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A SysAdmin's Journey into Chrome OS

A SysAdmin Opens a Chromebook. It sounds the opener to a joke, and not all that long ago, it might have been. But Chromebooks have come a long way since their introduction. When they were first introduced. I considered them a niche device, and not a terribly useful niche at that. But with the inclusion of Android apps, and most recently the ability to run Linux apps, Chrome OS finally reached the point where I was ready to give it a try.

I recently purchased a Google Pixelbook (8G, 128G storage) and have been exploring its functionality, not just as a personal computing device, but as a part-time work computer (for when I travel, or want to work from the couch, bed, whatever). In this blog post, I'm going to just mention some of the things I like about the Chromebook, some of what I don't like, some tricks I discovered, and how well I've been able to use it was a work computer.

Please note, this is not a review of, or a how-to-use a Chromebook. There are many, many excellent sites available that cover those topics. This is just documenting my experiences with Chrome OS, and its appropriateness to my work as a Systems Administrator. I am assuming the reader probably already has a Chromebook, or is thinking of getting one, and is already at least somewhat familiar with Chrome OS. All statements and opinions are mine alone.

Disclaimers out of the way, let's get started. Before I dive into Chrome OS, let's talk briefly about my work computer and the apps I use daily. My work computer is a Dell Precision, running Xubuntu Linux. It mostly sits in my office connected to a laptop dock, three monitors, and multiple USB drives and devices (which is why I don't usually just unplug it to lug around the house). Applications regularly used and open are:

  • Firefox: Work email, calendar, Drive, docs, tickets, work websites, etc.
  • Chrome: Personal email, calendar, Drive, docs, etc.
  • Slack (work communications)
  • Zoom (video calls)
  • KeePass (password vault)
  • Simplenote (notes)
  • Multiple terminal sessions for working on servers, usually anywhere from two to upwards of six or more terminal windows at a time.
  • Globaltime: Time in multiple time zones, docked to specific location
  • Geany: Text and code editor (for those times when I want a GUI instead of just using Vim).
  • Google Hangouts: For making calls from PC using Google Voice number.
    File Manager
  • VirtualBox for running VMs. I usually have at least one VM running all the time, with additional VMs running as needed.

Let's start off with Android applications. Google's addition of the Play Store was a huge boost in the functionality of Chrome OS, adding many thousands of additional applications in one fell swoop. And I have to say that my experience with Android apps on the Chromebook has been pretty good. All the ones I've installed run well, and I've not had many problems with apps scaling to the larger display.

One thing I did find out is that there are many apps that are available as both Chrome apps (from the Web Store) and as Android apps (from the Play Store), and they may not work the same. Some apps worked better as a Chrome app, while others worked better as an Android app. You may need to install both and play around with them to see which you prefer.

For example, I tried out Slack with both the Chrome app and the Android app, and found that I much preferred the Chrome version. The Android version of the Slack app just seemed less polished and functional compared to the Web app, so I dropped the Android version and stuck with the Chrome version.

Another thing to keep in mind is Android apps run in a container, isolated from the Chrome OS. This may affect their ability to interact with other apps, if needed. For example, the app I use on my Android devices for streaming media from my home media server is BubbleUPnP. Bubble can play music files directly, but needs a separate video app to play videos; I use VLC for that. I initially installed VLC from the Web store, but I discovered that BubbleUPnP could not access VLC as a Chrome app for playing videos. I had to uninstall the VLC Chrome app and install the Android version to get Bubble to be able to use it.

For the record, here are the apps I've installed so far.

Chrome Web apps and extensions:

  • Hangouts, Keep, Pocket, Zoom, Save to Pocket, Evernote Web Clipper

Android apps:

  • BubbleUPnP, Evernote, Google News, Hulu, KeePassDroid, Netflix, OpenVPN Connect, Simplenote, VLC

A Note Regarding Video Streaming:

While watching Netflix or Hulu on the Chromebook worked fine, I felt the display was a bit soft and not as sharp and vibrant as on my tablet. I discovered that while a Chromebook device may advertise a high resolution, the Pixelbook at least does not use that by default. The Pixelbook has a max resolution of 2400 x 1600, but the default resolution when you start up is 1200 x 800. You can use the higher resolutions by accessing the Display settings, or by using the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+Shift+- (minus key). This improved the video playback at full screen, but it does shrink all the apps. Unless you have very good eyesight (I don't), you will find that the other app windows and fonts become so small they become unusable at higher resolutions.

