Last summer we published a series of three articles on how a lawyer can use a cheap Google Chromebook as part of his/her law practice. Last year's articles focused on the relatively low-powered Samsung Chromebook with an ARM processor similar to what you find in cell phones and tablets. Late last year, several companies released new Chromebooks featuring the latest dual core Intel Celeron processors based on the Haswell architecture. These processors offer more processing power and extended battery life.
One of the new models is the HP Chromebook 14. As the name implies, it is larger than most Chromebooks with its 14 inch screen. Although less portable than last year's Samsung Chromebook, its added power and comfortable screen size can make it a more well-rounded travel companion for the mobile lawyer.
First, what is a Chromebook? It is a notebook-style personal computer running the very lightweight Chrome operating system. It is essentially a computer based on the Chrome web browser. The Chromebook is designed to be used while connected to the Internet, though there are a variety of apps that can be run offline. Data such as documents and files are usually stored in the cloud. However, Chromebooks also have a relatively small local solid state drive on which documents and data can be saved for offline use.
The underpinnings of Chrome OS make the Chromebook more versatile than simply a web browser. The OS uses the Linux kernel. As such, it is possible to install full desktop variants (called "distros") of Linux and run them side by side with the Chrome OS. When that is done, users switch instantly between Chrome and Linux using a simple hotkey combination. Linux, like Windows and Mac OS X, is not dependent on an Internet connnection to run programs and perform other standard computer functions.
The Chromebook 14 by Hewlett Packard, with its 14 inch screen, is the largest Chromebook. It is also heavier than most Chromebooks at around 4 pounds. But is is relative thin and doesn't feel cheaply made. The keyboard is full-sized and the touchpad is reasonably spacious. It has a decent, if not spectacular, glossy 1366x768 LED-backlit IPS screen. Inside is either 2 GB or 4 GB of RAM (depending on options), a 16 GB solid state drive for storage, and a Haswell-based Intel Celeron processor. I have the 4 GB version with a built-in T-Mobile sim card to stay online even when a Wi-Fi connection is not present. 200 MB of data per month is provided free of charge for the life of the Chromebook. That isn't a lot of data, but it is enough to deal with email and light web browsing several times per month if a hotspot isn't nearby. More data can be purchased from T-Mobile if needed. So far, I have not needed it.
Subjectively, the Chromebook 14, with its Intel processor and 4 GB of RAM, feels much snappier than my old Samsung ARM-based Chromebook with 2 GB of RAM. I attribute the difference more to the processor than to the RAM. The Chrome OS runs fine on 2 GB of RAM unless you have a dozen or more Chrome tabs open at once. As I approach 60 years of age, I also much prefer the 14 inch screen to the Samsung's 11.6 inch screen. If only the Chromebook 14's screen were matte finished like the Samsung's instead of glossy. Colors pop on a glossy screen, but I hate battling reflections in a brightly lit room.
When running just the Chrome OS, I can do 90%+ of everything I would ever want to do on a portable computer. I have access to all of my client and firm documents via SugarSync's web interface or from Google Drive or Microsoft's OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive). I can open and edit those documents in either Google Docs of Microsoft's OfficeOnline. Both work well for all but complex documents such as appellate briefs. What I can't do, of course, is run standard Windows software such as Microsoft Office or Adobe Acrobat. But there are many Chrome apps and cloud-based services that let me handle tasks I would otherwise perform with those applications. If I really need to run actual MS Office applications or Acrobat, those are installed on my primary computer at my desk. I use the excellent and free Chrome Remote Desktop app to remote into that computer from the Chromebook to run those applications remotely.
If I need a full desktop-style operating system while on the road, that is where Linux comes in. I followed the well-thought-out instructions posted by Jean-Louis Nguyen on his blog to install the compact and very fast Elementary OS Linus distro. It is based on Ubuntu, so software that runs on Ubuntu Linux will also run in Elementary. That includes full office suites such as Apache OpenOffice, LibreOffice, and my new favorite, Kingsoft Office. All three let you open, edit, create, and save files to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint formats. If I need to work with a more complex document than Google Docs or Word Online can handle, I do it in Kingsoft Office's Writer module.
Another nice thing about having Linux on the Chromebook is the ability to use Skype for video calls. There is a Linux version of Skype, but not yet a Chrome version. Chrome relies on Google Hangouts for computer-to-computer video calls and conferences. Because Chrome and Elementary run side-by-side, I can switch instantly between the two operating systems using a simply hotkey combination (CTRL+ALT+SHIFT+BACK or CTRL+ALT+SHIFT+FORWARD). The added overhead of running two compact OS's simultaneously does not seem to slow the Chromebook 14 down at all.
In summary, the Chromebook 14 is a viable mobile companion for a lawyer. With just Chrome OS, it will do nearly everything you need to do. What you can't do in Chrome can usually be done by remoting into your primary computer using Chrome Remote Desktop. If you don't want to rely on an Internet connection to run traditional desktop applications remotely, there is the option of installing Linux. The process is not hard, but there is a fair amount of command line typing into a Terminal window. Fortunately, the instructions for installing Elementary OS are very thorough and easy to follow.