Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Completing a Master's in the cloud

As previously mentioned, I decided to do my Master's Thesis work on a computer running Chrome OS (a Samsung Chromebox). Including a HD monitor, keyboard, and mouse, it cost less than half the price of my colleagues' iMac desktop computers (running OS X). In fact, I started using an iMac before being offered a new computer of my choice, and chose the cheaper Chrome OS route. I'm not saying everyone can save money and do that; but I'd like to explain why I don't think a $1500 desktop computer is the right choice for everyone.

Example of Chromebook and external monitor (rotated for easy reading of PDFs)

First, my main tasks as a Master's student were writing essays for classes, writing my thesiscoding in Python and Matlab as part of my research, and putting together poster and projector presentations. Originally, on the iMac, this was completed using Microsoft Office Word, a local build of LaTeX, Mac's native Terminal, and Office Powerpoint, respectively. The iMac wasn't a newer model; it was creaking and slow, and the spinning beachball of death made a frequent cameo throughout. When I switched to the Chromebox, I gained speed and ditched frequent, large application updates. But I also had to create a new workflow. Here's how I did it.


LaTeX is my favourite way of creating a professional-looking manuscript, but for short class essays, it can be overkill. However, Microsoft Word can also be overkill. Google Docs does most of the same, basic tasks, and is frequently updated. It auto-saves every few seconds, is accessible on any computer with internet connection, allows download of .doc files for offline editing (or even switching to e.g. MS Word), and is excellent for collaboration (not that class essays required much of that).

Google Docs

When it came to long, organised manuscripts with many images and some mathematical typesetting, I required LaTeX. Luckily, is a fantastic free resource; it compiles 'in the cloud', meaning it's an all-in-one system to avoid requiring a local build of LaTeX for your typesetting needs. It was slightly slower to upload my figures, and compile remotely, but this downside was countered by frequent auto-saves, and the fact that packages were provided and administered by the website programmers. Less time worrying about admin; more time writing my thesis.


I was fortunate to have access to a university server with plenty of programming power. Chrome OS has an extension that lets the user SSH into another server or computer. In my case, I was harnessing the server's horsepower, and hence my local computer was a terminal with no need for a powerful processor: just the window to connect remotely. If I needed to do anything locally, however, I would have needed to either run a Crouton script (which installs a Linux distribution, such as Ubuntu, to be run alongside Chrome OS with no need to dual boot) or install a ChrUbuntu partition (requires a restart of the computer to boot into Ubuntu). Chrome OS, while based on Linux, does not allow installation of regular Linux applications without some severe modding.


Google Slides (image created with Google Drawings)

I ultimately presented my Master's defence in Google Slides, a free alternative to MS Office's Powerpoint. Not only does it automatically back up slides while editing, it can be used to present via a projector on any computer with the Chrome browser. It did not have many templates and some other flashier features found on Microsoft's paid competitor, but it was sufficient for a professional and reliable presentation. In terms of creating a conference poster, Google Slides has recently updated to allow for custom page sizing. I will report back on this when it comes to creating a poster for a conference I am attending in February.


To create schematic diagrams, and to perform other image-editing functions, there were two programs that provided all the tools I needed. First, Google Drawings is a Paint-like web application which integrates well with Google Drive's free alternatives to MS Office. It works very well for combining high-resolution images (and keeping the resolution before downloading as a PDF). Second, the offline packaged app Pixlr Touch Up proved useful for changing colour images to black-and-white, cropping, and other basic photo and image tools.

Overall, the Chrome OS experiment was a success, and I did not regret being an early adopter (I don't know anyone else who currently uses Chrome OS as their main OS for science research). If you have any workflow-related questions, or wondered if this kind of system would work for you, please use the comments section below.