In Which We Pit the Lowly Chromebook Versus the Exalted Macbook Air
Let me get something out of the way: I am a straight-up Macintosh fanboi. After owning a couple of Macs in the early 1990s, I switched to PCs around 1997, largely because my software-development-centric job compelled me to live in a pro-PC world.
Then, around five years ago, I fatigued of maintaining Windows and the generally crappy hardware that runs it, and switched back to Mac. I bought a beast of a notebook: a 15″ MBP quad-core i7 with 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD. I wanted something strong enough to run Pro Tools natively, and to virtualize Windows and Linux machines without a stutter. And, five years later, that Macbook Pro is still a very current machine. It was expensive, but it was worth every penny, especially when amortized over five years.
The only trouble is: it’s big and heavy. As a machine to travel to and from the office, it’s fine, but these days I find myself increasingly traipsing all over the world, usually with everything I can carry in one backpack. Space and weight have become a premium, and I have a bad back to boot.
So I wanted to find a machine that would solve every computing need I have while I’m out on the road – basically, everything I use my Mac for except Pro Tools:
- Must be small enough to fit in a day-bag and light as possible, definitely < 4 lbs
- Must handle all my basic productivity & social needs (mail, docs, spreadsheets, twitter, dropbox, etc.)
- Must be capable of running a development LAMP stack and typical development apps like git, ssh, etc.
- Must be capable of light-duty audio editing (just editing, not a multitrack studio)
- Must have good battery life (all-day unplugged usage)
- Must have a good screen and keyboard
- Must be inexpensive in case it’s lost, stolen, or damaged while travelling
- Strong cloud support a big plus (see above)
- Easy connectivity to phone a big plus
I admit that I came very close to knee-jerking and purchasing a Macbook Air. The MBA would definitely meet all these needs but one: it’s awfully expensive to be a “beater” notebook. After pricing them out and deciding that a new MBA would definitely not fit in my budget, I considered buying a used MBA. But even a used MBA in decent shape and well-appointed costs around $600, which I still felt was more than I really wanted to spend.
Then I decided I should do some research on Chromebooks. Like most people, I had fallen victim to the “Chromebooks are useless unless you’re always on the Internet” trope. I think this might have been true at one time, but after doing some reading, I learned that the ChromeOS world had advanced considerably since I last learned about it. In particular I learned that Google has made great strides in developing “disconnected” versions of its key apps – specifically docs and spreadsheets, the key things that one wants to edit while disconnected.
The other thing that really piqued my interest (yes, it’s piqued, not peaked) was the stunning realization that someone had figured out how to install Ubuntu on a Chromebook. And folks, this isn’t Ubuntu running in a virtual machine, but Ubuntu running on bare metal – simultaneously side-by-side along with ChromeOS. I was skeptical but intrigued: with Ubuntu as a fall-back, I could rest assured that anything that ChromeOS couldn’t handle, Ubuntu could.
“But Chromebooks are basically cheap pieces of crap,” was my next intuition. Compared with Apple hardware, it’s true that most devices pale in comparison. There’s no question that generally speaking, Apple makes the best hardware going, bar none. But I don’t need perfect, I need good-enough and inexpensive. And after a bit of research, I discovered an excellent machine for my needs, at least on paper: the Toshiba 13″ Chromebook 2 FHD.
After living with this machine for a little over a week, I think I’m ready to start drawing some comparisons versus the 13″ Macbook Air. Here’s how the two stack up.
Let’s get the 800-lb gorilla out of the room. No question who wins the first round. At $330, the 13″ Toshiba is roughly 1/4 the price of a new 13″ MBA and 1/2 the price of a used MBA. For the price of one new Macbook Air, you can buy a Chromebook for every member of the family. ‘Nuff said.
Winner: Chromebook, by a country mile
The MBA comes with 128 GB of storage (256 GB is also available, but costs more) while the Chromebook comes with only 32 GB of local storage. This is offset considerably by the fact that Google gave me 1TB of free Drive storage (100 GB is standard, but I already had that – your mileage may vary) and by adding a 128GB SDHC card as extra storage ($65 on Amazon) to bring total storage up to 160 GB. Another mitigating factor is that ChromeOS minimizes use of local storage, while MacOS depends on it for everything, so ChromeOS presents a smaller footprint than MacOS in real-world use.
