Google Chromebook: Is It For Me?

Welcome to the first of a recurring series here on my Making Technology Simpler blog: “Is It For Me?” I’ll explain a product or technology, then help you figure out if it meets your needs. This week’s subject is the Google Chromebook.

Chromebook laptops
Google Chromebooks (Photo courtesy of google.com)

Google Chromebooks are a series of inexpensive laptops with great battery life, strong integration with Google, and little maintenance needed.

Chromebooks use an operating system created by Google called Chrome OS…the whole operating system is basically the Chrome Internet browser that many people use on Windows and Mac computers. The computer hardware is made by companies like Acer and HP.

Pros

Here’s another thing that makes Chromebooks unique among laptops: the whole operating system is designed to be used with Internet access, and the hard drive in the computer is tiny.

Google intended for these computers to be used in conjunction with Google’s cloud storage, so photos will need to be stored in Google+ and documents stored in Google Drive. (I wrote about cloud storage here.) With everything stored in the cloud, there’s no need for a big hard drive. The benefit of this is the computer will boot up very quickly.

This reliance on cloud storage has a couple other ramifications. On the positive side, no data backups are needed, since almost everything is in Google’s cloud. And once the computer needs to be replaced, you can sign into your next Chromebook with your Google account, and all your emails, documents, etc. will be available immediately. No file transferring necessary.

Cons

On the flip side, you will be limited in what your Chromebook can do without Internet access. You can do some document creation, for example, and the document will save to Google Drive when you connect to the Internet again. Internet access is becoming more widespread, however, and some Chromebooks will allow you to also connect to a 4G network through a carrier like T-Mobile.

Because almost everything you do on a Chromebook involves Internet access, the speed of the computer itself will be heavily influenced by the speed of your Internet connection. If you regularly use a slow connection, be prepared to pay for faster speeds to really enjoy a speedy Chromebook experience.

The other main limitation of Chromebooks is that you can’t install PC or Mac programs on it. So if you really need the full version of Microsoft Office or some specialized accounting program for your work, a Chromebook isn’t for you (unless it’s as a secondary computer). You’re limited to using Google’s apps and others available through the Chrome web store.

Ease of use

Chromebooks are low maintenance devices, partly because they update automatically and Google says they’re very secure and have no need for antivirus software.

Setup is also easy, to the degree that you’re already part of Google’s services. If you already use Google for email, documents, photos, and music, your new Chromebook will be ready to go as soon as you open it and sign in with your Google account.

If you use iTunes for your music and store documents or photos on your current computer, you’ll want to transfer all of it to Google’s appropriate online service before you make the switch to a Chromebook. (And if you have an iPhone, iPad, or iPod, know that they won’t sync with music on your Chromebook.)

Remember, third-party apps like iTunes or Microsoft Office can’t be installed on a Chromebook. So you’ll need to use a Google service or a third-party service that can be accessed online (such as Pandora for music streaming or the online version of Microsoft Office).

Is it for me?

A Chromebook might be great for you, if:

  • You use Google for all of your email, documents, photos, media, and calendar (or are willing to move all those things to Google)
  • You have Internet access almost all the time
  • You need a very portable computer with a battery that lasts all day
  • A low up-front cost is important to you

You should probably stay away from a Chromebook, if:

  • You need an application that only runs on a PC or Mac, like Adobe Creative Cloud, Microsoft Office, or iTunes
  • You prefer to store your documents, photos, or media locally (i.e. on your computer’s hard drive)
  • Your computer needs to handle intense tasks, like games or video editing

Have you seen or heard about another device or technology that’s made you ask, “Is it for me?” Let me know below, and I’ll write about it soon.

-Paul

 

Mac vs. PC – longevity

Apple's MacBook Air
Apple’s MacBook Air (Photo courtesy of apple.com)

After reading my earlier post about the differences between PCs and Macs, a reader wrote in with a follow-up question: “I’ve heard the life expectancy is longer for a Mac, is this true?”

That seems to be a fairly common assumption, especially among Mac owners (who probably paid more for their computer than their PC-toting friends).

My personal experience seems to agree with that premise, but I’m one of those Mac owners who paid more for my laptop than the average person.

So I want to see some hard evidence before I call it fact. And I haven’t found any. Every source I’ve found seems to be more personal anecdotes.

I think most people would agree that Macs are built of more durable materials than all but a few PCs (aluminum vs. plastic, etc.)

However, that brings me to one of my biggest frustrations about Macs (and Apple hardware in general): Macs are not user-upgradeable.

