An interesting video and article published by Dieter Bohn over at The Verge a couple days ago came with a pretty bombastic title, and I love it. The video header simply states: ‘Microsoft accidentally made a great Chromebook.’ Great title, right? The accompanying article is equally well-headlined: ‘Microsoft’s Surface Pro X is the world’s most extravagant Chromebook…that doesn’t run Chrome OS.’ Both the video and the article are quick to point out that Microsoft didn’t actually build a Chromebook and Dieter clearly isn’t actually insinuating that they did.
He did, however, go through a second testing phase with the Surface Pro X after his initial review late last year came back with less-than-positive results. You see, the Surface Pro X is a Snapdragon-powered Windows detachable and as much as both Qualcomm and Microsoft want Windows and all its legacy apps to run smoothly on an ARM-powered machine, that reality isn’t here. Apps built for ARM run great and the custom-built Snapdragon processor inside is more than capable of high performance, but there are few of those ARM-friendly applications. Those that don’t fit into that category are emulated via software and that takes a massive toll on performance.
I think few were surprised by the initial reviews of the Surface Pro X given these constraints, but the fact of the matter is this device is a great laptop and tablet, even if it is expensive; it just needs a different use case. That was Dieter’s reason for spending a bit more time with the Surface Pro X. Instead of reviewing it like a Windows laptop, he took a decidedly Chrome OS mindset into this second use period and kept things more web-based.
For starters, he operated completely in Microsoft Edge Beta which is Chromium at the core. Because of its internals, this allowed for all the Chrome extensions Dieter needed, all the web applications (both run in a tab and installed as PWA’s for standalone use) he uses, and all of it made specifically to run well on ARM chips. The new Edge browser based on Chromium looks great and from all reports, is fast and smooth as well. Using Microsoft’s native browser on their own machine makes sense, but I’d assume this experiment could have been done with Chrome as well.
With this mindset, apart from the very high price point, the Surface Pro X seems to excel quite nicely when used in this way. When you stop trying to do things this tablet wasn’t really built to do, it seems its ability to perform is actually quite impressive. And that’s the point that really stood out to me in this video. Apart from using a Chromium-based version of Edge, there’s really nothing about this whole experiment that has anything to do with a Chromebook.
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Except there is. You see, the point of Chrome OS and the Chromebooks that run it isn’t really that we all replace the old ways of computing with a new OS, a new set of apps, and a new aesthetic. Instead, the central idea behind Chromebooks – and frankly, the reason I love them so much – is that the open web is coming into its own as a platform that can deliver nearly everything you need to be entertained, to create, or to be productive. And, when it works, it is a marvel of beauty, simplicity, and ease.
As I look at my desktop right now, I have my note taking app (Google Keep), my music app (Play Music), my photo editor (both Google Photos and Pixlr X), my graphics editor (Gravit Designer), and about 8 tabs open in Chrome. Everything I need to do the task at hand is at my fingertips and it is all 100% web-based. Now, I didn’t get to this workflow on accident. I made the choice to seek out and learn tools that I could leverage on the web and I did it on purpose.
The beauty of working this way is my ability to literally switch Chromebooks mid-article and continue working on any device I can log into. All my stuff is always there. I don’t worry with local storage, I don’t worry much about specs, and I don’t worry whether or not my device can or cannot run a particular app based on the chipset underneath my typing fingertips. It is a different way of computing.
I’d argue this is exactly what Dieter is doing in his latest Surface Pro X experiment. While he isn’t using a Chromebook in the least, he’s selling the idea of computing in this way; leveraging the web for all its worth and reaching outside of it when necessary. Is this the best use of the very expensive Surface Pro X? Perhaps, but I’m sure Microsoft wants you to do a bit of this and equally wants developers to step up and make more ARM-native apps. Either way, I think Dieter is on to something very fundamental and foundation to the way computing is changing. In this new era of getting things done, finding things out, learning things and being entertained, I think Chromebooks stand right at the center of the best tools to experience it all.