Everything You Need To Know About Switching To A Chromebook

Chromebooks are Google’s take on the laptop. They run a slimmed-down operating system optimized for getting on the web with just the Chrome browser and Chrome apps. If you can do everything in your browser with web-based services and online storage, you can switch to a Chromebook.

Many Chromebook users haven’t actually “switched” to a Chromebook — they’ve purchased a Chromebook as an additional device, not one that replaces their current computer entirely. A Chromebook is the simple laptop you pick up when you need to browse the web, watch videos, type emails, write documents, and do other things you can accomplish in a browser. But let’s assume you actually want to switch to a Chromebook.

The Good and the Bad

Like any device, Chromebooks have their advantages and their disadvantages. Here’s why Chromebooks are appealing:

  • Inexpensive: Chromebooks are cheaper than comparable Windows laptops, with several models available at $199. This is dramatically cheaper than a Mac, too — you could get four Chromebooks for less than the price of a single MacBook Air.
  • Immune to Windows Malware: Like Macs, Chromebooks are immune to Windows malware. You won’t have to worry about running an antivirus or getting infected.
  • Simple: If you’re someone who just uses a web browser on your computer all of the time, Windows and even Mac desktops have a lot of unnecessary complexity and baggage. Chromebooks are optimized for using a browser and are just simpler if that’s all you need.
  • Very Low Maintenance: A Chromebook automatically updates itself and your installed apps in the background, just like Chrome does. You won’t have to worry about doing any system maintenance or keeping your installed programs updated.
  • Fast: Chromebooks boot up and resume from sleep very quickly, although new Windows 8 devices have arguably caught up.

Of course, Chromebooks have their disadvantages. The biggest problem with a Chromebook is software compatibility. Chromebooks can’t run Windows or Mac desktop software, so you’ll have to use web-based software. Depending on what you do and which programs you use, this can be a deal-breaker. You won’t be playing the latest PC games, using CAD software, doing 3D modeling, or performing other advanced tasks that require specialized desktop software on a Chromebook.

Chromebooks also have very little local storage, often coming with a 16 GB solid-state drive. This drive is fast, but is clearly not meant to store all your personal files and data. Chromebooks are all about storing data in cloud storage services like Google Drive and Dropbox, which is why Google gives you 100 GB of free additional Google Drive space for two years with most Chromebooks.

chromebook desktop   Everything You Need To Know About Switching To A Chromebook

Embrace Web-Based Apps and Online Storage

The key to using a Chromebook is embracing web-based applications and online storage services. If you’ve already done this — and there’s a good chance you have, as this makes it easier to access your data on smartphones and tablets — a Chromebook will be a lot easier to switch to. Here are some examples of what we mean:

  • Music: If you stream all your music from a service like Spotify, Rdio, or Pandora — or just have your entire music collection uploaded to Google Play Music or Amazon Cloud Player — you can play it all on a Chromebook. If you have a huge collection of local music files you play in iTunes, you won’t be able to play your music.
  • Documents: If you use Google Docs to write and store documents, you can do the same on a Chromebook. If you use Microsoft Office on the desktop, you might have trouble adjusting. You could also save your documents in Microsoft SkyDrive and use Microsoft’s Office Web Apps to work with them on a Chromebook. However, Office Web Apps aren’t as powerful as the Office desktop apps are. They’re more than enough for basic editing, but don’t include many of Office’s advanced features.

Chromebooks work well if you use web-based services and have your important data accessible online. If you love desktop programs and local files, a Chromebook just isn’t for you.

Booting Up and Logging In

The Chromebook setup process is simple. Just turn it on and it will ask you a few basic questions about your language and network.

In a few moments, you’ll be at the login screen. You can log into your Chromebook with your existing Google account — likely an @gmail.com username and password. Chrome will sync with the Chrome browser you already use on your desktop, syncing any installed apps, extensions, bookmarks, and other personal data right to your device.

chromebook log in   Everything You Need To Know About Switching To A Chromebook

Anyone else can pick up your Chromebook and log in with their Google account or just select the Guest account to use the Chromebook without logging in. If they use Guest mode, any browsing data will be deleted when they log out. It’s like a device-wide private-browsing mode.

If you don’t like this, you can go into the Settings screen and control who can log into your Chromebook. The Settings screen is basically the same as the Settings page you already use in Chrome on your desktop, but offers a few additional options for configuring your Chromebook.

