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Getting back up: How a broken Chromebook proves that Google wins the cloud

My primary computer — my practically perfect Pixelbook — is broken and likely going in for repairs later this week. Three years ago that would have terrified me, but today? Today, it's a mild annoyance, and that's mostly because I had to waste half a morning on a full-tilt System Recovery to prove my hardware issue to Google support. The spartan setup that made Chrome OS a godsend for enterprise and educators has given me the freeing realization that not even a broken computer can put a damper on my peace of mind — or my productivity.

If my Windows laptop needed to be sent off for repairs — or even just factory reset for troubleshooting purposes — backing up my data would eat at least half a day, and the factory reset and restoration of my apps and services would take the rest of the day and then some. Despite Windows increasing compatibility with cloud storage and syncing, the majority of your programs and data aren't easily backed up, and even once they are, restoring that data after a factory reset — and the hours of system updates that follow it — can eat hours and hours of time you could be working or redditing or living your life.

From writing a system recovery flash drive to wiping my Chromebook and getting set back up and troubleshooting the clean system, I needed less than an hour. Backing up my local files took 2 minutes — after all, just about the only locally stored files are in the Downloads folder — and my Chrome extensions like Auto Text Expander synced back up before I even finished logged into the freshly recovered Pixelbook. It was quick and it was as painless as starting over on a fresh machine could be.

Chromebooks are expendable by design, and that is indispensable.

For years, Google's touted the expendable nature of individual Chromebooks to system administrators and the board members that approve their G-Suite contracts: If your student/employee breaks their Chromebook, simply sign them into a new machine and they'll be back to work in minutes. This may feel like something you can only take advantage of if you have the luxury of owning multiple Chromebooks — I'm using a four-year-old Lenovo Chromebook while my Pixelbook is out of commission — but even if you only own one, this way of computing can save your deadline and your delicate sanity.

Sign in and get back to work

If someone walked in and Hulk-smashed your one and only Chromebook, you could go to any other computer in town — from Grandma's Gateway laptop to the public library's Chromebox lab to that 24-hour net cafe downtown that always smells like weed — and the second you signed into Chrome, you'd get back 70% of your normal setup. When my parents helped me move cross-country, my mother didn't bother bringing a laptop with her. She just signed into her accounts on my Chromebook, did her email checking and Facebook browsing, and then she signed out when she was done.

This versatility is doubly helpful for Chromebook troubleshooting and security. The vast majority of your Chromebook is already backed up, so if your Chromebook ever even starts to feel sluggish or "off" for any reason, you can Powerwash it as easily as a game of Solitaire, and in less time than a game of Solitaire. Chromebooks have become the go-to platform many international travelers turn to not just because they're easy to replace if someone steals it; they can Powerwash a Chromebook before and/or after they give it to Customs, ensuring that no one is snooping through their files or bugging their machines.

Before I ever call up the support line for my Chromebook, I can — and have — done every single troubleshooting step tech support could ask in the span of a lunch break. That shortens the support call and speeds along a warranty support claim, getting me back to work before I fall behind. This saves me — and the unfortunate support rep that takes my call — time and sanity, and it is a simple, speedy superpower that I've yet to see from any other platform.

Sign in an get working

Best of all, whether your Chromebook is out for repairs or simply gone forever, you can still get your work done on a loaner machine or a public machine while you're waiting for a replacement Chromebook to ship out to you. Your Chromebook is just a landing pad for your cloud connections and your Chrome browser settings, and you can re-establish those anywhere you, your internet, and your two-factor authentication codes are.

And that's just as amazing for you and your tech-illiterate uncle as it is for your overworked office sysadmin.

Ara Wagoner was a staff writer at Android Central. She themes phones and pokes YouTube Music with a stick. When she's not writing about cases, Chromebooks, or customization, she's wandering around Walt Disney World. If you see her without headphones, RUN. You can follow her on Twitter at @arawagco.

