Macbook? Chromebook? Notebook? What’s best for me?

If you’re anything like me, you’re sitting there reading this on a 2007 era notebook running a dual boot of Windows Vista and a Linux distro of some kind. Maybe the hinge is loose, perhaps you’ve already upgraded the CPU and RAM, and I am willing to bet that the battery in your old notebook is as dead as the battery is in mine. So what do we do? It’s not like the old beast isn’t sufficient for browsing web, watching a video, and other notebook type tasks, but it sure would be nice to get back to having a truly portable computer, wouldn’t it?

In my case, I could pick up a replacement battery for my Dell Inspiron 1501 for around $40 or so, but the reality is that even when it was brand new and running only a single core processor, the battery life was terrible. $40 isn’t the end of the world and the o’l beast still works, so that’s a good way to go, right? Well… not really, no. Here’s why:

Issues with my old notebook:

  • It produces an uncomfortable amount of heat on the keyboard.
  • Battery life is poor.
  • The screen hinge is loose.
  • The ATi video adapter is no longer supported by the AMD drivers for Linux.
  • It’s heavy.

I actually really like this old “laptop”, mostly because it’s comfortable to type on and has proven to be easy to disassemble and work on. However, it’s 15″ screen on that loose hinge combined with the heat and necessity of being plugged in (all the time and frequently even with a new battery) make it less than enjoyable to use. So in a practical sense, it’s time to replace it. But… what should I replace it with?

Let’s get this out of the way upfront. There are only two reasons why I am not getting a 13″ MacBook Air:

1. It’s too expensive.
2. I couldn’t afford to replace it if got broken.

If those are not considerations for you, then by all means, buy a MacBook! They have a strong chassis, good battery, and good cpu/gpu. Even if you’re not an iPhone or iPad user, the Apple ecosystem is pretty nifty and given that MacBooks are built with standard PC hardware these days, one can still install Windows and Linux on them. When money is not an issue, it’s hard to turn one’s nose up at a solid chassis, nice screen, excellent battery, x86 cpu, and a polished *nix type operating system.

Moving on… there are plenty of affordable 15″ notebooks running Windows 10 these days, but finding the magic mixture of solid chassis, good keyboard, acceptable CPU / RAM / Video / Hard Drive, good battery life, and reasonable screen is a tougher than one would think. Compounding those issues, chassis quality and keyboard feel are, understandably, impossible to judge when shopping online. Issues one does not encounter when shopping for a MacBook! ๐Ÿ™‚

Form my poking around, prices for Windows notebooks seem to range from $300 to $3,500, which should mean that there’s something in there for everyone. Indeed, HP, Dell, Lenovo, and Toshiba all offer notebooks in chassis that compete with the quality of the MacBook for similar price points and there are plenty of offerings in the low, mid, and insane price ranges as well.

When it comes to my portable computing needs, the performance of my current 1.8GHz AMD Turion64x2 with 3GB of DDR2 RAM is fine in Windows Vista (32Bit Home Basic) and Debian 8 (64Bit Linux). That being the case, the new “low power” CPUs from Intel, AMD, and various ARM-based manufacturers are attractive, because their performance is on par with my 2007 era dual core CPU, yet they are an order of magnitude more energy efficient. Power saving on a desktop isn’t a super compelling talking point, but in the portable space, the difference can mean 10 hours of use rather than only 2 hours! Not only that, but the low power processors end up achieving their longer up time while using batteries that are smaller and lighter than notebooks powered by traditional mobile CPUs. Given that the entire point of using a notebook is for it to be a portable, if not mobile, experience, then moving to something that is “good enough” while also having 10+ hours of portable up time is kind of a no brainer!

Maximizing one’s value for the dollar while purchasing a notebook with a low power CPU is a challenge! Spend too much and you may as well buy a notebook with a full mobile CPU/APU that will give you enough performance to play games, edit videos, and compile software in a timely manner. You can always buy an additional battery, right? But how much is “too much” to spend on a notebook with a low power CPU? See, even that question tough to answer, now that we have convertible devices!

Here in 2015 we can buy a Microsoft Surface Tablet or an Asus Transformer (examples off the top of my head) that have low power ARM or x86 processors for tablets, yet they come with a keyboard sufficient enough to allow them to fit the role of a traditional notebook. However, such devices tend to come at premium price that conflicts with the raw performance one can get for the same price in a traditional notebook. Do you want to use your notebook as a tablet? Do you mind paying a premium for such a feature? Personally, I am not interested, but I think it is a valid consideration for many people, particularly those who are buying their first non-smartphone computing device. In theory, for folks who are primarily content consumers, creating little more themselves than documents and the occasional image, convertible tablets are certainly more convenient than desktops and definitely handy in terms of managing one’s data (it’s always on a device that can be used anywhere). This device paradigm may well be worth the price premium for some (if not most!) notebook users. Microsoft sure has put a lot eggs in this basket, if that means anything to ya!

