My Experience with a Pixelbook

About 2 months ago I switched from using Kubuntu on a Dell XPS 15 to working full time on a Pixelbook running Chrome OS. I’ve had plenty of folks ask me what it’s like to work on a Pixelbook and how I’m finding things, so I thought I’d put together some thoughts about how it’s working for me. If that sounds interesting to you, then read on!

What is a Pixelbook?

The Pixelbook is made by Google and it is generally considered to be the best Chromebook you can buy (although I hear the new Asus offerings are giving it a serious run for its money these days). A Chromebook is a laptop running Google’s Chrome OS, which is an increasingly interesting operating system that I will talk more about later in this post.

What is the hardware like?

Chromebooks are generally very lightweight and portable – if you’ve ever used a Macbook Air, Lenovo ThinkPad X or any other slimline notebook then you’ll have an idea of what Chromebooks feel like in terms of size and weight.

The Pixelbook is no exception in the slimline notebook category – it weighs a mere 1.1kgs and is about 29×22 cm in size, which is pretty similar to the Macbook Air dimensions. This makes it an extremely portable and practical machine that you can take anywhere – this is great for me because I tend to work from coffee shops most days.

This is all I take with me to work these days – my Pixelbook in its sleeve and a case for earphones, cables and adaptors (most of which I don’t use daily, but I like to have them around in case they become necessary).

The internals of the machine are impressive and the outward appearance belies what you will find inside. The model that I own, comes with a Core i7 CPU @ 3.6GHz, 16GB RAM and a 512GB SSD. That’s on par with many of the most powerful laptops you’ll find on the market these days and it makes working on the Pixelbook an absolute pleasure.

Aside from the hardware being easy to carry and really powerful, it also looks great. Google have really been upping their game in the hardware design world these days and the Pixelbook shows how far they’ve come. It looks great and feels as solid as any Dell or Macbook that I’ve used over the years.

The laptop has two USB-C ports (plus a headphone jack), so you need to have the requisite USB-C adaptor that is becoming so common these days – I would strongly recommend getting hold of a LYNQ USB-C hub as it comes with all the ports you would ever need in a single unit as well as charge-through, so you can plug your power cord directly into it.

There are a few other elements to the hardware that are worth noting, but I’ll touch on those later.

What is the OS like?

Chrome OS is very interesting – at it’s most basic level it is little more than a desktop wrapper for the Chrome browser, with a file manager added on. What makes it so interesting and powerful, however, is that it can also run any Android app as well as Linux. This makes it more like three operating systems in one, giving you an essentially lightweight OS that can do pretty much anything you need.

Android support works out of the box and is exactly what you would expect – you can use the Play Store app to install any app you like and it works seamlessly.

Linux support is a little different – you need to choose to switch it on, but that’s just an option in the settings panel. When you do switch it on, it takes about 10 minutes to set up the virtual machine and install Debian Stretch (or presumably whatever the current latest version of Debian is) and you’re good to go.

Once Linux is setup, there are two immediately noticeable differences – Terminal is installed as a CLI app for your Linux installation, and there is a new ‘Linux files’ section in the existing Files app.

The Linux installation is given the name ‘penguin’ with an accompanying penguin icon in the Files app. Cute.

How well does Linux work?

As I mentioned, Linux is installed as a virtual machine, but even so, the Chrome team have gone to great lengths to make it feel like just another part of the same OS. There is still some ways to go with this, however, as you cannot currently access files in the Chrome folders from inside a Linux app (although Chrome apps can access Linux files), and Linux apps do not have access to USB ports or audio and video capabilities. These are all being actively worked on and will be sorted out in the coming months, but they are a little frustrating for the time being.

Aside from those minor issues you can install any Linux app you like, either using the apt commands in Terminal, or simply downloading the .deb install files. Having worked exclusively in Linux for the past 2 years, this really is great as I can keep using many of the same apps I’ve become accustomed to.

What about local development?

This is the big ticket item that most folks eventually get round to asking me about, so I’ll give my best answer for it here. The tl;dr is that development on a Chromebook is almost identical to native Linux.

Firstly, there’s the matter of installing an IDE – with both Android and Linux available to you, this is obviously very easy. I’m currently using Sublime Text 3 (just like I was on my Dell before this), but you could just as easily use PhpStorm or any other IDE that you like. Android even has quite a few surprisingly solid IDE options these days.

The second, and slightly more sticky, issue is that of setting up a local development environment. For many years now, I have been using Vagrant along with Varying Vagrant Vagrants for WordPress development. Unfortunately, however, Vagrant requires a virtual machine to run and you can’t run a virtual machine inside of another virtual machine (trust me – I tried).

