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Forget what you may have heard: Chromebooks are actually great productivity machines

Chromebook life 3
Chromebook life 3 (Image credit: Jeramy Johnson / Android Central)

While I've always loved tech gadgets in general and computers specifically, I've tended to prefer "lightweight" computing devices that don't bog me down with legacy software and cruft. That's why I've gravitated towards devices like iPads, smartphones, and others. In fact, I've had a soft spot in my heart for the best Chromebook models since I first learned about them way back in 2011-2012.

I purchased my first Chromebook in 2013, and have bought several more in the years since. But at some point, I stopped using them, and I honestly don't remember why. During the intervening years, my now teenagers began using them at school and for entertainment purposes, and they love them. So this got me wondering, should I give Chromebooks another try?

Ever since I joined Android Central last year, my primary work machine has been the family computer, a 2015 iMac that sits in our home office. However, with all of us now at home working for a living or working on school assignments, that computer, and that space, have been in high demand. Thankfully, my friend and noted Chromebook champion Ara Wagoner sent me a device from her stash, and I've since become reacquainted with Chromebooks for my professional and personal use.

I initially thought I'd just use the Chromebook she sent me, a surprisingly capable ASUS C214, for basic work stuff like checking Slack or doing minor email triage. Still, I've found I've been using it as much as — scratch that — more than that old family iMac for most of my day-to-day work. And you know what? I'm hooked, again.

Haters gonna hate

Back in action in no time

Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

Since they were first launched, there have been many persistent criticisms of Chromebooks, but some of the main ones include:

  • They're just a browser
  • They can't do stuff offline
  • They're underpowered
  • They're poorly made or cheaply constructed
  • They have limited app support
  • They're just another way for Google to track you

Some of these criticisms have (or had) a degree of truth in them at some point in the past, but most of them don't really hold up upon closer inspection.

The oldest and most common Chromebook complaints don't really hold up under a microscope.

While Chromebooks run on Chrome OS, which is a beefed-up version of the Chrome browser, they are so much more than that. They have local file storage and can support expandable storage through microSD slots and USB-A and USB-C drives. They can run Android apps (granted, there is some variance in quality here, but still). Oh, they can also run Linux (Chrome OS is based on Linux). That all seems like much more than "just a browser" to me.

Chromebooks also can totally work when not connected to a Wi-Fi network. Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides all have offline modes and have for years (as does Gmail), and many Android apps work offline as well. Through built-in or external storage solutions, you can save movies, games, and music to enjoy when you're not connected. And when you're away from Wi-Fi but still have your smartphone, you can tether your Chromebook to piggyback off your phone's data connection. Sounds pretty flexible, right?

By most measures, Chromebooks DO appear to be vastly underpowered, especially compared to other laptops. Many Chromebooks top out at 8, 6, or even 4 GB of RAM. If you have experience running lots of Chrome tabs on another platform like macOS, you know that RAM usage can be a big issue. But it's just not so on a Chromebook. It turns out that when you're running "just a browser" that is optimized by the OS creator, you can really fly without high spec hardware. Most Chromebooks don't even have fans for cooling, so they're efficient and quiet productivity machines.

Lenovo Yoga C630 Chromebook

Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

Early Chromebooks admittedly felt kinda cheap and plasticky, but that's not the case anymore. Sure there are less than premium options, but there are also $1,000 flagships that look and feel every bit as premium as a MacBook or high-end Windows laptop. There are also tons of devices that occupy that middle ground that are made out of quality materials like aluminum as well. Pick up a Samsung Galaxy Chromebook or ASUS C436 the next time you're in a Best Buy and tell me that those feel cheap. Heck, grab a Lenovo C340 or Google Pixelbook Go and tell me honestly that those aren't well-made devices.

Get your (card) game on

Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

The argument against Chromebooks that I think still has the most validity is their app support, but I don't think that's nearly as big a deal as naysayers make it out to be. With Chrome OS, you get ready access to some of the most popular and full-featured productivity applications like Google Docs, Sheets, etc. You can also access other options like Microsoft Office products through the company's Android apps, or even Apple's Pages, Numbers, and Keynote through iCloud.com.

Where Chromebooks still can't match traditional PCs is mostly in areas for real professional creators, such as media production and some software development. But even there, you have options. There are more and more web-based and Android apps that can help most of us "regulars" do light photo and video editing, and you can even edit audio and podcasts on a Chromebook. My colleague Ara does all of her photo editing for Android Central on her Chromebooks, and I bet you couldn't tell the difference!