In the end I believe a 128GB Mac is no less limiting than a 32GB Chromebook for the applications I intend to use and it’s easy enough to bump up the Chromebook to 128GB if you need it.
Keyboard & Touchpad
Here Apple is the clear winner, with a perfect-feeling backlit keyboard and a wonderful-to-use touchpad. The Toshiba’s keyboard is perfectly usable and unproblematic but lacks the elegant feel of the MBA and is not backlit. The touchpad is usable and sufficient but smaller and more plastic-feeling than the MBA. It’s not a bad experience at all, but it’s hard to beat the best, and I think Apple offers the best keyboard / trackpad available.
I hope you’re sitting comfortably, because the Toshiba’s display is absolutely spectacular. How Toshiba managed to deliver a 13″ full-HD (1920×1080) display in a $330 machine is baffling, but they did, and it’s lovely. Viewing angles are very good, colors are not perfect but whites are white, blacks are deep black, colors are bright and nicely saturated, and the resolution is astonishingly crisp. The screen does not attract fingerprints and doesn’t have any coatings that cause pixellation or moire effects, though glare can be a problem if you’re backlit.
The Macbook Air has arguably the best speakers in an ultraportable notebook, so the competition is awfully stiff. However Toshiba has partnered with Skullcandy to deliver a similar listening experience. I still prefer the MBA because it’s a littler warmer, but I have to say that the audio from the Toshiba is very, very good for an ultraportable.
Winner: MBA, but just barely
Size and Weight
The Macbook looks smaller, but it isn’t – it’s just a design illusion. In actuality the two machines are close enough in size and weight to be considered identical. The MBA is a few hundredths of an inch wider and longer, the Toshiba is .06″ thicker. The Toshiba weighs .01 lb less.
The Macbook Air delivers better than 10 hours of real-world use, while the Toshiba falls short at roughly 8 hours. 8 hours meets my needs for “all-day unplugged use” but the winner is clearly Apple.
Inputs & Outputs
The two machines are very comparable. Both offer 2 USB ports, audio out, power in, an SDHC slot, and a video output port. In the case of Apple, the video is a potent Thunderbolt output, while the Toshiba offers a more basic – but more standard – HDMI output. Unless you already use a Thunderbolt monitor, this means you’ll have to use a dongle adapter on the Macbook. Both machines offer an HD webcam. Both offer stereo mics, but the Toshiba’s are placed intelligently on the top of the display border (where the stereo image will actually correlate to the webcam), while Apple placed the mics in a poor location both on the left side of the machine. Toshiba’s power supply is smaller, has a longer power cord, and is cheaper to replace; but the Mac offers the MagSafe connector.
The Mac easily trounces the Chromebook in terms of sheer processing power. However the only instance I have discovered where the Chromebook’s processing power is insufficient is multitasking while streaming HD video – which if you think about it, isn’t much of a shortcoming, as most people will pause the video when they leave it to perform other tasks. It’s safe to say that if video editing ever becomes possible on a Chromebook, it will pale in comparison to the Macbook Air. But for all other day to day tasks the Chromebook is more than sufficient for my usage.
Here, the Macbook trounces the Chromebook in terms of choice – at least on paper. The Mac ecosystem offers a wide variety of apps to choose from, while the ChromeOS ecosystem is still a work in progress and definitely lacking in the multimedia department.
However, for my day-to-day use, I’m quickly realizing that I am missing very, very little. I already live in the Google ecosystem (Chrome browser, Gmail, Drive, Docs, etc) which function as good or better on ChromeOS. The key thing I lack is a top-notch image editor, but Google has promised to deliver a ChromeOS version of Photoshop in the near future, and in the meantime there’s Pixlr. For text editing and software development, there’s Caret, an outstanding replacement for SublimeText on Mac. For light-duty music editing, I have to switch to Ubuntu (more on that later) but this gives me access to Audacity, which is a very full-featured editor. I have yet to find a good video editor for Chromebook or Ubuntu, but this wasn’t part of my original requirements.
In short it’s pretty amazing to me that the ChromeOS ecosystem can even begin to compete with the Mac ecosystem with all of its advantages, particularly its 20+ year headstart.
On the Mac, I use MAMP Pro as a turnkey LAMP server for web development. It’s pretty hard to beat turnkey, and MAMP Pro is really easy to use and set up. There does not currently exist a MAMP-like turnkey server solution for ChromeOS.
