list (and all quotes) are from Are Chromebooks more secure than laptops? from the Tech Advisor website.

  • Automatic Updates:  Chromebook updates are automatic and more frequent than Windows updates, rolling out every 2-3 weeks as compared to monthly. And the user typically doesn't need to do anything... they just roll out and install when you turn on the computer.
  • Sandboxing:  "Each tab in ChromeOS acts as a separate entity with a restricted environment or ‘sandbox’. This means that only the affected tab is vulnerable, and that it is very difficult for the infection to spread to other areas of the machine." 
  • Verified Boot: "Whenever a Chromebook is turned on it goes through a self-diagnoses process, looking for any code that doesn’t belong. During this Verified Boot the device automatically quarantines and removes anything that isn’t from Google."
  • Data Encryption:  "The majority of software on a Chromebook is stored and run in the cloud. There are still local files, which take the form of downloads, browser caches, cookies, and whatnot. These can be used by hackers to find out what a person has been doing online, so Google encrypts them on the device to prevent any snooping. Turning it off and on again really does fix things." 

And to Tech Advisor's list above, I would add Chromebook's Powerwash capability. This erases everything on the device and resets it to factory settings. Sound drastic? Sure. It's a "last resort" kind of measure. But since almost everything (your data, account info, etc.) on your Chromebook lives in Google's cloud, cleanly & safely backed up, it can be quickly restored. (See Insider's article How to 'Powerwash' your Chromebook and reset all of its data.)

Chromebooks are fast! (Thanks to the ChromeOS.)

Why are Chromebooks so noticeably faster than Windows or Macs? explains: 
"Chrome OS is a lightweight operating system compared with Windows 10 and macOS. That's because the OS centers around the Chrome app and web-based processes. Unlike Windows 10 and macOS, you can't install third-party software on a Chromebook -- all the apps you get come from the Google Play Store. This is both a pro and a con. With Chrome OS, you don't have to worry about a bunch of Windows junk programs clogging up your storage space. Chrome OS is also speedier than Windows and macOS for this exact reason -- Chrome OS isn't weighed down by dozens of processes running in the background. On the flip side, you simply can't run all your legacy Windows or macOS programs on a Chromebook." (from Chromebooks vs. laptop: what's the difference and what should you buy?)
What's more, since many Chromebooks come with solid state drives (no spinning disk for read/write chores), they move at the speed of electrons! And as you can see by the screenshot below of my new Asus Chromebook sale page from Costco, you can load up with plenty of RAM and some powerful chip sets to keep all your chores flying. [NOTE: I share this link for your research purposes only. It provides detailed specs for your review. I get zero compensation from Costco.]

This link is for your research purposes only.
It provides detailed specs for your review. 
I get zero compensation from Costco.

 Chromebooks are customizable. 

The 6-year-old article Customize Your Chromebook remains a great introduction to the many ways you can make your Chromebook your own. I've highlighted the methods it lists (and several more). All of which are still available today: 

Here's a screenshot of the ChromeOS flags that I have enabled (and really like!) on our new Asus Chromebook: 

For LOADS of good info and deep dives into the ChromeOS power tools and tweaks check out The Verge Guide to Chrome OS & Chromebooks. It is a rich reference resource, in plain language, about all things Chromebook. And it is frequently updated as ChromeOS changes. In particular, check out Chromebook 101: how to customize your Chromebook’s desktop

Buyer beware! It may be fast, but when does that low-cost Chromebook expire?

As noted earlier, one of the main reasons people buy Chromebooks is that they offer rigorous security, courtesy of Google. So, since it's an online-mostly tool, it's critical that your device keep getting updates from Google. However, every device has an "expiration" date for receiving Google security updates. (True story: I initially ordered a much cheaper, deeply discounted Chromebook... not the Asus descrubed above. But I quickly cancelled the original order when I found out that it would only be getting 2 years of Google updates (just through 2024)! The one I finally ordered, pictured above, "expires" in June of 2029. And by then I'll probably have worn it out anyway!)

Here's how Google explains this: 
"Chrome devices (e.g. Chromebook, Chromebox, Chromebase, Chromebit) receive automatic updates that enhance both the device and its software. Device updates provide the latest features and keep the device secure, and are applied across the operating system, browser and hardware. These updates depend on many device specific non-Google hardware and software providers that work with Google to provide the highest level of security and stability support. For this reason, older Chrome devices cannot receive updates indefinitely to enable new OS and browser features.(-- from Google's Auto Update policy)
So if you're shopping for a new Chromebook, go to Google's Auto Update policy page, scroll down and find the make/model of your potential new device and find out when it will stop receiving Google support. If it's a good deal (assuming it has the power and features you need) and you are happy with the potential security lifespan, then you might want to buy it. But if it expires in a couple of years (or worse, has already expired!) then you might want to get a different device.

My Chromebook: Part of a Powerful Ecosystem of Google Tools

So how do I use my Chromebook? I work with Google creation tools on my Google Home smart speakers, phone, tablet and Chromebook. Here's an example of how they fluidly integrate to keep me focused on creating.