39 Comments
  • Great article! I love my Pixelbook as well, but a few friendly reminders: - Never sign into important accounts on public/non-trusted machines. Keyloggers and malware are still a thing.
    - Two-factor Google authentication is more secure when used with an authentication app (Google or Microsoft authenticator for example) or even better a hardware token such as a Yubikey.
    - When you have two-factor turned on for your Google account, make sure you keep your backup codes in a safe place in case of a forgotten password or lost two-factor method. I'm sure I'm forgetting a few things but hopefully that helps!
  • It's a shame they're not that good at backing up and restoring phones. And I'll have you know my uncle is incredibly tech-literate!
  • Look, I can't keep saying mom/grandma/aunt in these. And I know there are at least some tech-illiterate uncles/grandpas/dads out there.
  • Or if you have OneDrive configured for Windows or Mac and you log into a different computer, your desktop, documents, and photos are already there and backed up.
  • That certainly makes it a lot easier, but nothing works as well as the Chrome backup and sync.
  • Good joke. It doesn't even spread fully to their own Android. I'm not a fan of apple, but if you go full apple, you know what seamless syncing is.
  • This still doesn't account for how long it can take to download and install applications to make those files useful. And if you are talking video files and video editing, good luck. While cloud based editors like WeVideo are no where near as capable as something like Adobe Premiere once your files are in the cloud you don't have to worry about long file sync times since it streams the edit output straight from their server to your device.
  • Re-creating a lost/stolen/dead Windows laptop takes hours and sometimes days, and typically someone will lose all of their profile (AppData) settings and any other files they save to default locations, which, 9 times out of 10, is not in a spot that backs up to any cloud storage. Then there is the hassle of remembering each piece of software, finding the media or downloading each then taking the time to install each and re-create settings. Don't get me wrong - if you need to do CAD design or edit videos then a Windows machine is a vastly better choice, but for daily standard computer use by standard consumers, educators and students - a Chromebook is light years better when it comes to replacement, security and ease of use. Heck - just explaining everything a Windows user needs to do to transfer from an old computer to a new one requires a technical level beyond 99% of the public.
  • To be fair, if you took a Windows computer, and only used Google services (like mentioned in this article) restoring a PC is just as fast as a chromebook.
    All my files in Drive, Google productivity tools are cloud hosted anyways.
    All this is common practice anyway in the Enterprise for the most part. This article touts Chromebook like it's the chromebook that makes this possible, when in reality it's the operating system that forces you to use cloud services, which leads to faster recovery, where with Windows it's a choice to.
    Don't get me wrong here; 20+ years in IT has shown me if you can force a user into those cloud solutions it makes life so much easier, and I run my personal laptop (win10) much like ChromeOS also
  • "If my Windows laptop needed to be sent off for repairs — or even just factory reset for troubleshooting purposes — backing up my data would eat at least half a day, and the factory reset and restoration of my apps and services would take the rest of the day and then some."
    That's one of the reasons I keep very little data on my hard drive. I use a large flash drive. Yes, installing the apps consumes some time, but none of that "did I really get all the data off that failing hard drive?" blues. The advantage is that I really only need the laptop when I'm in the field. I used the same suite of apps at home and at work and on the laptop so I can seamlessly use whichever is convenient. And yes, like the Chromebooks, I use Google Docs for a lot of things, which means it's all cloud data to begin with.
  • Nicely done, Ara. It's easier to write an impressive article when it comes with a bunch of new information. I knew *most* of what you wrote here, but you put it together with a compelling narrative on how to easily navigate disaster recovery with a chromebook (and any chrome browser to a lesser extent). I'm running gallium on my toshiba chromebook2 right now, but will probably take a chromebook running chromeOS on any international travel. I'll second the recommendations of previous posters to double-down on cloud security with this increasing dependency on the cloud.
  • Good article. Especially about using power wash more often.
    I need to do that.
    I cannot imagine going without my chromebook. In my shop is a big dual monitor PC for design work....but it is also the server for my home entertainment
    system. With chrome remote desktop...I can do anything I need to on that machine....from the comfort of my easy chair....or even when out of town. Can even scroll between the dual monitors with my chromebook. Because I save ALL work product in google drive folders or adobe cloud....most often there is no need to access the machine I used to create the work. We really live in a wonderful time.
    I have owned computers since you have to build them to own one.
    I cannot imagine what more I will see in another 10 years.
  • Among the things that I lost in 2017 to flooding from hurricane Harvey was my Asus Chromebook. By far, the worst part of losing the Chromebook was having to use a Windows computer to order a new Asus to replace the one that I'd lost. When UPS deliver the new Chromebook to the home at which I'd taken shelter, I opened the lid, signed on, and everything restored itself. Within a few minutes, I was just using it like he flood never happened.
  • I have Windows 10. I needed to have a Windows 10 VM replicated to a Windows 10 laptop. I was fully functional within two hours with all of my needed files from Onedrive. Further, I could've used a Mac, Linux, or Chromebook (anything with a browser) to work on any and all of my Office files or my Google files. Chromebook is a web browser in a box. Not bashing it, because I love Chromebooks, but lets be honest out there. People that love Chromebook typically work out of a browser and have items stored in the cloud. You can use any browser from any computer to work on your google files.
