It is being repeated over and over again, reviews are being written almost every week about a new chromebook (which is by the way exactly the same as the one from previous week, including chips, size, weight, battery life, keyboard, performance and so on), tons of user testimonials and praises are being liked and re-shared ... it is getting a bit old, isn't it?
Chromebooks are here to stay and with the new strategy to teach kids on them they are more than probable to remain part of the picture if not dominant.
However one important question is rarely if ever asked: what is the real price of using chromeOS as a replacement device (not as primary one, and not as a complimentary one, but as a sole keyboard equipped device)?
In the plethora of available devices like phones, tablets, TVs and now watches, one almost feel like there is no real need to have a PC or a tablet. Most people either already have one and use it in the rare cases where one of their other devices cannot do the job or buy new one(s) for one single reason: work!
But let's define how a laptop or a PC is used for work! If one's company is already embracing the cloud chances are they already use one or several services and pretty much all the office work can be done from a browser, thus chromeOS is capable of handling this. However there are several large classes or work related tasks that cannot be done without a specialized software: CAD/CAM, 3D production, Electrical and other type of engineering, and... software development.
The last is possibly the most common use case. For years now companies are trying to create businesses that offer an online solution for those kind of work related tasks, but the adoption is slow and currently - very low. The concerns are numerous and come from different sides: security, speed, availability, reliability, management etc. The reality is that while those services are well intentioned and legit business ideas, the execution is often subpar and even if it is at good level with the user target the cost if overwhelmingly steeper compared to the cost of ownership.
So how do things really stack together for a regular Joe developer for web? I will present a simple example - one that is of course based on experience (mine and those of friends of mine who have switched) and is by no means presentable as evidence, but I think it comes close to at least people in similar situation.
Price (ownership): 1299$
External ssd disk (for backups): 199$
Text editor/IDE: 70-100$
Price (ownership): 199$-399$
Storage (auto-backups included by vendor): 2 years free, 1.99/mo for 3 years = 71.64$
IDE: 19.00/mo = 1440$
At this point we have to make some very important clarifications. The online IDE in the example is Cloud9, I personally find it to be the best for my needs and I have recommended it to my peers and this is possibly the reason why they use it as well. The pricing there is 'pay as you go' so basically it could be much cheaper than that, but it is worth noting that with the MacBook you get much more RAM and processing power than what you get on Cloud9 for almost the same amount of money. Also I have included an external disk for the MacBook case as one need to backup, we all know that, some of use learned it the hard way. With cloud storage this is being taken care of for us.
I have not included other stuff like music or movies for several reasons: it is unclear to me how the cost of ownership compares to the cost of streaming, also I am not aware if purchased once the song becomes yours forever and can you copy it over unlimited times etc. I have also not included software like budgeting tools etc because I see lots of people migrating to online tools for this and not for other reason but being able to access their data from their mobile devices like phones and tablets. I would consider those expenses to be similar in both cases.
As seen from the above example if you are working as web developer the cost at the end of the period would be higher for the ChromeBook. That's okay if we apply some basic knowledge of finances and make sure the money spent in a period of time have different present value than the same amount if spent today, so lets keep it simple and say that those are almost equal (1).
Now let's consider a different price. I call it emotional price. People tend to love their stuff: gadgets are especially lover and Apple's products are at the top of loved possession. With a chromebook you simply do not care. I used to be proud of my computer - business class, slick, thin, wonderful. But on its own it is really nothing more than a way to show of as the components inside are doing the exactly same job as any other laptop. With the chromebook I really do not care. I know no one will notice it because it looks exactly the same as any other. Samsung attempted to make the chromebook look fancy and they failed. Being liberated from this emotional dependency and more over being unburdened with its security and safety was really something very new to me.
Of course I try to keep it clean and working, but when my partner drops it do I freak out? Nope. Because I have no attachment to it. I know I can use another one, on the cheap end, and continue where I left of. Years ago Google put accent on that with the video ads for the first chromebook. Back then I did not even understood it. Now I do!
But wait, there is even another price - ecological. We all tend to say that because those devices are very cheap they are basically disposable. But in fact we do not use them as such. We use them as regular laptops, we tend to try to not throw them at walls and drop them, slip them in the bath full of water and so on, we don't care about them but we still use them as intended. So the projected life, while maybe not 5 years, is at least good 3 to 4 years. Of course Apple says that they do recycle and their laptops are indeed one of the best when it comes to energy efficiency. But think of this in a different angle: while your laptop sleeps for at least 14 hours every 24 hours, the cloud never sleeps. Which means that while you are not doing anything on it, someone else is using that processing power for something else. Cumulatively this reduces the material needed to satisfy everyone's computing needs globally. Think about the processor: yes, macbooks are really powerful, but how often do you load it at 100%, let alone load all the cores? Does it cumulate to more than 30 minutes daily? Now consider the cloud where you IDE is a virtualized machine and one single CPU is running yours and possible many more users. Electricity? If you run your MacBook at 100% load all the time it will not last 10 hours on battery, on the other hand cloud providers are in the rush to become greener and greener in ways we as individuals could not accomplish even if we wanted: cooling from the see, energy from the sun and wind etc.
"But all the traffic I am making using those online apps, does that not require energy". Well yes, it does, but you are doing it anyways. Besides the amount of bytes to watch a movie online and to download it and watch it locally is the same. The amount of bytes you will exchange in a month of using an online IDE is lower than the amount of bytes you will exchnage to download a source locally and upgrade your IDE.
Choosing a ChromeBook might be on par financially with buying a latest model MacBook, but the emotional and ecological costs are much lower in the case of ChromeBook.
And yes, it is certainly not for everyone, especially as a only device. But depending on your needs it could be reasonable choice and a more responsible one as well.
Many years ago I have written about how you could be a responsible person in global planetary context and switch to Linux to keep the baby seal alive. Today I am saying this: be a responsible person and chose the greener alternative if you can!