However, I was very surprised to discover how well Ubuntu runs alongside the ChromeOS. It isn’t turnkey – you’re going to have to get your hands dirty – but the process is deceptively simple: you enable “developer mode” on your Chromebook, you install a script called crouton, you execute a few shell commands, and voila! Ubuntu is running right alongside ChromeOS – you literally switch back and forth between the two OSes by hitting CTRL-ALT-BACKARROW and CTRL-ALT-FORWARDARROW. It’s super-slick, and opens up your Chromebook to the entire world of Linux. I encountered zero issues with the process – no driver issues, no battery issues, nothing – though as usual I had to noodle around with Apache settings to get the environment working to my satisfaction.
While it’s true that turnkey beats DIY, if you’re a developer, you’re already accustomed to getting your hands dirty, and you’ll find nothing onerous about the process of installing Ubuntu alongside ChromeOS. It’s weirdly easy and took me roughly 45 minutes, soup-to-nuts, which included the 20 minutes to download and install Ubuntu.
The cool part (for me) is that once you have a local development server set up and running, you can resume your development workflow entirely in ChromeOS, and forget completely that there is a Ubuntu server running alongside. You can edit files on the local filesystem directly using the Caret editor. SSH is provided inside ChromeOS using an extension called SecureShell so it’s quite easy to work with remote servers right inside the Chrome browser. It all works a lot better than I would have ever guessed.
Winner: MBA + MAMP Pro
Backup / Restore
The idea behind an ultraportable is that if you lose or break it, it should be of minimal impact. Here the Chromebook kicks serious ass. Unlike the Mac, which relies on “old-school” backup & restore solutions like Time Machine, the Chromebook is literally a “throw it away and buy another” type machine. All of your data is already backed up on Drive. And all of your apps live as Chrome extensions. So if you get a new Chromebook, you log in to your Google account for the first time, and magically, your device restores to exactly how your old device looked, without installing a single application. Technically you can restore a MBA with a Time Machine backup, but seriously, it’s an entirely different and more perilous process.
Apple has a good track record of keeping OS updates to a minimum, but this is starting to change as Apple keeps pushing Mac more and more into an iOS-like App Store model. Increasingly there are more and more updates and downloads that require restarts, etc. ChromeOS, by contrast, is more or less always up-to-date. I really like how minimal the OS footprint is on the Chromebook and think that this bodes well for the device’s long-term usability. I really admire how painless the install and update process is for apps.
The Mac is a metal-body machine, and while the metal can dent or bend, it’s undeniably more premium grade than the almost-identical-looking plastic used in the Toshiba. Apple manages to brand its computers with an actually-cool illuminated logo, while the lid of the Toshiba sports ugly “Toshiba” and “Chromebook” branding. Like all non-Apple computers, the Toshiba ships with a plethora of stupid, ugly stickers that have to be removed.
If you have an Android phone or a Chromecast dongle, you’ll love the seamless integration with ChromeOS. Likewise, Apple offers similar integration with an iPhone and Apple TV, but those devices can cost considerably more than their Android counterparts.
Let’s face it: a $330 ChromeOS portable shouldn’t be able to beat a $1200 Macbook Air. It’s a terribly unfair comparison. The Mac has a superior processor, more storage, more memory, a better keyboard and trackpad, and of course a “full” OS and the 30-year-old Mac app ecosystem. It’s like a bantamweight getting in the ring with Tyson. Not a fair fight at all.
What’s surprising is just how well the Chromebook actually stands up in real-world use. The display is better, the size and weight are identical, and for typical day-to-day chores, the Chromebook is just as usable as a Macbook Air. Battery life isn’t quite as good but is still very good. It meets my needs for a development machine just as well as a Macbook Air. Software updates are easier. There is essentially no need for backups, as all the data is backed up to Drive automagically, and the OS is practically disposable. The only place I care about where I think the Chromebook falls short is multimedia editing.
So the verdict: if, like me, you’re a power user, you will probably not be happy with only a Chromebook as your sole device. There are still areas like multimedia where the low-power processor and / or lack of robust applications will prevent you from ditching that Mac or PC.
But if you’re a “consumer grade” user who doesn’t edit music or video, or if you’re a power user who needs a cheap, lightweight, travel-ready portable, then you owe it to yourself to take a good hard look at Chromebook. Especially if you’re already using the Google application suite.