  • OneDrive also now backups your desktop and "My Documents' folder without you even thinking about it and those files are accessible on your phone. Backup and Synch is just as good as Google. Cheers. Chromebooks are awesome... but let's keep things in perspective.
  • After going back and reading your article again, I do have to agree - Chromebooks are a 100% better solution for schools and other places that has to share devices. They are a lot easier to maintain than Windows 10. If you have a problem, as you pointed out, easy to get it back up and running easily. Your article makes a lot of good points.
  • As long as those students aren't in a STEM field, sure. But if you ask a Chemistry major what main programs they need to run on their computers to do their work, their answers will likely be in some order of the following: Office, HyperChem, Spartan, MAPLE. While Chromebooks work great for the 1st one (provided you don't start throwing quantum equations into Google's spreadsheet) They don't work at all for the last three. So for nearly EVERY other major out there, I'd agree. Just not STEM.
  • Hyperchem, Spartan, and MAPLE all have Linux compatibility, so those would work on some Chromebooks. But agreed, for higher level students with specialized and specific programs they need to use, there's not always a choice of which OS you use.
  • Hyperchem and MAPLE seem to require a VM running Windows with no guarantee that it will even be able to perform it's calculations on a chromebook. Whether you're Mac, PC, or Chromebook; I would purport that the best computer for you is the one that doesn't make it more difficult to do your work.
  • To me that just points out how poor STEM education is at preparing students fior the rwal world. I worked as an engineer, switching fields several times, and NEVER had the same tech available from one employer or project to the next. When I eventually switched to IT/network engineering, it was worse. Virtually nothing that I learned in school related to using "technology" was useful on any job. What was, was knowing that I could learn whatever was needed without a "teacher". I was lucky enough to have received a solid foundation in math and the physicsl sciences from instructors who taught us how to analyse and plan work. My observation of graduates from supposedly good colleges during the past 10 years is that they are incapable of remembering, thinking or working without toys. Simple problems that engineers solved using pencil and paper, they struggle to solve using a computer.- by SEARCHING the web for how to solve it. They can't meet deadlines without last minute crunches, their output is literally hacked together fully of factual, gramatical, spelling and analysis errors.
    They seem to believe that delivering a slickly packaged report is more important than the accuracy of its content. There are exceptions, generally from those students who went to "poor" schools where PCs were not required to learn the curiculum or from other countries. If you want America to be great, produce self-learners who can work on their own when necessary. Having used every type of computer ever created including analog, maiframes, minis, homebrew pcs and many generations of PCs and App!e toys, I KNOW that they are not necessary in undergraduate STEM except for limited data analysis and some modeling that will be done by few after graduation. The capabilities of a Chromebook are more than adequate to teach a student how to use a business computer. Unless your hoal is to teach students to be specialized technicians using tools that will be obsolete before they get their first jobs, they should be learning how to learn, and how to use whatever information tools are at hand.
  • I could argue that's more based off of teachers being lazy and giving students multiple choice tests in undergraduate physics, organic, and general and physical chemistry than it is about the students. Teachers don't want to grade written tests, so they've become reliant on scantrons. Which allow the students to become reliant on calculators to DO the work, rather than proof their work. My BEST class in under-grad was my physics 101 class. Our tests were all written, and we were ONLY allowed to use our calculators at his desk where we turned our paper in. This meant we had to work out ALL of our equations first using variables, and only at the end did we finally replace the variables with numbers. almost a decade later, and I still remember nearly every formula from that class, and my under-graduate degrees are in biochemistry and math - not physics.
  • Yep. The cloud backups are one piece of the puzzle, and the ability to troubleshoot and restore with little to no technical know-how or effort is simply invaluable.
  • So it's great for lazy schools that dont want to give kids the correct tools to do real work and want all their stuff in the cloud under someone else's control? Windows 10 is not hard to manage and neither is mac OS. They all run the same browsers. Windows 10 has versions specified for schools if they have lazy admins.
  • So the article sums up to: if everything, you need to do, could be done in the browser, you can use any computer in a pinch. This is a profound observation.
  • Au contraire. There are many chrome applications outside the browser and many can even be used offline. I just an article somewhere where a guy chronicled his 30 days with a chrome device in place of his windows machine. He did writing, photo editing, and lots of stuff thats "outside of simple browsing:" and found that he could do anything he wanted to and the "via chromebook" methods were sometimes more powerful or simpler and almost always cheaper or free. I did the same thing for a while (although I'm using a windows machine as my regular desktop now, since my i5 chromeboxes stopped getting updates last year) and the only two things I couldn't do was use my scanner (but the manufacturers scanner app on my phone was more flexible and easier to use and dumped the scans onto my google drive, and printers not compatible with cloud print (and mine are old and 2 dont) need an intermediary like a lightweight PC with windows to print to. I used an old Intel NUC thats slower than molasses but it does fine for print spooling.
