Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Google Chromebooks: Some Helpful Tips

When I was considering the purchase of a Chromebook, I was looking for a device that could fulfill several different usage cases.  I had in mind the ability to take the device on vacation and perform the ordinary tasks I usually perform when I’m not at my desk.  These include:

  • Document production, primarily blog post composition and editing.
  • Photo management.  As I take a lot of pictures when I travel, I need to view and upload my photos to my SmugMug account where my photography site is hosted.
  • Media viewing.  Like my editor and her iPad, I sometimes want to view some video and listen to a little music.
  • System administration.  After all, this is, so I have to be able to log into a remote system now and them and get some real work done.
Due to where I live and the places I hang out, I am almost always bathed in the soft, warm glow of Wi-Fi, so lack of Internet connectivity is rarely an issue for me.  This makes a Chromebook a good fit for what I had in mind.

This post will cover some of the interesting things I discovered when I starting using my Chromebook and attempted my usage cases.  There is a nearly secret little switch next to the SIM slot that is used to put the system into “developer mode” which affords the user nearly complete control of the machine including installing a replacement OS, however, everything I will discuss here can be accomplished in regular user mode.

Getting Help

Out of the box, the Samsung Chromebook comes with almost no documentation aside from a very concise quick-start guide.  It relies instead on web-based help.  The Chromebook on-line help can be accessed by typing Ctrl-/.  Chromebooks also have an extensive set of keyboard shortcuts.  A list of key assignments can be displayed by pressing Ctrl-Alt-/.

File Management

Many of my usage cases involve manipulating files in some way or another.  The Chromebook concept of cloud computing does not encourage local storage and this is reflected in the limited number of file operations available to the user.  A rudimentary file manager is invoked by typing Ctrl-m.  There are two directories that may be accessed.  These are the “File Shelf” (the default downloads directory for the browser) and the “External Storage” directory containing the mount points for an SD card or USB mass storage devices.  Chrome OS supports a variety of file system types including FAT, VFAT, NTFS, ISO9660, and Ext3/4 making the system quite Linux-friendly.

Since a Chromebook does not provide local application programs that process files,  a Chromebook supports uploading and downloading files and little else.  The file manager, in its present incarnation is limited to deleting and renaming files.  Copying and moving files between directories and devices is not yet supported.

Fortunately, the web browser does support the file: URI scheme allowing access to the File Shelf and External Devices directories.  No other directories are accessible unless the system is operating in developer mode.  The URLs for the accessible directories are listed below:

File Shelffile:///home/chronos/user/Downloads/
External Storagefile:///media/

To copy a file from one directory or device to another, use the URL listed above to locate the target file, then right click on the file and select “Save link as...” to copy the file to a new location.

Media Viewing

The file manager allows a few file types to be viewed.  It can display JPEGs, and play both MPEG-4, and MP3 files.  As a bonus for Linux users, both Ogg Vorbis and Ogg Theora files are also supported.  Strangely, while the web browser incorporates a PDF viewer, the file manager cannot launch it.  The file manager can launch a media player for video playback.  It is limited to either thumbnail size or full screen, however full screen performance is quite poor.  Using the URLs above to have the web browser directly play the file yields a much better result,  I found that m4v files transcoded for playback on an iPad played fine in the browser.

Chromebooks do not, as of yet, have a full featured media player.  I understand that having one might “pollute” the cloud-only idea behind the Chrome OS, but mobile device owners expect this functionality in portables.

Photo Uploading

Uploading photos from an SD card is very easy.  Modern HTML5 uploaders such as the ones at SmugMug and Google+ work great.

The Terminal

One of the really unexpected features on a Chromebook is the terminal.  Typing Ctrl-Alt-t opens a new full screen window (as opposed to a tab) containing the Chrome OS shell, called “crosh.”  The shell is very limited.  It supports just a few commands, mostly network diagnostics, but it also supports an SSH client so you can open a terminal, launch SSH and get access to remote systems.  Since it is possible to open multiple terminal windows you can perform some useful work.  Chrome OS uses the X window system for its underlying graphics, and the usual middle click (3 finger click on the touch pad) will paste text on the terminal.  Even though the SSH client is present, there are no scp or sftp commands available in crosh.  In fact, no file system access is possible from the shell.

One problem I have with the terminal is the small font size.  I think its probably fine for many people, but old folks like me will find it difficult.  Unfortunately, the text size is not adjustable.

**UPDATE** August 13, 2011
Version 13 of Chrome OS was pushed out a few days ago (Google touts that they will update the OS about every 6 weeks) and among its improvements are speedups for video playback in the file manager. The bookmarks suggested above are still useful but now you can realistically watch a video in the file manager, unlike before.

Further Reading