How a Chromebook got me through Hurricane Sandy

Stuck on a Samsung Chromebook for the week following superstorm Sandy, CNET editor Seth Rosenblatt was surprised to find the laptop struggled in one key area.

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When it comes to consumer technology, I expect failure. At some point, your tech will break and let you down. But it was my own human error that led me to use one of the new Samsung Chromebooks for the week following Sandy, and it held its own in a couple of specific but widely used situations.

I was in New York for the Windows 8 launch on October 26, and had decided to spend an extra week there for work, but also to see friends. I made a tactical error in leaving my workhorse Windows 7 laptop in the CNET office over the weekend, figuring I wouldn't need it until Monday. I didn't think Sandy's storm surge would wreak havoc on lower Manhattan.

With the power out, the subways closed, and the CNET office in the lower Manhattan "dead zone," I was bound to Brooklyn and its cafes offering free Wi-Fi for the week following Sandy. I was staying with friends on South Slope, and was completely unaffected by Sandy. I'd like to call this luck, but the fact is that the vast majority of New York went unscathed. Too many people did lose power and water, and too many lost their homes. It had everything to do with not being in a potential flood zone, and not receiving power from a substation felled by poor emergency preparations, and nothing to do with luck.

So in the days after the storm, cafes with free Wi-Fi in the trendy Park Slope neighborhood were jammed with newly itinerant workers, working remotely while the city's emergency crews worked around the clock to pump water out of the subways and helped those hurt by the storm.

The Chromebook allowed me to work, mostly. I do all of my writing in Google Drive, and CNET uses corporate Gmail, so the Chrome OS-powered laptop ought to have been a natural fit.

Its biggest flaw, which I encountered within my first hour of work each day, was that it died on the table from nothing more than too many tabs. And I'm not talking about 100 tabs, either.

I would have my personal and work Gmail accounts open, along with a Google Reader tab for keeping an eye on site feeds, a handful of Google Drive documents and spreadsheets, YouTube or Pandora for music, and then Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ to keep an eye on my social feeds. I was also checking several news sites' live blogs of the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

It doesn't sound like a lot, but that's already at least 10 tabs. Along with opening and closing various tabs as I wrote throughout the day, it was pretty easy to hit 20 tabs. I've noticed that Chrome starts behaving sluggishly in Windows 7 at around 20 tabs, but I started seeing odd behavior around 15 or so on the Chromebook. It would start reloading a tab automatically whenever I would jump into it, even if I'd only last looked at 5 minutes before.

Never mind unexpected. That behavior was immensely frustrating when jumping between e-mail and an open document.

The other major limitation I encountered in the Chromebook was image editing. Grabbing a screenshot, opening it in an image editor, saving the changes, and uploading it to CNET's publishing tools was a tedious process. In part that was because of the tab issue: the image editor runs in its own tab, and waiting for it to reload was an exercise in boredom. But I was also unable to edit any of the raw formatted photos that I had taken over the weekend, or earlier at the Microsoft event.

The Chromebook desktop. Google

The larger issue with Chrome OS is that there just aren't enough apps to fuel the kind of single-serving experience that a mobile app or a desktop program offer, and most Web sites aren't yet up to the immersive experience that an app or program provides. When your apps are Web sites, as they are in the Chromebook, site-management limitations combine with a lack of options for a very restricted computing experience.

That's not to say the Chromebook is unusable. It worked well enough to allow me to write, and publish, and in a crisis situation that's more than enough. Offline mode got me through the worst of the heavily used Wi-Fi sluggishness; the instant wake-from-sleep was helpful when returning from taking breaks; and the battery really did last most of the day. It's rated at 6 hours thanks to the lower-power ARM chip. That was important, as wall sockets for recharging were as tight a commodity in post-Sandy Brooklyn cafes as open seats.

For its low price, the $250 Samsung Chromebook and the new $200 Acer version are serious bargains. But for a true multitasking device, or any kind of computing workhorse, you're going to have to look elsewhere.

Although it's not in the news much anymore, the cleanup in the aftermath of Sandy is still ongoing and people are still struggling because of storm damage. If you're inclined, check out the links on how you can help.

 

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