30 day challenge: Chromebook Pixel

For May 2013 I decided to try making a Chromebook Pixel my primary laptop. So how did it go? Well, the short version is that I’m still a happy Pixel user, almost three months after my one month challenge started.

Previously, I was using a Thinkpad 420s running Goobuntu. In fact, I’ve been using Thinkpads since 1998, when I got my first one in grad school. Before I talk about the Pixel, here’s what I like about Thinkpads:
- Thinkpad keyboards have been the best in the industry. Great depth and just-right resistance. I especially liked the Thinkpad’s dedicated back/forward buttons for web browsing, located right near the arrow keys. Unfortunately, Lenovo has moved to “chiclet” style keyboards and dropped the back/forward buttons in newer Thinkpads.
- Thinkpads have a red rubber TrackPoint in the middle of the keyboard. TrackPoint pointers are faster and more precise than trackpads or even mice for me, since you don’t have to take your hands off the keyboard. I didn’t think I could use a laptop without a TrackPoint.
- Thinkpads have a consistent power connector that doesn’t change very often. Most Google conference rooms have Thinkpad and Mac power connectors, so you don’t have to haul a power cord around with you.
- The Thinkpad 420s has a black magnesium case that’s not as cold on your lap when it wakes up as aluminum.
- The Thinkpad 420s has a 1600 x 900 widescreen. Until retina-type displays came out, that was one of the highest-resolution laptops you could get.

Okay, Thinkpads are great machines. But what’s not to like?
- Battery life. When I kept my screen pretty bright, I only got 2-3 hours of battery life.
- Heavy. I didn’t notice until I started using the Pixel, but my Thinkpad 420s was 5.2 pounds. That’s pretty darn hefty for a laptop these days.

Overall though, I was very pleased with my Thinkpad and expected to return to it after the 30 day challenge was up. After all, I’ve been using Thinkpads for 15 years.

Then the Chromebook Pixel surprised me. The main thing you need to know about the Chromebook Pixel is that the screen is phenomenal. The resolution is 2560 x 1700 and 239 pixels per inch (ppi), compared to 227 ppi for a Macbook Pro with retina display. To demonstrate the screen, the Pixel comes with an app called TimeScapes which is drop dead gorgeous. The screen is also a 3:2 aspect ratio, which seems weird for a few days but is actually much better for web browsing than a widescreen display because more of a web page fits on the screen.

The Pixel also comes with a terabyte of Google Drive storage for three years and 12 free Gogo wifi passes for airplane trips. And if you’re worried about the Chrome-only, cloud-only aspect of a Pixel, you can install Linux on it. Even Linus Torvalds likes it.

Okay, but how did it work over 30 days? Better than I expected. I was 12 days in when I realized I’d probably keep using the Pixel after the challenge was over. Let’s run down what’s good and bad:

Good:
- The screen. So nice. Although I don’t understand why they made it so glossy. Screens should be matte, in my opinion.
- Incredibly easy to set up. I use Chrome Sync to sign into Chrome, so basically I just logged in and all my settings, bookmarks, and extensions showed up like magic.
- No configuration. I spent most of this past January reconfiguring several new computers, so “no muss, no fuss” is a big plus.
- The battery life is better. More like five hours, so I’m not constantly looking for a power adapter. If Google puts a Haswell chip in the Pixel, the sucker should go practically all day.
- The trackpad works great. The physical texture of it is silky-smooth, and I never saw any of the glitches that affected the CR-48. Sometimes I do accidentally click when I’m touching the trackpad just to move the cursor, but that’s hard to get right.

