Rocky road ahead: Google Cloud Print (BETA)

Background

An organisation whose IT team I know well has moved a lot of their services across to various Google platforms.  The move has been considered largely positive by users and management alike, not least because it has significantly reduced the management and infrastructure burdens on their organisation, and has genuinely improved IT-related life in many key ways.

The move therefore continues apace.  One problem identified by the organisation is that there seems little sense in paying c.£500-£1000 per head for a computer setup that spends the vast majority of its time being used (legitimately) as a web-browser.  The various Chromebooks undergoing trial have been a huge success given their planned usage, but with one common problem:  Users in 2013/14 STILL need to be able to print.

[Enter Google Cloud Print (BETA), Stage Left]

Image

“No problem!” says Google, “Here’s Cloud Print!”.  There are two flavours of documentation presented, in “consumer” and “IT Administrator” guises, both essentially saying (and ultimately describing) the same thing.

For those who haven’t come across it yet – the idea is that you buy a “Google Cloud Print Enabled” printer, give it 24/7 power and Internet, and you can print to it from anywhere, using your Google account in various creative ways.  Specifically for my friend, it gives print access to Chromebooks and other portable devices for which no other good printing solutions already exist.  Essentially if it can run Google Chrome, it can print.  And the concept is really neat.

Forecast: Storms ahead

There’s a thunderstorm in some clouds however, and this service is no exception.  I’ve heard a few common complaints in various pub-conversations, and even investigated a few when I’ve experienced them myself within my own Google Apps domains:

  • First off, some printers, once correctly hooked-up and signed-in, simply stop receiving Cloud Print jobs.  Often, turning them off and back on, and waiting up to a day, solves it.  But sometimes the log-jam becomes permanent.  Printing via local network or direct USB connection works fine from machines that can do it, but all Cloud Print jobs get stuck, forever destined to be “In Progress”.
  • The Cloud Print Management interface looks surprisingly mature for a Beta product, except that it gives very little information about what is really happening.  Once a job inevitably gets stuck, there’s no option to do anything other than to wait, or delete it.  It can’t be diverted to another printer.
  • More worrying, the status-codes are too general.  Sure, I don’t need a verbose running commentary when things are working well, nor perhaps when a job is “in progress”.  But when things get stuck, I’d like more information about the problem than the job simply being flagged “Error”.
  • Google provides no technical support for Cloud Print – so beyond what you can find in documentation provided either by Google or your printer manufacturer, you’re on your own.  No support. No apparent feedback mechanism even.
  • If something does go wrong, often the only way to fix it is to delete the printer on Cloud Print, and re-assign it.  This might be fine for single home users, but for anyone looking to share a printer between two or more people, this gets complicated, because you then need to share the newly-set up printer again with those who need it.
  • Then there’s the pervading security concern.  Where are those jobs going when travelling between the browser and the printer, and in what format?  Are they encrypted?  Are the documents scanned for content by Google or anyone else on the way?

Google comes close to a partial-answer in the FAQ/support page, with the following statements:

Documents you send to print are your personal information and are kept strictly confidential. Google does not access the documents you print for any purpose other than to improve printing.

For home users, that might be good enough.  At least there’s *something* in writing.  But for a business I’d suggest it’s too vague.  Let’s leave that alone for a moment and look at troubleshooting; how do I get a print queue working again, if I’m using a cloud ready printer?  Again, Google has a partial answer:

If you’re using a cloud ready printer…

Okay, done that, and checked that.  Still nothing.  Now what?

Conclusions?

Some reading this might say I’m being too harsh about what is *really* only a beta product.  And they might be right, if the product was released within the context of a beta product essentially being marketed or released only to technically-interested (and competent) people for evaluation, feedback and improvement before a wider release.  What’s happened instead is that some printer manufacturers have jumped onto the product by offering support (good), but without making it clear that this is a BETA service which may change, break or be taken offline at any time, without warning (bad. Very bad).

Even the business run-down provided by Google doesn’t mention its BETA status, and gives no clue as to how support or (useful) feedback can be found, nor even submitted.

