Chromebook Awesome: The Chromebook no one’s built yet

I like Chromebooks. I’ve owned 2 of them. But there’s a big problem with all of them. And it’s not the fact they have small SSDs or only run Chrome OS or have a ridiculously high price (hello Pixel!).

The problem is that all Chromebooks on the market in January 2014 stink in one or more ways. Each may have its good points, but there are always more downsides than upsides, and that means as a user you have to contend with both the downsides of Chrome OS (it’s not a traditional laptop) as well as the downsides of your particular Chromebook (poor hardware features A, B, and C).

We need a new Chromebook — perhaps from a new manufacturer — and it needs a tightly-defind set of specs that fix all the problems of the current crop of the delightfully-limited machines. With the hardware fixed, users can focus on adapting to the new world of Chrome OS as a solid low-cost, low-hassle computing experience.

Don’t believe me about the busted hardware? Check out my analysis on this live, public Google Sheet. The bright green boxes highlight the hardware elements the manufacturers got right. Everything else is either just okay or may be downright bad.

What current Chromebooks get wrong

Where do we start? Processor, for one. Consider the Chromebook 11 that HP launched, un-launched, then re-launched this past fall. It uses a processor that’s basically 2 years old (!) and severely under-powers the current generation of Chrome OS (which is getting more capable and complex with each release). It also has the meager 2GB of RAM all too common to Chromebooks, and a weak trackpad and keyboard. I bought it and returned it (and I never return electronics). That said, it has an awesome — albeit small — IPS screen, and it comes in a small, light package with attractive styling. Sigh.

What about the current market sales leader? That appears to be the collection of Acer C720 / C720P Chromebooks. There are literally 10 models out there as of this posting. These beat the HP Chromebook 11 mostly because Acer fixed the processor issue by using a Celeron processor built on the Haswell architecture. Yay! Except Acer makes chintzy hardware. The screen — with our without touch features — is small, dim, and lackluster to say the least. The keyboard is tiny and cheap, and every reviewer despises the trackpad. The exterior look of the unit has improved over past Acer efforts, but it’s still cheap Chinese plastic by nature. Double sigh.

Maybe Toshiba can save us with the launch of their CB30 Chromebook next month! Starting February 16 you can buy the first-ever 13.3″-screen Chromebook — a big improvement over the 11.6″ screens without incurring the weight penalty of the HP Chromebook 14. The case looks nice, with a dimpled silver plastic covering and a clean interior appearance that’s a cross between the old Samsung Chromebook and a MacBook Air. So what’s wrong with it? Not too much — this design comes closest to being the best non-Pixel Chrome OS machine. However, it’s still crippled with 2GB of RAM and has a screen that reviewers have said is a bit dull, with limited viewing angles. Toshiba gets the most “green boxes” in my Chromebook analysis sheet, but it’s still not enough to get me to drop $280 on a pre-order.

So that’s the problem in a nutshell — every Chromebook exacts one or more penalties on buyers that will either get the machine returned to the store or will relegate them to casual machine status on the couch instead of primary computer status everywhere.

Time to build the Chromebook Awesome

But here’s the good news: All the corner-cutting on the current generation of Chromebooks can be fixed. We just have to stop cutting corners, without going nuts and ending up in Pixel territory ($1,300+). So that’s what I’ve done with my Chromebook Awesome design.

In the next-to-last column on the comparison spreadsheet I’ve included what I call the Chromebook Awesome. This is the Chromebook that gathers all the best elements of the other Chromebooks and makes a proper machine. It’s more expensive than the rest at an estimated $450 (except the Pixel, of course), but it fixes everything that’s broken with the other models. In reality, it’s a better Chromebook than the Pixel because it’s accessible to a broad audience, and it’s got everything needed for a very good cloud-based and Google-based experience.

What’s to like?

  • A price that’s lower than an iPad Air.
  • A screen that’s big enough to be comfortable but not too big to be portable. It also has higher resolution than the cheaper units, at 1,440 x 900. It’s also an IPS screen that’s bright, clear, and sharp, with great color reproduction.
  • A great keyboard and trackpad, so using the Chromebook for long periods won’t infuriate you.
  • A solid 8 hours or more of mobile life away from an AC outlet, but a weight that won’t make you break a sweat.
  • A quick-enough processor and enough RAM to allow for lots of tabs without painful slow-downs.
  • All the ports you really need — USB 3, HDMI, and an SD card slot.
  • A 720p or better webcam that makes you look good in those Google Hangout sessions. Plus a good microphone and some solid (but not audiophile) speakers.

So who’s gonna build it?

At the moment, Toshiba is closest to the Chromebook Awesome finish line. All they would have to do — it appears, because there aren’t any detailed reviews yet — is improve their screen quality (IPS) and resolution (1,440 x 900), add 2GB of RAM, and add enough battery to cover the increased screen power requirements. Then they can raise the price by $170 and watch the orders roll in.

But really, any major electronics manufacturer could build this machine. Sony could do it. Lenovo could easily add this to their Chromebook lineup (of 1). LG could go beyond their overpriced and underpowered Chromebase and make the Chromebook Awesome. Google could stop showing off with the Chromebook Pixel and hire one of their partners to make this machine. The parts are all off-the-shelf and ready to go. The only really hard part is the industrial design — it has to be attractive, with clean lines, great usability, and good durability. They also have to ensure the hardware components have excellent drivers (e.g. for the trackpad).