Pretty much any other Linux-based solution work well though. Docker works just like it does on Linux so that will certainly be a popular option here, but as I’ve never used Docker before (and my development needs aren’t that great these days) I simply installed PHP, Apache and MariaDB from the command line and created my own dev environment.

Chrome continues the penguin theme here and automatically gives you a dev URL of penguin.linux.test that points to the /var/www/html folder inside Linux, so once I had PHP and MySQL setup I already had a local site up and running at that URL and I just had to install WordPress where I need it. This is easy to extend further with custom vhosts of course, so you can make it work however you like.

Along with that, Git and SVN work from the command line just like normal. So, coupled with the powerful hardware of the Pixelbook, this gives you an infinitely flexible development environment that matches anything you’ll find on a Macbook or Linux. This has generally been one of the reasons that lot of developers have steered away from getting a Chromebook, but with the Linux support being so robust that concern has largely been mitigated. 

What else works well?

Everything I’ve said so far sums up the general feeling of working on a Pixelbook and you can clearly see that this is something that I am thoroughly enjoying. I’d like to mention a couple of other items that are neat little additions to the whole experience. 

Battery life

Google claims that the Pixelbook has up to 10 hours of battery life with average use. I haven’t got quite that much out of it with the work that I do, but I can just get through a full day of work (including a couple of video calls) without having to plug the machine in once. This is genuinely incredible and is unlike any laptop I have worked on prior to this.

On top of that, when I do need to charge it, just keeping it plugged in for a mere 15 minutes will easily give me at least two hours of battery time, and a full charge takes little more than an hour to complete.

Tablet mode

I haven’t mentioned this yet, but the Pixelbook can be used as a tablet by folding it all the way back. This works really well and Chrome OS is designed in such a way that the UI barely changes when you switch to tablet mode. The on-screen keyboard is great, making tablet mode a pleasure to use. I don’t use it in this format all that much, but I have found it useful on occasion.

Wait – where’d the keyboard go?!

The stylus

Along with tablet mode, there is a handy stylus that comes with the Pixelbook (called the Chromebook Pen – pictured above). If you have ever used a tablet stylus before then this will feel very similar to your past experience. What makes it a bit different is that Chrome OS has some built in functions made directly for the stylus – the most useful that I’ve found have been using it for taking a screenshot of a drawn region, and the nifty pseudo-laser pointer for use during presentations.

Phone integration

I’ve been using a Google Pixel as my phone for a while now (and I have recently upgraded to a Pixel 2). The neat thing about this is that the Pixelbook integrates very nicely with my phone. The main integration features that I use at the moment are using my phone to unlock my laptop while it’s nearby, and sharing my phone’s mobile data connection with a click.

Google is working on some further mobile integrations, which I’m very excited to find out about as they release them.

The launcher

The launcher on Chrome OS works kind of like Spotlight on a Mac and can be accessed with a single keypress. It uses the ubiquitous “omnibox” that you’ll be familiar with from Chrome or Android and allows you to quickly find a local app, web bookmark, or perform a web search. One of the things I really like about this are the shortcut functions that Google search offers – things like timezones, currency conversion, maths equations, etc. – just typing something like “Current time in Mumbai” into the omnibox will give you the answer right in the launcher without having to open a window. In my job, this kind of thing is infinitely useful.

Google Assistant

The Pixelbook comes with Google Assistant built-in, so if you use Google Assistant and like that sort of thing, then this is great. I don’t use the Assistant that much on my phone in the first place, so this is largely unused for me. For the times that I have used it, it has worked very well and it integrates seamlessly with the web experience.

Automatic updates

One thing that I’ve always appreciated about Chrome as a browser, and has now been carried over to Chrome OS, are the automatic background updates to the core software. Chrome OS is in constant development and updates are installed automatically while you work, with a reboot only needed for some major updates. This is great, not only for getting new features as soon as they’re ready, but also for keeping your laptop as secure as possible.

What doesn’t work well?

Almost everything I’ve mentioned so far has been very positive, which is for good reason – my Pixelbook experience has indeed been great. I have very little problems with it and I haven’t encountered any noticeable bugs (yet).

The Linux integration still has some shortcomings that I mentioned above, but I do know that Google is actively working in improving that. Other than that there’s nothing that I’m finding lacking from my Pixelbook usage and I’m finding it to be a great machine for daily use.

Should you get a Chromebook?