So, is this going to be like so many other recent Google BETA products to get half a momentum going and then suddenly be killed? Or will it actually become more like Gmail and mature into a properly supported service, with SLA’s available to those who need them?  Only time will tell, but meanwhile based on what I know now, I’m finding it very hard to recommend deploying Google Cloud Print in my own organisations in its present form…

Some thoughts on using Google Docs

Following on from yesterday’s thoughts on using a Chromebook for an extended period, I thought it worth updating it (coming soon!), as well as jotting down some thoughts about Google Docs.  This got so big (and is relevant to all platforms, not just the Chromebook) that for the sake of clarity I decided to hive it off as a separate post.

Game-changing features

I think the main thing I’ve had to learn in terms of my expectation of what Google Docs can do, is to consider them as functions of a large and very advanced database.  From this perspective, the vague consideration of “wow – how do they even do that?” becomes much easier to resolve and put to rest.  With that in mind, I can now take a deep breath and present some major gains I’ve found with Google Docs as opposed to working in traditional desktop productivity apps like MS Office.

Never hit “Save” (or ctrl-S) again

This is a big one.  I type out a sentence, and then pause to look up to the toolbar… the word “Saving…” presents itself for a few seconds, before eventually changing to “All changes saved in Drive”. In theory, this means I can go into a document, type some stuff, then just navigate away from it in the knowledge that the changes were saved without my even having to worry about it.  Compared with MS Office, where it’s quite normal to get completely sucked-in to writing that important document then have it crash when fine-tuning the formatting and then find you didn’t manually save that last 3 hours of work, even the Autosave functionality often doesn’t keep up with important edits.  The Google Way™ seems so much better, and has saved many a draft.

Always available, on any computer in the world…

…provided that it has an Internet connection and a modern web browser.  This has massive implications for the freedom of users to roam the planet as they need and still have access to the information that’s important to them.  Obviously this doesn’t negate the need for backup of truly valuable data – but does act as a less-admin-intensive solution than providing a full roaming Windows/Mac roaming network account with all the security and software licensing hassles that creates.

Collaboration

It’s now routine for my boss and I to dump a load of notes into a Document, or run through entries on a spreadsheet, then have both of us view and edit the same document at the same time.  While we remain online and inside the document(s), we can each see who is doing what and where – even where the cursor is for each user.  This helps us greatly in documenting expenses, working through tricky wording of contracts, manuals, specifications and other basic project management tasks.  This feature alone, working across documents, spreadsheets and even presentations, has changed our working lives for the better.

Word processing

Generally, for any document created in Google Docs itself, everything pretty much works as expected – at least from a simple “type up some notes, edit then, make them look vaguely presentable, and print/email it” perspective.
That said, some foibles have been found that have stepped in the way of my making a more complete switch to Google Docs full-time, and relying on MS Office:

  • Previewing of MS Office documents does indeed (mostly) work, but Google Docs’ more simple headings, formatting and layout options mean that document fidelity with formal reports tends to suffer.
    • Sometimes inserted graphics disappear, or are rendered very badly, or appear in the wrong place with text wrapping mangled in the process.
    • Appendices and other numbered/customised headings tend to get lost – sometimes changing the implied meaning and flow of the incoming report.
    • To get around these issues, I tend to ask those reporting to us to submit (both final and draft) reports to me either as email body text (for informal reports), or as PDF’s for more formal work.
  • Page layouts that preview well on-screen can end up with very different pagination, especially when printing to A4, or rendering to PDF.
  • Working with headers and footers is basic, but in fairness does allow insertion of tables, images etc for fine control over layout of logos, titles, author details, page numbers etc.
  • While I’m pleased to see that footnotes work, it’s not a full referencing system that can log and tabulate the source of each reference – again this makes full academic and some reporting use-cases awkward, and calls for migration to more powerful desktop software.
  • Table of Contents can be inserted, taking and automatically updating its entries from headings used throughout the document.  Good basic stuff, but:
    • No page numbers alongside the links.
    • No obvious control over which heading classes are included, nor over the specific formatting of the table entry.
    • Headings cannot be formatted with numbering, in the way that MS Word or other word-processing apps handle.  (Collaborative) Drafting of formal proposals, reports or academic writing can be done on Google Docs, but really formal documents are best having the final text copy/pasted into MS Word or a more advanced desktop word processing or page layout tool of your choice.
    • Table formatting is quite flexible, but not as many available line styles or formatting options as MS Word.
      • Also, can only move cell boundaries when they are visible, eg. when they have a border thickness greater than 0pt.
  • Printing and output
    • Page size is set to US Letter by default. This can be changed to any other supported paper size – A4 for me, please!
    • Equations entered through the Equation tool end up inconsistently placed and pixellated on both PDF and printed output.
    • Documents can be downloaded (or shared) as PDF
      • An example of the PDF output, combining these and yesterdays’ posts, is here:  SamsungChromebook303Cusability (2))
      • Useful for sending out fixed versions of a document files as a reference.
      • The PDF rendering engine can have some strange results, notably with changes to pagination.  Stray blank pages get inserted, and some placement changes made for the onscreen page preview end up looking different on paper.
      • A 20-page report (such as this one, according to the page count in the footers) on-screen ends up coming out as a PDF with 22 or more pages, depending on how and where simple page-breaks have been used.
      • Interestingly, automatically-generated page counts remain correct regardless of whether the document is viewed in the Docs editor, or as a PDF.
      • These are the kind of inconsistencies that most users I know find absolutely maddening for formal work – and a crucial limitation for users to be informed of. It’s like using a camera that takes a photo of the most beautiful mountain range in the world, at sunset, and when you download the photo to your home computer you find it actually gives you a photo of a discarded needle on a wet East London street-corner.
    • Documents can also be downloaded in common MS Office and other (more open) file formats.

Spreadsheets

My needs for spreadsheets tend to fall into one of two categories:

  1. Simple line-entries and basic summaries thereof, for things like expenses, inventory-lists and the like.  This kind of use is so easy to cater for that I’ve yet to find any flaws – and the extra collaboration and availability of the files tends to win over the bulk of a desktop application and opening an actual file from a disk.
  2. Complex mathematical data import, analysis and charting, with templates for print output of charts and tables  to be included in other documents.  Such work tends to involve complex and obscure cell functions, and often (in Excel) some customised VBA code.  Such documents have previewed in Google Docs with reasonable fidelity, but there’s no way I’d expect anything other than MS Excel to understand the file, let alone work with it in any meaninful way or timeline.

Presentations

Rather than using presentations in teaching, I tend to use more of a show-and-tell approach, or even use a Google Doc (word processor) as a virtual blackboard to help explain what’s going on.  That said, when I want a simple pack of slides to summarise the points made, or to outline the plan for a day,
I’ve not played with the Presentations tool much beyond this, mostly because I expect problems even getting Powerpoint files to open and play out correctly on another copy of MS Powerpoint – let alone transferring them to another app such as Google Presentations.  

(Nearly) Two weeks with a Samsung Chromebook 303C

Scope of review

In the week before Christmas, we took delivery of a Samsung Chromebook Series 3 (303C) – with the intention of reviewing it for suitability towards a distinct usergroup we administer.  So to that end I’ve spent many hours using this machine in place of my usual MacBook Pro (for work) and occasionally for personal use in place of my usual Windows 8-based netbook.  I’ve taken some notes as I’ve encountered thoughts and issues provoked in daily use, which have been compiled into this review (which itself was written on the Chromebook in Google Docs) for others to see where I’ve got to with it and why.  Hopefully it will inform and comment rather than poke holes or fun.
Please note therefore that this review is neither an analysis of Google software/policy/infrastructure, nor is it an in-depth user manual for this machine or the Chrome OS it runs.  Others have these functions covered far better elsewhere.

Setting the scene

The computing market has been flooded with sub-£400 laptops in recent years, with many being in the small “netbook” form-factor.  Their primary intended use is for the consumption of online content, and getting simple tasks done like email, letter-writing, online banking etc.  Most of these netbooks run full copies of Windows or Linux and offering power enough to run basic internet, office and even multimedia software – this has given us a new class of affordable machines with surprising processing power and flexibility, despite being designed for much simpler tasks.  New models continue to be offered with Windows 8 and Intel/AMD x86-compatible processors.