TIP: My work-around is to increase the screen resolution to the max, and also increase the brightness, before using a video streaming app. Then after that's done, you can decrease the resolution by using Ctrl+Shift++ (plus key) or by Ctrl+Shift+0 (zero) to return to the default resolution.

So far, so good. As an entertainment device and for personal use, the Chromebook is looking pretty good. And I've already installed several of the apps I used every day at work. Still, all is not rosy.

One headache I encountered was in Google Docs. I tend to work with some pretty large documents (my Daily Log for 2018 was over 130 pages), and I was quite surprised to discover that the normal shortcuts for Home and End (Ctrl+Alt+Up arrow for Home and Ctrl+Alt+Down arrow for End) do not work when editing in Google Docs. This drove me nuts for days. After much searching I finally found alternate shortcuts that work both for web pages AND in Google Docs: Ctrl+Launcher+< (left arrow) for Home, and Ctrl+Launcher+> (right arrow) for End.

Here's another thing I had problems with at first. I don't like the default behavior of the Launcher with the Chromebook Shelf (the task bar with frequently used apps, by default docked to the bottom of screen). To see the full list of apps installed, you have to hit the Launcher key and then swipe down with three fingers in the Shelf area. I found this to be quite annoying. More often than not, I missed swiping within the Shelf area, and ended up launching the task switcher.

TIP: The Shelf can be moved. Right click (two finger tap) in a blank area of the Shelf and click on "Shelf position". You can select bottom, left or right. I discovered quite by accident that when I docked the Shelf to either the left or right of the screen, then hitting the Launcher key would immediately pull up the full list of apps; no need for the three-finger swipe. To my mind, this is exactly how it ought to work, and I wish it would work this way when the shelf is at the bottom. And hey, bonus, when you put the shelf on the left side, your Chromebook kinda starts looking a lot like Ubuntu, including the ability to hit the Launcher, start typing and being presented with a list of matching apps. Pretty cool.

Yet another annoyance. As I noted above, I use both Firefox and Chrome browsers on my work machine, so I can have my work-related Google apps and personal Google apps both running side by side, but isolated from each other. I had read that you can install multiple Google accounts on a Chromebook, login to one and then login to another, without logging out of the first one, and then be able to switch back and forth easily between them. I thought this might be a perfect solution for keeping my work and personal accounts separate but both easily accessible.

BUT, I discovered that if your second Google account is part of a Google G Suite for business, you can't login into the personal and then login to the business account. For some reason, they require that you login to work account first, then login to the personal account. Since my Chromebook is a personal device all the time, and a work device only part of the time, this was not going to work for me. So I abandoned the idea of having my work account as a separate login on the Chromebook. (More on that in my next post.)

So, there is some good, some bad, and some annoying things I encountered in my first few days with the Chromebook. However, I found fixes or workarounds for some of these. But before we quit for now, let's look at the scorecard for my work related applications:

  • Personal email, calendar, docs, etc.: Check. All covered by default applications
  • Work email, Calendar, docs, etc.: Eh, sorta. I can use the Chrome profiles feature to load them, but it's cumbersome.
  • Slack: Check
  • Zoom: Check
  • KeePass: Check
  • Simplenote: Check
  • Terminal applications: Not yet.
  • Global clock: Not yet.
  • Text editor: There's a built in text editor called Text. I haven't done a lot with it, but it appears pretty simplistic, and probably not adequate for daily use, and certainly not for coding.
  • Google Hangouts: Check
  • File Manager: Check
  • VirtualBox for running VMs: Nope

Continuing Reading A SysAdmin's Journey into Chrome OS

A SysAdmin's Journey into Chrome OS - Part 2

A SysAdmin's Journey into Chrome OS - Part 3