There were a few times I missed a regular laptop though:
- John Dvorak’s blog got hacked, and I wanted to send Dvorak a snippet of code that I fetched from his server, but the Pixel doesn’t have wget installed of course. You can do SSH, so I could have SSH’ed into another computer to fetch the page, but I didn’t bother.
- At one point I was trying to download a list of my books from Good Reads in comma separated value (CSV) form so I could upload the file to My Library on Google Books. The Pixel didn’t know what to do with a .csv file, which surprised me since Gmail and Google Drive seem to handle them fine. I suspect that this is a temporary “slip between the cracks” sort of thing, since it looks like Google is working on editing Office docs on Chrome OS. There have been a few times that I’ve downloaded a file and just wanted a simple text editor to tweak 2-3 characters in the file though.
- When you have a ton of tabs open using a lot of memory, clicking back on a tab that had been unused for a long time could cause the tab to reload. If you had unsaved work in the tab, you might lose it. This got better (but not perfect) over time. I’m not sure if Chrome OS got better, or I just got more careful with my tab management though.

One thing that annoyed me (selecting large blocks of text was slow when you had to scroll) was fixed when Chrome OS updated to a newer version. I have faith that other tiny annoyances–scrolling a page with two fingers doesn’t work for some reason when your cursor is over a tab instead of a web page, for example–will also be fixed. At the same time, I haven’t fully adapted to the touch screen and dedicated search button and don’t use either as much I could. But in general, the Pixel seems like it will just continue to get faster and better over time, not slower and cruftier like most machines.

So is the Pixel perfect? Not completely, but most of that (glossy screen vs. matte, trackpad vs. TrackPoint, chiclet vs. regular laptop keyboard) is a matter of personal preference. If you’re in the Apple ecosystem, I understand the decision to get a MacBook Pro with Retina display so you can run native apps. But I’m not in the Apple ecosystem, and I actually like a machine that discourages me from keeping too much data locally.

A lot of people poke fun at Chromebooks saying that they’re not much use without a WiFi connection. Personally, I believe that practically any computer is not much use without a network connection. Chromebooks are getting better at working well offline, but I have to say: the Pixel I’m using has an LTE option for when WiFi isn’t available, and I didn’t need to use the LTE connection on the Pixel any time in the last three months. Especially when you take the Google Drive storage and 12 internet passes into account, the Pixel is quite a good deal for a premium laptop. I’m going to keep using it.

This is getting long, so I’ll close with an anecdote. My Dad visited earlier this month. I gave him a Samsung Chromebook as a loaner for his visit and he’s been using it happily. He logged into his Gmail account in Chrome and his bookmarks and other Chrome settings just showed up. Dad’s laptop back home is about 5 years old, so we stopped by the Apple store. I was going to outfit him with a top-of-the-line MacBook; since he goes for years between upgrades, I wanted him to have a laptop that would last as long as possible. But after noticing the price, he balked. “Matt, we can buy ten Chromebooks for that much money,” he told me. We’re still discussing it, but the $250 Samsung Chromebook does everything he needs. I think more and more people will discover that’s true for them as well. I’ve been surprised how well the Chromebook Pixel works for me.

30 day challenge: no social media, no news

I realized that I didn’t mention this widely: my current 30 day challenge (July 2013) is not to read any news or social media. So no Twitter, Google News, Techmeme, Google+, Hacker News, Reddit, Imgur, etc. So if you’re wondering why I haven’t replied to a question, that’s the reason. I might still share a link if I run across something interesting, but I’m trying not to read any social media or news.

Why am I doing this? I find it to be a useful challenge. I’m crunching on a bunch of stuff and really wanted to get my head down and focus on some projects. I did this challenge in January 2013 and got a ton of stuff done. After the no-news challenge in January, I started surfing Twitter less often. I’d still check in every 3-4 days to read the tweets that people were sending my way, but otherwise I’d hit Nuzzel to skim just the most important tweets.

Longer-term, I’m trying to find a healthier approach to news and social media. On the spectrum of books to magazines to newspapers to social media with its second-by-second focus, I’d like to shift my media consumption more toward books and research. I’d also like to spend less time consuming media and more time doing things. See Clay Johnson’s Information Diet book for more about those kinds of ideas.