Cheap, powerful computing – what it *can* be

I bought an Asus EeePC 1011PX to aid study and note-taking in 2011.  As I progressed through the studies beyond simple note-taking, writing up projects in Microsoft Office 2010, it has been used for mixing multitrack audio on the move, as well as room-acoustics analysis with a USB test mic.  That’s an amazing amount of processing power and flexibility for £230, even though that doesn’t include the extra hardware and software I now use with it.
To get the best out of such a small machine, I’ve had to carefully analyse my needs and find solutions that scale down appropriately to such a small machine.  Document compatibility issues finally pushed me to purchase and relearn Microsoft Office 2010.  To make that transition I ditched the dog-slow Windows 7 Starter Edition in favour of the two major consumer-previews of Windows 8, enjoying both enough to finally upgrade to the release version Windows 8 Pro.
I’ve also had to deal with what I feel was more than my fair share of maintenance.  Within 11 months of purchase both the fan and hard-drive failed, both of which were dealt with surprisingly quickly by the manufacturers’ UK repair agents.  No surprise that these moving parts needed replacement, but within 11 months?  The OS itself needs to update itself from time to time, as do most of the individual applications – albeit less often and usually without requiring a reboot.
So all this leads me to ask; what makes the Chromebook any better than what I know of an arguably similarly-specified Windows machine at a similar price point, and what can one expect from such a machine?

Software and hardware

First-off, a Chromebook comes preinstalled with enough of an operating system (OS) to run Google Chrome, and connect to the outside world via WiFi and Bluetooth wireless, alongside slots for USB and SD-cards.  Anything that can be done inside a web-browser can be done with a Chromebook.  This essentially makes it a Netbook in the most literal definition of the word.
Additional software is available, but only in the form of web-apps that can be installed inside Google Chrome itself.  This should ensure an increased level of OS security and stability compared with a full-blown Windows, Mac or Linux installation, since the user cannot fiddle with it.  It should also ensure that software updates are much more limited in scope and number, since there are less components on the Chromebook.
Installing Microsoft Office is out of the question, but that doesn’t mean that the machine can’t be useful for paper-based productivity – but instead of Office, Google would expect you to use their Docs/Drive package with a Google account.  Instead of Outlook, Gmail – this would include calendar and contacts functionality.

User data

A Chromebook typically comes with very little built-in storage.  The Samsung 303C tested here comes with a 16GB SSD which is seemingly used for both the built-in OS and any user-data such as downloads, etc.  With such limited onboard storage, multimedia options are limited to anything that can be downloaded from the Internet, or played directly from USB/SD media.
The idea of the Chromebook platform is that it acts as an interface to cloud-based storage and management of email and documents – and is clearly best used with a Google account.  If you don’t have one, the machine will allow you to create an account as part of the login process.

First impressions – hardware

 

  • Fast boot time (needs measuring)
  • Easy to get going with Google account credentials or as a guest user
  • Fast to sleep and to wake up.

Display

Pros

 

  • Surprisingly nice screen – compares well with existing Asus EeePC 1011PX netbook. Pixel size seems ideal for form-factor.
  • Text rendering looks surprisingly crisp – without being fatiguing.
  • Matte finish much nicer to use than the reflective shiny glass finish on Macs and some PC laptops.

Cons

 

  • HDMI connection to second monitor has yet to work with any DVI or HDMI-equipped TV or computer monitor I’ve tried – usually causing the laptop screen to go dark.  This might make presentations a problem.

Build

Pros

 

  • Thin
  • Light
  • Feels solid in the hand.

