First 24 hours with a Chromebook – Things I can’t do.

I traveled out of the US recently, and thought I’d try out a Chromebook. I liked the idea that I could wipe it back to bare metal before crossing a border checkpoint.

This is not a list of stuff wrong with it that I thought up, but instead, a list of things I either wanted and tried or needed to do. I was travelling, a couple thousand miles from home, and had no other computer stuff, except a years-old Android phone. I had reasonably reliable hotel Wi-Fi.

I couldn’t:

  • Configure OpenVPN in the expected way (something I can do on Android).
  • Merge OpenVPN certificates and keys into PKCS-12 format files.
  • Run Python scripts to create guitar-chord pictures from textual notation
  • Find a text editor that worked worth a crap. (after a LOT of looking, over a couple weeks, I finally found both a good text editor and a good code editor – but for such a basic tool, it just shouldn’t be this hard).
  • Edit a local text file without an editor appending a spurious newline character to the end
  • Find an image editor that worked worth a crap (it appears developers have generally thrown up their hands on this, in favor of running GIMP with digital salad tongs on a remote desktop)
  • Select and copy/paste to new files, guitar chords from a PDF-image chart of them
  • Handle my password safe in the expected manner (giving limited details here, to preserve OpSec)
  • Open a known-good password safe.
  • Access local storage, except for the “Downloads” folder, (which may be wiped out if the machine runs out of disk).
  • Get the Chromebook to reliably recognize an Android device had been plugged in, and bring up the file browser.
  • Get the Chromebook to decide on a system basis whether I could force a ChromeOS app to open a file with the “wrong” extension – instead, this behavior is chosen on an app-by-app basis. Found myself re-naming files to get apps to open them. Why isn’t this handled by the system, instead of by me?
  • Turn CAPS LOCK on: there’s instead a “Search” key where CAPS LOCK should be. I have yet to use the Search key. (edit: after searching online, there’s a setting for this, but still…WHY?)
  • Put anything at all on the desktop. Why is there a desktop on this machine? It’s used for neither apps, nor files, nor customization.
  • Prevent apps from showing ads inside them. Imagine trying to run any business app with flashing banners all around the content. That’s the hell I’m in at the moment.
  • Install Android apps. This machine is supposedly supported, and I was offered the ability to install apps by the OS before it “updated” itself and took that ability away. The instructions for enabling the Google Play Store (for Android) don’t match the menus this machine now has.
  • Set up my own POP3 email client – something I’ve been able to do on every other machine and phone I’ve used.
  • Stop hitting [\] instead of [ENTER]. In fact, I’ve taken to searching my notes for “\\” to see where I meant to start a new paragraph. (This Chromebook has the worst keyboard since the membrane keys on my old Atari 400 (which I replaced with real keys). Imagine doing all your typing on a weather-resistant gas pump touchpad. No, it’s not actually a membrane keyboard, but the (Canadian) layout is insane, even for a compact laptop. Yes, I should’ve looked before I bought it.)

Eventually, (more than 24 hours later), I’d add to this pile:

  • Can’t get either an OpenVPN or an L2TP IPSec VPN to work on the machine. Not for want of trying, or access to plenty of certificate/security tools and my VPN provider’s site. Same credentials and setup work on other devices, just not on the Chromebook.
  • Can’t unzip a password-protected .zip file (that I don’t want Google to have ever touched) on local storage.
  • Can’t power-wash (wipe) and then even BEGIN to log in to the Chromebook on airport WiFi (which needs a browser to accept terms; ChromeOS won’t let you HAVE the browser until you’re on WiFi. This is among the stupidest implementation decisions I’ve ever encountered)

Seriously, this last one beats all.

So, I Power-Washed the Chromebook before crossing an international border (the specific use case for which I bought it), and upon exiting border control, sought to set the machine up again on the WiFi in the airport.

Imagine my consternation when the machine wouldn’t give me a web browser for long enough to get on the Airport WiFi to log into it. Without access to the login (even a “captive portal” login window would’ve sufficed), I had no way to make a wireless connection, and no way to even set up the most basic of accounts.

Done. I was done. Dead in the water with no recourse, and a couple-hundred-dollar paperweight. For an hours-long layover.

I’m not at all sure I’d buy this machine for travel again. I’m trying to continue to make it work for me, but I’m at a loss as to how I’ll be able to set it up if not at home.