Confused about Chromebooks? We can help
You've probably heard of a Chromebook. There's a lot of information out there about them — both good and bad — but it's a bit difficult to sort through it all and find out the basics about what a Chromebook is, what one can do, and if it's the right platform for you. We're going to take a look at all of that, and hopefully answer some of your questions so you know if you can benefit from getting one, or if you're better off looking for a different laptop.
What is a Chromebook?
That's an easy question with a not-so-easy answer. A Chromebook is a laptop computer that runs Google's Chrome Operating System (ChromeOS) instead of Windows or Mac OS or any of the desktop Linux distributions you may be familiar with. They're built like any number of other inexpensive laptops, with a color screen, a keyboard and trackpad, and ports to connect to things like a USB mouse, external monitor or an SD card. They even look fairly familiar once you turn one on and get started. But that's where things start to drift away from conventional laptops, and start to be a bit different.
A lot of people seem to think that a Chromebook is just a laptop that runs Google's Chrome browser. That's partly true, but Chrome isn't just a browser — especially on a Chromebook. It's a platform for applications, one of which happens to be a browser window. There are apps and games that don't require an active network connection, as well as many apps that are hosted on the web somewhere and you need to be online to use. You can create and store documents offline, as well as use Google Drive through the built in file explorer. Applications are written in popular web languages as well as Google's Native Client for Chrome. The software is far more diverse than just the Chrome browser, but it is true that you will need an Internet connection to get the most out of your Chromebook. This is unlikely to change, and being able to go online is an important part of the way a Chromebook operates.
The way the software is updated is also a bit different than you might be used to. When you're online with your Chromebook, it will check to make sure the software is up-to-date, and if not it will silently download and install an update. The next time you turn on your Chromebook, you'll be using the latest version of the software. All you ever have to do is press the power button.
Google also tries to make you safer online with ChromeOS. Part of this is the way you're constantly on the latest version, but they also have pretty strict guidelines about how and what Chrome applications or extensions can access your data and use it. Everything a Chrome app or extension can do has to be listed in the software manifest, which is parsed and presented to you before you allow software to be installed. There are plenty of things that developers can't do, even if they ask — ChromeOS is a pretty secure sandbox. Of course no software is absolutely secure, but you'll not be worrying about virus scanners or registry cleaners if you use a Chromebook.
Using a Chromebook is just like using Chrome with Chrome apps and extensions on any other computer. The application framework is the same, and the user experience is usually better on the same hardware because you don't have any other overhead running in the background. This is where things really diverge, because you don't have anything else running in the background. You can't install any Windows or Mac apps on a Chromebook, and while the Chrome Web Store has a nice selection of applications and utilities, not everything is there. Google Docs is a fine office suite for many people, but it's not Microsoft Office. There are many image editors available, but you can't run Photoshop. And while ChromeOS and most Chromebooks are capable of playing some online rich 3D games, you'll not find the latest titles like you would for a Windows laptop. You're restricted to what's available in the Chrome Web Store, or what's available to use from a website. The selection is pretty broad, but it's nowhere near as diverse as what you would see for Windows, or even a Mac.
Is a Chromebook for me?
Maybe. it all depends on what you do while you're at the computer. A Chromebook is great for getting online and heading to Facebook (or any other social media site) or doing some shopping or watching videos at YouTube. In fact, they are very good at those things, and in many cases deliver a better experience than any other low-priced laptop. Once you step outside of this zone, things are different and there's a good chance a Chromebook won't fit your needs.
Do you use Microsoft Excel? Google Sheets is a decent spreadsheet application, but if you need the features Excel has to offer there's a good chance that Google Docs can't do them. Programmers and engineers that need special software probably won't be able to find a suitable substitute on a Chromebook. The same goes for anyone who needs to use specialized graphic arts applications, because they likely won't find them for a Chromebook. And if you're a gamer, you're best bet is to stick with a powerful Windows laptop because the titles you're looking for aren't going to be there, and you won't have the high-powered hardware you need to play them anyway.
Conversely, for a lot of people a Chromebook is a really good computer! You have access to everything the web has to offer, a nice (and fairly safe) experience while using it all, and you can save a good bit of money. Phil, Andrew and I all use a Chromebook at least part-time, and there is very little we can't do — for work or play — while using one. I work from one for a good part of every day, and very rarely do I have to step into the office and fire up my desktop.
A Chromebook isn't for everyone, clearly. Google poises them as a perfect tool for education or businesses that use Google Docs and Google Apps, as well as the right laptop for the average Internet user. This may be true, but you need to gauge how you will be using a computer for yourself to see if a Chromebook will fit your particular needs.