Once upon a time, if your Mac was starting to run slowly, you could buy more memory and install it yourself. If your battery no longer held much juice, you could buy a new one and swap it out. That kept the computer functional for at least a couple more years.

Not anymore. Now, the outside of the computer is shut with special screws and most parts inside are glued or soldered in place. This is a trend that Apple began several years ago and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

This may make for a more durable computer (especially in a laptop), but it also means you need to pay close attention to the memory, hard drive, etc. when you’re purchasing the computer because you won’t be able to upgrade them later.[1]

In conclusion: while I do think Macs offer the best user experience for most people, I don’t think they necessarily have a longer life expectancy than PCs.

 

Fill out the form below with a question or comment. I’d love to hear from you!

1 – I think the RAM (aka memory, or how well the computer can multitask) is a much higher priority for upgrading at purchase, because you can always plug in an external hard drive or thumb drive to add additional storage to the computer down the road. No such options exist for RAM.

How to back up your computer (Just get started!)

Note: This is the second half of a two-part introduction to backing up your computer. Last week’s post explained why this is so important and what you should look for in buying a backup hard drive.

Socrates bust
Socrates would’ve been wise enough to back up his computer (Photo courtesy of wikipedia.com)

As Socrates once said, getting started is the hardest part of a big project. Well, maybe that was my dad who said that when I procrastinated on the gigantic research paper in 12th grade English.

Well the same thing is true in computer backups! And it’s actually a lot better than a gigantic research paper: once you set up your backups, all you have to do is plug in your hard drive every so often. Everything else is automatic! How easy is that?

You need an external hard drive (we covered that last week). You need backup software (it came with your computer, ready to go!) And you need to know how to set it up the first time (we’ll cover that here).

We’re going to start with Windows 8 computers. If you have Windows 7, click here to skip ahead to that section. If you’re on a Mac, click here. (If your computer has Windows XP, you’ve got bigger problems, but you can click here to read about XP’s backup software.)

Windows 8

Windows 8 calls its backup software File History, and it’s the best backup software yet for Windows. Here’s how to use it:

File History setup
File History page in Windows 8 (Photo courtesy of howtogeek.com)

Click “Control Panel” on the start screen, then scroll to the bottom of the list and select “More settings.” In the Control Panel window that appears, click “System and Security,” then look for “File History” at the bottom of the list. (Come on Microsoft, this is harder to find than it should be!)

Now you’re in File History, and you’re almost done. Once you plug in your external hard drive, you’ll see a button labeled “Turn on.” Click it, and you’ve set up your backups!

Windows 7 Tools tab
The Tools tab in Windows 7 (Photo courtesy of howtogeek.com)

Windows 7

Windows 7 uses a program called Backup and Restore. It’s a big improvement over what came with previous versions of Windows. Here’s how to get started:

Open “Computer” from the Start menu, right-click on your Local Disk, and select “Properties.” Click the “Tools” tab, and then the “Back up now…” button. Click “Set up backup.”

You’ll see your external drive in the list, and it should be labelled Recommended. Select it and click Next. In the next window, have Windows choose what to back up (again, it’s the Recommended setting.)

Windows 7 review page
Review your backup settings in Windows 7 (Photo courtesy of howtogeek.com)

You’ll notice in the next window that Windows has set a schedule for when to back up your hard drive. Change it if you want (I’d change it to at least once a week), then click “Save settings and run backup.” Ta-da! You’ve started your first backup. Congratulations!

Mac

Macs use Time Machine. Very easy to set up, and makes it almost fun to go recover an accidentally deleted file. Here’s how to set up Time Machine:

Time Machine Preferences
Time Machine Preferences page (Photo courtesy of support.apple.com)

Click the Time Machine icon in the top menu bar (looks like an analog clock face), and click “Open Time Machine Preferences…)

First, hit the big switch on the left side of the window to turn Time Machine from OFF to ON. Once you plug in your external drive, you’ll click “Select Disk.” You’ll see a drop-down menu of available disks. Choose yours, click “Use disk,” and Time Machine will run your first backup in a couple minutes!

Wrapping up:

One important thing to keep in mind after you finish setting things up: Windows 8 and Mac computers will run a backup every hour when the external drive is plugged in. Windows 7 runs a backup once a month by default, and if you don’t have your drive plugged in, then you miss that month’s backup.

The easiest thing to do is just leave the hard drive plugged into your computer all the time. That’s better than having no backup! But keep in mind what I said last week about the importance of offsite backups.

