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 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.


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.


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.



Mac keyboard shortcuts

In last week’s post, I gave a list of keyboard shortcuts that are helpful for Windows users. Mac users: you may be in the minority, but I haven’t forgotten about you. Today I’ll share some of the most commonly used and most useful Mac keyboard shortcuts.

Mac shortcuts in the menu
Keyboard shortcuts are listed next to commands in Mac OS X.

One thing I find very helpful on the Mac operating system is that the menus at the top of the screen include keyboard shortcuts for many of the commands in the menu. For example, in the photo to the right, you can see that to open a new window in Safari I would press Command (⌘) and N. The Command key, incidentally, is labelled with its symbol on Mac keyboards, but none of the other modifier keys are labelled with the symbols used in the menu lists. So below I’ve included a list of the symbols used for the most common modifier keys. (In the shortcuts I list below, I’ll use the written names like you see on the keyboard, but if you’re learning shortcuts from the menus this list will help.)

Command key
Control key
Option key
Shift Key
Caps Lock
fn Function Key

Common commands

  • Control + mouse-click   —–>   Right-click
  • Command + X   —–>   Cut the selected item
  • Command + C   —–>   Copy the selected item
  • Command + V   —–>   Paste the selected item
  • Command + Z   —–>   Undo an action
  • Shift + Command + Z   —–>   Redo an action
  • Command + Tab   —–> Switch between open apps
  • Command + Q   —–>   Quit the current app
  • Command + W   —–>   Close the current window (without quitting the app)
  • Command + M   —–>   Minimize the current window
  • Command + N   —–>   Open a new window in the current app
  • Command + F3   —–> Show the desktop
  • fn + Delete   —–>   Delete text like the Windows Delete key (the Delete key on a Mac normally acts like the Backspace key in Windows)

Working with files

  • Command + spacebar   —–> Open Spotlight to search your computer
  • Command + A   —–>   Select all items (or all text if in a document)
  • Command + Delete   —–>   Send selected item(s) to the trash
  • Return (or Enter)   —–>   Rename selected item
  • Click an item, then hold shift and click another item   —–>   Select all items in between the two you clicked
  • Click an item, then hold command and click other items   —–>   Select all items clicked

For a more comprehensive listing, check out Apple’s list or this list compiled by Dan Rodney.

Got one I missed? Let me know below.


Should you update your iPhone to iOS 8?

iOS 8
iPhones running iOS 8

Just this week Apple released the latest version of their operating system for iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches. It’s called iOS 8, and it’s a free upgrade for Apple users. Last year’s iOS 7 included visual changes to almost everything; it took a while to get used to. This year’s update looks very similar to iOS 7 and is more of a refinement, adding various features that most people will find useful.

If you’re an avid iPhone user, you’ve probably already upgraded. If you have an iDevice and aren’t sure if or how to upgrade to the newest operating system, I’ll help you out.

CAN you upgrade?

Apple’s official iOS 8 website says eligible devices are the following: iPhone 4S and later, iPad 2 and later, and iPod Touch 5th gen. and later. The biggest missing name from their last update is the iPhone 4, so if that’s your phone you won’t be able to get the newest update[1].

SHOULD you upgrade?

Every time Apple (or similar companies) update their operating systems, the new versions are typically designed to work best on the newest, most powerful hardware available (in this case, the newly announced iPhone 6). So this means that older phones, computers, etc. will run a little more slowly when upgraded to the latest system[2]. This is probably the main reason iPhone 4 and the original iPad aren’t included in this update.

If you have an iPhone 5, 5C, or 5S, any possible slowdown will be tiny, if not imperceptible. I’d say definitely upgrade. If you have the iPhone 5S, you’ll have the option to use the Touch ID fingerprint sensor to log in to all kinds of apps — one of my favorite new features.

Any of the iPads after iPad 2 (such as Air or Mini) should also handle the upgrade without a problem. Definitely upgrade. If your device is one of these, feel free to skip to the next section.

But the iPhone 4S and iPad 2 will run more slowly on iOS 8, and probably noticeably so. Ars Technica has written a couple of good articles detailing what to expect if you upgrade your iPhone 4S or iPad 2.

I happen to use both these devices. I’ve already upgraded my iPhone 4S, and I think I notice various animations being a bit slower (so I actually turned some of them off to help a bit). However, to me the additional features and functions that were added made the upgrade worth the (at times) slower operation.

Another consideration: this is the smallest screen size Apple still sells, and some new features mean you’ll see even less on the screen than before when the keyboard is up.

I’m doubtful I’ll upgrade our iPad 2 to iOS 8. We most often use it for reading books or checking email. I rarely use it for messaging or other uses where new features seem really promising. I’m happy with the way iOS7 works with the ways we use it, and it seems a safe bet that it will also be noticeably slower with iOS 8. Based the Ars Technica article I mentioned earlier, I don’t recommend iPad 2 owners upgrade.

HOW do you upgrade?

Chris Breen of MacWorld wrote a step-by-step guide I highly recommend. I’ll give you the summary version.

First, back up your device. You can either do it on your computer with iTunes or back up to iCloud through Wi-Fi. The iOS 8 install shouldn’t erase anything, but things go wrong now and then. It’s always a good idea to back up your data.

