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To Android or To ChromeOS!?

Posted at — Apr 13, 2021

I’ve been watching the development of ChromeOS and the Chromebook since its early days. I’m a fan of squeezing as much as possible out of low-end and outdated machines, and Chromebooks have targeted exactly that market.

hpchromebook14

I initially bought into the Chromebook ecosystem by purchasing an early generation of the current HP Chromebook 14. If I remember correctly, this was one of the few readily-available machines that offered 4GB of memory and screen size larger than 13" (which was a feature for me at that point). It also had a SIM slot and came with a SIM card with 200MB of monthly data free for life (but we’ll see how that holds up over time… if I can find the card).

The device itself was incredibly well made and had a very sleek white shell. The limiting factor at the time was ChromeOS. It was more than fine for a simple browser-driven workflows, or workflows that worked nicely using CroSH, but I remember running into a few issues connecting to WIFI at the workplace due to Enterprise WIFI sign on procedures (that I can’t detail because I can’t remember). I don’t remember what happened to that machine, but I’m sure it would have done just well these days.

Modern Day Options

These days, we’ve got quite a bit more in the way of options. The Chromebook market has exploded with tons of devices that fit the various needs of computer users. But in addition, we’ve got a wealth of options in the Tablet space as well, including the likes of the iPad Prorunning iOS, or the Microsoft Surface running full blown Windows 10. These are powerful machines capable of being full-blown workstation replacements (although the Surface tablet isn’t probably shooting for that space) as well as fully mobile platforms so that you can be productive anywhere.

This in mind, I have no interest in being in the “mobile powerhouse” space today (though I can’t speak for future me). What I have been on the fence about is obtaining some form of a lightweight machine that is easy to travel (here, meaning travel in a backpack as I go to visit family) and allows me to remain relatively productive. Sure, devices of any size can be made to fit in an appropriate backpack, but ultimately I want a machine that isn’t my main workstation so that I don’t run the risk of damaging the machine while out and about.

The Current State of the World

I have to be somewhat realistic about what I mean regarding my desire to be “productive” while on the go. At face value, it’s fair to say that I’m unlikely to be launching Android Studio to work on my latest Flutter experiments while I’m out and about. Productivity on the go might, however, include some ebook reading, maybe some blog writing, general browsing of websites and media consumption (Youtube), and maybe remotely accessing a machine or two to tinker around. Accessing services like Netflix is a given.

If I can do anything further, such as development tasks, it would be a bonus (and potentially achievable with the magic that is VSCode Server), but in no way should it be the defining factor.

That confirms for me that the device should perform exceptionally well for those tasks it will be used for most often. Today, that’s the Samsung Galaxy Tab S5E.

galaxytabs5e

The device is incredibly lightweight without its case, has a phenomenal screen and battery life, and is the perfect screen size for a portable machine to toss into a backpack. It also has an optional keyboard that can be purchased for an insanely expensive price of $129.99 (so needless to say, I don’t have it) turning it into a more productive 2-in-1 machine if you need it. And finally, it includes access to Samsung Dex, which I actually think is quite nice for the same use cases a Chromebook fits in well. The tablet also allows you to enable Dex mode while not plugged into a display, turning the machine into a slightly-better multitasker. That, combined with the recently-not-updated-on-the-Play-store Termux app makes this device an excellent machine for fitting as many of the described use cases so far.

But are there better options these days?

The Landscape

Pure-linux devices like the PineTab are out for me as I’m not much of an early adopter and the device is in very-early stages of development in my book. With that said, ChromeOS has native support for Linux and Android workflows these days, which makes it an excellent platform to fit this mobile-friendly device in my lineup. So what options are interesting?

The most tempting has been the Lenovo Chromebook Duet.

lenovoduet

I’ve been tempted to pick one up multiple times because the device just seems to fit the mold described above incredibly well! It’s boasts a Surface-like experience without the Windows 10, and has native support for Android apps and linux apps. Even if I had no Linux apps available, the embedded browser shell would be sufficient to replace the Termux-based use-cases I have on my current Samsung tablet, and it’s supported out of the box.

What holds me back from this device is the support for external displays. It has had some issues with regards to having full-resolution support on external displays powered via USB-C, but some work arounds exist as of this writing. The writers at ChromeUnboxed.com have better coverage of that situation, so I’ll simply link there for folks who want to chase that issue down.

In addition, I’ve got a bit of a question of logistic with regards to these tablet-like devices with soft keyboard covers: how do they play out in “lay-down computing”? If I’m laying on the couch or in bed trying to get some work done, or patch some servers - how comfortable are these setups to work with? My current workstation is a 15" Macbook Pro, and the fact that the display hinge doesn’t open past, maybe… a 135 degree angle is somewhat frustrating when it comes to viewing angles while laying down. That device also has weight issues that make supporting it while in this position difficult to do while maintaining a decent typing and trackpad experience.

That leads to potential challengers in the space, such as the HP Chromebook X2 which is a detachable device that follows a similar form-factor as the Lenovo Duet.

This gives me a more rigid experience when working with the device in laptop mode. The challenge I have here is still the same as describe with the Macbook - I’m limited on the overall viewing angle of the screen due to the way it “docks” to the keyboard, which means that it will never be perfect for all viewing needs.

So where does that leave me?

Well it leaves me considering devices with 360 degree (or at least 180 degree) hinges such as the HP Chromebook x360. But these devices aren’t without their own problems. For example, the HP Chromebook x360 has a weight of 3.29 pounds! That’s massive, compared to the ~0.9 pound weight of the Samsung Galaxy Tab S5e. Let alone the overall bulk because the keyboard is firmly fixed to the device. So while these 180/360 degree hinged devices seem somewhat promising and worth considering, ultimately they have facets of them that cause them to be less valuable in the space that this device will fill in my computing.

Maybe I’m being overly critical because I currently have a functional device with a great screen that fits about 95% of what I would want to do it with it. In all honesty, picking the Samsung Galaxy Tab S5e was a hard enough choice in itself - the Android tablet ecosystem is also somewhat lacking in viable options, bringing even more affirmation that a ChromeOS-based device would fill that void nicely. At the time that I received the Samsung, however, we didn’t have the tablet-style devices we have today.

Maybe we’ll see what devices become available as more time passes. By the time this Samsung Tablet reaches its end-of-life, perhaps the perfect replacement will present itself. With the speed of innovation in ChromeOS-based devices these days, I would not be surprised if we see perfect mobile-friendly options become available built on ChromeOS. Or maybe we’ll become an early adopter of a FuschiaOS-based device!