Are You a Photographer on the Road? Consider a Chromebook as a Laptop

Are you on the go for your photography or video shoots? If so, think outside the box and consider a Chromebook as your travel accessory.

It’s easy to dismiss a Chromebook as a viable photographer’s accessory. The common wisdom is that a Chromebook can’t handle big media applications such as Photoshop. But the reality is that it does fulfill many of the most important needs of a traveling photographer. Having used Chromebooks myself for over five years, they have served me well by providing me backup capability for my photo and video files and support for email and other web activity. Even the early Chromebooks provided clear benefits, such as low cost, light weight, long battery life (typically 10 hours), and malware resistance. Chromebooks have also supported many useful standard USB devices right out of the gate: mice, keyboards, monitors, media card readers, thumb drives, and hard disk drives.

Offline Functionality (No, They Don’t Have To Connect To the Net)

For photographers and videographers, perhaps the most important function is to back up image files. On my recent trips, I have taken a couple of 2 TB hard disk drives and done backups of SD media to hard drives in the evening. Some Chromebooks even have built-in SD or micro SD card readers, so using an external media card reader isn’t even necessary for this task. Once files have been moved to my hard disks, I organize the files into folders and add some descriptive notes to fit my normal processing workflow as preliminary to importing the files into Lightroom later at my home base. All of this functionality is available without an internet connection.

Chromebooks also have some (though limited) native media support (e.g. JPG and PNG photos and MP4 videos). Some culling and previewing of the day’s results are possible if you plan your shoot to save JPG files along with raw shots. With thirrd-party apps, such as mobile Lightroom and an online connection, more advanced processing (raw file handling) is possible.

Google’s free office suite also offers offline editing for their key tools, which synchronize to the documents in Google’s Cloud the next time you go online.

  • Docs: word processing
  • Sheets: spreadsheets
  • Slides: presentations
  • Keep: note-taking

Online Functionality

On the communications end, Chromebooks easily connect to Wi-Fi networks, and some models have built-in ethernet connections. If a network connector isn’t built in, ethernet connections can be had via USB adapters

Since the heart of the Chromebook is the Chrome browser, web-based functions are easily handled, including email, media posting, cloud backup, media streaming, and all other web browsing. Built-in web cameras and microphones also make it great for Google Meet or Zoom video meetings. 

Are you also writing documents or making presentations while on the road? Many familiar tools are available via the web. Besides Google’s office tools, all of which were designed from the outset to be cloud-centric, Microsoft’s traditional Office suite is similarly available in a cloud version.

The Security Elephant in the Room

For all internet-connected applications, the security of the Chromebook environment is a less obvious advantage, especially when using questionable web connections such as hotel Wi-Fi. Viruses aren’t a problem for Chromebooks, and virus checking software is not necessary. Historically, the primary threat to Chromebooks has come from loading un-vetted apps (i.e. not from Google’s app store), so simply limiting your third-party apps to those available from Google’s app store should be adequate. For all travel use, of course, a VPN (virtual private network) connection is advisable for additional protection.

The security aspect also contrasts greatly with the Windows PC situation. Updates to the Chrome OS and apps are downloaded in the background. You are not nagged to download a massive update file. Nor do you need to fear an untimely automatic restart of your machine. If an update needs a system restart, an unobtrusive notification is visible in your accessory console at the bottom right of the screen. The clearest advantage over a Windows PC is that when you do decide to restart, it takes no more than 30 seconds to do so. In normal operation, starting up a Chromebook typically only takes 10 to 15 seconds.

The low cost of Chromebooks also makes it easy to switch to another Chromebook in an emergency (pick one up at the nearest Walmart while on the road). When connected to the internet, it typically takes only a minute or two to get going on a fresh Chromebook since the majority of settings and data (such as bookmarks) are saved in Google’s cloud. Alternatively, borrowing someone’s Chromebook is no problem. User accounts are isolated from each other and can easily be installed and removed.

Advanced Functionality

The Chromebook just recently turned 10 years old and is definitely not just your kid’s school computer. It is now available in a myriad of configurations from numerous manufacturers. Additionally, modern Chromebooks have added the ability to run some Android and Linux apps. Although not all apps are suitable for the Chromebook environment, this has opened a whole new world of app options, even providing for full editing of photos and videos without going to a Mac or PC.

Choosing a Chromebook

The wide variety of Chromebooks now available are both a blessing and curse, but here are some considerations, just as when choosing any laptop:

  • Don’t go for the lowest end of the price range. They will all be able to handle backup and basic web tasks, but these are generally meant to be for your kids’ school work.
  • Look carefully at screen size, resolution, and quality. Lower-end screen choices may not provide adequate brightness or have poor off-axis viewing.
  • Look for USBC charging capability. Instead of being tied to a special power supply brick, this will allow you to travel with an easily replaceable universal charger which is fine for rapidly charging other modern devices such as your cell phone or spare battery bank.
  • Check to see what ports are built into the Chromebook. You may need to get an additional USB port docking adapter for USB A devices, ethernet, external monitors, or media card readers.
  • Check the amount of RAM inside the Chromebook. 4 GB to 16 GB are commonly offered, with 8 GB typical for mid-to-high-end units, but more is better if you have a habit of having a lot of browser tabs open at the same time.
  • Internal SSD storage for local files ranges from 16 GB on up, with 32 GB common today. For field use, this local storage is not critical and can be expanded by the use of external USB storage if necessary. Keeping fewer documents in internal storage makes it easier to switch to another Chromebook if necessary. I generally use internal storage only for downloaded copies of documents or for quick access to a few key photos.

Caveats

If you’ve never used a Chromebook, there are a couple of things to be aware of. The first is that the keyboard layout differs a bit from a PC or Mac keyboard. In particular, the topmost line of keys does not provide the standard F1 to F10 keys but instead provides special functions for Chrome OS. It is still possible to access all of the keys needed to operate a PC-based program, but extra keystrokes or redefining the keyboard in the software will be necessary. This is a common complaint of users switching to Chromebooks, but if it really bothers you on some programs, you can always plug a standard USB PC keyboard into the Chromebook.

Second, to effectively use a Chromebook, it should be no surprise that you need to sign in to Google’s ecosystem. All this means is that you should have at least a Gmail account. If you don’t have one, upon starting up a new Chromebook, you’ll be prompted to create one.

Afraid of Change?

Yes, the learning curve may be putting you off trying this tool. But rest assured, it’s no harder to adapt to a Chromebook than picking up a different brand of camera, or for that matter, picking up a different model of camera from the same manufacturer!

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