Getting Around the Desktop

If you’re interested in a Chromebook, you’re probably already familiar with Google Chrome. Chrome OS on a Chromebook is sort of a cross between Windows 7 and Chrome. You get a desktop with a taskbar, launcher, and system tray. At the left side of the screen, you’ll find the Chrome App Launcher, which contains icons for all your installed apps.

chrome os desktop with google app launcher   Everything You Need To Know About Switching To A Chromebook

The taskbar contains icons for all your installed Chrome apps and Chrome browser windows. Apps run in their own window, while most websites will run in standard Chrome browser windows. Using the launcher, taskbar, and system tray is just like using the Windows 7 taskbar, but arguably simpler.

On the right side, you’ll find a system tray with information about your Chromebook’s battery, Wi-Fi, time, and other settings. Click the system tray to see a pop-up with more information and options you can control.

chrome os notification tray settings panel   Everything You Need To Know About Switching To A Chromebook

Managing Files

Chromebooks include a few apps that aren’t included with the Chrome desktop browser. For example, there’s a Files app that displays your downloads and local files as well as your Google Drive files. The local files are stored in a Downloads folder, emphasizing that local storage is for temporary downloads, not long-term storage.

You can view many types of files, such as local video files, on a Chromebook. Just download them and open them from the Files app.

chrome os local files   Everything You Need To Know About Switching To A Chromebook

You can connect USB flash drives, external hard drives, and even SD cards from cameras to your Chromebook. They’ll be accessible from the Files app. This means you can use a Chromebook to do basic tasks like upload photos from your camera to the web or play videos from a USB stick.

Installing Your Apps (or Not)

If you’ve already installed Chrome apps on another computer and set up Chrome Sync, they’ll automatically sync to your Chromebook after you log in. If you haven’t, you can open the Chrome App Launcher and click the Store icon to open the Chrome Web Store. Here you’ll find Chrome apps, which also work on Chrome for Windows, Mac, and Linux. The “For your Desktop” section in the store contains the new “Chrome apps,” which run in their own browser window and work offline.

Of course, you don’t actually have to install apps from the Chrome Web Store. You have a full Chrome browser, so you can just access websites and web apps in your web browser like you normally would.

For more tips, read our overview of apps you can use to accomplish common tasks on a Chromebook.

Setting Up Offline Access

In addition to Chrome apps, there are older apps that offer offline access you have to set up separately. For example, install the Gmail Offline app to access Gmail offline, install the Google Calendar app and set up offline calendars on the Google Calendar website, and install the Google Drive app and set up offline access on the website to view and edit documents offline. If you’d like to read Kindle eBooks offline, install the Kindle Cloud Reader app and set up offline access in it.

In the future, these apps should hopefully become “Chrome apps” that you can install and run in their own window, giving you offline support without requiring any additional setup.

enable google drive offline docs   Everything You Need To Know About Switching To A Chromebook

Chromebooks are pretty simple for normal users. If you can do everything comfortably through a web browser, they’re a great option.

Of course, if you need to do something you can’t do in a browser, you may quickly become frustrated with the limitations. That’s why so many people consider Chromebooks as a second or third computer, but not their only one.

Do you have any other tips for switching to or using a Chromebook? Leave a comment below and share them!

Image Credit: slgckgc on Flickr

The comments were closed because the article is more than 180 days old.

If you have any questions related to what's mentioned in the article or need help with any computer issue, ask it on MakeUseOf Answers—We and our community will be more than happy to help.

43 Comments -

1 votes

Linda Haggins

Chromebooks are a complete waste of time. It’s another way for Google to spy on your every move and implant ads everywhere.

1 votes

ReadandShare

I would’t say it’s a complete waste of time, but yes, I share your concern about Google knowing too much about me — and monetizing that knowledge.

0 votes

David Bobb

Actually, Chromebooks still have a lot of utility. A lot of people use a computer for only a limited subset of things — for example facebook/youtube/flash games, and then maybe netflix or spotify, having the ability to do that for $200 is an appealing proposition (especially if you don’t like touch keyboards that tablets have). Furthermore, the low cost of chromebooks make them especially appealing towards education fields which are moving towards an increasingly online or network-oriented paradigm — being able to outfit students with $200 laptops to follow class material, log in to do tests or follow audio/visual media, etc. could be beneficial, especially for post-secondary institutions. In fact, post-secondary institutions are already some of Google’s biggest customers when it comes to Chromebooks.

0 votes

tom

if i got a chromebook i would have a really tiny USB stick in permanently – then wipe everything and install ubuntu instead – fully functional os on a chromebook, job done.

0 votes

Cutler C

tom, the only problem with that is I don’t think ubuntu has an arm version, so you’d have to get a x86 chromebook.

0 votes

Todd W

Fedora 20 has ARM64 support.

