I just got back from a family vacation in Spain and France, mostly to visit my dad and his wife who live in a small village near Avignon. As a family we’ve been trying to travel as light as possible. Last summer we flew on WOW Airlines and decided to not check any baggage, which limited us each to a 5kg carry-on bag. For this trip we flew Norwegian Air, which has a 10kg carry-on bag limit per person. That felt generous by comparison, and at the last minute I decided it might be nice to have some sort of computing device besides my phone.
I haven’t taken an expensive laptop on vacation since my MacBook Pro got nicked in Hawaii from our rental apartment. But with near-ubiquitous wifi in Europe, I thought it might be time for my own Chromebook. Kia bought an HP Chromebook 11 a few years ago and we shared it during our Italy trip last summer, but I knew she had a few projects to manage remotely on this trip, and there wouldn’t be much sharing. So I hopped on my bike and rolled down to Best Buy the day before our trip.
A Chromebook is a lightweight, no-hard-drive laptop that runs the Google Chrome OS. Without wifi, functionality is very limited (though it is possible to work on Google Drive files offline if you download them, as well as take notes offline with Google Keep).
I’d done some research online, and settled on the Asus C202SA. Not the most powerful option, but lightweight, durable, and cheap. Best Buy didn’t have that particular model on display, but I’d checked to make sure the model I wanted was in stock at that store. I walked out fifteen minutes later and two hundred bucks lighter with the new Chromebook in my backpack.
I actually had some trouble with the initial setup. Setting up a Chromebook should be as easy as turning it on and logging into your Google account, but I got caught in some terrible login-crash loop. After some research I did a Powerwash (with wifi off, to avoid the login issue), and updated the OS. It’s been working perfectly ever since.
We had wifi at airports, train stations, our within-Europe plane trips, both AirBnbs we used (one in Barcelona, one in Nice), and at my dad’s house in St. Hilaire d’Ozilhan. I used the Chromebook for email, news, researching tourist and travel options, maps, reservation info, translation assistance, blog post drafts, uploading photos, and taking notes for a few projects I’m working on. I also watched a little Netflix, which is fun while traveling because different shows are available (I watched a few episodes of Vikings in Spain–great show).
I’ve traveled without a computer before and I’m fine with it–often it’s refreshing to get a break from screens, and I could have gotten by with just using my phone for email and news (once again, T-Mobile worked great in Europe with free texts, twenty cents a minute for calls, continuous coverage, and no preconfiguration requirements). But this trip I wanted a computer. I recently got a new camera and wanted to upload and share pictures as I went. Also, since my wife and daughter were both bringing devices, I wanted to be on the same wavelength. So the Chromebook came in handy.
Currently Chromebooks can only run apps and extensions available on the Chrome Web Store. But newer Chromebooks (full list) will soon be able to run any Android app from the Google Play store (including Minecraft). But even now, I’m surprised by how much you can do with Chrome OS. For example:
- Use remote desktop to login and control other computers (there are several RDP apps available).
- Use rollApp to run open source software, including Open Office (which in turn can handle Microsoft Office formats). I connected rollApp to my Dropbox account so I could use a few OpenOffice spreadsheets I use frequently.
- Use SoundTrap to make music online.
In terms of the Asus C202SA model, I’m pleased. It feels solid and durable, the keyboard has a nice feel, it seems powerful and fast enough for my purposes, and apparently it’s even water-resistant (though I haven’t tested that feature). Battery life is great (about ten hours), and the dimensions and weight are perfect for easy packing.
A Threat to Apple?
I’m not sure I’ll be buying another MacBook, ever. I like the one I have now (since upgrading to SSD), but the newest Macbook with its weird tiny non-compatible ports doesn’t impress me. For music production I might go with an iMac for the studio, but I could see switching over to the Chromebook as my main laptop. I can write on it, check email, use the internet, and work on all my Google docs (which I am using more frequently in lieu of Microsoft Office or Open Office).
Security is always a concern, so I use 2-step authentication for my Google account. But I was less worried about the Chromebook getting stolen. I was always careful to log out when not using it, and if it had been stolen, a $200 loss would be more acceptable than a $2000 loss (and many lost hours of installing and configuring software, if I’d lost my MacBook or PC laptop).
The External Brain
Like spiders, modern humans offload a portion of their cognitive tasks to external networks, such as those managed by Apple and Google. Losing access to this external network results in cybernetic discombobulation. When self-imposed, disconnecting from networks can be refreshing, a sort of cold water neural reboot. But if you want to maintain access to your external brain, the Chromebook is a great lightweight interface.
Now that I’m back from vacation, I feel a surge of productivity coming on. Upcoming posts/subjects on this blog will probably include:
- Managing screen time on vacation (with kids)
- Avoiding micromanaging in relationships
- 30-day No Worrying Experiment
- “Dream Dog” training at Happy Hound in Oakland
- Google AdWords experiment
- Ways To Save Money While Improving Health
Let me know what your on-the-road computing solution is, in the comments!