Some impressions after a brief exposure to a Dell Chromebook 13

November 28, 2016

I've had a Dell Chromebook 13 hanging around here for the last few days and although I haven't used it too much, I still want to note down my initial impressions about it (while I still have the machine here) for various reasons beyond the scope of this entry.

My overall impression of the actual machine can be summed up as 'inoffensive'. It has a reasonable sized screen that looks good in casual tests, a keyboard that has not irritated me when I've typed on it, enough performance to do casual things without feeling laggy (including playing full-screen streaming video), and built in sound that seems fine for casual listening if I'm right in front of the machine. I don't know how I feel about the trackpad but I expect it works basically like all modern trackpads work; my impression is that things like distinct physical buttons for the mouse buttons (especially three of them) are pretty much out on most machines. If I used the machine regularly I might want to get a Bluetooth mouse, but maybe not; I'd have to use it and see. Physically it's a 13" laptop but not a particularly bulky or heavy one; I could imagine carrying it around.

As far as Chrome OS goes, well, again, I have to score it as 'inoffensive'. It has overlapping windows if you ask it nicely, you can install uBlock Origin into the browser, and so on. Everything mostly works the way I expect it to in the windowing environment, even if Chrome OS appears to like using relatively small fonts (you can sort of change that). There is a certain amount of access to the underlying Unix environment through magic tricks like chrome://system and Ctrl + Alt + t to get a crosh terminal (and apparently more if you enable developer mode, cf). Google seems to have a bunch of help resources (as do other people) and once you go digging you can do a number of things with CrOS (although it has limits).

I'm not really the target audience for a standard CrOS laptop, but so far I've wound up feeling that I could use it to get things done. In practice what I use my work laptop for is mostly browsers and SSH sessions to places. CrOS has a browser and you can do SSH in a browser addon and soon Android applications. It likely wouldn't be as nice as my customized Cinnamon environment and I suspect that CrOS simply doesn't support PKCS#11 hardware tokens like Yubikeys (at least for SSH, it may support them for browser stuff per this CrOS answer). But if I needed a travel laptop for going to a conference or the like, I could do worse than a Chromebook and it would probably be okay.

(In general, Android apps being usable on Chromebooks will likely make them significantly more useful for people like me.)

PS: If I wanted to, apparently you can replace Chrome OS with Linux on many Chromebooks, the Dell Chromebook 13 included. I'd probably want to swap in a bigger SSD. I don't know if Linux can use the hardware as well as CrOS, though, so using Linux might mean giving up battery lifetime and so on.

(I wouldn't choose to buy a Dell Chromebook 13 for myself right now, but that's partly because various reading has led me to expect all sorts of general Chromebook hardware updates in the future to add various features expected by Android apps, like touch screens, various sorts of sensors, and so on.)

Comments on this page:

Thanks, the Linux stuff is interesting, it used to be a bit more scary & annoying.

I see you can now boot Developer Mode with just a two-second boot delay. Instead of having to press ctrl+d, or wait 30-seconds + have it beep at you. AFAICT you have to open the case for this (jumper / screw removal etc).

By Icarus at 2016-11-28 14:11:07:

@Alan, you always could change to 2 seconds delay if you are prepared to remove the write protect screw. There are magic "gbb" flags which are stored in the electrically protected part of the flash. If you remove the screw then this part of the flash can now be altered with normal flash programming, and /usr/share/vboot/bin/ will do all the hard work for you, including setting the bit which says "show dev screen for 2 seconds rather than 30". The downside of removing the WP screw is that it becomes possible to "brick" the machine, and you will need some kind of flash programmer hardware to recover it.

The OS is pretty much standard linux although often a year behind, there are some changes to the memory handler so the kernel can notify userspace when memory is getting low, and it does have the "dm_verity" code to ensure that the root filesystem has not been tampered with. From the point of view of the device drivers I think everything is standard.

Written on 28 November 2016.
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