Setting aside convertibles and notebooks with traditional CPUs and limiting the price range to what makes sense to spend on a CPU that is just “good enough”, puts us into Chromebook and low-end Windows 10 notebook territory. But what does that mean?

Hardware wise, when it comes to the standard Chromebook or low-end Windows 10, here’s what you’re likely to get for your $250 (give or take $50):

CPU: 2.16GHz Intel Celeron N2830 or 1.8GHz Quad Core Cortex-A17 ARM
RAM: 2GB DDR
Storage: 16GB or 32GB Solid State Drive
Screen: 11.6″ 1366×768 resolution of modest quality
Keyboard: Standard notebook size and design
Chassis: Quality varies, but most are sturdy.
Battery Life: 6 – 12 hours, depending on CPU, battery size, and operating system.

Honestly, that modest setup is fine for browsing the web, watching videos, writing, and most general desktop/notebook tasks. And if you use online storage or an SD card or USB stick, the small and speedy solid state drives are a boon rather than a problem. I guess the downside comes along when you buy one of these low end Windows 10 notebooks and try to use it for software that it’s just not designed for, such as video editing and big games. Would it be better to have a notebook that could do more? No, not if you’re not actually going to do any of those things with it!

So it turns out that biggest considerations are ChromeOS vs. Windows 10 and chassis quality.

Most of the world is already familiar with Windows in general, but what is this ChromeOS thing all about? Well, to put it simply, ChromeOS is a heavily customized Linux based environment created by Google that is centered around their Chrome web browser. The browser handles most of the tasks one needs, but there are other “apps” one can download and use off-line as well. So… ChromeOS isn’t Windows, but it’s not trying to be and… that’s OK!

Another interesting aspect of ChromeOS is that (when it is set to developer mode) one can use a script called Crouton to install a fully functional Linux desktop environment, such as XFCE, that one can toggle to and from at any time with a simple key combo! This is made possible due to the use of a full Linux environment that is essentially the same as any other Linux installation (unlike Android, which is a Java runtime environment running on top of the Linux kernel). This means that stuff like the full LibreOffice suit, GIMP, and various other open source software can run on a Chromebook without much fuss. This solution isn’t without its drawbacks, but I have to say that it’s actually a really elegant solution that is a step ahead of the standard dual boot setup.

Speaking of dual booting operating systems, it can be done on most Windows 10 and ChromeOS devices, but ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS do your research on a device before making a purchase, because BIOS/Firmware for computers is not standardized and some products may actively prevent the user from dual booting. A Chromebook will usually allow you to dual boot when developer mode is enabled and a Windows 10 notebook may or may not let you dual boot operating systems. Keep in mind that storage space is at a premium and a dual boot on a Chromebook may require using a USB drive or SD card.

From what I have read, on the same type of hardware there isn’t much difference in battery life between Windows 10 and ChromeOS. Battery life is a little better in both operating systems on ARM based hardware rather than Intel or AMD x86 based hardware, but it’s no longer a huge deal thanks to the low power x86 CPUs. So with that in mind, I feel that the choice between a Windows or a ChromeOS device really boils down to personal preference based on these factors:

  • Do I need software that only runs in Windows?
  • Do I need software that requires an x86 processor? (Intel, AMD, VIA)
  • Do I mind the fuss of dual booting, etc?
  • Does the hardware meet my needs? (Screen, keyboard, ports, connectivity)

In my case, as a long time Linux enthusiast, I actually very much appreciate the setup of ChromeOS running a Crouton-installed Linux Desktop Environment. This is my kind of geekery! For many years I have dual booted Windows and Linux and if I have learned anything it’s that even if rebooting only takes a few seconds, it’s often too much of a pain in the arse to bother with. For instance, I wrote this in Windows Vista, because that’s what I booted up to use a particular program. Normally I would use Debian on this machine, but for managing the blog it really doesn’t matter what OS I use and I couldn’t be arsed to reboot.

Anyhow, another feather in Chomebook’s cap for me is its price. Without endorsing any particular brand or retailer, suffice it to say that I can pick up a new Intel based Chromebook with above average specs for about $100 less than a low end Windows 10 notebook with average specs. For a Linux user like me, the value built into some Chromebooks is as hard to ignore as a MacBook is for a person who has money to burn. However, you may find that the Windows or Mac ecosystems are more suitable for your needs and thus add significant value beyond what spec sheets, price tags, and good old physical prodding can determine.

For me, a Chromebook is more than “good enough” – it’s the portable Linux machine I have been waiting for. Now all I need to do is pick one… ๐Ÿ™‚

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