(Updated November 2018)
Can a Chromebook be your photo-production machine?
While the first Chromebooks could basically just run a browser, current Chromebooks can also run Android apps, placing Chromebooks somewhere between a “regular” laptop and a phone or tablet in functionality — opening up the possibilities of using a light, inexpensive device in place of (or alongside) a larger, pricey one.
Of course a new under-$400 Chromebook is no match for a full-powered $2000+ laptop as a photo workflow machine… right?
Chromebook as a Photo Workflow Computer: Challenges and Opportunities
This article presents a little guide for how you can use a modern Chromebook with your Fuji (and other) digital cameras, and a comparison against a common alternative: a Mac laptop. It’s an ongoing project, and several people have already chipped-in valuable advice.
The illustration above shows the many "picture flow" possibilities for using Fujifilm X-Series cameras and a Chromebook. You probably only need choose a couple to be hugely productive. The green-shaded nodes in this chart represent places I think of as "end points" in the workflow– where photos are either stored or shared. Photos flow from the camera to one or more of these end points (or into the trash!).
The blue arrows and blue-bordered boxes show parts of the process where we can exploit Chrome’s new Android apps, while the orange arrows show connections via Chrome web browser.
I’ll go through workflow options in more detail later on. It might look a bit complex, but in practice usually simple: compare to trying to post photos from your Mac directory onto an Instagram story – with Chromebook, you just run Instagram. For Mac… esta complicado.
The Chromebook can do a mostly-functional job as a light & cheap knockaround/travel computer, as long as you’re not needing high-volume processing (in other words, I wouldn’t edit wedding shoots on it). The Chromebook can run native Android apps, which allows you to use all the features of mobile-centric services like Instagram Stories or WeChat Memories, services that are otherwise unavailable on a Mac or PC; this includes Fujifilm Camera Remote and Instax printing, right from the laptop. It can control your PC at home remotely. Some models also have a built-in high-quality stylus. These can be worthy trade-offs to a traditional laptop’s speedier CPU.
The $350 Challenger
In my tests, I’m comparing an ARM-based Samsung Chromebook Plus versus my aging-but-excellent 13" Macbook Air. The Macbook came with all the goodies, and rang in over $2000. The Chromebook was on sale at Amazon for about $350.
A careful look will show that the workflows in the diagram are similar to what you might use on a good tablet like an iPad Pro or a big Samsung – and they are. But the tablets come at a higher, premium price. Somehow, the Chromebook manages to keep the price down while still delivering good functionality. The Chromebook also has multiple USB ports, for making file transfers between storage devices simpler.
To provide a legitimate alternative to the Mac, a new system should be:
- Cheap: if the device is stolen or smashed by a luggage handler I’m not heartbroken
- Lightweight: can a usable system be even lighter than the Macbook Air?
- Working: gets the job done, isn’t flaky
- NOT FIDDLY: no complicated setups or CS degree required
- Cloud-centric: online, mobile-forward, all current buzzwords supported
- Secure: No personal data stored on the device
- Compatible: It works with my main long-term library.
So far I’ve found that using the Chromebook delivers on all points save the flakiness. The flakiness I’ve experienced thus far has centered entirely on the Fujifilm Camera Remote app itself – sometimes it connects, sometimes it does not. Right now the "not" is the majority of my experience.
It’s also true that there is a little fiddliness – mostly around restrictions on Android apps with respect to external storage devices. We’ll get to that later on.
- $350 vs $2000
- Weight: 2.36 lbs vs ~3 lbs
- Fujifilm Camera Remote
- Instax Printing
- Android Social Apps
- Touch screen
- USB-C (for charging & monitors, too)
- “Convertible” tablet/laptop design
- Less heat
- (New for 2018) Linux Apps
- Beachball Logo
- Disk Space
- “Real” Photoshop/Bridge/Lightroom
- Build quality
- True tethering on X-T1/X-T2
- Fullsized SD reader (on older Macs)
- More monitor control & choices
- Glowing Fruity Logo
Camera wireless options: If you’re transferring photos wirelessly, don’t forget about transfer-time resize in the camera menu! The camera may be resizing your pictures to optimize speed and phone memory. Each camera is slightly different, but on X-Pro2 and X100F you’ll find the important option in the “Wrench” menu under “Connection Setting” then “Wireless Settings” and then “Resize Image for Smartphone 3M” which can be on or off. If you want the original-sized images from Fuji Camera Remote, be sure to turn this off, at the price of slower transfers.