Another complaint I've heard (admittedly more from my Apple friends than my PC friends) is that Chromebooks and Chrome OS are just sneaky vectors for Google to track and follow you around the web, but I don't put much stock in this argument. For starters, most of the people who worry about this are still using Chrome or other Google services (Maps, YouTube, etc.) on their other devices and don't seem to think twice about it. And secondly, while browsing and search history no doubt inform what Google knows about your habits and how it serves you ads, it's not nearly as nefarious as you think. Chromebooks don't gather any more information on you than using Google accounts on other devices; if they did, schools and major corporations wouldn't be so keen on using them.

Google keeps Chromebooks secure

Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

Speaking of privacy and security, Chromebooks also get automatic and regular feature updates and security patches. You can install your favorite VPN services on them to protect your browsing, and there are a number of great privacy extensions in the Chrome Web Store that you can install for additional protection.

Make Chrome your home

Google Meet Calendar Hero

Source: Jeramy Johnson / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Jeramy Johnson / Android Central)

Since I started working mostly on a Chromebook during these past few months of quarantine, I've rediscovered some of the things I'd previously loved about them. I've also learned a few new ways to enhance my productivity on these flexible devices.

Chromebooks and Chrome OS allow me to get anything done that I need to for work or personal use.

Most Chromebooks are fanless and quiet, and they boot up immediately. You can get a variety of form factors from traditional clamshells to convertibles to detachables. In addition to most offering touch screens, more mid-range and upper-tier Chromebooks are starting to add biometric authentication like fingerprint readers for logging in and payments. And their multi-user support is something that even comparably priced or more expensive iPads just don't offer.

Maybe it's because I'm not running tons of apps simultaneously, but I find that my battery life on Chromebook is better than when I use my iPad or MacBook Air for similar lengths of time. Your usage and mileage may vary, but for me, this has been a pleasant surprise (not that I'm ever far away from a cord or outlet these days).

Duet Display Imac Chromebook

Source: Jeramy Johnson / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Jeramy Johnson / Android Central)

Managing workspaces on a Chromebook works surprisingly well and is familiar to me from how I would do it on a MacBook. There are options for split screens, window resizing, trackpad gestures, and virtual desktops. It's also easy to connect to external I/O devices like monitors, keyboards, and mice. I recently wrote about how I started using my Chromebook as a second screen for my iMac with Duet Display, and I just love that added screen real estate and flexibility.

As I mentioned earlier, there's not much I can't do that I need to do for work or play on a Chromebook. Productivity is handled through Google or Microsoft apps, and I can even use iCloud apps if I wanted to. Messaging (and even calling) is a breeze thanks to Google Message integration as well as WhatsApp, Messenger, Telegram, etc. Video conferencing? No problem, with Google Meet and Google Duo, Zoom, Skype, and more. Photo editing? Try Pixlr (opens in new tab) on the web or Adobe's Android apps (opens in new tab). Want to record a podcast? Use Audacity on Linux. The list is surprisingly long.

Laptop mode for the Duet

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Android apps on Chrome OS are still a mixed bag to this day for sure, but the fact that you can access your phone's apps on your laptop is pretty sweet. Plus, there are a lot of useful Android apps that have been optimized for Chrome.

And don't forget about Linux apps. Ok, I'll admit that I don't use Linux on my Chromebook (though I once installed Crostini on my son's Chromebook so he could play Minecraft). Still, the simple fact that you can turn a Chromebook into a Linux computer and back again quickly is powerful, whether you want to run specific Linux apps, or write code, or whatever.

I didn't even mention Chromeboxes thus far, but these are nice ChromeOS alternatives to more expensive Mac Mini's and Intel Nucs. They operate just like a Chromebook but are meant to be stationary. They can be an affordable family computer room option, especially if you already have a spare monitor, keyboard, and mouse hanging around.

Chrome OS? More like Chrome oh yes!

Best Chromebooks for Students

Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

Look, the naysayers are right. A Chromebook is not a perfect computer. But you know what? Nothing is!

Every device has its compromises, be that in build quality, app compatibility, or price, and I happen to believe that the Chromebook strikes a good balance among these areas. No, it still can't do that last 1% or even 5% of what some people need, and it may never be able to. But it does a pretty darn good job handling that 95% to 99% of what most of us regular people need on a daily basis, and that's totally fine by me.

*Disclaimer: This article was entirely researched, written and edited on a Chromebook.

Jeramy is proud to help *Keep Austin Weird* and loves hiking in the hill country of central Texas with a breakfast taco in each hand. When he's not writing about smart home gadgets and wearables, he's defending his relationship with his smart voice assistants to his family. You can follow him on Twitter at @jeramyutgw.

