We’ve written plenty about Chromebooks at MakeUseOf, and by following their progression it’s easy to tell how much these devices have evolved. From the humble Chrome browser shell to today’s full-featured OS that allows you to do quite a bit, the Chromebook is a serious contender in the laptop-lite world.
However, how does it stack up for someone who’s used to a Windows or Mac setup? Angela, our Browsers editor, challenged someone to get a Chromebook and document their early thoughts with it. Seizing a deal on a refurbished model online, I’ve done just that. Here are my thoughts after a few days with Chrome OS.
It’s Surprisingly Accessible
When making the jump to a new operating system, it’s natural to be concerned that you won’t be able to take the best Windows software or your favorite Mac apps with you. However, since Chrome is such a popular browser on all platforms and it’s the backbone of Chrome OS, the majority of a Chromebook will seem familiar if you’ve used Google’s browser before.
If you have a Google account, everything is synced over as soon as you log into your Chromebook: your extensions, bookmarks, and even your installed theme make the jump with you, making you feel at home right away.
It’s amazing how much of our computing is done in a browser nowadays. Microsoft’s embarrassing line of advertisements claimed that a Chromebook is useless offline (even though most Windows laptops are, too), but this is actually a testament for how easily you’ll get used to one.
Unless you rely heavily on some desktop app, you’ll be just fine watching YouTube, checking email, browsing social media, or listening to music on a Chromebook. This makes them a perfect travel item, especially if you’re not a fan of tablets.
Another aspect of Chrome OS’s accessibility is its keyboard shortcuts. If you’ve seen a Chromebook’s keyboard, you might be concerned that typical Windows keys like F1-F12, the Windows key, and the Home/End keys are missing. Don’t worry, because the keys that are there provide plenty of shortcuts for you to try out.
One of the first Windows shortcuts I instinctively tried on my Chromebook was the Windows key + 1, 2, etc. to launch programs on the taskbar. Since Chromebooks don’t have a Windows key, using ALT + 1 will launch the first thing on your Shelf (the equivalent to the Taskbar) and so on.
What’s even better, especially for visual learners, is an interactive keyboard shortcut guide built into the OS. Pressing CTRL + ALT + ? will launch a pop-up that shows you available shortcuts. It’s a great way to get acquainted with your new machine, and I was pleased with it.
Getting Work Done
The subtleties of Chrome OS are all well and good, but for this article, I wanted to see how one does when put against a day’s work. To accomplish this, I decided to write this article from start to finish on my new Chromebook.
In an effort to increase my writing opportunities, the first thing I did was take advantage of the system’s backbone and dual-boot Linux on my Chromebook. It’s a breeze to set up, and gives you a nice environment for testing Linux.
After that wiped my system and I got started for real, my touchpad seemed to be skipping all over the place – I chalked this up to it being refurbished, and figured I’d just use a spare wireless mouse instead.
This brings up another plus of the Chromebook: external devices work in a snap. The wireless mouse dongle worked as soon as it was inserted, and I was even able to use my PlayStation Wireless Stereo Headset, which also uses a dongle, without a hitch.
Not having to fiddle around with any drivers definitely scores the Chromebook points. After a software update, that I only noticed once I had finished my initial tinkering, the touchpad issue was gone and I noticed quite a few UI differences, mostly for the better.
Chromebook owners can claim a few deals, one of them being 100 GB of free Google Drive space for two years. As most models only have 16 GB of internal storage, this is a helpful perk.
With Drive space being so cheap (you could keep that amount of space after the two years for just $2 a month), I don’t have any problem with the system having limited drive space. However, my Chromebook also isn’t my main device, so if you have a huge music collection or regularly deal with large files, you’re probably not going to want to deal with streaming that stuff from the cloud all the time.
Speaking of the cloud, if you’re like me and have your files spread out over different cloud storage providers, you’ll miss their integration into your file browser, because having to use their websites is tedious. I almost listed this as a dislike, since I usually save my article materials in Dropbox, but thanks to crafty developers, there’s a solution.
