Chromebook vs MacBook

by luke patrick

an experiment and a comparison

A while back, I vowed to give Chrome OS another go as my primary work horse. There were a lot of reasons, most of which you can read about here. But to summarize, I love the fact that the OS puts all my stuff in the cloud. Plus, someone with a low budget can do most of my job with a sub 200 piece of hardware.

Both of these things are good, but how does a Chromebook stack up versus a MacBook? Can you replace a MacBook with a Chromebook?

To find out, I spent a month following this set of rules:

  • Rule #1: The Chromebook will be my primary work horse, and barring emergencies, I will abstain from Mac OS X.
  • Rule #2: There will be exceptions. Where I can find a solution to an exception using Ubuntu, I will do just that.
  • Rule #3: I’ll use open source or free software only. This simulates what it’s like to use a Chromebook as a cash-strapped kid.
  • Rule #4: At the end of the project, I’ll provide a detailed rundown of what worked, what did not and what you need to replace your Mac with a Chromebook.

Them’s the rules, and for a whole damn month, I did it. So for those with an eye to be easily pleased, here’s the tidy summary.

Can you replace a MacBook with a Chromebook? . . . No. You can’t. But that doesn’t mean you can’t give it a try!

And for most things you do, the Chromebook will be more than adequate. Plus, using Linux on the side does round out the platform quite a bit.

All in all, it was more doable than I thought. And barring a few major problems, you’ll find the experience an exciting one. If you’ve been thinking about replacing your MacBook with a Chromebook, use the headings below to see if it’s a good fit.

S*&% You Can Absolutely Replace

For most activities done on a MacBook, you only need the Chrome browser. For instance, surfing YouTube and Facebook requires no extra input at all. If you want your Facebook experience to be faster, you can even use a tool like Facebook Flat.

Same goes for basic operations like writing or number crunching. Google Docs and Google Sheets will both keep you covered without issue. If you want an iTunes replacement, you can — for the most part — get by with Spotify. Though if you need to manage your iPhone’s music via your computer, you’re SOL. Then again, who does that in 2016, anyway?

In the office, you’ll find Google Hangouts is a more than suitable GoToMeeting replacement. Plus Slack comes stock in the Chrome Store.

And if we look beyond the standard Chrome experience, Ubuntu provides a wealth of new options. In my previous review of the Chrome OS, I mentioned needing an easier way to SSH into my servers. Thanks to Crouton, managing a shell script or two is no problem via the built-in Chrome terminal.

Crouton does a number for several other pain points, too. FTP is more than manageable thanks to FileZilla . Same goes for Torrent downloads — of a strictly legal variety. And if you feel restricted by my favorite Chrome editor Caret, you can use Linux to hack away in Atom.

It’s all pretty seamless. By default, Crouton runs as a switchable desktop. You can accessit when needed by pressing Ctrl+Alt+Shift+Back or Ctrl+Alt+Shift+Forward.I actually preferred to simply start the apps I needed via the command line. They ran in tabs just like Chrome apps, and for the most part, it was beautiful. But, we’ll talk more about that in a second.

Overall, the theory of using Ubuntu in the background to compliment Chrome OS is a sound one. If you just need a few tweaks and additions, it makes the Chromebook a true competitor to a MacBook or MacBook Air.


S*&% You Might Be Able to Replace

From here out, though, things are going to get weird. All the above solutions work well, but immediately I found some problems with no obvious remedy. Some were more solvable than others.

For instance, I prefer an actual email client. On my MacBook I make heavy use of AirMail . I would have preferred to see Sparrow make it through the ages, but whatever. Life moves on.

Either way, such an option just isn’t available for Chrome OS — yet, anyway. Sure, you can use CloudMagic, but it’s a slow, often buggy experience.

So what can you do? Well, you can go one of two ways. You can use Google’s Gmail service itself, a solution that works well for those with one or two inboxes. It’s all pretty smooth, and if you want a fancier experience, try Inbox by Google. I actually like the latter. But until it adds a unified inbox, Gmail is a better fit for Frequent Emailers like myself.

That being said, I missed having a dedicated email client running in the background. I hardly think about AirMail unless I need it, and then it’s there for me. Plus, it’s beautiful and offers a wealth of add-ons (snooze, to-do lists, etc.) that make it handy. What if I don’t want to compromise at all?