Well that’s up to you. As far as I can tell there’s very little that you can’t do on a Chromebook these days, but a change like this isn’t for everyone of course. If you rely heavily on Apple’s iCloud services, then it probably makes more sense to stick with Mac – the same goes for Microsoft OneDrive and Windows. If you use Google’s cloud services (or any other similar options) then a Chromebook is a solid choice that won’t let you down.

My experience has been hugely positive and I couldn’t speak more highly of my time working on a Pixelbook so far. If you want to ask about something specific that I havent touched on here, then feel free to do so in the comments and I’ll clarify where I can. 

WordPress Contribution Panel Questions

Earlier this month, I chaired a panel at WordCamp Cape Town that was all about contributing to WordPress:

As the chair of the panel, I wasn’t there to answer any of the questions; that was left to the Pascal Birchler, Thabo Tswana, Trisha Cornelius and Vedanshu Jain – all talented and experienced contributors to many different areas of the WordPress project.

The panel was open for attendees to ask any questions they wanted and we had some really good ones! As I wasn’t answering the questions on the day myself, I thought I’d pick out a few of the interesting ones and answer them here. Not that our panellists didn’t already do a stellar job of course – I just found these questions particularly interesting and worth discussing further.

There are already so many people contributing, why should I get involved?

More people = more voices = more diversity = more ideas = more valuable contributions.

Getting involved is always a good idea as you will inevitably have something new to offer that no one else is able to. Even if you honestly believe that you have nothing new to offer (which isn’t true), then remember that many hands make light work, so your contributions will always be valuable. 

How is the WordPress South Africa community levelling barriers to association and creating equal opportunity for locals?

This is a big question and one that we could talk about at length. Currently, the primary organisers for the Cape Town community are all white males (myself included) – this is a problem that we fully recognise, but unless someone else steps up to assist then there’s not a lot we can do to change that ourselves.

For WordCamp Cape Town this year, we made a special effort towards diverse representation in our speaker line-up, and we had the most diverse set of speakers that we’ve ever had for a local WordCamp. Hopefully this kind of thing will encourage and inspire folks who are under-represented on the organising team to come forward and lend a hand.

WordPress is a community-driven project and we can only grow more in this area if people come on board to assist. If you would like to get involved in the local WordPress community to help knock down barriers to diversity, then please reach out to me!

Why contribute to WordPress? What motivates you to contribute?

There are a lot of different answers that could be given here – not least is that contributing to WordPress increases the diversity of ideas that are made available to project.

A more personal answer regarding what motivates me to contribute, is that I firmly believe in the mission of WordPress to democratise publishing for everyone. The open-source nature of the project, makes it one of the most powerful forces for change in the world. You might feel that’s being over-dramatic about a CMS, but you should never under-estimate the power of giving someone a voice.

By contributing to WordPress, I believe I am helping to further the goal of allowing everyone in the world to easily and freely publish their thoughts, ideas and opinions. That may not seem like much if you have always had that sort of opportunity, but for much of the world, it means everything.

Is there a way to financially support WordCamps in other countries?

Yes! Any company can sponsor any WordCamp in the world. If you aren’t in a position to sponsor, then you can simply purchase a ticket for the WordCamp to donate some money towards them. Many WordCamps even have “microsponsor” tickets, which are priced higher than normal tickets, but lower than a sponsorship package – these are a great way to donate to a WordCamp that you would like to assist financially.

What aspect of WordPress is most in need of contribution currently?

As a member of the Community Team, I an unequivocally say that it is obviously the Community Team that has the most need right now. Then again, someone on the Documentation Team would tell you that it is the their team that needs the most contributions right now – the same goes for all teams I’m sure!

A less biased answer is that the Testing Team is always in need of contributors. It is not unfair to say that if more folks were actively testing new WordPress features, then the release schedule could potentially be brought forward and each release would be more stable and reliable.

Is it difficult to become a Core contributor? Any tips on how to get started?

It isn’t difficult at all. The Core Contributor Handbook is a great place to start and has some useful info about submitting your first patch. A general tip from my experience, is to start with something simple – the first patch I ever submitted to core was adding a single do_action call in a place where I needed to output some HTML for a plugin of mine to work properly.

What are the challenges with contributing when you have daily work commitments?

This is a great question as I know it is a stumbling block for many new contributors. Not everyone is in a position where their company sponsors their time to contribute to WordPress or, at the very least, allows then to spend a small amount of time each work on contributions. If you are in that boat, then I would recommend that you start with smaller, manageable tasks.