WiFi Connection Issues: I wish I knew what causes the intermittent connection failures I’ve had using Fujifilm Camera Remote from the Chromebook. It either connects and all is well, or it refuses. It might be my X-Pro2, I’ve had no issues with the X100F. I’ve had great luck with Camera Remote on other Android tablets, phones, and iOS devices too. When it does connect, it works brilliantly.
If a universal solution for inconsistent connections presents itself, I’ll be sure to add it here!
Fujifilm Camera Remote provides a crude sort of tethering control over the camera from the laptop – not just the X-T1 and X-T2 cameras, but any reasonably-modern X camera, like the X-Pro2 or the X70. I wish there was more focusing control in "manual" mode – you may find, as I have, that it’s good to keep around a few mechanically-focused lenses, like the 16mm f/1.4 or an adapted film-rangefinder lens. But at the same time, using the touch-screen with AF is pretty swell for any lens, and an option not available any other way for most X-cameras.
Physical Media: While Camera Remote can be used to transfer files from the camera to the laptop, it’s a slow process compared to using an SD card. Wireless transfer is also restricted only to JPG files. If you want RAW, you’ll need to use the SD.
One option is to connect the camera directly by its USB port to the computer – alternatively, you can pop out the SD card(s) and read them by the appropriate adapter.
The Chromebook has a built-in Micro-SD reader, so a hub or reader is needed, or a micro-SD-to-SD adapter. I don’t trust SD adapters for cameras, though I’ve never had a failure. I’d rather have a one-piece SD card. I purchased (for another $50) a USB-C hub that acts as an SD reader and also provides an HDMI-out signal, to add a second monitor.
Transfer-Speed Comparisons: Backup from SD to an External Drive
Both the Mac and the Chromebook have curious external-drive limitations, but only for writing: The Mac cannot write to Windows-style NTFS files systems without a special plugin, while the Chromebook cannot write to Mac-style HFS+ drives. Both devices read both drive types.
For a speed comparison, I chose to use as a “write” target a 250MB Samsung T3 SSD device, formatted in ExFAT.
As test data, I shot 118 RAW+Fine photos using a Fujifilm XT-1 – the result is about four and a half GB of mixed data written to a 32GB Lexar Professional 2000x card.
Upcoming: I will try to compare speeds of direct connections from various cameras to the computer. This requires a lot more-tedious testing since each camera may be different.
The timing below are how long it took to copy all the Fuji files from the card to the external drive, using regular operating system tools.
For the Mac, the card was plugged right into the computer (in 2018, this SD slot has vanished from new Macs!). For the Chromebook, I used a Letscom multi-port hub. For both tests, the external drive was plugged into a free port on the computer.
|Chromebook Plus||Macbook Air|
|Via Letscom USB-C hub||Computer's Integrated SD Reader|
In other words, the Mac was about 5.6x faster than the Chromebook when transferring from one external device to another external device. I’m not sure if this is due more to processing power or just a different, simpler USB bus.
While this variance can grow a minute transfer into minutes, if you’re primarily a JPG shooter in many cases this might not make much practical difference. JPGs are typically about 10% the size of the matching RAW file. So a transfer taking a few seconds on a faster machine turns into a minute on a slower one. But considering that the “fixed cost” of setting up the laptop and hard drive is the same for either device, about a minute, for many uses the effective difference may not be that much.
Copying just the JPGs of those 118 shots took about a minute on the Chromebook. So with one minute of setup time for either computer, that’s a total of two minutes on the Chromebook, versus less than a minute and a half on the Mac. Slower, but not tragically so for a single batch of photos. You can decide for yourself.
All that said, if I habitually shot in RAW or shot weddings or events with thousands of photos, I’d be leery of runny backups on the Chromebook unless I had a lot of time to burn on archiving (“time to burn” as in: start the transfer, go to dinner, stay out for drinks… come back to discover whether the transfer is complete yet).
Everyday casual shooting: yes. High-volume: ouch.
RAW (err, RAF) Files
I was also surprised to find that the Chromebook Files app could actually recognize Fuji RAF files, and would (slowly) load their thumbnails – a feat the Mac won’t perform without additional plugins. The Chromebook Gallery app, unlike Mac’s Preview, will happily open a Fuji RAF file, and even offer to edit it (the results are saved as JPG).
You can edit pictures on Chromebook using either web apps or Android apps. The Chromebook plus has another advantage here over the Mac – it’s a "convertible" laptop, meaning that it can flip open to become a full-screen Android tablet, complete with the excellent S-Pen pressure-sensitive stylus.
Web apps like Polarr can do an acceptable job of editing JPG files. Polarr also has an Android version of their app, so you can try both and see which you prefer.
Android-only apps are also available, and some, like Snapseed, can even edit RAW files. I haven’t found much use for Adobe’s Android versions of Photoshop and Lightroom – despite my long-standing allegiance to their Mac and PC apps.
Web apps have one advantage over Android editing apps in that they can (currently) access any storage attached to the Chromebook – for example, they can load a JPG directly from the SD card. Android apps are not allowed to access external storage (yet), so you must first copy your files to the Chromebook’s intenral storage, which is limited compared to the size of many SD cards.
This restriction is also important if you want to export your photos to Android-centric apps like Instagram or WeChat. Those apps can only access files from the Chromebook local drive, so if you do edit a file from an external drive, be sure to save the edited copy locally, before sending it to those Android-based services.
The Android option does give you a lot of functionality, though, such as the ability to send your photos as WeChat Moments, or to be included in Instagram stories – features that would otherwise be unavailable without a lot of extra fiddling with your PC and phone or helper apps.
Saving photos to a cloud-based service like Google Drive or Dropbox gives you the most options but at the cost of waiting for uploads and downloads.
A Note on Color Profiles: if you have photos that you are editing for use on the web, use sRGB Color Space. Using AdobeRGB or ProPhoto or any other profile may result in having saved results that look quite different from shared results. See this page for more info on the hazards of using color profiles that are not the now-universal sRGB standard.
Chromebook plus Mac (or PC)
Via Chrome Remote Desktop, you can connect your Chromebook to the screen of your home or office Mac or PC, or even to a Linux machine. This means that if you’ve sent your files to the cloud, you can use your home machine to edit them, and see the results as you go, right on the Chromebook. As much as I love Snapseed, sometime I really truly do need Photoshop. Remote Desktop’s not always fast, but it really is possible to shoot on my X-Pro, send the result to a far-away Mac, edit in Photoshop on that Mac, controlled frm the Chomebook, send the result back to Google Drive, and then "Send a Copy…" from Google Drive’s Android app to Instagram.
Remote Desktop Hint: You can set the Chromebook’s screen resolution before connecting. Use the Ctrl-Shift-Minus or -Plus keys to adjust it. The Chromebook Plus can display an image up to 2400x1600, but for performance has been set to a default of 1200x800. At the cost of speed, you can display a quite large screen from your remote machine – great for LightRoom or Adobe Bridge usage.
A Chromebook using Android has direct access to Instax printing via the Instax Share app – another feature unavailable to Mac or PC. It works just as it does on a phone. Personally I love bringing an Instax printer whenever I travel, the little prints make terrific and often treasured “leave behinds” for the people I meet.
Both Mac and Chromebook can also print full-sized documents remotely using Google Cloud Print, but I find the results less than stellar. If you’re going to use a "big" printer, it’s best to see what you’re doing, and use a Mac or PC that’s co-located in the same room with the printer. If you’re traveling, the Instax is a stellar addition to your kit bag.
Of course, you can also just send the JPG files from either Chromebook or Mac to a commercial printing service’s web page.
These notes describe my Chromebook-based process using Fuji cameras, but there are a few alternative camera brands that may also work well – as an example, Olympus provides its own camera control app called Oi.share. A Chromebook can make a nice bridge for any digital camera user who wants to connect easily to Instax & other services. If people try out these other systems with Chrome OS, please drop me a line!
The Mac-Only Version
Recasting the diagram above for Mac shows a simpler, but narrower network of possibilities. The Mac gains in directness and hard-wired speed, at the expense of losing the Chromebook’s wireless applications and destinations (especially Instagram & WeChat, whose web-based versions are rather poor compared to the mobile-only Real Thing).
Chromebook Software Tools I Use
Here are some Web and Android apps that I’ve found really useful when dealing with photos on Chromebook (and phone), roughly arranged in the order of common use:
- Fujifilm Camera Remote
- Instax Share
- Reduce Photo Size
- Google Drive
- Chrome Remote Desktop
- Astro File Manager
It’s still early days for the development of Android/Chrome laptop development – I’m excited that despite the awkward moments it’s starting to shape up into a legit alternative to the usual Mac, PC, or phone-based choices. Move aside, iPad.
This entry will surely be revised as time goes by – if you’re using Chromebook with your Fuji cameras, please let me know, I’d love to add the experiences and techniques of other people.