40 Comments
  • I've heard that Chromebooks are not as powerful as Windows laptops. An IT person said that the Chrome OS is simply the Chrome Web Browser skin meaning it is not a full desktop OS like Windows. The iPadOS is a mobile OS, not a desktop OS, so it doesn't have all the features you'd find on a desktop OS
  • The truth is in the middle. Chrome OS is not just a web browser, but it isn't a full desktop OS either. In reality the vast majority of people don't need a full desktop OS. For most people, Windows is way more than they need and just adds complexity and confusion for no good reason.
  • 1. "Chrome OS is not just a web browser, but it isn't a full desktop OS either." I disagree ... ChromeOS is Linux and I wish more people would see what "base Linux" looks like - not much - before saying so. 2. "In reality the vast majority of people don't need a full desktop OS." Not true. Only in the sense that the vast majority of people don't need a computer at all, and the vast majority of the population didn't have such devices as recently as 15-20 years ago. Any "regular" computer user is going to need productivity applications of some kind. 3. "For most people, Windows is way more than they need and just adds complexity ..." It is more that Windows changed their logical hierarchical UX/UI to a more "intuitive" one (intuitive to who ... them?) starting with Windows 7 and they adamantly refuse to go back (note that LibreOffice and Google Docs still use the hierarchical menu-driven UX/UI). Also due to their drive to add new features to keep up with the competition (ChromeOS, Android, iOS, iPadOS, macOS and to a degree even more traditional forms of Linux) while still trying to maintain backwards compatibility, Windows is now far more buggy and less reliable. 4. " ... and for no good reason." Huh? There is a GREAT reason. It is the OS that runs ALL third party software. Name something that large amounts of people want or need that is only available on another desktop OS. Linux? Nope. macOS? No. ChromeOS? Get real. It is why so many people who are on Linux or macOS still buy a Windows license so they can dual boot or run virtual machines ... and will be a much bigger barrier to Apple moving from Intel than they want to admit.
  • > ChromeOS is Linux And Windows is VMS, and MacOS X is BSD (free or otherwise)...
  • Hmm... You appear to be one of those people who talks a lot and says vey little.
  • I agree. I switched from a Dell i7/ 16 gb of memory laptop to a chromebook with an m3/4gb of memory. The browsing experience is better on the chromebook. It loads pages as fast and scrolling is smoother. Most importantly performance is consistence. Windows and Dell are continually running background processes that kill performance, slowing everything down. When the OS upgrades itself I no longer cross my fingers hoping it will reboot properly. I now get 2 minute os updates instead of some variable time with multiple reboots. I no longer have a fan which sounds like a small thing but I could never go back to a computer with one. Because it is cloud based my chromebook and my pixel phone are completely synchronized.
    People say but you can't install stuff on your chromebook. It is true, but software is continually being migrated to the web. A good example is tax preparation software. Years ago you would walk into Bestbuy and see the packages of the tax software piled to the ceiling. Now I click the Turbo Tax bookmark, log in and am good to go with the latest software in seconds.
    My chromebook costs 40% of what I paid for my Dell laptop. Windows 10 and Mac OS should be considered legacy software. What;s old is new again. I started developing software 40+ years ago in school on punch cards. On my first job we had IBM 3270 dumb terminals connected to IBM 360 mainframes. No one had a computer on their desk, So you went to a common area found a terminal and entered your user id and password. That gave you access to your mainframe based program libraries. Cloud computing is a very old concept for some of us.
  • If we speak about desktops, most people can do all their jobs either online, with Android apps or even Linux with a Chromebox. All my colleagues love them.
    To install Linux apps is much more simple than I thought. On the following channel you find many video's how to install Linux apps. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC8MYBpftD2jsfKNN5yG7Q5w .
    Chrome OS can function very fast with less power. Think of it as the traditional British sports car. Light car, light engine, still very fast and fun to drive!
  • It's just a shame most Chromebooks look less like a lotus Elise and more like a reliant robin lol.
  • Except there are plenty of Chromebooks that have just as nice of hardware as any high-end Windows or Mac. Pixelbook, Pixelbook Go, Galaxy Chromebook, Asus 436 just to name a few. Sure most are not that nice but neither are most Windows laptops. The whole point is you can get whatever you want from ultra cheap to ultra high end and everything in between.
  • So... You don't get jokes, then?
  • That IT person was wrong. Chrome OS is Google's fork of Debian Linux, and the Linux distro that it is most compatible with is Gentoo. If you want to talk about "all the features" ... OK go download a Linux *.iso and in VirtualBox or VMWare do "minimal install" ... you will get the kernel, a command line interface and not much else. Crostini - and its unsupported predecessor Crouton - simply add more Debian libraries to what ChromeOS already has and it gives you a full "desktop" Linux system.