Cons

 

  • Fiddly to open one-handed, but too light and small to easily open two-handed.  Could easily have been solved by setting a bigger indent just under the trackpad to offer more grip.
  • Silver coating is really too easy to scratch. The underside of the machine is scratched up after a day’s use, and it’s only ever been on a clean desk, or inside a padded case.
  • The “G” from the Samsung lid decals has fallen off – not good since the unit has only ever travelled in my hand or a soft case!
  • While the machine feels solid enough in handling, the screen does seem to touch the keyboard when folded down, allowing dust and skin-grease to transfer, particularly from the spacebar to form lines on the screen.  This is a common problem to all plastic-screened laptops and notebooks I’ve used.  Models such as recent MacBook Pro’s with much more solid glass-faced screens seem to flex less easily to begin with, and mark less easily than the plastic if they do make contact with the keys.
  • Headphone socket is a very tight fit with most standard 3.5mm plugs encountered during the trial.  Really does feel like I’m going to break the machine if I push too hard.  This is the complete opposite case to most laptops I’ve ever encountered, whose headphone/line-out connections are generally too loose, causing nightmares for corporate presentations.

Keyboard

Pros

 

  • Full-size keyboard is very much like the MacBook (Pro) machines we’ve been using for the last five or more years.
  • Function keys well thought out with dedicated (and marked) keys for tab refresh, maximise, window cycle, brightness, volume mute/down/up, standby.
  • Typing longer documents (like this review, even) is a surprisingly comfortable experience – I’m finding it hard to feel any notable difference between this and a MacBook.
  • Dedicated “Search” button likely more useful to modern users than “Caps Lock”, but…

Cons

 

  • …Where’s the CAPSLOCK KEY SO I CAN SHOUT AT PEOPLE??!
    • Actually, Alt-Search has the same effect – makes sense since the search key is in the traditional place for the Caps Lock key, but this config could confuse new users who might not understand why their Chromebook “randomly” brings up a search function!
  • No “Delete” key, nor obvious way to replicate function.
  • Left and right arrow function keys would make most sense as a way of moving across tabs in the same window, but don’t appear to do anything?
  • No media keys – would be useful for YouTube, Google Play Music player, etc

Trackpad

 

  • Like many new machines, this was set a little slow by default. Soon fixed by adjusting settings (more on this later).
  • Right-clicking with two-finger tapping seems hit-and-miss.  Right side seems more sensitive/accurate to touch gestures than left.
  • Works best either with a firm thumb-push at the bottom (where buttons used to be before smooth trackpads became the “in thing”), or using tap-to-click. To this end-user, this feature seems no different to the glass Apple Trackpads fitted to aluminium unibody models.

Built-in software – in use

User accounts

 

  • Multiple user accounts can be set up on the same Chromebook.
  • “Admin” tools, suitable for remote control and corporate deployment are available as part of a Google Apps domain (how else?), but at a cost of something around $20 per year per machine at a quick glance.
  • Most users will likely be fine with a strong password and normal “user accounts”.
  • “guest” (browser-only”) access can be selected as an option at login/lock screens.
  • Accounts can be “locked” after sleep, requiring password (or switch to guest/alternate account) to wake – important for security.

Taskbar; a.k.a Launcher

 

  • Seems to be fixed at the bottom of the screen – but can be set to auto-hide.
  • Left side shows currently-open apps
  • Apps can be pinned to the launcher, much like Windows.
    • Some apps open in their own window, some open in a new tab.
    • Right side shows clock, WiFi, battery and account avatar pic by default.  Also shows notification of audio muting and caps-lock.

Menus

 

  • Relatively few built into the OS itself.
  • Tend to be limited to particular app (for the browser) or function (for things like WiFi, Bluetooth etc.)

Network connectivity

This machine’s sole means of connectivity with the outside world is via WiFi, which supports WPA, WEP and unencrypted connections on 2.4GHz (a/b/g) or 5GHz (n) WiFi networks.  Connectivity has been consistently good with a variety of Ruckus, Netgear and Apple access points.

Bluetooth connectivity

File transfer

Not attempted as couldn’t get the Bluetooth Stack to connect with any phone compatible with bluetooth file transfer protocols.

Keyboard/Mouse

Pairing an Apple keyboard/mouse set with the Chromebook was easy, once I’d remembered (searched Google for) the method to get the devices into a discoverable state.  Keymapping seemed reasonably logical – with volume, screen brightness, dashboard and windowing keys apparently behaving as expected.
Interesting discovery:  Playing a WAV file from a CF card (via USB card reader) brings up a built-in Music app – which does seem to respond even to the media keys on the Apple keyboard – impressive since there are no marked media keys on the built-in keyboard.  Nice little “easter egg” inserted to make developers’ lives easier perhaps?

Internet tethering

See “Interacting with Smartphones” below.

Windowing

Apps can be set (usually by right-clicking on them in the Launcher bar or menu) to the following windowing modes:

  1. As standard tab
  2. As pinnned tab
  3. Maximised
  4. Fullscreen

In real use, the actual implementation (and terminology) seem confusing and inconsistent.  “Maximised” Gmail has a different (and more minimalist) window style to any other “maximised” tab.  Some other apps (Scratchpad, for example) seem to be able to use the same minimalist maximised style, but not everything.

File management

It’s bound to happen – at some point in using a Chromebook, you’ll find that you’ve got some file(s) from a camera or USB drive that need attaching to an email or uploading to cloud storage somewhere.
Essentially, anything presenting itself as a USB Mass Storage Device, when plugged into one of the USB ports on the back of the machine, will bring up the File Manager window and make the contents available.  Obviously not every file type can be opened directly on the machine, but all files can at least be copied, uploaded or attached to emails.
Pretty much all common disk formats are supported, with no problems found during testing when reading and writing to USB drives formatted to default Mac OS X or Windows 8 settings.  According to the relevant Google support page, common Linux filesystems are compatible too – so the average user should rarely get into a situation where a given USB drive is unreadable.

A note about photos

Inserting an SD card or USB drive full of pics straight from a camera gives access to the pictures via the file manager.

  • Photos can be viewed as a slideshow directly from the drive.
  • Opening a photo will view the photo fullscreen.
  • Once the photo is open, the file manager also includes some simple editing tools:
    • Editing mode is enabled by clicking on the pencil icon that appears in the bottom-right corner of the preview screen/window.
    • WARNING:  ANY EDITS ARE AUTOMATICALLY OVERWRITTEN BY DEFAULT!

Web browsing

This machine essentially is Google Chrome, with enough of an OS to run it.  So browsing the web is essentially the same as it would be on any other machine supporting the same version of Chrome.

Apps

The Apps menu links to various built-in apps by default, including an app for the webstore where additional software from Google and third-parties can be installed. Note that this doesn’t mean you can install standard Mac, Windows or Linux software on this machine at all, let alone expect it to run.
Any apps installed are essentially plugins that extend the functionality of the Chrome web browser.  If you sync your Chrome settings to your Google account, then all pre-existing bookmarks, settings and apps installed on other machines should find themselves synced on the Chromebook.

Settings

All machine settings are essentially available through the Settings tab of the Chrome browser itself – with some shortcuts (date/time, WiFi, Battery) on launcher.

Email

Online

Uses the normal web Gmail interface, just like any other browser.

Offline

Available via a free downloadable Offline Google Mail app, from the Chrome web store.

  • Interface looks more like Mail.app on iPad than the usual Gmail web interface.
  • Offline syncing selectable up to whole of previous months’-worth of messages.
  • Some odd windowing issues when composing or filing messages.
  • Also default zoom levels needed reducing (eg press ctrl & – to zoom out) to make text in “Apply” and “Cancel” boxes

Smartphone interoperability

Given the cloud-based credentials of the Chromebook and Chrome OS, how does one get at photos, audio or video recorded on a smartphone?  it would seem that these should be synced to a suitable cloud-based service via some form of native app running directly on the device itself.  Once in the cloud, they’re accessed through a browser or web-app like any other web content.

Interaction with iPhone 3G (iOS 3.1.3)

 

  • No way to get photos or other content direct from device over USB.
  • No mobile Internet tethering via USB/Bluetooth. No WiFi tethering via iPhone 3G without jailbreaking the iPhone, which is untested as I don’t want to jailbreak my work phone!
  • All Google services accessible through Safari will be synced with same services accessed via Chromebook.

Interaction with iPhone 4 (iOS 6.0.1)

As iPhone 3G above, but:

  • Wifi hotspot may be possible but unable to test as the feature is locked out on my iPhone/plan.
  • All Google iOS apps, AND services available through Safari/any other browser app, will stay in sync with content accessed via the Chromebook.