It’s really easy to access Dropbox and OneDrive files on your Chromebook. Grabbing File System for Dropbox lets you not only access Dropbox, but also adds an entry for it in your file browser. If you prefer OneDrive (maybe you’ve read our guide on how to use all its free space), you can grab File System for OneDrive.
I’ve had a lot of good to say about Chromebooks so far, but unfortunately not everything is perfect when it comes to getting work done. While there are tons of tools for productivity, sometimes Chrome apps just don’t cut it compared to traditional desktop programs.
For instance: I like to listen to music when I write, and I found the Spotify Web Player (which is the only option on Chrome OS) inferior to the desktop version; it’s a bit cluttered and laggy, but at least it’s still functional. Angela, though, has written on what makes the Web Player special, so you’ll have to decide that for yourself.
One glaring instance of this app issue when it comes to work was trying to find a Markdown editor. On Windows, where I typically write, I use MarkdownPad, a fantastic tool that I really didn’t appreciate until I was without it.
I tried one Markdown app for Chrome, but disliked it right away due to its lack of shortcuts and live preview. I ended up penning this piece in the WordPress editor, and found a better Markdown app when I was almost through.
Minimalist Markdown Editor doesn’t have all the features of MarkdownPad on Windows, such as keyboard shortcuts for bold/italics or a pop-up for adding hyperlinks, but it’s still better than nothing.
[Editor suggestion: Use SimpleNote or another web-based markdown editor]
Another lacking feature is Chrome OS’s built-in photo editor. It’s convenient that any photo can be edited by just double-clicking it in the file browser, but it’s rudimentary and only allows you to crop, rotate, and change the brightness.
This would almost be enough for the basic screenshots in this article, except that cropping doesn’t show you the image dimensions as you edit, which I need to see to ensure they fit into the article. Thankfully, there are much more powerful image editors available for Chromebooks, so check out Pixlr for a full-featured editor, or Sumo Paint for a simpler solution.
This might be nitpicking, but something I really missed from Windows is a simple, no-frills text editor. I frequently want to paste something to keep for a short time, or just jot a quick note, and Notepad (or one of its feature-filled replacements) is perfect for this.
On Chrome OS, your only choices are Google Keep or opening a Google Doc. While both of these work fine, they don’t feel as disposable (anything you type into a new note is automatically saved to Keep, which would clutter up your actual reminders and notes). It’s a minor complaint and can easily be replaced with an app like Text, but it still feels like something that should be in the OS by default.
Was It Worth It?
Overall, I have to say that most of my complaints can be fixed by installing apps, which, if we’re being fair, is the case with pretty much any OS – just think of your phone without the best Android apps. I’m a big fan of the Chromebook’s look and feel, having Chrome be the backbone of everything feels natural, and I don’t feel like I’m on a “lesser device” when I’m using it.
I didn’t want to focus on device or hardware specifics too much in this write-up, but the screen is decent and the speakers aren’t too bad, either. My Acer model has an SD card slot, which is a cheap way to add some offline space, and the battery life is excellent. The standard keyboard is comfortable, though it doesn’t hold a candle to a mechanical keyboard, and the trackpad is nice and big.
For whatever reason, I get a better picture on my TV using a VGA cable with my Windows laptop than using an HDMI cable with my Chromebook – this might be a quirk of my TV, as I’ve had the same issue with other HDMI-enabled laptops, but it’s still an annoyance as it’s much more comfortable to write an article using a TV monitor than a small laptop screen.
In all, my biggest work-related problem with the Chromebook is the lack of MarkdownPad. Using the WordPress editor is enough to get by, but I’m so used to my usual writing environment that it felt foreign. For general use, though, I love my new Chromebook and think it makes a great side machine.
Whenever I want to do something quickly (seriously, this thing boots up in like eight seconds), when I’m travelling, or if my main laptop dies, I’ll be reaching for my Chromebook. And because of that, I’m totally satisfied with it; I just won’t be working on many articles with it going forward.
Thinking about a Chromebook? Check out everything you need to know about switching to one, or read up on what advantages using a Chromebook brings.
If you have a Chromebook, what do you like and dislike about it? If you don’t have one, would you be interested in one, and why? Share your thoughts with us below!