  • > gives you a full "desktop" Linux system You keep saying "Linux" like it is supposed to mean something universally acceptable. Could you, by any chance, elaborate on what *you* mean when you say that word? > distro that it is most compatible with is Gentoo Last I used Gentoo (which was quite a while ago) their most prominent feature was ability to build *everything* from the source by the consumer, including during the initial install. What "most compatible" could mean in that context I could not even begin to imagine.
  • The killer for me is the lack of development of some core products - Google docs still has no word count and what is worse is that in the age of the ultra-wide monitor, docs still only has single page view!!!
  • Office 365 apps are great. Google's Doc, Sheets, etc are light years behind. But to be fair, nothing beats Office on a full Windows 10 machine.
  • 1. Not everyone needs Office.
    2. Office on a full Windows 7 machine certainly beats it. Windows 8 and Windows 10 are responsible for lots of people and enterprises seeking other platforms. I hope you realize that. You like Microsoft products. Good for you. Most of us just see it as something we use for work and can give or take it.
  • That is not true. I can counter than by saying the local government in the UK has been upgrading to Windows 10 over the last few years ahead of the Windows 7 end of life date. Office on Windows 7 does not "beat" it on Windows 10 at all. MS Office is the gold standard for those types of apps, you can parrot LibreOffice, Google Docs etc... all you like but people want what they are use to and most companies use Office and hence that is what people are use to. Yes that includes the ribbon now. MS also give office away with their OneDrive 1TB subscription service making it easily available for all. You might not like Windows 10 but the fact is it's not really that different to use in terms of UI for most to Windows 7, you can still click on start menu and click programs to load them. You can still search from start menu like Win 7.
  • Word count? Ctrl+Shift+C.
  • If you write for a living, you want it in a real time format but have to evoke it.
  • You wrote: "Google docs still has no word count" dude.
  • Google Docs is a (forked) LibreOffice-as-a-service. It has ALWAYS had word count and other basic Office features since the day it was launched. I will grant you the single page view issue, though as Office 365 allows multiple page views.
  • "Google docs still has no word count ..." Docs has had a word count for years.
  • As a Chromebook fan, my Linuxless Samsung Chromebook Pro saved my bacon for a bit with e-teaching, and today's devices are a far cry from the plastic kid toys released years ago, with specs rivaling or even surpassing Windows and macOS machines at the same price range. But, and you knew that was coming, I inevitably opted for a Mac Mini (odd being a DIY PC geek for over 30 years) due to its stability over Windows and its ability to run apps a modern Chromebook could run but for which they just don't make software for. Graphic design, video production, audio production, content creation in general. Can Chromebooks do it? Spec-wise, sure. Without developer support for standard industry-accepted content creation apps, however, their use-case appeal is still too limited in comparison and much of the functionality Android and Linux bring to the table is far from optimized, requiring annoying sacrifices in usability and missing functionality.
  • "Linuxldss"? Seems unlikely...
  • "Without developer support for standard industry-accepted content creation apps ..." Oh for pete's sake. All the Windows fans and Apple fans come out to play. Yes Apple fan we know that you like your Apple tech. But this is an Android site for people who like Android and ChromeOS. Android and ChromeOS people are far more likely to be into programming and IT stuff than content creation. Also, why are you pretending as if there haven't been millions of professionals using Linux tools like GIMP, Blender, OpenToonz etc. for video games, animation, VFX etc. for decades? You've had people using Linux - and before that UNIX - for engineering, scientific and manufacturing and you honestly think that people can't live without iMovie, PhotoShop and FinalCutPro? Also, you made the same types of sacrifices in usability and missing functionality when you switched from Windows to Mac. It is just that the vast amount of software and hardware that is available for Windows that isn't for macOS you are willing to live without. Just the same, people who like Linux - inclusive of Android and ChromeOS which are both Linux distros - don't really find themselves missing the Windows and macOS stuff too much. And for when you do ... it isn't as if we are saying to ONLY use ChromeOS and Android, OK? Most Android people are multi-platform. That "I only use Apple" or "I only use Microsoft and long for the day when they make a Surface phone!" strikes us as ... strange. They are tools used to get a job done, do it well and (hopefully, occasionally) do it fun, not oaths to pledge your loyalty to.
  • They cannot run my tax software. Other than that I am fine with my Chromebook.