For now, all we can do is  hope some product manager out there makes the same spreadsheet I did, and takes action to build the Awesome.

Because until the Chromebook Awesome appears, I’ll be sitting on my wallet.

Build your own LEGO / NASA Curiosity Rover

Earlier this month LEGO launched their own take on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover — the amazing red planet crawler that successfully landed on the surface back in August 2012. Now you can buy and build your own interplanetary rover for just $30 + shipping at the LEGO store.

I bought one on launch day (January 1) and just got it this week. And 295 pieces later I got it assembled. Whew!

It comes with a nice manual / mission overview booklet in several languages. This is definitely an adult toy, as the assembly process would probably frustrate all but the most die-hard young LEGO or dedicated science fans. I think it took me about 90 minutes to get it assembled in a single sitting.

Here’s mine, assembled and on my desk at home:

On thing’s for sure — this thing would not survive a trip to Mars (about 140 million miles, on average). It’s fairly delicate, with spindly arms and legs and protruding parts that are plastic stand-ins for the various sensors and tools on the real rover.

What’s remarkable, though, is that the wheels and suspension system work. You get a pretty good feel for why the suspension was made this way — to bumble over rocks and uneven terrain with independent movement for each wheel.

I’d say the level of detail in the LEGO model is amazing, but that’s not true. What is amazing, though, is how well LEGO did in creating a credible model using mostly common LEGO parts. It seems like there are a few unique parts, but for the most part I’ve seen these elements before in other LEGO kits, but their application is really creative.

So for $30 you can have a little piece of space science history on your desk and get your hands on some of the mechanical design of the real thing. Plus, if you buy this model, you’re helping validate a unique market approach by LEGO — the crowdsourcing of ideas and even model designs through their CUUSOO program. This particular model was created by a JPL engineer that worked on elements of the original rover. Very cool.

Thank you NASA!

Ignore the Windows XP anti-malware extension and dump XP immediately

Microsoft announced today they will continue to provide anti-malware software updates past the April 2014 end of support for Windows XP. For those that felt pressured to migrate to Windows 7 or 8 before the deadline, this might sound like a big relief.

It is not.

Don’t be fooled. Yes, continuing to get updates to Microsoft-supplied anti-malware software is a good thing, but that’s just one part of your risks and your defenses. Microsoft did not announce they were extending support and updates for Windows XP itself. And if you’re not using Microsoft anti-malware software, then the announcement doesn’t help anyway.

Here’s the deal: If Windows XP isn’t patched by Microsoft on a regular basis, new exploits are revealed and your computer gets more and more vulnerable over time. Microsoft’s XP patches stop in April. At that point Windows XP gets increasingly dangerous to your business and information. What’s worse is that security researchers have suggested there’s a pile of XP security exploits already developed, and miscreants are just waiting for April to release them. If they’re correct, an avalanche of unannounced attacks on XP would arrive in April or May, and any PCs left running XP could be reduced to quivering jelly. Or something. Anti-malware updates won’t protect against all those possible attacks.

The solution? Well… you already know the solution. Get rid of Windows XP and move to…

  • Windows 7
  • Windows 8
  • Mac OS X
  • Linux
  • iPad
  • Chromebook
  • …whatever it takes.

Let’s be honest here. You’ve known XP needed to go for years now, as Microsoft has extended the XP deadline again and again and again. At this point any excuses you’ve got left are hollow and exposed as either laziness or criminal cheapness. There are no legitimate excuses left.

And nonprofits don’t get a free pass here. In many ways nonprofits have it easier than other businesses, given the insanely cheap licensing avaiable via TechSoup or the very affordable charity licensing available from Microsoft.

I’m a pretty compassionate IT professional, recognizing that nonprofits in particular and businesses in general can find IT systems management challenging. But when it comes to Windows XP as of April 2014, I have no compassion left.

As Jim Gaffigan would say, Chip Chop Chip!

Where the Eisenhower Interstate system went too far

I love long distance driving and most of the amazing U.S. Interstate system. But the “broken” parts have always been those within our cities — they’re not scaled quite right, they break up local communities too much, and they’re often ugly. Now I understand where we went wrong in carrying out Eisenhower’s vision. Check out this great piece that explores how we could run our highways so they’d serve our dual needs: intercity driving and intracity transportation.

LINK: What the Interstate Highway System Should Have Looked Like

Patch your Adobe plugins when you get a minute

Recent editions of Adobe Reader and Adobe Flash have prompted users to install an auto-update feature along with the core application code. Hopefully you’ve got that turned on, because it will pick up security patches and feature updates for you in the background. If not, get a fresh download here:

I mention this because some serious new security flaws have been identified this week, and you need to patch your common Adobe plugin and utility software. This applies to Windows and Mac OS users, so check your stuff and get up to date.

New year, new focus

I’ve been spending a lot of time over on Google+ these days, adding posts, sharing links, and so forth. But that work is kinda of disappearing into the ether, partially because Google+ is not my site — it’s Google’s site — and partially because it’s a giant site with a relatively small number of users.

So I’m going to move back here to Gravity Medium and start doing my commenting, sharing, posting, and so forth on “my own property”, so to speak.

But I’m also going to change focus a bit.

To learn more about the new Gravity Medium for 2014, check out my updated About page.