This is the first post in a 3-part series on using a Chromebook as a power user. It gives a high-level overview of how I'm using my Chromebook and some basic Chrome OS configuration steps. Part 2 digs deeper to show advanced users how to use crouton to install Debian Linux in a chroot. Part 3 finishes up by configuring LXDE and connecting to a remote FreeBSD desktop running xrdp.
We all wear many hats. In my role as Household Systems Administrator, I manage more devices than I'd like. The desktop, my work laptop, and the youngster's college laptop (devices with important data on them) are actively managed: they get security updates for the OS and apps within days of release plus regularly scheduled backups. We also have a Windows VM that's actively managed, but it can skip backups since it's on the desktop. In addition, I manage the server that hosts this site and provide "IT support" for all devices within our home. Sometimes it feels like a second job, which is why I look for ways to minimize the workload while still meeting everyone's needs. All the important data is on the desktop, it's set up the way I like, and it's already actively managed, so adding another laptop to the mix seems like something to be avoided. Yet I live in the real world where computer activities happen throughout the house and may require more than a tablet to perform.
My solution is to treat our laptop as a dumb terminal. Almost everything we do on it is through remoting the desktop (or the Windows VM in the little woman's case). That makes our laptop essentially throwaway: it has no important data and even the setup/configuration is mostly generic. This approach enables us to get by with aging hardware as well, because all the power is in the desktop. Still, our 6+ year old laptop was ready for retirement, so I've been on the lookout for a sub-$400 replacement. While Chromebooks are generally inexpensive, most are also under-powered. Even as a dumb terminal, I can't imagine using a laptop with only 2 GB of RAM. Also, I had no experience with Chrome OS, so I didn't know what to expect from it. When I saw the Toshiba CB35-B3340 13.3" Chromebook with a full HD screen and 4 GB of RAM go on sale for $215 on Cyber Monday ($292 at the time of this post), I couldn't resist giving it a shot.
This is a sleek little machine. It's thin and lightweight at just under 3 lbs. and is very snappy. Using an SSD for storage enables it to boot and load files quickly. Although 16 GB isn't a lot of disk space, Google sweetens the deal by offering 100 GB of Google Drive cloud storage for 2 years. It has stellar battery life at a solid 8+ hours, which makes it the first truly all-day laptop I've ever used. The initial setup is a breeze on Chrome OS: provide your wireless password and your Google login (or create a Google account) and you're in. The settings are essentially what you find in the Chrome browser plus control over hardware such as the touchpad, keyboard, display, and Bluetooth. You can also add other users, restrict logins to the users you specify (as opposed to allowing any Google account to log in), and enable guest access. It's the simplest OS configuration I've ever encountered, but still has everything you need for a low maintenance Internet appliance.
Hardware and Software
I had convinced myself that full HD was the way to go, but it turned out to be too good for a 13.3" screen. One of the first settings I changed was to increase the page zoom to 110% (Settings -> Show advanced settings... -> Page zoom) as people recommended online. Many other screen elements were still too small, so I changed the page zoom back to 100% and reduced the resolution down a notch to 1536 x 864 (Settings -> Display settings -> Resolution). That hit the sweet spot and is a more consistent solution than increasing the page zoom. I was caught off guard by the lack of function keys on the top row of the keyboard, which I discovered is typical of Chromebooks. However, you can change the top row keys to behave like function keys in the settings if that's ever an issue for you. Having an SSD in place of a spinning disk combined with the fanless design not only leads to noiseless operation, but it also means you can be more carefree with no moving parts to worry about (although crashing the head on a spinning disk shouldn't happen with modern drives).
On the software side, I was a little disappointed. I knew the OS was based on Chrome, but I simply didn't consider how much of a limitation that would be. My unfounded expectation was that Chrome OS would be more like a "laptop version of the Android OS" than an "OS version of the Chrome browser." Rather than larger versions of Android apps, you get beefier standalone browser extensions (and in some cases not even that—some "apps" are simply shortcuts that launch a website in a Chrome tab). For example, installing Firefox isn't an option because it can't run inside Chrome. All the popular extensions are available, but the overall app quality and selection on the Chrome Web Store is poor compared to the Android apps on Google Play. Still, for a casual user or an Internet appliance, the available apps should be fine and the options should improve over time. Given my use case of casual surfing and using it as a dumb terminal to remote my desktop for anything heavy, it's more than adequate (with 1 exception noted in Part 2 of this series).
Enabling Privacy on Chrome OS
I'm not a "hand over my life to the cloud" sort of fellow, so my next step was to enable some privacy. The Advanced sync settings... section lets you choose what to sync, so I only allowed Apps, Extensions, Settings, and Themes & wallpapers. Google already knows what apps and extensions I download and nothing feels "private" about my Chrome OS settings. Allowing those items to sync to the cloud feels like a good trade-off in return for having my preferences automatically applied any time I log into a Chrome OS device (including a reset, or Powerwash, of this Chromebook). If you want extra privacy, you can enable the option to Encrypt all synced data with your own sync passphrase. To clear any data that may have already synced, visit the Chrome Sync page. Further, the Show advanced settings... link reveals a Privacy section where you can enable "Do Not Track" and disable many of Google's phone-home features (essentially, everything that requires Internet access to function).
Since I do a bit of web surfing directly on the Chromebook, I also added some privacy enhancing extensions. My current favorite ad blocker is uBlock Origin with all 3 filters by Disconnect enabled in addition to the defaults (Options -> 3rd-party filters). To reduce online tracking, I installed Ghostery with all trackers blocked. Finally, the EFF provides Privacy Badger to increase privacy online and HTTPS Everywhere to make web browsing more secure. To put the icing on the cake, I headed over to DuckDuckGo and clicked the button at the bottom of the page to change the default search engine to one that doesn't track its users. This combination of settings and extensions provides a much higher level of privacy than the out of the box experience.
After 3 months of usage, we're extremely happy with our Chromebook. While it doesn't have the power or app selection of a traditional laptop, it makes a great Internet appliance and dumb terminal. The only maintenance it requires is an occasional reboot to apply updates, which are automatically downloaded. The little woman uses it to surf, check email, and RDP into her Windows VM. It provides instant-on access to the web and, as described in Part 3, remote access to my FreeBSD desktop.
Now that you have the basic Chrome OS configuration done, move on to Part 2 to learn how to use crouton to install Debian Linux in a chroot.