Alien Architectures

September 5th, 2016  |  Published in tech

I thought I’d give an ASUS Chromebook Flip a shot as a low-cost, novel alternative to an iPad Pro with a keyboard. After playing around with a Dell Chromebook 11 last year, I got to know the world of dual-booting Chromebooks.

The Flip itself is pretty neat. It feels sturdy (aluminum body), has a decent enough display for what it is (not Retina, a notch better than the Dell’s, touch-sensitive), and it can convert into a tablet by flipping the screen back. Load up the Beta channel of ChromeOS, and it can run Android apps natively alongside ChromeOS apps, which is sort of cool.

My thought was, “tiny, rugged, cheap writing and coding device” vs. the iPad Pro (sort of large, expensive, and you can write on it but coding is tough).

Sadly, the Flip uses an ARM CPU, which immediately makes things a bit tougher if you’re going to try to put Linux on it. For instance, it was no problem to get Trusty installed via Crouton, but the ARM architecture means some things aren’t readily available (e.g. a Dropbox client). The only distro I could find with docs for dual-booting was Arch Linux.

On the ChromeOS side, there was some stuff to like about it:

The Amazon Cloud Reader app worked well when it was in tablet mode. The Android app support made it possible to play Hearthstone. I was curious how fast it would run and it wasn’t bad: More smoothly than on a first-gen Retina iPad mini. It was nice for browsing around news sites in tablet form.

On the negative side, the touch support for ChromeOS feels a little off. Google Inbox isn’t great in tablet mode (which feels like the natural mode for it), and if you’ve ever tried to use Gmail or Google Calendar proper on an iPad, you now how bad they are in a touch interface. I also hated the on-screen keyboard. I haven’t taken the time to figure out what the difference is between it and the iOS on-screen keyboard, but my accuracy on it was terrible, even when typing slowly.

So, I think I’m going to wipe it and send it back (or pass it along to someone who has appropriate expectations for this kind of thing). It was interesting to fiddle with, and it helped me think about what I’d really like in a portable computing device. iPads are still a hair too locked down for my tastes. The new Yoga Book sounds sort of amazing and strange and closer to what I’d like.

I also wouldn’t mind someone finally coming out with an iOS terminal app that can support mosh, which allows a level of persistence in an ssh connection that makes whether or not you’re locally running your Ruby interpreter or Emacs instance less material. The last iOS ssh client to provide that was iSSH, but it’s no longer under development.

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