This article began as a Google Keep note. The basic concept occurred to me while I was on an exercise walk. So I popped open Google Keep on my phone and began dictating a bunch of rough notes via the microphone on my earbuds. Later, when I got home, I opened my tablet and began researching some of the articles linked here, adding them to the Keep note. For a few days I went back and forth like this from phone to tablet with Keep capturing a whole bunch of ideas and references. A couple of ideas even occurred to me while I was showering, so I yelled them out to my Google Assistant smart speaker in the bathroom, who added them to the Keep note for me.  Eventually, using my Chromebook, I went to my account at this Google Blogger website, begin a new blog post, pulled in the rough notes from Keep, then added some screenshots I had stashed in Google Photos and later edited with Google Drawings. Finally, I polished the finished post, adding formatting, links, etc. 

As you can see, the integration of all these tools and the ability to use most of them offline makes for a fluid user experience that enhances, rather than gets in the way, of the creative process! (And I hope to expand my Chromebook uses in the near future to include the creation of "how to" videos using the new Screencast tools.)

And, of course, our Asus Flipbook Chromebook (see photos above) is also a high-speed 'net surfing wonder, playing back all sorts of media trouble-free in its partly folded "tent" form or as a compact tablet. In addition, as a Google Cast-friendly device, we can cast anything we want to stream or photos to display on our big-screen Sony Bravia Android/Google TV.

Final Thoughts: How 40 Years of Personal Computing Has Led Me to a Chromebook

As I said earlier, I've experienced over 40 years of personal computer use. I've seen lots of operating systems, user-friendly (and unfriendly) software and more than my share of hacking scares, virus overruns and relentless upgrades, reconfigurations and re-booting. Here the history:

Go to Museum

Our PC Life Before Windows

Our early clients were tech companies (Epson, Apple, Xerox, etc.). They expected us, as instructional design (ID) contractors, to be tech-savvy, early adopters of the same tools they were using. So my PC experiences began long before Windows, as listed below: 

  • The Epson QX 10 w/Valdocs (as in "valuable documents") - This was my first ever, as part of a instructional design (ID) contract with Epson. It ran the Epson-only TPM operating system, had no hard drive and did all its work with two 5 1/4" floppy disks. Software was text only, green characters on a black screen. But it was a start.
  • Apple Macintosh SE - Our team got two of these things via a contract with Apple for instructional design (ID) and development. It ran OS System 4.0 & Finder 5.4 and early versions of MacWrite & Visicalc (an ancient spreadsheet). We ditched these right after the contract was complete because they weren't compatible with anything other clients were using.
  • Northgate PC - (History) Can't remember all the details, but as our ID contracting business became more complex we spent $10,000 on this complete with its character-based (not WYSIWYG) screen, along with a cheap dot-matrix printer. It ran both the CP/M and Microsoft's Windows precursor, MS-DOS operating systems, rudimentary spreadsheet/accounting programs and our venerable ID word processing tool, WordPerfect. We also had a primitive Northgate laptop with a character-based screen.

Early Windows Machines

Based on our need to remain compatible and interact with our corporate clients, we adopted many iterations of Windows machines over the years, starting with a couple of Windows 3.1 PCs from Gateway. Here's the list of our workhorse Windows computers, as best as I can recall them: 

  • Gateway - Two desktop machines and a couple of laptops got us started with Windows.
  • Dell Inspirons - We used several of these over many years.
  • Dell Vostro - A powerhouse for its time, we upgraded its Windows OS many times over the 10 years it was in use!
  • Asus touchscreen - This is our final Windows machine, it's high-quality Asus hardware came with annoying, never-ending Windows security issues. It works fine, so we'll probably turn it into a Chromebook. (See details on that Windows to Chromebook conversion below.)

I shared the details above to assure you that I've had a long and deep relationship with Windows and that I speak from extensive and sometimes painful experience. I've shared all sorts of Microsoft engendered miseries and minor annoyances. And now that I've tasted the security, speed and sheer power of my Chromebook I know this: I will never return to the relentless hacking attacks, vigilance about upgrades, slow speeds, crashes and general pain-in-the-ass life with Windows. 

Bonus Tip: Don't throw away that old Windows PC or Mac. You might be able to make it a Chromebook!

If you're ready to ditch your old PC because it's slowing down or can't be updated properly, then you may be able to convert it to a safe-to-use-online Chromebook running Chrome OS Flex.  Gizmodo says:  

"Google’s Chrome OS Flex has officially arrived to rejuvenate old PCs and Macs, by turning them into Chromebooks. Eventually, your Mac or PC will struggle to run after being bogged down with software or crippled from wear and tear following extensive use. It could take a few years or a decade, depending on various factors, but there is practically no escaping the inevitable. Instead of repurposing or recycling your aging system, you can now use Chrome OS Flex to convert a PC/Mac into a Chromebook."  - from Google's Chrome OS Flex Is Here to Revive Your Old Mac or PC

For further Chromebook research: 

Check out these related articles from my WORTH SHARING website: