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!

Buzz is building around the Fitbit Flex

Fitbit was one of the first to bring a consumer activity tracker + web site + mobile app ecosystem to the edge of the mass market, and they’ve won a lot of converts over the last couple years. But at the same time, there’s been an explosion of other trackers and platforms for capturing physical movement, encouraging more activity, and viewing and sharing the data collected. Can Fitbit stay on top?

Well, they’re certainly going to try.

This week Fitbit introduced yet another revision to their activity tracking lineup, a new design intended to recapture users that defected to the wristband-style Nike+ FuelBand or the Jawbone Up. And the tech press, in their annual CES frenzy, are trumpeting the announcement as the next big thing:

The details are simple, really. The Fitbit Flex will be $100 and launch sometime in the spring. You can pre-order right now.

For me, Fitbit is challenging my devotion to the Nike+ FuelBand by combining what I liked about the FitBit with what I like about the FuelBand. Mostly. So here’s my take on the pros and cons of old Fitbit, current FuelBand, and the announced Fitbit Flex…

Where the Fitbit One Beats the FuelBand

  • Because the design calls for you to wear the Fitbit near the center of your body mass (at or near the waist), it’s much more accurate when counting steps or overall body movement than wrist- or arm-mounted activity trackers.
  • Fitbit has several data integrations included with its cloud-based platform, so you can send your captured data lots of different places, including Microsoft HealthVault. This bodes well for the Fitbit’s future prospects as a provider-integrated EHR-syncing activity tracking platform. You know… someday.
  • The Fitbit web and smartphone app platform is more feature-complete than Nike’s, especially if you’re anal enough to enter all your foods, moods, water, and any exercises not picked up by the activity tracker. Nike has a great iOS app with Facebook integration for social health purposes, but then so does Fitbit.
  • All the Fitbit activity trackers are cheaper than the FuelBand. It’s $70 and $100 vs. $150. That’s a big difference.
  • The Fitbit One (but not the “Zip” edition) can track steps climbed using an altimeter function. The FuelBand can’t do that.
  • Like the new Flex (discussed below), the Fitbit One syncs wirelessly with low-power Bluetooth 4.0 anytime you’ve got the app running on your smartphone.

Where FuelBand Beats the Fitbit One

  • The Fitbit One is easily lost in pockets, off your belt, and can end up in the washing machine (and then the trash). The FuelBand, by comparison, just goes on your wrist — end of story. It’s snug and doesn’t have to come off much, so you’re not going to lose it easily. This advantage cannot be overstated. Lots of users have switched to the FuelBand because the data captured, while less accurate, is more complete and consistent because the FuelBand is just more likely to be worn.
  • The FuelBand’s integrated display is attractive, engaging, and informative. The Fitbit One’s display is okay and functional, but not all that engaging. For the good stuff you have to hop into the smartphone app.

And Now the Fitbit Flex: Where Does it Win?

  • The Fitbit Flex can be used for sleep monitoring, just like its non-wrist predecessors. The FuelBand skips this feature, though the Jawbone Up matches it.
  • If you can be woken up by a vibrating wrist, then the Flex can be your alarm clock. LIke the Jawbone Up, it will theoretically buzz at the right moment in your sleep cycle so you wake up refreshed. Reviewers seem to think it works. The FuelBand has no such feature.
  • The motion-sensing part of the Flex can be popped out and dropped in a pocket if you don’t want to wear the wristband.
  • The Nike FuelBand is sold in 3 wrist sizes and you have to figure out which one is right for you (I screwed up on my first choice). The Flex comes with 2 bands and has a highly-adjustable watch-style wristband.
  • You can swap out different Flex wristband colors (if you must) by buying additional bands.
  • Using Bluetooth 4.0 means the Fitbit Flex can maintain smartphone connectivity all day without killing either the wristband’s or phone’s batteries. The FuelBand runs on older Bluetooth modes, requiring manual syncing and more power. The Jawbone Up isn’t even wireless, instead plugging in to your headphone jack for syncing.

Potential Fitbit Flex Problems

  • The FuelBand has a smooth, rounded shape across its entire body, but the Fitbit Flex has a blocky, squared-off top that’s much more likely to catch on clothing. I’m also wondering whether the watchband styling will be annoying. I haven’t worn a classic watch in years.
  • Aside from the 5 LED dots, there’s no multi-function display, so it’s a step ahead of the Jawbone Up, which has no display at all, but several steps behind the FuelBand, which can also act as a watch. (Of course, with Bluetooth 4.0 live syncing, you can view your Fitbit stats on your smartphone anytime.)
  • The Flex lacks the altimeter of the Fitbit One, so no tracking steps climbed.
  • While wrist placement is convenient, it’s also far less accurate in measuring activity when compared against the Fitbit One or any torso-bound tracker.

Conclusions: Fitbit Flex Wins, But It’s a Fast-Moving Market

  • The Fitbit Flex is a winner overall, if it works as advertised. Remember that the Jawbone Up was a disaster at launch and took a year to be revised. Time will tell, but Fitbit has successfully built and launched all prior models.
  • The Flex effectively neutralizes the threat of the FuelBand and the Jawbone Up by offering equivalent physical functionality at a lower price.
  • The Fitbit platform is a major advantage you can’t see on the box, but it will matter most in the long run. Their platform is purpose-built and widely-integrated with other apps and web systems. The FuelBand is, let’s be honest, a side project for Nike. The Up is similarly a side project for Jawbone, the Bluetooth headset and portable speaker manufacturer. Fitbit is focused where the others aren’t.
  • For all the good stuff about Fitbit and the Flex, the truth is the quantified self sector is just starting to reach the mass market. Who knows who wins in the long run?

For now, I’ve pre-ordered the Fitbit Flex for myself. And I can report back here in the spring.

Fitbug pitches employers and launches new activity, weight, and blood pressure gear [UPDATE]

[Update at bottom of post]

This is a new one on me. I follow the “quantified self” market fairly regularly, but it’s the first time I’ve seen activity tracking devices and services being pitched directly to employers.

The idea: As an employer, you want to encourage healthier behaviors, in order to drop your insurance costs. With Fitbug, now your company can hook up with them to provide units to staff and track progress individually and as a group.

The site offers relatively little information and no real studies of effectiveness. But it’s an intriguing idea — one that’s likely to gain traction in the next few years as devices get cheaper and employers (and health insurance carriers) get employees and customers more engaged in health management and promoting healthy behaviors.

New Fitbug Gear

Meanwhile, Fitbug is introducing a bunch of new gear, including the Fitbug Orb, a low-cost ($50) Bluetooth-connected activity tracker (that’s not currently shown on their own web site). They also have a new wireless weight scale (the Fitbug Wow) for $80 and a blood pressure tracker (the Fitbug Luv). None of the new gear is shipping yet, but should all be on the market before summer.

UPDATE: 2012-01-08

While Fitbug has one of the most in-your-face pitches to corporate health device buyers, they’re not the only ones talking to this market. Waaaaaayyy at the bottom of the Fitbit site is a link called Corporate Wellness that takes you to a page pitching the same concept: buy tons of our devices for employees and use them to promote wellness / drive down insurance costs. Sorry I failed to notice that one! If you have other examples from device makers, please let me know.

How about a Chromebox for patient web access?

In the run-up to building our new health center in Anchorage, we had plans to buy and deploy kiosk-style computers in the facility. These would be made available for patients to access a patient portal or our web site. But three things got in the way:

  • True kiosk hardware that’s hardened against public tampering is very expensive, and we needed other stuff more
  • We hadn’t yet launched a patient portal, so the value was diminished
  • Configuring, deploying, managing, and supporting kiosk PCs is a hassle we didn’t want eating up valuable IT staff time

So no kiosk PCs for us. At least not yet. Someday… someday…

But you? Maybe you’re ready to make a few Internet PCs available for the public to use in your facility, but it needs to be safe and low-impact. How about trying out a Chromebox as a great alternative to a locked-down Windows or Linux PC?

Running Chrome OS, the Chromebox (like the Chromebook) is basically a stripped-down custom Linux that runs a Google Chrome browser and a few plugins (like Flash) that makes the web work fine without all the Windows cruft. It also retails for just $330. It auto-updates to the latest Chrome build every so often, staying current both in features and security. If you haven’t used Chrome OS lately, you may not know that it now includes a Guest mode that doesn’t save any information between user sessions. I’ve been a Chromebook user on and off since last summer and I like the OS for a lot of web work.

Why mention all this now? Well, Samsung is releasing a revised Chromebox soon, as reported yesterday: Meet Samsung’s new Chromebox, same as the old Chromebox (Updated).

However, this news comes at a time when Chrome OS devices are largely unavailable. The new ARM-based 11″ Chromebook is sold out as of this writing — and it sold out pretty much at launch back in November. The Chromebox is now only available used through Amazon, and is sold out at Staples, sold out at TigerDirect, sold out everywhere. Google and Samsung have not announced when Chromeboxes will be available again — but you know they’re coming, given the redesign.

Whenever you get your Chromebox going, you’ll need to bring your own monitor, keyboard, and mouse. And you might need a kiosk or desk. Finally you might also want to get a Kensington lock to tie down the Chromebox.

While you’re waiting for Chrome OS device stock to appear, consider a few resources. First up, a review video from mid-2012 when the major revamp of Chromebooks and Chromeboxes came out. Some things have changed then in the OS since this video was shot, but on the whole this is a good intro:

The written review at The Verge is also good.

Meanwhile, there’s yet another alternative if you want an Internet PC for the public without the hassle of rolling your own Windows or Ubuntu box. HP now makes the sexily-named HP Passport 1912nm 18.5-inch Internet Monitor. It’s a custom Linux build that puts users into a browser space with no configuration options. One wonders how serious HP is about this product (although the same could be said about Google, really). But the good news? Just $200 gets you the screen, the OS, keyboard, and mouse all in one box.

If you’re using Chrome OS devices in your healthcare organization, I’d love to hear about it.

Health IT Links: 2012-01-03

Here are my selected links, with commentary, from the Health IT, community health center (CHC), nonprofit, and general IT sectors today. Please pass me any recommendations you’ve got in the comments or hit me up on Twitter: @jmproffitt.


  • PhoneFactor (Mini-Review at SC Magazine)
    Add 2-factor authentication based on phone calls, SMS messages, and OATH to your web apps, Terminal Services, Citrix sessions, and RADIUS-backed VPN sessions on the cheap. Pretty cool. SC Magazine certainly liked it. (Another option would be to deploy an SSL VPN with 2-factor features built-in, but that’s a story for another day.)
  • Technologies to watch 2013: Windows Server 2012 cannot be ignored
    The Windows Server platform continues to march on, with some great additions in the 2012 edition. This article points to more than 9 advances that just might solve some problems for you, including the vastly-improved Hyper-V, and some fascinating storage pooling techniques blended with a faster SMB file transmission implementation. Of course, watch out for application hosting issues — your app vendors may not yet support Server 2012. I don’t know about you, but we’re still eliminating Windows Server 2003 servers.


Business of Healthcare

  • WellPoint to cover virtual doctor visits
    More payers are starting to cover telemedicine / telehealth costs. Do you do any telehealth in your clinic today? We don’t do it yet, but there’s a real future here, so I know I’m paying close attention.