This Cheap Chinese Tablet Might Be The Best Tablet I’ve Owned

I got a Chromebook, as you’ll know if you’ve read my last couple of posts.

I also got a cheap Teclast X90HD Windows 8.1 (desktop version, not RT) tablet because I had one Windows application I knew I would want to use.

So I bought this cheap tablet with one purpose in mind: Run one Windows application.

The idea was to set up the tablet and then stash it in a closet plugged into a power outlet so I could remote into it whenever I needed that one Windows application.

So I unboxed the thing and started playing around with it.

First off, the language was set to Chinese. So I went into the Region and Language Settings and changed the language for All The Things to English and deleted the Chinese language pack.

All the time I was using this tablet to set it up I noticed something: This is actually a really good piece of hardware.

Its corners are round and smooth, it has angled edges so it doesn’t cut into your hand, but it does something no other tablet or smartphone I’ve owned does: It has tiny ridges in the plastic around the corners on the sides and near the edges on the back so it doesn’t slip out of your hands. They’re subtle and perfect.

The front is solid, matte glass that stands up well against glare and feels great to touch. It also resists oily fingers well. Additionally, the surface is flush all the way across, even over the edges of the bezel.

And the sides and back are 90% metal. It’s not cheap, thin metal like an iPhone, either. It’s thick and significant. The device has a pleasant weight to it, but it’s not heavy. The logos on the back are subtle and stylish.

There are stereo speakers on the back and they sound decent.

It’s nearly impossible to tell which end of the device is the top because there are no buttons anywhere and you can rotate the device any way you want and the screen rotates to suit that orientation — even upside down. This means when you’re using it with the charge cable plugged in you can flip it over and have the cables come out the top.

It’s got something no other tablet I’ve used with a full desktop operating system on it has had: GPS.

This tablet may be the tablet I have always wanted: A full desktop operating system with all the features of a mobile device.

The battery life is superb. I can use this tablet all day, even leaving the screen on for 10 or 15 minutes at a time, and still leave it sitting all night, and when I get up in the morning it still has battery life left.

And it does something else other Windows tablets don’t do: It delivers notifications when the screen is off (eat it, Surface Pro).

I found myself saying “I knew it all along, the UI for the desktop version of Windows 8 is designed for tablets” because it works really well on a tablet. The swipe-in gestures work well on this device because of its flush edges, and because there are no distracting buttons or logos and the screen is extremely high resolution (the same resolution as a retina iPad) it’s great for reading on.

It is also surprisingly adept and snappy at multitasking. I can have several applications open and switch between them swiftly, even though the device has only 2GB of RAM.

Using Two-factor Authentication with a Chromebook

A couple of releases ago Google announced integration of FIDO keys into Chrome.

What they didn’t say directly is that you can also use a hardware key in addition to a password to sign into your Chromebook.

However, it does work, but you have to follow the steps exactly or you could get locked out of your account, and you may have to wait weeks for a Google support person to contact you to help you get back into your account.

This almost happened to me the first time I set up two-factor authentication. I was very fortunate that an old phone I had stashed in a drawer was still signed into my Google account, and that I could get in and turn off two-factur authentication.

Note, however, that this no longer works: As soon as you enable two-factor authentication, Google immediately signs out all devices.

Setting up two-step authentication with a Google Account is not very well documented, and there’s zero documentation on doing it with a Chromebook. It took a lot of trial and error and I had to buy and return two keys before I found one that was reliably compatible.

To get started, here are the steps:

  1. Make sure you’re on a supported platform: Windows, Mac, Linux*, ChromeOS. Note the asterisk on Linux. Some users (Ubuntu in particular) are having problems getting hardware keys to work because USB access requires privilege escalation. Since this article is about ChromeOS I won’t go into that.
  2. Buy a hardware key (Amazon is a good source). The only key that works reliably is the blue one (FIDO). I have had other keys work intermittently but never reliably; others say they have had different hardware keys work for them, too. But I put in a lot of trial and error, and the blue FIDO key is the only one that has worked for me reliably and consistently.
  3. Go here and set up two factor authentication.
  4. Click on Get Sarted. Warning, here there be dragons: While setting up two-step authentication, be absolutely sure the device you chose to receive your verification code on can receive the message, because if you are not able to get the message on that device, you will be locked out of your account for weeks and possibly forever.
  5. After verifying your key, go to the Security Keys tab.
  6. Click Manage.
  7. Click Add A / Add Another Security Key(s).
  8. Click the Register button.
  9. Insert your blue hardware key.
  10. Wait ten seconds. This part is crucial. It takes some time for the key to be recognized as a new USB device and to register with the HID layer. You’ll know the key is ready when the blue key symbol begins flashing.
  11. Touch the key symbol.
  12. Wait a couple of seconds.
  13. Lift your finger.
  14. You should get a little green box that says Registered. You can now use your hardware key to login to your Chromebook.
  15. On your Chromebook, go to Settings > Manage Other Users.Screenshot 2015-01-11 at 5.34.58 PM
  16. Uncheck Enable Guest Browsing, Enable Supervised Users and Show Usernames Photos on the Sign-in Screen and Prevent Other Users form Logging (these steps are optional and prevent other people from using your Chromebook — don’t do them if more than one person uses your Chromebook).
  17. Click Done.
  18. When you log out you’ll be required to input your email, password and insert your hardware key. Use a USB 2.0 port, not a USB 3.0 port.