Things that I would consider more manageable in terms of time, would be testing WordPress core, testing the mobile apps, getting involved in vetting meetup applications, helping in the support forums, translating WordPress, and captioning videos on WordPress.tv. There are many other paths to getting involved that also won’t take up loads of your time, but I feel like those are a few that are simple enough to get started, but also allow for much more growth when you find that you have more time available later on.

How can a non-developer contribute to WordPress?

I already listed some of the ways in the previous answer, but generally speaking – if you want to start contributing to WordPress, you will always find something that matches your skill set on the Make network.

How many words could a WordPress press if a WordPress could press words?

The answer, of course, is as many words as a WordPress could press if a WordPress could press words.


There were a number of other questions asked as well, but I already touched on them here, or they were more technical and specific, so not necessary to answer in this post. In general, I really enjoyed the panel and I think many of the questions gave some great insight into the thoughts of our community.

Developer User Group – Bending WordPress to Your Will

I gave a talk at the Cape Town Branch of the Developer User Group this week  that covered the basics of getting started with WordPress development. I have given this talk before as a longer and more complete workshop, so with this being a 40 minute theoretical talk, I included some more practical examples of the code I was talking about.

You can find the full slides from the talk here:

As you can see from the slides, I focussed on the action/filter paradigm of WordPress core as the main way of getting into developing for WordPress. From experience I can say that understanding this methodology opens up a huge world of WordPress development and allows you to do almost anything you like with the platform. 

Here are a few links that I mentioned in the talk, along with some other useful ones:

Embracing a Change in Career

There’s a strange, often subconscious, view held by most developers – whether they will admit it or not, they tend to see other career paths as less important than what they’re doing at the moment. They might aspire to management at some undefined point in the future, but even that is seen as inevitable rather than something better.

As a developer myself, I have held this same view for most of my career. I’m not sure if it’s a self-preservation thing or just general stubbornness, but either way – I’ve had a deep struggle with the idea of moving on from full time development work. Continue reading → Embracing a Change in Career

Cryptic Crossword #4

Another cryptic crossword for your puzzle-solving enjoyment. You can find all my crossword offerings in the category archive.

Screenshot_20180327_114914

Across
1. Criticise trees for good luck. (5,2,4)
9. Hurry from fog without enthusiasm. (3,3,2,5)
10. Clergyman in politics? (8)
12. and 4 down. Sounds like egg is a collection of livestock. (4,2,4)
14. Weighty mineral. (5)
15. Make movement happen. (5)
19. Flower round pupil. (4)
20. Crooked squint? (8)
22. Pattern made from arachnid’s trap. (6-7)
24. Pry lone toys awkwardly with rude response. (6,5)

Down
2. Sounds like no sister. (3)
3. Coasting like a ship? (8)
4. See 12 across (4,2,4)
5. Insect used to be at the top of peninsula. (4)
6. With great effort, disturbs surly one with nothing. (9)
7. Dirty, gloomy youth leader. (5)
8. Orange girl? (5)
11. I turn into bad food. (9)
13. Reliable money can be saved. (8)
16. In the middle of fog around 500. (5)
17. Progress incorrectly with article we initially wrote in violent display. (2,4)
18. Advert on period proverb. (5)
21. Illustrate political protest. (4)
23. I will fit into skillset. (3)

 

Need the solutions? Grab them here (image, opens in a new tab).

Cryptic Crossword #3

Another week, another cryptic crossword. You can find all my crossword offerings in the category archive.

3 - Grid

Across
1. Getting here with bald head smoothing hair. (7)
5. Kick footwear. (4)
8. Bet help comes with her. (5)
9. Not Mother’s flask. (7)
11. Challenge a red mix up. (4)
12. Not on the coast of another country. (8)
15. Come up with northern wash. (5)
16. Short instructions. (5)
19. Removing open space. (8)
21. Fall over journey. (4)
23. Follower has strange lace toy. (7)
25. Currency in the beef ranch. (5)
26. Capital of bad solo. (4)
27. I poorly treat eastern repeat. (7)

Down
2. Alternatively writhes wildly in Old English. (9)
3. William is being paid? (4)
4. Inform if Tony is wrong. (6)
5. Block from drinking hole. (3)
6. Nothing on severe smell. (5)
7. Curves round divers’ disease. (5)
10. Make certain of financial security, we hear. (6)
13. Disproportionate response when you tear cover badly. (9)
14. Article on homeless animal in the wrong place. (6)
17. To absorb sounds like it was done as a joke. (6)
18. The cop did badly without taking first period. (5)
20. Place for a tailless grasshopper? (5)
22. From a distance in a farce. (4)
24. Inside balloonist’s washroom. (3)

Need the solutions? Here they are (image, opens in a new window).