  • That is fine. Until Linux comes out of beta and Google creates an app store for it, my position is that a Chromebook is a secondary device, a member of the same category as an iPad or a Surface Go. When Linux exits beta then anyone who doesn't use it as a primary device is just someone who will make excuses for the problems and limitations with their favorite platforms (stability for Windows, cost and lack of software for macOS) that they won't abide for others.
  • To be fair. It's not like your job takes alot of computing power. You could do your job with a smartphone only if you had to. But that is true for the average Joe anyway.
  • I do all of my web development on my chromebook. I have a Lenovo Yoga, and it's so much faster than my Windows laptop with lesser hardware that it's ridiculous. 15" screen, Core i5 processor, 8GB RAM. There are chromebooks like this one that are true productivity machines. Visual Studio Code (and yes, I can save files directly to my Google Drive account which is very handy), Eclipse, NetBeans... all accessible via Linux compatibility. Conduct meetings via WebEx. Office 365. Everything is there and it just works. I love it, and I don't see myself going back to Windows anytime soon.
  • Unless you are a graphics pro or a backend developer, your job doesn't take much computing power and could be done with a Chromebook that has an i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM and a USB-C (for which you could attach a hub for multiple monitor and peripheral support) also. It would take juggling Linux, Android and cloud apps but it could be done, and without much difficulty at that.
  • > the fact that you can access your phone's apps on your laptop is pretty sweet. My understanding is that you can access your *tablet* apps on your laptop, which is far from the same thing. A lot of messaging apps are working poorly or not at all, more than a few banking apps are not compatible. The set is further reduced by the differences in the underlying CPU -- I have not seen recent stats but one of the reasons Intel-based phones died the horrible death was the fact that about 20% of the top-tier apps had native bits to them. One other thing, I could not get a good answer for is the ability to print from the Android app. I see a lot of answers "yes, of course, you can print from an Android app", but I have yet to hear from somebody who actually managed to print from one.
  • Well you have heard from someone. I have printed from Android apps.
  • > I have printed from Android apps. Care to name an app, you have printed from?
  • ... crickets... Sadly, but not unexpectedly.
  • I use printershare and Google cloud print all the time. Printershare works great with my old HP wifi printer and I use cloud print for my work printer.
  • So chromebooks are good enough. First class? no. Sorry but no. That's like saying Southwest should be considered a first class airline. They're not. They're good enough, but not first class. You want them to be mainstream. You want people to accept them. I get it. I used to have a windows phone and said many of the same things you said in this article. I forgave it's shortcomings, but shouted about it's strengths. In the end, I realized, windows was a lesser phone (mostly due to lack of apps) that was also good enough. You can run low power programs on a high end device, but you can't run high power programs on a low end device. Now, I've realized I would rather have a device that is overkill, so I could do more when I need to, rather than a device that is almost good enough. Until it isn't.
  • > That's like saying Southwest should be considered a first class airline. I think this is a good analogy. Not being familiar with Southwest, I would pick Ryan Air as an example: if all your needs for the trip fit under the seat in front of you, it is the airline to consider. If you want to pack a suitcase (or even carry something that has to be checked in, however small) , you need to look elsewhere.
  • 'That all seems like much more than "just a browser" to me.' I'm sorry, but that sounds pretty much exactly like a browser-based system. File storage? Whow! Or not... Having a file system does not make it a fully capable OS. Android apps? Pointless in a desktop setting, and they're far from optimized anyway. Linux? Linux is relevant for 0.0000001 % of users.
  • For me Chrome OS does not bridge any gaps for me. If I want to work on the web I open a browser.
    If I want Android apps or do do light and quick work on the web I use my phone.
    If I want to consume media or do some light productivity I use my Android tablet. If I want to do programming, real office work, gaming, editing, etc... I use Windows, or if I was an Apple fan I'd use Mac OS.
  • I think a chromebook is as good as what you need it to do for you I love chromebooks and they are sufficient for my needs. That's what it all comes down to. Needs. Everyone isn't a programmer or a media tech. I have the new Samsung Galaxy Chromebook and to me it was worth every penny. The screen is amazing. The size is perfect for portability, and it does what I need it to do. That's priceless.
  • Whats changed the game for me with chrome os is pwa web apps. I struggled to find a good medium to use office 365 on chrome os until their web interface became pwa compatible. Now my email, office online and one drive all have viable web apps that work great on chrome os. Same with Google own apps. Gmail and maps is pwa. I feel I can use Chrome os as an everyday productive tool because of these advances.