To download the update and install it, you have two options. Download it wirelessly via the Settings app on your device, or plug the device into your computer with the USB cable and upgrade in iTunes.

The simpler way is probably from the Settings app, but if you have limited space on your device, you’ll want to do the install via iTunes. The installation file that’s temporarily downloaded can be several gigabytes in size.

I recommend starting this before you go to bed, because the installation file can take a long time to download depending on your Internet speed. Once it’s downloaded, it may take up to another hour to actually complete the installation.

Once complete, you’ll have to go answer a couple setup questions. For reasons explained here, if you also use a Mac and store files in iCloud, I’d choose “Not Now” when you’re asked if you want to upgrade to iCloud Drive. Do that once the new Mac operating system comes out in a month or two.

And that’s it! If you’re upgrading to iOS 8, enjoy the new features. Again, you can learn more about what’s new here and here.

Have you updated to iOS 8? What do you like or dislike so far?

I’d love to hear from you! Leave me a question or comment about anything below.

1 – Frankly, iOS 8 would probably run so slowly on the iPhone 4 that you wouldn’t want to upgrade anyway.

2 – For the same reason, certain new features in any new operating system won’t work on older devices, even if they’re fast enough to run it without any problem.

Mac vs. PC – longevity

Apple's MacBook Air
Apple’s MacBook Air (Photo courtesy of

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.

Mac vs. PC

Apple and Microsoft logos
Aaaaaand in this corner… (Photo courtesy of

A reader writes in: “At my school, they promote Mac laptops over PC’s. What are the difference between Mac’s and PC’s? Is one better than the other? Thanks!”

When I was looking at different options for universities, I noticed one of my top choices required journalism majors to have a Mac. I’d only used Windows PCs before[1]. So I started researching. I ended up going to a different school, but I did buy a Mac for college.

That computer lasted me 5 years, and when it died I bought another Mac. I know there are a lot of people who are fanatical about one system or the other. I have experience with both Macs and PCs, and I’ll give you as unbiased of info as I can.

First though, check out this Apple ad from 2006:

I think it’s a good laugh (apologies to any of you who have recounted your vacations with a pie chart). In reality though, Macs and PCs are much more similar than this ad implies (and PCs do a lot more than spreadsheets!) There are differences, however, and here are the main ones I see between the two:

Advantages of Macs:

-Apple makes both the hardware and software for Macs. In contrast, Microsoft makes the the software (Windows) for PCs, while other companies make the hardware (Acer, Dell, HP, etc.)[2]. If you buy an HP laptop, it will often have some HP software installed on it, plus trial versions of software like anti-virus. By contrast, all software that comes with a Mac is made by Apple, so no extra, hidden software eating up your computer’s performance.

-Likewise, Macs do come with apps like iPhoto and iMovie, which can be very helpful for organizing your photos and creating home movies.

The vast majority of viruses and malware are created to target Windows computers[3]. These problems are so rare on Macs that many people say Mac owners don’t even need antivirus software. (Of course, you should always use good judgment when clicking on websites and downloading files, regardless of your operating system.)

The parental controls options and backup software included on Macs are much easier to access and use than on PCs (although Windows 8 has made backup simpler).

Apple has better support, both online and in-person at their Apple Stores. In addition, when Apple updates their operating system, Mac users get to download it for free. On the PC side, you still have to pay to upgrade to new Windows versions (unless you buy a new PC).

Advantages of PCs:

PCs have many more options available. In addition to many different hardware manufacturers to choose among, each of those manufacturers often offer more choices than Apple does with it’s PCs. The choices include color, design, size, and many internal choices, too.

PCs are much more upgradeable (is that a word?). Macs are becoming less able to be upgraded without taking them in to an Apple store. By contrast, a PC user could replace almost any internal hardware from home.

-Here is the most obvious difference to most people: PCs are almost always less expensive. The cheapest Mac laptop currently costs about $900 regularly, while comparable PCs run about $700. And there are options among PCs even cheaper than that.


-If your work or school requires a certain operating system, don’t look to me for help!

-If you want specific customization options or want to build a computer for a specific purpose (like computer games), definitely go with a Windows PC.

-If you are interested in trying things like editing photos or videos, or recording music, look for a Mac, which has great apps for those things built-in.

-For the average person, I believe a Mac will give you the best overall experience, due to its simplicity, dependability, and support after the purchase. It’s also similar enough to a PC that switching is not usually a difficult process.

-For a person who expects to only write emails and documents, check social media, etc., a PC is a fine choice. The price difference between a low-end PC and a low-end Mac is big, and both will handle those basic tasks just fine.

Neither option is right or wrong…just a better option for your particular situation. I hope I’ve made things clearer for you. Let me know if you have any questions about this.

Plus, fill out the form below and your question could be the topic next week! I’d love to hear from you.

1 – PC stands for “Personal Computer.” Technically, a Mac is a personal computer, but PC has come to refer only to computers running the Windows operating system. So that’s how I’ll use PC in this blog post.
2 – Laptops running a Google operating system (known as Chromebooks) have been on the market for a couple years. Google’s OS is specifically designed to be connected to the Internet almost all the time.
3 – This is due to a combination of the more secure way Macs’ operating system is designed and the fact that 90% of computer users use Windows.

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

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

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

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

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!


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

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.

%d bloggers like this: