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David Chandler's Journal of Java Web and Mobile Development

  • David M. Chandler


    Web app developer since 1994 and former Developer Advocate with Google now residing in Colorado. Besides tech, I enjoy landscape photography and share my work at ColoradoPhoto.gallery.

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In search of the perfect Chromebook on Black Friday

Posted by David Chandler on November 19, 2018

My family has been using Chromebooks for home and school for the last 5 years. There’s lots to like: super fast startup, no worries about viruses or backups, and they update automatically, which is super easy on me as my kids’ systems administrator. All the Google apps including Gmail now support offline use, and newer models can run Android apps and now even Linux apps (more below)! And of course, for basic computing from email and word processing to Facebook and Netflix, they’re cheap. As Black Friday approaches, I thought I’d highlight a few of my favorite models.

Most versatile around the house

The Acer R11 is my all-around favorite for home use. It has a great feel to it, solid and comfortable. I find the R11 on the kitchen counter serving up recipes, at the kitchen table answering emails, on the couch doing school work in Google Docs, and set up in tent mode in the living room for a video call over Hangouts or sharing photos with guests. The R11 doubles as a tablet which can run Android apps so you can download albums for offline listening using Google Play Music, read offline with Kindle, or explore a new area with Google Maps on a large screen in tablet mode. It has all the standard ports you’d expect (USB-A, HDMI, audio, SD card reader) so you don’t need adapters as with newer USB-C ports. Performance is reasonable for the Google apps and Web browsing. The available Celeron 3160 model is noticeably faster than the Celeron 3060, although both are decent when running productivity apps like Gmail and Kindle Reader. The R11 is small enough that you can fit it almost anywhere, and you can even find a $15 stylus on Amazon.com that works great on the touchscreen if you want to keep it clear of fingerprints. Costco had the 4 GB / 32 GB model with Celeron 3160 on sale for $199 a couple weeks ago, a really great value for a computer + Android tablet. Using the beta Linux apps support now available in Chrome 70, I even installed git, Java, maven, and IntelliJ on the R11. I would definitely not choose this as my primary machine for software development as an IDE like IntelliJ is very sluggish on the Celeron, but for text-based Linux tools, it’s more than adequate.

Best Buy currently has a similar model from Lenovo with an ARM-based chip (vs. Intel) on sale for $179. I have no personal experience with the Lenovo and its app compatibility, but the look and feel is great and the reviews are excellent.

Best traveler

The ASUS Chromebook C302 flip model, like the R11, runs Android apps (but not yet Linux, sadness). At just over two pounds, it travels lightly through airports on my back, and it’s thin enough to be quite comfortable as a tablet, as well. Its Intel Core m3 processor is quite a bit faster than the Celeron processors in low-end Chromebooks and handles most everyday tasks instantly. I really can’t imagine needing more power for anything but high-end games and software development. The backlit keyboard and sleek, silver design feels somewhat like a Macbook Air. I like the extra inch and a half of display over the Acer R11, but the R11 feels more durable because of its heavier textured plastic shell. For use on a desk or in my lap, the ASUS is my favorite. I was lucky to find an open box at Best Buy for $350, but they’re in the $450 range new.

Best movie screen under $300

The Acer Chromebook 15 (older model, not the latest) offers a large 15.6″ full HD display and excellent sound from the built-in speakers. It is heavy (almost 5 pounds!) and built like a tank, with durable fabric texture shell. It has all the same standard ports as the R11. The Celeron 3205U processor is more powerful than the N3160 on the Acer R11. Combined with a speedy Internet connection, my son uses it to remote in to a Windows machine in Google Cloud Platform to run Excel for business school. There is no noticeable lag. It is a great machine under $300 for students who don’t mind hauling it around. Unfortunately, the 3205U doesn’t yet run Linux apps, but Acer offers the same form factor with a Core i5 which is Linux-capable. And it does run Android apps even though it’s not a touchscreen.

For software developers

The biggest limitation of Chromebooks for developers has been the inability to install local developer tools. It’s been possible to run Linux on Chromebooks using dual boot or Crouton for a while, but this required switching to the ChromeOS dev channel, which does not have the stability or security of the stable channel. Now that Linux support (beta) has reached Chrome stable channel as of v69 (you’ll find the ability to enable Linux apps right by the Google Play option in Settings), it’s quite possible to install a typical Java developer stack on many Chromebooks. I’ve installed OpenJDK, maven, and IntelliJ on everything from the $199 Acer R11 to the $1,000+ Pixelbook. Older Celeron 30xx and 31xx processors are supported as well as the newer Core i3/i5/i7 chips and a handful of chips in the midrange–check the official Chromium page above.

Aside from the ultralight but spendy Pixelbook (BestBuy has the 8GB i5 model on sale for only $699 this week!), there is one midrange model great for developers, the Dell Chromebook 14, currently on sale for $499 at Best Buy. The display is stunning with vibrant color and resolution up to 2194 x 1234. The built-in sound is also surprisingly good, but the main attraction is the Core i3 processor, which is capable enough to run IntelliJ smoothly. It scores 34,600 on Octane v2, faster than my high-end Pixelbook with i7 processor (score 27k)!  It’s also a tablet, though a bit awkward for its size, and runs Android apps admirably. The provided stylus with built-in holder keeps the screen free of fingerprints and works well with pressure-sensitive drawing apps like Squid. The Dell Chromebook 14 weighs in at about twice the weight of a Pixelbook and is bulkier in shape, but I prefer the Dell’s wider display with thinner bezel. As long as I don’t have to wear it on my back too much, this is my “one Chromebook to rule them all.”

The $100 computer and one for Grandma, too

Lastly, I want to call out a couple deals in Best Buy’s Black Friday ad. The Samsung 11.6″ Chromebook with 2 GB RAM and 16 GB storage is only $99 this coming weekend. It’s a minimal machine, but certainly sufficient for Gmail, Google Docs, and Facebook. The 4GB model (preferred, as ChromeOS likes RAM) is only $129.

Older eyes will also appreciate several of Acer’s Chromebook 15 models that have 1366×768 resolution. While not as sharp as a full HD display, a large screen at lower resolution allows older eyes like mine to use the display at the default zoom level. And they’re cheap: this one is currently on sale for $169.

Happy deal hunting!

 

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One Response to “In search of the perfect Chromebook on Black Friday”

  1. Peter L said

    FYI- We like our Lenovo tower PC. our son-in-law recommended it. He works IT at Mizzou (networking, I think).

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