  • Mille pardon. I have re-read what I have written and failed to see words "simple browsing". On the other hand, if you are doing something offline and drop your chromebook in the river, you would not expect it to appear, when you log in to the public library chromebook, would you? Let me make an example of what I was trying to say: if I use my Firefox browser to remotely login to my machine, running in AWS, I really do not care which OS the browser is executing on and *that* is somewhat obvious and doesn't really mean that Mozilla or Amazon or both "win the cloud". Nor does it warrant an article... Just my 2c.
  • I have chromebooks going back to the original prototype they gave away free to qualified testers, I think it was a CR48? At least 5 chromebooks, 4 chrome boxes and 2 chrome sticks. None have ever broken. Unfortunately my favorites, the i5 based samsung chrome boxes that screamed stopped getting updates last year. They made for a fine desktop PC replacement. I'll have to look into it to see if I can get one off the open source chrome os versions to install on them. In the schools here, all the kids have their own chromebook, fully managed and any screen can be seen by the teacher from their management console. Except for drops they never break.
  • "any screen can be seen by the teacher"
    A horrifiying scenario.
  • This right here is some Android Central propaganda garbage. It would have taken you that long to restore Windows?! Really?!! On Windows 10 with an SSD your computer is restored in mere moments. All your belongs saved in One drive will be restored, while synced into your account. All your very important stuff that you would have wasted so much time backing up should have just been saved to another drive in the first place. Your external drives don't need to be deleted, only your install. Good Windows laptops/Macbooks absolutely stomp out Chromebooks! The features of what those OS's can do are far beyond what a Chromebook can do. Chromebooks are 'good' bottem of the barrel laptops at best!
  • The ultimate is VDI . Nothing to restore locally...even better for schools and students
  • Sensational Ara! Exactly why I have dedicated more of my tech to Chrome. The concept of your piece completely resonates with someone like me!
  • Those apps that don't back up and take time to re-download and restore are what makes that Windows laptop more useful than your Chromebook. Fact is, you could use you Windows PC exactly the way you use a Chromebook if you chose to, making your point null.
  • When my laptop breaks I lose nothing either lol. It's called one drive.
  • Why not just run a chrome browser on a real laptop from Apple or Microsoft?
  • Because *that* article would belong to imore.com or windowscentral.com respectively. And, no I am not being sarcastic, the site is upfront about its coverage and that's OK. I do feel that author either have fairly specific use case or have deliberately chosen to overlook the problems inherent in non-trivial use: yes you can complement browser use with applications (Android, Linux or Chrome), but these will not magically appear on the replacement Chromebook, at which point the restore process will not be that much different than that of Mac or Windows machine. As a matter of fact, since, as far as I know, there is no way to backup Chromebook locally, local restore of, say, TimeMachine backup will win speed contest hands down.
  • @Mike Voorhees : My decade-old iMac died a few weeks ago. I replaced it with a 2018 model. Time Machine, which runs hourly, did an excellent job of transferring everything to the new iMac, with one issue: I had BT turned off on the old iMac, and that setting was also transferred, rendering the BT keyboard and mouse unusable until I hooked up wired devices to login and re-enable BT. Why did I replace the old iMac with a new one? There are still a few things, such as hardcore image and video editing, for which I need it, and it's always good to have options. While I run Chrome browser on my "real" computer, a HP Chromebook 13 G1 gets 99% of my usage. Using the Mac feels like crawling through molasses, especially startup/shutdown, compared with the Chromebook. One of the unsung delights of a Chromebook is being able to use keyboard shortcuts to launch apps that are pinned to the shelf, for those that aren't pinned, I use the app launcher, which requires only a few keystrokes to launch anything installed. Even though I am not a big fan of Android, I have a few Android apps installed on the Chromebook, such as Home, Nest, WiFi Analyzer, and "Find my device" which I use daily because I'm constantly misplacing my phone.
  • > One of the unsung delights of a Chromebook is being able to use keyboard shortcuts to launch apps Offtopic here: For your Mac, did you look at QuickSilver -- any application is never more than a few key-presses away.
  • Great article. I love how people try to defend their OS of choice after reading these articles. This was merely describing the strengths of using ChromsOS on a Chromebook. I've used Windows 3 through 10 and a few flavors of GNU/Linux over the years. RedHat and Slackware mostly. I've stayed away from OSX, not because I have an issue with it, I've just never had an urge to purchase a Mac. I now use a Pixelbook exclusively. Between ChromsOS and Android apps, I am able to do everything I need to do easily. With Linux containers soon to get GPU Acceleration and sound support, I will be able to pretty much scratch every itch. With all of that said, I only recommend Chromebooks at this point to those who need extreme simplicity or to those who are tech savy and enjoy tinkering. To the rest, I recommend them as a companion device. Instead of people complaining about what they can't do, start developing for these things so that they can do :)
  • I have 2 newer models Windows 10 laptops, a Samsung Chromebook Plus,and an iPad Pro. I'm on my Chromebook exclusively! I love the way it syncs with my Note 9 without little to no effort, and since I only use a computer for personal use it gives me all I need!!