What I learned from time away from the internet and email

Hey folks, I just finished January’s 30 day challenge: no news, no Twitter, fewer emails, and no social media in general. For February, my wife and I are trying a gluten-free, wheat-free month to see what that’s like.

Okay, so how was January? I started with a week completely off the internet, which coincided with a reading vacation. The fact is that I *love* to read. I averaged about a book a day for a week.

In general, when I wanted to hop onto Techmeme or Google News or Hacker News or Twitter/Nuzzel, instead I opened up my to-do list. As a result, I got a ton of stuff done in January. I quickly learned that if something important was happening, I’d hear about it from someone else.

The month off also gave me a chance to think about email dysfunction. I try hard to filter my inbox aggressively: I auto-archive almost all mailing lists, I don’t sign up for newsletters, and I filter out notifications from web services. Despite that, here’s what my inbox looked like when I got back:

- 258 email threads in my inbox (I had 20 when I left). It was a quiet week: the first week in January.
- 153 threads were non-Google email threads
- only 14 threads directly involved members of my team
- 8 threads that involved my manager or someone up my reporting chain
- 6 threads involving PR or legal in some way

As you can see, a huge issue for me is email threads that originate from outside Google–that’s over half the email threads in my inbox! I’m going to keep ramping down on responding to external emails, because replying to a private communication might help that person, but in the same amount of time I could make a webmaster video or write something more general that would help a lot more people. In lots of ways, email just isn’t scalable.

Added: Someone asked how I stay in touch enough to know what topics people care about if I’m not answering email. Sorry if I didn’t explain that clearly. I still see what people are discussing on SEO blogs and on the Google webmaster forum. I know the most recent trends in how blackhats try to spam Google–that’s my primary job, after all. I look through the questions and comments that people send me on Twitter. When I put out a call for webmaster video questions, I use Google Moderator so people can vote up questions that interest them. I keep an eye on what flavors of spam snake oil are being marketing to newbies on various forums (“I know Google pulled apart my last link network, but now try my Social Rank Tout Suite product! It will automate 100% of all of your link building!”). And lots of people at Google keep an eye open themselves and alert me if they see issues. So I feel like I have a pretty good feel for the pulse of what people are talking about; it’s just that I lack the time to have one-on-one conversations with every person that emails me.

Going away for a week is also a great way to spot emails you should have filtered but didn’t. For example, I had 8 automatic emails alerting me to various people taking vacation. People work hard at Google; I usually don’t need to know if you’re taking a day or two off. I found 4 other mailing lists I could auto-archive or unsubscribe to. In general, taking some time off provides a useful perspective on what’s waiting for you when you get back.

Is anyone else doing a 30 day challenge? What are you tackling?

Taking a week off from the internet

The end of the year is a perfect time to think about goals. Did you get done what you wanted in 2012? What do you want to accomplish in 2013? Instead of setting year-long goals, I’m a big fan of trying out new things for a month at a time:



This month I’m going to try to unplug from Twitter and most news. I’m also going to cut down on replying to email.

I’m going to start out with a week without internet. Harper Reed called it a “reading vacation” and I can’t wait to curl up with a few books.

Is there something you’ve always wanted to learn or try? Why not give it a shot for 30 days and see how it goes?

New 30 day challenge: get good sleep

For October 2012, I tried to practice the ukulele every day. I ended up doing more traveling than I expected, but I managed to play ukulele most of the days. I’m still a total beginner, but it was a lot of fun! My favorite song to play so far is M.T.A. by the Kingston Trio. My Dad used to play that sometimes as I was growing up.

For November 2012, I mentioned to my wife that I was thinking of trying to get good sleep this month, like eight hours a night. My wife’s reaction could be categorized as skeptical at best. Which just makes me want to do it, of course. :)

So I’m setting a goal of eight hours of sleep a night for the next 30 days. We’ll see how it goes! If you want more context, here’s what I mean when I talk about 30 day challenges:



Why not think about something that sounds like fun, or that you’ve wanted to start, and give it a shot for the next 30 days?

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