Chromebook? Schmomebook!

Three linux laptops
Three Linux Laptops: system76 GalagoPro, Starlabs Starlite II, and Framework Janet Vertesi, 2020

When is a computer not a computer?

When it's a tracking device too!

Today's computers are increasingly used for data-gathering, collection, and analysis. A few of the outcomes of this data-tracking appear to you as useful tools: Siri or Cortana, for instance, as virtual assistants, or perhaps a quick ability to find what you're looking for. But this only is the tip of the iceberg.

The Windows operating system has enjoyed massive market share since their monopolistic (er, I mean anti-competitive) maneuvers in the 1980's and 1990's. This has ensured that almost every workplace has rolled out Windows and Microsoft's enterprise services (like Office 365). Microsoft's tools are now so well known that they are even just used as a noun for an entire class of objects: Excel (spreadsheets), docs (Word), etc. Think, "to Google" but for business software.

A few years ago, as the company transitioned under Satya Nadella, the emphasis switched to cloud systems. Less on the box, more in the cloud. You can hardly save a document locally anymore: it's all in "the cloud." Which is just a fancy word for, their computers, not yours.

Windows 11 is about to come out with an automated feature, Recall, that takes snapshots of your desktop every thirty minutes, stores those on your computer without any encryption, and even reads the entire file into a text field (including visible text in a photo). The privacy and security community is in an uproar.

Google, meanwhile, released an entire operating system designed to spy on you. Because Gmail, docs, and even Chrome weren't enough. A recent leak of documents has confirmed what we have always known to be true: Google pushed the Chrome browser so that they could know everything you do on the internet.

Then they released the ChromeOS on Chromebooks so that they could continue to do that, across the operating system, all over your computer, in spades. Oh also, so they could give those to kids in schools for cheap, and then spy on them.

Chromebooks are spyware. Microsoft has lost the plot. And you need a system that doesn't track you. Read on for some ideas.

Do I need a whole new computer? Or just software?

Good question.

If you already own a PC running Windows or Chrome, chances are it is relatively easy to install some version of Linux on it instead: and you should read this post to know why that phrase should not strike fear into your heart!

You can do this because, unlike Mac devices which are locked to a certain operating system, all made by Apple Computer, most of the PC's that run Windows or Chrome are made by other companies. That means you can choose the operating system you want to run.

If you don't already know this, the operating system is like the main underlayer of the computer. It allows you to run programs, software, and applications on it. We will discuss those below.

However, which operating system you use also determines which software you can and can't install on it. You may or may not be old enough to remember when Microsoft Word didn't run on a MacIntosh: the same is true today of several key software packages. Mac tools don't always run on Windows. 

Today we know of this problem through the common App Store. Some stuff is on both Google Play and Apple Store, some applications are only for one or the other. It's the same situation.

Because the people who develop Linux systems tend to have a bone to pick with for-profit software companies, they won't run Microsoft Office. Fortunately, they have built open source alternatives that are compatible with MS Office, meaning you won't miss a spreadsheet or a document that comes your way.

A Word About Apple

Apple is currently distinguishing itself as a privacy-forward company that keeps your data safe. What this actually means is, they are spending a lot of money on encryption and information security, and giving users more control over where they put their data and how it is used.

Privacy isn't a deeply held commitment to Apple, like a mission statement. Instead, it was an investment following a series of high profile celebrity photo hacks in 2014. And it's not clear that Steve Jobs would have cared one whit about privacy. Instead, Tim Cook has made it his products' chief market differentiator as CEO. If he ever moves on, we should expect this focus to shift.

In terms of the data they do collect, Apple does not say if they are using it to train their facial recognition systems or their large language models, although there is some indication that this may be happening.  For those with privacy sensibilities but not a lot of technical know how or who don't want to venture into Linux-land, a Mac may be your best bet. But please know it is not entirely data-private.

That said, if you work at a company that issues you a corporate computer that is locked down by an enterprise administrator (so you can't, say, stripe your own drive or have administrative privileges on your machine, or if you don't even know what that last sentence even means), and you can choose between PC and Mac, then the Mac is a better choice if at all possible.

But if you have some control over what you bring into your home, where you keep your personal files and systems, I recommend looking into one of these other alterantives that allow you to keep your data where it belongs: with you. 

Three Terrific Hardware Alternatives

These three companies make laptops that run Linux. You can put any version of Linux on that you choose, and they come with the option to pre-install a couple of alternatives. Again, click here to learn about why Linux is like ice cream (delicious!) and not something to be afraid of, with many flavors for beginners.

What commends these laptops? They're sturdy, well made, thoughtful systems. They believe in an older philosophy of computing: your computer is yours, you decide what to do with it. They are committed to open source and to communities. Some are really inexpensive, others are pricey. But they are great machines.

Starlabs: This company, run out of the south of England, was once an unknown in the Linux laptop space when I first bought a computer from them in 2020 or so. They make several machines in different "form factors" -- that means, physical shapes. I have the StarLite Mark II and a StarLite V on order. StarLite II is like the old Macbook Airs: lightweight, sleek, slim, and gorgeous. It is beautifully designed. The StarLite V is like a Microsoft Surface or an iPad, optimized for touch interfaces.

Starlabs laptops have long battery life (a full day on a single charge, yes!), use open source components, and are easy to open up and replace parts if necessary. They are also light on the pocketbook, retailing for around $500 or a little more for the entry-stage devices. There's simply no reason to get a Chromebook when you can get a Starlite. I really love these machines.

Framework: The distinguishing factor of a Framework computer is that it goes for environmental friendliness alongside its open source mandate. Frameworks are designed in a modular way, so you can open them up and take them apart. The goal is to generate a more environmentally-responsible computer, made of parts that can be repaired in a DIY fashion to discourage electronic waste.

Don't like the ports it comes with? order some different ones and swap them in, plug-and-play style. It's like having a lego laptop, complete with friendly instructions. My partner has a Framework, and opening it up is like some combination of Lego and Ikea, the best of user-friendly, welcoming, Scandinavian DIY instructions. They are expensive, but you are buying into an ecosystem--and responsibility for the world's ecosystems--so many people feel it is worth it.

System76: This US company has been making Linux laptops for many, many years. They are really best suited for the power-user set. Several years ago I got one of their GalagoPro computers, which was marketed as a light-weight and high powered machine for everyday use, but I found the battery was crippling and it was as heavy as two Macbooks. For the price, about the same as a new Macbook, it was clunky.

I recommend System76 if you are more of a power user or don't need to lug a laptop around, more have it in one place like a mobile desktop. They also make a great introductory Linux flavor, Pop!_OSwhich has a lot to commend it in terms of usability.

You may find that Lenovo makes some laptops and PC's that you can buy with Linux on them already. You can always go with a retailer that's well known, and a product line like Yoga. Personally I like to support these newcomer companies as they are trying something new and bringing a philosophy to the market with them, alongside their technologies.

But do I really need a new computer?

No, you don't. If you have a computer that runs Windows lying around anywhere, chances are you can put Linux on it.

There are several Dell and Lenovo PC's that are really well suited for Linux: what that means is, everything works as soon as you load the new operating system.

Ubuntu (a classic, beginner Linux flavor) maintains a list of systems it is compatible with. Peruse documents like these and you are off to the races.

If you have a very old PC, chances are it is running more slowly. There are light versions of Linux you can put on that will give it new life and let it keep going for many more years. Lubuntu is a light version of Ubuntu, and Zorin has a light version too.


In short, you don't need your computer to act as spyware. You can either invest in or repurpose a machine to improve your data footprint--and this is a great place to start!