The Google Chromebook has been making friends and influencing people but a recent problem has rendered many of the machines temporarily unusable, sending their owners into orbit.
"I'm going to miss this Pixel after I send it back," fumed Business Insider columnist Julie Bort yesterday. Her $1,500 Chrombook Pixel had displayed the same weird sign-on problem as mine and an unknown number of others have done over the past few weeks.
The issue, which seems to be a so-far unidentified bug, occurs when a Chromebook user tries to sign on in an area where there is no wi-fi. Normally, the machines -- which operate totally in the cloud -- use your Google ID to sign on. No wi-fi, no Google sign-on.
When things are working properly, you are still able to log onto the machine and work with any files you may have saved locally. But users who have encountered this bug have been completely out of luck.
4G backup is no help
Pixel owners -- who paid $1,500 for their machines, about the same as a MacBook Pro -- also have Verizon 4G built into the laptops, for use when there is no wi-fi network.
But guess what. In my case, I tried to boot up while on a Southwest Airlines flight last week. For whatever reason, the wi-fi wasn't working on that flight. No problem, I thought. When we get to Chicago, where I had a two-hour connection layover, I expected to log in there and get caught up.
Instead, once at Midway, I was unable to get onto the machine at all, using either wi-fi or Verizon. Two hours of frustration. I turned on wi-fi sharing on my Verizon droid but the Pixel stubbornly refused to see it. Since I couldn't log on, I couldn't choose a new network. Catch-22.
Finally, we clambered on board the next leg of the flight and I watched, seething, as other passengers logged in and went to work, while I persued the useless products advertised in a dog-eared copy of Sky Mall.
It wasn't until I got to my destination and walked into the office where there was a wi-fi signal that my Chromebook had memorized on an earlier trip that I was once again in touch with the world. (You wondered why your copy of the Daily Consumer was late last week? Now you know.)
Other owners grouse
After catching up on my work, I went online and found others complaining of the same problem on the Chromebook online forum, which is Google's notion of customer service.
"It is quite frustrating. I write and often have deadlines to meet and time-sensitive data to share. I recently found myself stuck at a truck stop and was thus forced to pay to get online in order to access my chromebook," said a user called MBP.
You think you can call or email Chromebook tech support? Hah. Just try it. Instead you have to go into the Chromebook Central forum and wade through endless discussions ranging from profound to moronic. There are moderators of some sort and one claimed that the issue had been fixed:
"The bug that I have been following has been marked Fixed as of Oct 14: Issue # 295245, Offline signin sometimes doesn't work (user OAuth token state is reported as invalid)," said Lynn McCarthy on Oct. 29, the same day my problem occurred, which indicated to me that indeed it had not been fixed.
Unable to get any help from other users who were as frustrated as I was, I called Verizon Wireless, where a very helpful fellow said he had heard similar complaints from other Pixel users. He suggested -- but stressed that he did not know for certain since he was not a Google rep -- that it's best to sign in as "guest" and disable either wi-fi or 4G before proceeding. He suggested always keeping one or the other disabled.
Whether this is dead-on accurate or not, it has worked so far. I now routinely keep 4G turned off unless I know I will need it. I then turn off wi-fi. So far the problem has not recurred but who knows when it will pop up again?
Two things are more than a little annoying about this solution --
1. One big reason I got the Pixel was that I liked the idea of having a 4G alternative that would kick in automatically when there was no wi-fi. I quickly burned through the "free" amount of bandwidth provided with the Pixel purchase and now shell out $20 a month to Verizon for access.
2. Anyone who charges $1,500 for a laptop should at least answer emails, if not provide telephone support. Google seems to think it is above such mundane concerns as it floats above us in the cloud but if it wants to make a splash in the hardware business with Google Glass, Motorola Smartphones and its various tablets, laptops and so forth, it is going to eventually have to recognize that it owes its consumers a little more than an online forum populated by other irritated customers.
Does Google really think Verizon will routinely bail out Google's hardware customers?
This fiasco is not the only Pixel eccentricity that has raised my blood pressure lately. If we assume that most people who spend $1,500 on a laptop are using it for work and not just to watch movies and do dumb things on Facebook, a few other things need to be attended to:
1. Images. My work involves capturing and editing images. This is easily done with Photoshop, GIMP and iPhoto but, of course, the Chromebook won't run any of these. Instead, there are a few anemic apps like SumoPaint and Pixr, which are totally inadequate for anything even remotely resembling professional use.
2. Multiple accounts. Anyone who has more than one Google account -- and who doesn't? -- will be endlessly frustrated with the Chromebook. On any other machine, you can be jhood in Chrome, jim.hood in Firefox and johndoe in Explorer or Opera. With the Chromebook, you're stuck with Chrome, which can involve endless rounds of logging in and out of various user accounts. Yeah sure, you can have multiple accounts open but not all Google applications support multiple accounts.
3. Printing. The Chromebook will not talk directly to a printer. You must use something called Google CloudPrint, which works only with certain printers of very recent vintage. Yes, I know you can save your boarding pass as a PDF file, email or share it with someone whose machine is connected to a printer, etc., etc., but even the dumbest Windows machine will pretty quickly establish a relationship with nearly any printer you plug into it. I understand why the Chromebook doesn't do that (no drivers) but, quite honestly, it's not my problem -- it's Google's.
That's because the Chromebook Pixel and I are done. Kaput. I need a machine that will go with me on my travels and work when I need it to. For now, that means I'll be heading back to my Asus laptop running Linux Mint but will be making a stop at the nearest Apple store as soon as it's convenient.
Want my Pixel? Keep watching Craigslist. It'll be there shortly.