I remember when computers were a luxury for those rich enough to afford them. They soon became a necessity for those poor enough to have to work for a living. I’ve always been on the wrong side of this equation, but if I ever win the Lotto, I’ll hire flunkies to do my computer chores. Then I’ll go fishing.

In the meantime, if there’s any good news, I guess we can note that computers have gotten really cheap. And, furthermore, some of the best programs are better than cheap: They’re absolutely free.

As examples, I’m going to offer up Chromebook computers and the AbiWord word processor. Not that I’m suggesting that AbiWord will run on a straight-from-the-box Chromebook computer, but we’ll come to that point later because it provides some useful context.

As for Chromebook prices, some are under $200. Today I heard a report that a price war will hit some major stateside retailers next week. I don’t know if this is true or, if it is, how important it might be for Saipan’s context. So I’ll consider it mere rumor, but what the heck, it’s a good enough excuse to take a look at the computer world today.

Just to be polite, I’ll offer an introduction to Chromebooks for those who aren’t acquainted with them. Chromebooks are the next evolutionary step from the small, light, and inexpensive “netbook” computers that came out a few years ago. WiFi was ubiquitous by that point, and netbooks piggy-backed on this fact as convenient devices for getting on the Net.

Netbooks were great toss-around computers for traveling and for island duty. They were instantly popular on Saipan. I bought a couple. They still work well. The drawback is that their tiny screens (10.2 inches) and cramped keyboards can be uncomfortable for extended use. For a quick check of email, or a glance at the Web, they work well. But, beyond that, the ergonomics can’t be ignored.

Enter the Chromebook. The name comes from Google’s Chrome operating system. This species not only uses the Net, it pretty much is the Net, the idea being that your data is stored on the Net instead of in your computer. An inventory of basic applications is free and integrated into this Net-centered concept. Since the Net does the heavy lifting, the computer itself can be small, light and cheap; once the dog, the computer is now the tail.

One side effect of this approach is that some peripherals, such as printers, aren’t always usable with a Chromebook, so that’s something for buyers to research.

Chromebooks are made by many big-name companies. There’s a huge, swirling galaxy of products to choose from. Two popular sizes, measured by screen size, are 11.6-inch and 13.3-inch, so in both cases there’s more relief for the eyeballs and fingers than the old 10.2-inch netbooks offered.

From my experience, keyboards vary widely in usability and comfort. I’d prefer to buy a Chromebook, or any other portable computer, where I can lay my paws on it and test it out.

And now I’ll mention a companion that has served me well over the years. I refer to AbiWord, available at This is a free word processor that runs in Windows and in Linux. It doesn’t get much attention, so I like to mention it when I can.

It’s not great because it’s free. It’s great because it’s great. It’s clean and fast, all engine and no bling, and it doesn’t encumber me with the irritating array of “features” that most word processors harbor.

Talk about an economic paradox: I’m seeing more and more free software that is far better than the expensive stuff is. AbiWord isn’t the only example, but it is certainly my favorite example.

AbiWord can be run without even installing it on the computer. For this role, offers AbiWord as a download, and, once put on a USB stick, it can run from the USB and can also save its documents on the USB. In this guise it can hop from computer to computer with smooth promiscuity, as long as the computer is using the appropriate operating system.

Well, this brings us back to the Chromebook thing, and the fact that nothing with computers is ever as simple as we’d like it to be. Although the Chrome operating system is actually built from Linux, it’s still not the same as running Linux itself. Therefore, AbiWord isn’t in the cards for a straight-from-the-box Chromebook. Yes, there are ways of dealing with this but, no, it’s not within the scope of today’s banter.

But I’m talking lifestyle here, so this point is within our scope: The computer world is still a world of tradeoffs. Therefore, we all have to heed our particular priorities, preferences, and constraints. I don’t pay close attention to the industry, but I do pay some attention since I can’t ignore the realm entirely.

Ignore computers? Only rich guys can afford to do that.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.

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