For the past few years, I’ve been trying to find the perfect solution for writing while out and about.
I have no problem with writing scripts by hand in my notebook, but my thoughts can’t keep up with my pen when I write narrative, making some sort of keyboard/screen solution necessary. I like to write while at restaurants and on the road, so my desktop is out of the picture. Heavy laptops often end up being left at home.
For a while, I tried to make a Nexus 7/portable Bluetooth keyboard work. It was light and easy to carry, but the tablet stand was cumbersome and time consuming to set up. Worse, it was completely impossible to use without a table, so it couldn’t be used in the car or on the plane. Making matters worse, the keyboard often just wouldn’t pair correctly with the tablet.
Having finally given up on my Nexus 7 as a writing machine, I decided to investigate the world of tiny, cheap laptops. The ‘netbooks’ of yesteryear were little atrocities, but I had been hearing some good things about Chromebooks. I did a little research and ended up getting the Google-branded HP Chromebook 11 since it was the only Chromebook with a semi-decent screen outside the outrageous Chromebook Pixel. It also a good build and design, and most of all, Amazon had it on sale (it is now sold out, but I got it for $200 at the time, a $70 discount). The Chromebook 11 has a terrible processor, but since I just needed as a glorified typewriter, I figured it’d be good enough.
So as a writing tool on the go, how does it all hold up?
For those of you who might not be in the know, Chrome OS is about as basic as an operating system can get. Essentially, it is just the Chrome web browser… and that’s it. This is probably going to change over the years as Google develops Chrome OS into a more full-featured OS, but for now, you’re pretty much limited to web apps. The good thing is that if you’ve been using Chrome on OS X or Windows, you’ll pretty much know exactly how to navigate Chrome OS.
The strangest quirk about this operating system, and a rather massive flaw for anybody who needs to use it for writing, is that many fonts don’t display correctly or are just outright substituted with a different font. Even extremely common fonts like Times New Roman and Courier are missing. I don’t know if Google didn’t pay for them or what, but it’s extremely disconcerting see Times New Roman warped into a bizarre substitute font. Since I write all my play scripts and narratives in Times New Roman, this is a bit of a problem, and prevents me from ever using Chrome OS as a complete solution.
Chrome OS is fast though, even on the pokey Chromebook 11 that I have. The computer starts and shuts down instantly, and web pages all display properly. The Chromebook 11 itself is well built and much better than any computer this cheap has any right to be. The keyboard and trackpad are both great, and I love the fact that the charger is the same micro-usb cable that all Android devices use. I wish more laptops did this instead of using proprietary ac adapters.
On Mac and Windows, I use Final Draft 9 for screen and stage scripts, Celtx for legacy screenplays that I wrote in the past, Microsoft Word for everything else, and Dropbox as my cloud platform of choice to keep all this in order. None of these programs can be installed on Chrome OS, but there are a few web apps to fill the void.
Microsoft Word Online is surprisingly (robust and free.) If you have an internet connection, it is easily the best online word processor out there. However, it won’t work without an internet connection, which makes it useless for many of my needs. Celtx has its own online interface, but it uses its own proprietary cloud platform that I don’t want to deal with, much less pay for. Final Draft has some iOS apps, but no web apps. As for Dropbox, you’re limited to the online browser interface. In nearly every scenario, Android and iOS are far, far more capable operating systems for the applications I use everyday.
So that brings us to Google Drive/Docs. It doesn’t integrate with Dropbox (obviously), but I also have Drive installed on my Mac and PC, and most importantly, it works offline on Chrome OS. Since I use the laptop primarily offline, this makes it my word processor of choice. It took me a little experimenting, but with Google Drive/Docs, I think I finally found a useful way to insert the Chromebook in my workflow as a writer.
The Chromebook isn’t ready to be used as a sole computer, so it’s best to think of it as an accessory rather than a full writing solution. I use it in the same way as I use my paper notebook. I type out my first draft of something in Google Drive using Georgia as a substitute Times New Roman, and then I move it to an actual Mac or PC for formatting, revisions and all that fun stuff.
It isn’t perfect, but it’s been working for me pretty well so far. Having a tiny, convenient laptop that I can use anywhere quickly has already allowed me to take advantage of small chunks of downtime that I would otherwise fiddle away on my cell phone rather than doing something useful.
Ultimately, a small Windows, Mac, or even Android laptop would be a thousand times better, but the Chromebook is an interesting experiment for now. If more Chromebooks had built in 4G wireless internet, they could be come a formidable presence in the future. For now though, the Chromebook is the best way to get a functional laptop for an extremely cheap price, and when you’re a poor writer, sometimes that’s all you can ask for.