 

Cryptic Crossword #2

Following on from my last cryptic crossword, here’s the second one that I’ve put together. It’s worth noting that I actually made this one a little over a year ago, but never really did anything with it.

Cryptic Crossword #2

Across
7. Endless enemy has an article in its behind (5)
8. In dire English initially, but a friend makes it perfect (7)
9. Value too obscure without nothing, but produces eggs (7)
10. British fruit at the start of yuletide (5)
12. A creep’s too confusing to work with (10)
15. Unstained, I strangely hinted (10)
18. Roughly itch with head of needle in the Scottish night (5)
19. By myself beneath hot air that I produced (5,2,3,5)
21. Prepare the morning in exclamation by folding paper (7)
22. In Xhosa, unaffected by steam bath (5)

Down
1. Uprising goes around (10)
2. Brought back about and crouches down, we hear (5)
3. Coffee island? (4)
4. Motivate to start the engine (4,2)
5. Sense no cost without inhibition (4,4)
6. Malt with ice isn’t right for this weather (7)
11. Past time? (10)
13. See 19 across.
14. In Gypsy chic home lives a mind-reader (7)
16. A god who is strangely unbiased with no end (6)
17. Article about urge to fight (5)
20. Make directional quantity (4)

Looking for the solutions? Here they are! (image, opens in new tab)

Cryptic Crossword #1

When I was young my dad used to do our local newspaper’s cryptic crossword puzzle every morning. This always intrigued me and he slowly started teaching me how to do them, until I frequently asked him to photocopy the crossword every morning so that I could solve it myself without interfering with his own work on it. Thinking about it now, this is probably where my love of interesting words came from.

Now, many years later, I find myself constantly coming up with cryptic clues for words (which proves to be distracting sometimes while I’m writing), so I thought I’d start writing down these clues and putting them into my own cryptic crossword puzzles so they have a home outside of the confines of my mind.

Now that I’ve started doing that, it seems silly to not share the puzzles with anyone, so I thought I’d do that in the most logical place I can think of – my own blog. If I end up doing enough of these I might start putting them on their own site, but for now this is a good enough place as any for them to live.

So, without further ado, here is the first of these puzzles – I’ll update the post with the answers in a week’s time, but for now feel free to download, print, share and solve my first cryptic crossword offering.

Cryptic crossword grid

Across
6. Coming to a stop on equal terms with the ruler (7)
7. Wheel on 500 – they’re exhausted! (5)
9. To be ill, so to speak, from beer (3)
10. Mistake a bad set as a series of informative tables (9)
12. Warm vegetables make unpleasant issues (3,8)
15. Taking responsibility for putting myself in harm’s way (2,2,3,4)
17. Coming to mind and happening (9)
19. Uselessly internal cunning (3)
21. Oddly cruel profits (5)
22. Growing of account right under all leaders’ heads (7)

Down
1. Rings up and shouts out (5)
2. In risking my life I make sport in snow (3)
3. South American race in Latin calendar (4)
4. Ultimate trial? (5,4)
5. Lad got married and was made fresh (7)
8. Meaningless talk takes Father and the heads of two towns to the emergency room (6)
11. Do a drug by wrong protector (9)
13. Strengths shown by strange row with emphatic initial in addendum (6)
14. Arrogant attitude pushed in from below (5,2)
16. Relieve unending god on the Fourth of July (5)
18. Scratch the boy (4)
20. Vessel made from broken rack losing 100 (3)

Need some help? Here are the solutions.

WordPress in 2018 – What to expect when you’re expecting

This evening I gave a talk at our Cape Town WordPress meetup covering all the things we can expect from the WordPress project in 2018. We looked at what’s coming in Core, what the Community team is doing, what we’ll be doing for the 15th anniversary of the first release of WordPress,  and a few other things.

Here are the slides from my talk:

Also, to make things a little easier and more clickable, here are the links mentioned in the slides in the order they appear:

Chatting on WP Hacker Cast

I recently had a good chat with my friend and co-organiser of our local WordPress meetup group, Jon Bossenger, on his WP Hacker Cast. It was great fun and, after making sure my Star Wars nerd-cred remained intact, we chatted about WordPress, community and development.

The episode is a little over an hour long and well worth a listen if you’re interested in the WordPress meetup and WordCamp programmes. You can listen to it here.