Great things (and things that suck) about the Chromebook

This is a sort of ongoing post which I will edit and update as I discover more about how I use my Chromebook.

Recently I decided to do the Chromebook Experiment:

I wanted to try out a Chromebook and see if it could do everything I needed in place of a computer.

This decision was in large part driven by a paper I read by three people from MIT discussing the security of Chromebooks.

Before we begin, let me just get this out of the way: The Chromebook is the smart fortwo of computers:

It does one thing, it does it very well, and if you want it to do anything else you probably don’t want a Chromebook.

And like a smart fortwo, the Chromebook is probably the only computer for you if you have no friends, you don’t want to store anything inside it and you want to pretend to save the world through energy saving but not really.

And before you say it (yes I’m looking at you because I know you’re going to say it), yes, I realize you can install Linux on a Chromebook. I know that you can even run it in a tab in Chrome.

You can put a Hayabusa engine in a smart car, too. Yes, they have drop in kits for that.

Yes, putting a mind numbing engine into a smart car would be delightfully satisfying, but only because you didn’t buy the car you really needed in the first place.

The same applies to the Chromebook: Yes, you can install Linux on a Chromebook. Yes, some Acer Chromebooks can be upgraded to 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD.

But at that point, why are you doing that to yourself? Just get what you need and be done with it.

Some of the security features I like in particular are:

  • A Chromebook can be wiped of all data from the login screen by typing Alt+Ctrl+Shift+R.
  • Chromebooks use Verified Boot to verify the software on the device matches the signature of the OS from Google and that it has not been tampered with.
  • The root public key is stored in non-writeable ROM.
  • There are two RSA signing keys onboard, one of which is used frequently to verify data, one of which is rarely used.
  • There are two copies of the writeable portion of the firmware. Which one is used is switched regularly.
  • User directories are discrete, use multiple layers of encryption and use both TPM and password protection.
  • Only one root certificate is trusted, it is checked with Google’s root registrar on every login and it’s changed every 4 years.
  • When each user first logs into a Chromebook, he or she gets a new vault in which to store data. This vault keeps each users data separate. The vault is stored in a directory that is a hash of user’s name and salt and is mounted using eCryptfs when the user logs in.
  • For guests, any temporary browser data is stored on tmpfs and all guest browsing all is done in incognito mode. The tmpfs is never stored on disk and is erased once the guest logs out.

There are lots and lots of other security features.

Some of the things I don’t like about the Chromebook and ChromeOS are:

  • There are two extremes: One very expensive chromebook and all the cheap ones. Manufacturers seem to have taken the “oh it’s made to be inexpensive, we’ll just make a bunch of E Machines” approach to Chromebooks. They’re all made with cheap plastics and terrible, low resolution displays. This is still changing, but at the time of this writing you could choose whether you wanted an IPS display or a large display.
  • If you ever accidentally delete a bookmark or, like me, accidentally hit Delete on a touch screen instead of Bookmark Manager and delete a whole folder of hundreds of bookmarks, they’re gone. Forever. With a single touch. Bookmarks you’ve been collecting since 1998, all gone. Permanently. On Windows there’s a shitty workaround to fix this, but on a Chromebook you’ve just thrown away your entire bookmark collection irretrievably.
  • You can’t just install ChromeOS on any old computer and expect it to work. Believe me, I spent hours trying to get ChromeOS working properly in QEMM, Virtualbox, Parallels and VMWare. Because the OS is so tightly integrated with the hardware for security reasons, it’s extremely complicated to build and run on any hardware yourself.
  • You can’t print directly from a Chromebook. Did I stutter? No. I verified this with Google’s support chat: If you want to print from a Chromebook you need either:
    • A special printer that supports Google Cloud Print, which is constantly on, connected to the Internet, and never goes into power save mode.
    • A Mac or PC that has Chrome installed. This computer must be kept running at all times with the Google Cloud Print extension installed and running. If the computer goes into power save mode you cannot print.
  • Speaking of Google Chat Support: If you open a Support Chat with a Google representative on ChromeOS, there is no way to end the chat because that feature is missing from the chat window’s widget set. And because you originated the chat on ChromeOS, you can’t end it on any other browser, either. When I wanted to end the chat, I closed the chat window. But it popped back up. “Are you still there? I haven’t heard from you in a while.” So I closed it again. But I couldn’t just close Chrome to get rid of it because Chrome is the fucking OS. So I logged out of the Chromebook and shut it down. Ten seconds later on my Macbook: “Are you there? Hello?”. So I disabled the Hangouts plugin in Chrome on my Macbook. Another ten seconds passes and then on my Windows tablet: “I’d really like to help you resolve this issue.” Just fucking stop! I don’t want your help anymore, I don’t want to tell you to fuck off and I can’t hang up on you.
  • Chromebooks don’t work with Android phones. You can copy files from an Android device but you can’t write to one, and this is intentional. Even reading files from Android phones is a very recent addition. There is a shitty workaround: You can either use a USB OTG adapter and connect a USB stick to your phone or you can use one of those $10 sticks that has a Micro USB port on one end and a USB connector on the other. Creating work, Google. You’re creating work.
  • Hot plugging USB thumb drives is not supported so if you unplug a USB stick without unmounting it manually ChromeOS will complain at you like it’s 1970 and you’ve just spun the tape archive off balance and flipped over a tape drive the size of a washing machine.
  • The USB 3.0 ports are not backward compatible with earlier versions of USB. If you plug, say, a mouse or a USB 2.0 storage device into a USB 3.0 port it won’t work. You won’t even get a warning to plug it into a different port.
  • As with Android, plugging in a USB DAC is a crapshoot. Some of then work, some of them don’t. With my particular DAC, the Centrance Hi-fi M8, the device is detected and the Chromebook switches to it but no sound comes out.
  • Oddly enough you can’t use Google’s OS with Google’s remote desktop solution: Chrome Remote is useable on Chromebooks for connecting to other computers but you cannot connect remotely to a Chromebook.
  • There is no Skype. Right then, Microsoft has completely closed off access to the Skype API so that only their official apps can access it. And you know who Microsoft hates more than anyone? Yup. No, if you’d asked me two years ago if I cared about Skype, I’d have shrugged indifferently. But today? Half my friends are using Skype, the other half are using Google Hangouts. Why? Because we’re adults now and we need a serious communication platform that works on every operating system all the time. I finally cut the chord on Yahoo/MSN/AIM/ICQ a few months ago and I haven’t looked back. This means I will always have a second device to use Skype on. Yes, you can hack Skype into running as an Android app on a Chromebook but it’s awful.
  • There is no useful solution for unzipping archives like zip and rar files on ChromeOS. I’m told that when you open an archive it is supposed to mount like a drive that you can copy files out of, but on the current stable and beta versions of chrome, when I try to open an archive literally nothing happens. So I have to copy the file to a USB stick, copy it to my phone, unzip it, then copy it back to my Chromebook. See, Google? I could skip a step there if I could copy files to my Android phone…
  • Fixes for really, really obvious problems are a very long time coming. Can’t copy files onto an Android phone? How did the first Chromebook get out the door without that functionality? What if Apple told people they couldn’t copy music from their Macbook onto their iPhone?
  • ChromeOS has had a feature for a long time in the Wallpaper Settings that would let you check a box to be “surprised” by a new wallpaper every time you logged in, but it took them at least a year after the first Chromebooks were released to put any content behind the URL used by that feature, so users were instead “surprised” by no wallpaper at all when they logged in.
  • The settings in ChromeOS are all moved around. They’re in different places from Chrome on any other platform. If you’ve already used Chrome on another OS you’ll find trying to find simple settings like setting a proxy mind numbingly difficult. Why is printing under advanced settings? Since when is adding a printer for advanced users? Oh right, it’s ChromeOS: Adding a printer really is for advanced users.
  • Speaking of: Google refers to enabling a proxy for your network connection as “allow proxy settings for shared networks.” What? What the..? What the fuck, Google? Really? Who is going to google for that when they’re trying to figure out how to use a proxy? And why would you title the help document on how to set up a proxy “Proxy issues?” It’s only an issue if it doesn’t work.
  • And speaking of that, ChromeOS does not support proxy authentication, so unless you’re browsing through an open proxy like Bucky Badass you’re screwed because your Chromebook is a Chromebrick.
  • Desktop notifications are disabled by default. This means no notifications for Gmail, Hangouts or other applications that inherently require notifications to be productive apps. If you want to enable them you have to go deep into ChromeOS’s settings and enable a scary sounding setting.

