I bought my mother in law a Chromebook and it might have saved our marriage
The year is 2007. A still ungrayed Barack Obama is just beginning to seek election. The iPhone is announced. The final Harry Potter book is announced. And I graduate college with the now massive seeming Dell Inspiron that I got in 2003 when entering school. My back and shoulders would never be in better shape from carrying it to class. In the fall, with a real job which gives me a computer, I no longer need the Dell, so we give it to my mother in law. She is quite happy. Over the years, I become less so due to the tech support the aging Dell needs.
To be fair, my mother in law only really uses the computer for email, keeping in touch with family and friends, reading the news, and some light web browsing, and doesn’t need that much support. However, it does become a common theme to spend 15–30 minutes each visit fixing something or trying to eek out some performance from the aging beast. Each time I am struck by the incredibly slow performance, often times taking 30 seconds or more to open a new tab or switch windows. I install a litany of malware and adware detectors and typically remove 300 to 500 items. Never full viruses, these tend to just be random adware injectors from the depths of the internet. Just running the scan can take hours. Each time, the computer feels new again, though just slightly slower than the last time. In 2010, the DVD drive dies, so we find a cheap usb drive on Amazon. In 2012, the battery is so depleted the laptop can no longer be unplugged from the wall without losing charge. After several attempts to help diagnose and fix bizarre issues like the screen not turning on randomly and sounds disappearing, I decide to do something.
I briefly consider a MacBook air. We recently bought one for ourselves to use at home, and for anything except for intensive like video editing or photoshop, it works great. It’s the perfect on the couch web browsing laptop. I’m using it right now to write this. But it seemed a bit like overkill for the limited use it would be tasked with for her. Plus, even though it wouldn’t likely get viruses, it was still possible to install adware, though a bit harder than on the Dell. Issues like slowness can still occur if random applications are installed. Overall, the risk for support still seemed high. Instead, we decided to look at Chromebooks.
A Chromebook seemed perfect. You literally could not install anything except from the vetted and limited Chrome store. It was unlikely that she ever would. There are also no updates to worry about as everything just updates automatically. The risk of needing support beyond the initial setup was very low. Even on the small chance that help would be needed, I could use the remote Chrome support app to remote in and provide much better support than over the phone.
We decided to buy the HP Chromebook 13, a nice mix of a fairly large screen and low weight. The design is a bit plasticky to me, but approaches a slightly less premium feeling MacBook Air. I personally found the bottom shell to be a bit large, making it slightly harder to type from your lap than a MacBook Air, but still entirely usable. The trackpad is noticeably less responsive than a Mac, but for the price and the intended usage, this could be overlooked. With the limited processing power, the battery seemed to last forever too.
After getting it setup and some brief instruction, it turned out to be a phenomenal decision. The Chromebook worked super well as could be expected for all web related tasks. Email, through Gmail of course, was butter smooth. Browsing the news sites and using the library sites she uses to get books were also well supported. It was somewhat surprising that the library stuff worked so well as those sites don’t tend to be well maintained, but I guess that’s the advantage of running Chrome and the market share it has. Due to the lack of a file system and the integration with her Samsung Galaxy phone on Android, she even started using Google Photos to store the pictures of her grandkids. The one downside turned out to be lack for some third party apps like Skype and Fitbit. Fitbit was remedied by setting up the app on her phone. Instead of Skype, she started using Google hangouts to keep in touch. Too bad this has been left to languish and apparently wither and die by Google lately.
It’s worked great. I haven’t had a single support query since we got it and she uses it frequently. There are no weird programs to remove or issues with performance. If the performance is at all indicative of the benefits Google can get when they focus on it and have some level of input to the hardware, the new Pixel Phone may be a huge hit. Apple has traditionally held a huge advantage in performance due to the limits they impose on apps and the close integration between hardware and software. I never saw this on any of the Android phones I owned, so the Chromebook has come closest.
Due to the success of this, I’m now thinking of applying this lesson to my Grandfather. He has a MacBook Air, but you almost wouldn’t know it from the state it is in. It’s not directly his fault, with the market share switch in favor of Macs in the last few years, attackers have gotten more sophisticated. He sees banners on sites that say his computer has a virus and doesn’t know better. He also installs stuff from Download.com which went from a reputable site to a super scammy haven for adware in recent years without the change being obvious. As a result, he has installed a variety of junk that slows his computer down and worse. He somehow even got some semi-ransomware installed which rather than locking his computer, just keeps prompting him to call a number. At some point, I guess he called and now they have his number and keep calling from different numbers almost daily and asking for money to fix it. Every time I go there, there is something else to remove or fix. I’ve had to remove apps, toolbars, and fix the default homepage multiple times. Somehow something has inserted itself into his browser so when you try to go to Google, it redirects to some scam version of it. For a platform that prides itself on security and the lack of viruses, it’s incredible how bad it can get.
He mostly just uses email — on his Verizon account which I think has a web portal, and Youtube. For that, a Chromebook is perfect. Though we do often use Facetime, which Chromecast does not support obviously. Maybe Apple will finally make good on that 6 year old promise to make it open source. Yeah, sure. If it means fewer help calls, especially while we are on Facetime, I’m willing to show them how to use it on their phone.
Buying a Chromebook turned out to be a great decision. It would be great if more technology could be designed with simplicity and ease of use in mind. For now, it’s more than good enough.