There’s not a lot of hope here — at least for now. By using Ubuntu, you can harness the full power of Nylas N1. And I have to say, it’s a beautiful, powerful piece of open source software. Chrome also makes it a little slow to run at times. Which hardly remedies our original problem. If I can’t leave it running in the background, then I’m better off using a native app like Gmail.

The last alternative is simply to use your phone. This is what I did most of the time. AirMail released a new iOS app simultaneously with Chrome OS II: The Reckoning. As such, it was often quicker to pop out my phone and fire off a message that way. Shamefully, when I had to send a lot of emails, I usually cracked the MacBook.

We’ll be hearing about that MacBook a lot more from here out.

Starting with texting. As of writing this, there’s actually more hope for me.I just purchased the new Nexus 6P. Thatmeans things like AirDroid and Pushbullet are now on the table. With that in mind, the Chromebook may become a whole new platform for my communication needs.

For those with an iOS device, though, prepare to use your phone here, too.

Aside from these pain points, 1Password integration is still a problem. Though, they also released a new service (1Password for Teams) that helped to relieve some pressure. It feels like a workaround, though, and isn’t as fluid as the native Mac model.


S*&% You Cannot Replace

There were still a few areas where neither time nor Linux helped. Namely, graphics.

I complained about this a lot the last time around, but if you want to perform an Adobe-style task, you are out of luck. At least via Chrome OS itself. There are options, but none are nearing production quality — not for professional use, anyway. You can read the original for a more in-depth breakdown of what Google-native stuff has to offer.

I had high hopes that Linux might provide a boost here. And to be fair it did a little. I tried Gimp, Inkscape, and Xara. Hell, I even installed WINE and rolled Illustrator up that way. And yet —

Don’t get me wrong. I love open source software, and a good Linux app gets me excited. But the experience with this is just not there. I can’t imagine a creative at even a small firm bringing Inkscape into a meeting. The file format transfer between standard Adobe options and these programs is a mess. Even using a raw SVG can get weird.

All in all, there are just too many inconsistencies and bugs to make design via Chrome worth it. Plus, Mac OS X has Sketch — in my opinion, the greatest design suite ever constructed.

My attempt to replace MacBook with Chromebook coincided with a bunch of new design projects. I will admit there were days when I shoved the Mac into my bag and did not swap back until I returned that evening. If I purchased a Chromebook Pixel and used WINE on the side, I might be able to achieve the same results in Chrome OS. But considering that solution costs more than my MacBook Air, it’s just not worth it.


Too Many Rules Broken

After a month of trying to use only Chrome OS, I came away a little disheartened. I actually came to relish the moments I caved and used my MacBook. Depriving yourself of those Mac niceties makes them seem almost Godlike when you return. And here’s the crux of the matter:

I actually managed to keep to my own rules pretty well. Other than using Sketch a lot, I kept to the Chromebook and used open source software. In fact, there are a lot of cool (and totally free) projects out there. N1 is a great example. The app looks beautifuland can be forked on GitHub at no cost.

But I also had some philosophical problems with the experiment. I came to realize that using Linux breaks what I love most about Chrome OS. I could no longer Power Wash my computer, lest I break my new Linux installs. Considering it takes 30-minutes or more to setup again, the cloud Zen is trashed. There are SD Card workarounds, but —it’s just not the same.

Likewise, I wanted to prove that a kid with a dream and $200 could go without a MacBook forever. At this point, I don’t think that’s the case. Not completely, anyway.

Sure, the Chromebook powers through most tasks with ease. And for coding, it can’t be beat. But if a kid needs to learn Linux, use less-than ideal software (for designing) and shell out for a Chromebook with lots of RAM to run Inkscape. . . . The original hypothesis breaks down sooner than later.


Going Forward

You might be surprised to hear, then, that I’m still using my Chromebook. Quite a lot, actually. When I need to code for hours at a time, you’ll find me at Alpine Modern hacking out an API or swearing at Javascript. All via Chrome OS.

I did reset the software, though. My Acer is running pure Chrome OS, and I’m much happier. After a month of abstaining post-experiment, I’m once again enjoying the simplicity. It seems forcing yourself into Chrome OS limitations can really take the shine off. But after some time to recoup, it’s all still there waiting for me.

Chromebooks are fantastic machines. I will continue to evangelize them to just about anyone I meet. But they can’t replace a MacBook.

For day-to-day use with most consumers, it’ll be a welcome, simplified change. Just know that until Google works out the kinks, it’s no Mac OS X Killer.

Not yet, anyway.

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