Updated: Jan 8, 2022
I love my Chromebook for work- and school-from-home, but it’s not perfect. I am a college professor, entrepreneur, and father of four. When school suddenly went remote in March 2020, I quickly set up my makeshift office in the garage.
Surprisingly, my Chromebook took center stage while my MacBook had to step aside. Now as we are well into the new school year, Chromebooks are primary devices for my wife who conducted a college choir via Zoom, my two sons who are finishing their physics and seminary degrees, and myself as I teach software engineering courses at Cal Poly and Westmont College, and run a tech company in San Luis Obispo, CA. In this article I will step through the five delights and frustrations I have experienced while using a Chromebook for remote school and work.
Delight #1 — Writing with a pen
When the world went to laptops, we lost pen and paper. Try doing math on a keyboard, or drawing a picture with a mouse. It’s terrible, nigh impossible!
Chromebooks with a pen put the universe back in order. OK, full disclosure, I am co-founder of Steadfast Innovation that created Squid which is used by millions of people and is making a big splash in schools. Squid lets you take notes and write on PDFs on your Chromebook or Android device. It really shines with devices that have an active pen where you can write with the pen and erase with your finger. I use Squid for giving presentations in Zoom and recorded videos, and for grading papers and taking notes in meetings. We see teachers using Squid as a virtual whiteboard and students completing PDF worksheets.
My university offered me a Wacom One device to use with my Mac. It’s a great idea, and I really like the folks at Wacom and what they have done for pen input, but it just didn’t work for me and many of my colleagues, mostly because we couldn’t find great software to use with it on a Mac. I’ve heard it is better with Windows. I had better luck using the Wacom One to turn a Samsung Android phone into a workstation. That was actually pretty cool.
Frustration #1 — Zoom breakout room presets
I can do most everything I want to do with Zoom on my Chromebook, but there are a few limitations especially for a teacher. The main frustration was when I discovered that I could not preset breakout rooms on my Chromebook like I could on my Mac. In my software engineering capstone classes I had over sixty students in ten teams. During lab I would send all the students to breakout rooms by team. I could preset who goes to which breakout room on my Mac, but not on my Chromebook. So I would keep my Mac up on Zoom just for this feature.
Delight #2 — Peripherals work
I plug a lot of accessories into my Chromebook and they work like a charm. I had to find the right USB-C adapter to handle everything, but once I solved that life is a dream. I bought the FlePow 6-in-1 adapter. I connect an external monitor via HDMI, a USB keyboard from an old
PC, my Blue Yeti mic, and a Logitech C920 HD Pro webcam. The big reason why I chose this adapter was that I needed an ethernet port. Wifi was terrible in my garage, so I ran a long ethernet cable. I have since added another Google Wifi to my mesh network so wifi coverage extends to the garage. Finally, I have a Logitech MX Master bluetooth mouse that I can switch between my Chromebook and Mac with the tap of a button. None of these accessories are necessary, but it feels more productive and it’s nice to have my Chromebook in tablet mode for when I need to take notes or present with the pen in Squid.
Frustration #2 — Zoom backdrops and original audio
Ok, we’re seeing a Zoom trend here, but I promise I’ll move on after this. :) Zoom virtual backdrops aren’t necessary, but… they are pretty fun and can let me adjust for my audience. I don’t mind my students seeing the surfboard and tools and ping-pong table in my messy garage, but there are times when I like to “dress up” for a formal meeting or event like the virtual graduation we did in June. I have to move to my Mac to use virtual backdrops. Similarly, since my wife was doing the unthinkable and directing a college choir via Zoom for a month this fall, she needed to turn off the fancy niceties that Zoom does to eliminate background noise and enable original audio so everyone can hear her play piano and direct at the same time. She has to move from her Chromebook to an old Microsoft Surface Pro when she wants to do that.
Delight #3 — Fast start Chromebooks are famous for booting up quickly. Whether I woke up late for class or I am racing down after my afternoon recharge snack, I can pop open my Chromebook and it’s on and ready to go. No waiting on the screen to come on or surprise Windows updates.
Frustration #3 — MS Office Docs
So technically I can open Word Docs and Powerpoint PPTs on my Chromebook with Office 365, but it’s often slow and a bit more cumbersome, and not all the features are there. I typically jump back over to my Mac when I need to do something like tracking changes in a Word document.
Delight #4 — Low Cost
Chromebooks are available at a range of prices, but the whole range is typically a lot cheaper than Mac and Windows options. Decent entry level Chromebooks are available below $300, and high-end devices are typically under $1000. Now that USI pen technology is rolling out, pen-enabled devices like the new Lenovo ThinkPad C13 Yoga Chromebook are even cheaper.
Frustration #4 — Wifi Signal
Pre-pandemic, I never had much need for wifi in my garage. With my new makeshift office beside the car and collection of furniture waiting to find its way into my 20-something children’s future homes, I was living at the edge of my wifi universe. While my MacBook had a weak and flaky signal, my Pixelbook was on the dark side of the moon. So, my first venture out was to retrieve a 50-foot ethernet cable that could reach from the garage to a downstairs bedroom that I had conveniently wired during a remodel a few years back.
When I moved the two devices closer to wifi, I ran a series of internet speed tests. Interestingly, the MacBook was consistently faster on download speeds, but slower on upload speeds. Here are some sample results:
MacBook: 374.1Mbps down, 2.0Mbps up, 24ms latency
Pixelbook: 204.0Mbps down, 10.7Mbps up, 77ms latency
Yes, there are lots of hardware differences, but the two devices are reasonable representatives of high-end but older (circa 2017) devices.
Delight #5 — Unix! Well this one isn’t for everyone, but it is really nice to be able to use Unix tools and apps on my Chromebook. As a software engineering professor, I have installed IDEs for writing code and I use a Unix terminal for typing git commands and ssh-ing to remote machines. I expect this on my MacBook, but am delighted that I can do all this on my Chromebook.
Frustration #5 — IT Support in College
K-12 schools have embraced Chromebooks. Universities not so much, at least not for faculty. If you are a K-12 school, there is a good chance that your district has moved to Chromebooks (or will soon) and your IT department knows how to manage them. Colleges and universities are sometimes less Chromebook friendly. But hey, as long as we are working from home and not on campus, I guess we don’t have to worry much about IT.
There you have it. Five delights and five frustrations of using a Chromebook for work- and school-from-home. Let us know in the comments about your delights and frustrations during this season of remote learning and work.