Alright, now that I’ve slayed the beast, here are some things I like about Chromebooks and ChromeOS:

  • The OS is always up to date. You can choose if you want the stable OS, the beta OS or the bleeding edge developer OS.
  • There’s no nagging when it’s time to install updates. A little up arrow appears in the ashtray when an update is available, and it’s installed when you reboot. When you want to reboot and no sooner.
  • There’s no choosing which updates to install. There are updates and they happen. Bob’s your uncle.
  • Even though the plastics and other materials are cheap, most of the time they are well used and feel high quality.
  • Chromebooks are hella cheap. Break it? Lose it? Stolen? No biggie. Change your password and whip out a fresh Chromebook. You’re ready to go. Since all of your data is in data centers somewhere you lose nothing. For the price of a decent PC you can have one or two spare Chromebooks on hand.
  • ChromeOS’s simplicity is off the hook. Turn on your device, log in, browser. Want extensions? Chrome web store.
  • Want a terminal? Ctrl+Alt+T. Google also provides a beta terminal extension in the Chrome store that adds to the local terminal’s functionality.
  • Flash is there. Yes, people still use it. That means you can get video from all the providers that haven’t switched to HTML5 yet. Amazon Instant, Netflix, Hulu, And all you casuals can get your games.
  • ChromeOS is fast on cheap processors and it looks good on cheap displays. My Chromebook has a Tegra K1 and it loads apps and pages pretty much instantly.
  • Chrome’s remote desktop solution is pretty good for what it is. If you still need some Windows applications you can buy a cheap Windows 8.1 tablet (desktop version not RT), install Chrome Remote on it and shove it in a closet somewhere plugged into a wall socket.
  • Chromebooks keep getting better as hardware becomes cheaper at higher resolutions, speeds and qualities. Because of this I will have no qualms about throwing my existing Chromebook on eBay and buying a better one for a negligible loss at a later date. This is worlds above having to shell out two grand for a tiny spec bump (I’m wagging the finger at you, Apple).
  • Since Chromebooks are built around power sipping mobile processors you can get killer battery time, often into ten hours or more. I use my Chromebook all day without ever glancing at a wall socket.
  • If there’s a problem or something you don’t like, go complain to Google and then wait a while. Eventually it will probably be fixed.
  • The keyboard shortcuts are intuitive for anyone coming from a PC; the trackpad gestures are identical to those on OS X, straight down to the three-finger-up swipe to open the pointless Expose feature that for some reason exists in ChromeOS.
  • Window management keyboard shortcuts! Apple, are you listening? Alt+] snaps a window to the right, etc. You can even shrink a window down to a minimal stripe with a double tap. Apple, even Microsoft does this. Come on, man.
  • ChromeOS prevents you from screwing up your OS with mods and tweaks, for the most part. You can install a second OS in a browser tab, yeah, but just about every change you make to the OS is automatically reverted when you reboot and it’s pretty hard to get around this. So for people like me who have a tendency to mode their OS until it’s no longer useful, this is a good thing.
  • Chromebooks prevent peripheral creep. What I mean by this is: If you’re like me, you start out with a laptop and no accessories, but over time you keep adding more and more toys. A Gryphon scroll wheel. An external DAC. Various USB dongles that add neat features like letting you use your laptop keyboard on your smartphone. Since Chromebooks don’t support any of these it can not only save you from carrying a bunch of stuff around, it can also save you money.

So here’s the lowdown on the Chromebook: Can it be used as your only computing device? Yes, if you are the type of person who would have been satisfied entirely by WebTV and:

  • If you never need to print.
  • If you never want to copy files onto your phone or tablet.
  • If you don’t need to work with zip, rar or other archives.
  • If you’re okay with a depressingly low quality display.

There are lots of creative ways to get things done on a Chromebook that you’d normally do on your laptop. But by the time you figure out just how many of those workarounds you have to use, and that you can’t do some basic things that one would consider general purpose computing, you might find that, like me, it’s just too much work.

If you do anything other than passively consume web pages on your computer, you will find yourself reaching for that Windows or Mac or Linux laptop. You’re gonna do it. There’s no denying it. One day, and it will come soon, it’s going to happen. There is no denying it. Just like one of these days you’re going to end up renting a pickup truck or a van if you own a smart car.

Yes, there will be a day when there are no real local operating systems and all computers work like Chromebooks, but today is not that day.