I promise getting started is the hardest part! Hopefully these steps will make that process easier for you. If you felt this was helpful to you, please pass it along to someone else who might need help!

As always, if you have any questions or a topic you want help with, send it to me with the form below. I can’t wait to hear from you!

Backing up your computer

I’d known my computer longer than I’d known my wife. That MacBook and I had typed school papers and edited videos together. It stored everything from the invitation for my 14th birthday party to my wedding photos. And one day last July, it just wouldn’t turn on.

It turned out the issue was in either the power supply or the motherboard. Bad news because it meant we needed a new computer. Good news because the hard drive was unaffected. We were able to transfer everything on the hard drive to our new computer.

That’s when I realized first-hand the importance of backing up my computer. I hope you haven’t learned that lesson the hard way. If you haven’t, now’s the time.

According to one study, 1 in 20 hard drives fails within the first year-and-a-half of use. After three years, more than 1 in 10 have already failed.[1] What would you miss if you lost all the files on your computer? Don’t risk it!

computer on fire
If your computer is destroyed in a fire, you probably won’t be home. Offsite backups!

Offsite backups

Now that you know the importance of backing up your computer’s hard drive, here’s one more factor that’s extremely important: offsite backups. If your backups are stored on an external hard drive sitting on the same desk as your computer, it’s protecting you against hard drive failure. But if your computer is destroyed by something like a flood, fire, or tornado, that external hard drive is gone, too.

So always keep a copy of your backups in a separate location from your computer! In my case, I have one backup hard drive at home and one in my office. Every week or so I rotate them, so my offsite backup is never more than a week old. You may have another place that makes sense to store a copy (safe deposit box, relative’s house).

Today I’ll help you decide what type of backups work best for you and what hard drive and/or software you’ll need. Next week we’ll talk about how to actually put your backup plan into action!

Buying an external hard drive

The main way to backup your computer is to buy an external hard drive and plug it into your computer when you want to create a backup copy.[2] You have a copy of your files right there in your hands, but you have to remember to plug in the backup regularly and find an offsite location for it.

How much space do you need on your external hard drive? Short answer: at least as much space as your computer’s hard drive has, and preferably double it (more space never hurts).

hard drive capacity in Windows
Hard drive capacity in Windows (Photo courtesy of wikiHow)

For Windows: To find your hard drive capacity in Windows 8, open File Explorer[3], right-click on “This PC” on the left side, and click “Properties.” In Windows 7, click the Start button on your desktop and click “Computer.” Right-click on “Local Disk” near the top, and click “Properties.” The Properties window will show your total capacity in gigabytes (GB), as well as how much is used.

 

Hard drive capacity on a Mac
Hard drive capacity on a Mac

On a Mac: click the Apple logo in the top-left corner of your screen, and click “About This Mac” in the drop-down menu. In the little window that pops up, click “More Info,” then click the “Storage” tab along the top of the window.

Where to buy

You can find an external hard drive at a local place like Best Buy or at an online store like Amazon. It will connect to your computer with an included USB cable. Again, you’re looking for at least double the capacity of your computer’s drive. Here’s a conversion you will probably need: 1 terabyte (TB) equals about 1,000 GB. A 1TB external drive is around $70 right now. WD, Seagate, or Toshiba are popular and comparable brands.[4]

I hope you’ve realized the importance of backing up all the valuable information you have stored on your computer. Come back next week as I show you how to actually set up your backup software (which is included with your computer). You’ll see that the backups are very easy to do once you’ve initially set up the software.

In the meantime: homework! Go get a hard drive so we can set it up next week.

As always, send me any questions you have or topics you’d like me to talk about. And click the buttons at the very bottom to share this post with someone who might need it. Thanks for reading! See you next week.

1 – Full disclosure: Backblaze, the company that authored this study, offers cloud backup plans.
2 – Another option is “cloud” backups. Two of the more popular options in cloud backups are CrashPlan and Backblaze. This site has a more detailed explanation.
3 – Open File Explorer by swiping in from the right edge of the screen, tapping Search (or if you’re using a mouse, pointing to the upper-right corner of the screen, moving the mouse pointer down, and then clicking Search), entering File Explorer in the search box, and then tapping or clicking File Explorer.
4 – If you have a Mac, you don’t necessary need a drive labelled “For Mac.” They’re typically more expensive, but are ready for your computer out-of-the-box. A non-“For Mac” drive can be quickly formatted to work on a Mac, so decide whether you want pay a little more for a drive pre-formatted for your Mac.

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