0 votes

Bruce Barnes

I can see that the Pawn Stars / Microsoft ad really got to you. If you’re afraid of what Google knows about you then switch to Bing and Microsoft will collect your browsing data and target ads to you. If you don’t like Google scanning your documents in Google Drive then switch to SkyDrive and let Microsoft scan them.

My wife and I have been using a Samsung Chromebook for nearly a year now. It’s the one with the 16GB solid state drive and we both love its speed, simplicity, and we need not fear virus infection. I would call that more secure than Windows or a Mac. I have recently retired from 16 years in the computer support business and also use Ubuntu Linux, Windows, and Android. I would rather have Google scanning my data than risk some hacker scanning my data because I picked up some new piece of malware on my Windows PC, or Mac

0 votes

Evamvid Sharma

Actually, you could be doing 3d modeling!

There are several cloud-based 3d modeling services that work with Google Chrome, notable TinkerCAD. Admittedly, all of these are a lot less powerful than traditional desktop offerings.

0 votes

Ed

I consider Chromebooks an alternative to tablets, not laptop replacements (just yet). A couple of more years of updating with more offline Chrome Apps (and other app support under NaCl), and secondary laptop use is a real option.

I had an Asus Android table for a little over a year. My use case was 85% internet access and website browsing with the rest being email, reading pdf files, and photo/video/music.

I sold it because as great as Dolphin browser (with flash support) was, there were still websites that wouldn’t render well or could be used as well as on a desktop/laptop (under any browser – including Firefox for Android).

All of the above, in my scenario, can be done with a chrome book AND have the ability to render websites as they would on a desktop/laptop AND have a keyboard for the same price or less than a 10 inch tablet.

I’m anxiously awaiting a 10 inch Baytrail Chromebook with no fans, 2-4GB RAM, 32GB SSD and super thin (macbook air thin) for $199 – $249. Slap Linux on it and it becomes a great tablet replacement/secondary full functioning laptop in the 10 inch category.

0 votes

Tinkicker

The tablet replacement aspect was why I bought my Acer C710-2856 back in September. I was using a 7″ tablet with add-on USB keyboard I had bought seperately. The keyboard was typical Chinese bargain quality and not only failed, but killed the micro USB port on the tablet!
Onscreen typing wasn’t efficient at all, so I began looking at netbooks. We gave our son an EEE PC Win XP netbook three years ago, and it was horrible. I hoped I could find something better than that at a price I could afford.
Then I saw an ad for the chromebooks, and began researching. For $200 I bought a great little unit which had a good deal larger screen than my tablet (11.6″), a proper keyboard (the C710 is a converted Acer Windows netbook, and has normal keyboard topography…I don’t care for the official ChromeOS keyboard) and for only a few more bucks than what the tablet/keyboard had cost me!
There hasn’t been a single day since I got it that I haven’t logged several productive hours on my Acer…I love it! No, I can’t play my first person shooters on it…I fire up either my Win 7 desktop or Win 7 laptop for that…but for (so far) every other thing I do on a computer, I’m doing it on my chromebook.
Try it before you knock it…you may never knock it after all.

0 votes

Joel L

I love the idea of Chromebook but the execution just isn’t good enough. More and more I’m growing disillusioned to the idea of relying on cloud storage (not so much due to privacy reasons but reliability reasons) and that’s a big dealbreaker. Relying on Chrome web apps is another huge dealbreaker. It’s too much to ask me to toss aside my text editors, programming IDEs, video games, etc.

All in all, Chromebook is super niche and not enough value for the price. Right now, I wouldn’t feel happy spending more than $50 on it.

0 votes

Tinkicker

Joel, do yourself a favor and spend some time on one. The constantly-improving app environment on Chrome is becoming more and more offline-capable. No, it’s not a heavy lifter…but you won’t find a tablet nearly as intriguing for $200. Merry Christmas!
At one time I felt the very same as you do about smartphones…super niche product. Now, dang it, I can’t seem to function without mine. Either I grew into its capabilities or it grew into mine lol. I’m suddenly very enamored of having an impulse thought and yanking open the chromebook to instantly take care of business.

0 votes

Josh

I’ve been trying to move to a chrome book, but i have one app that wont work. WebEx. Otherwise I could switch easily.

0 votes

jim

The WebEx client should work…. works on Linux too.

0 votes

Josh

There is no java support. So it won’t work.

0 votes

Niall

You can install Ubuntu on a chromebook and I think Java is available for it.

0 votes

Ann

Would love to, but my main use would be to play bridge an an online sitge that required adobe flashplayer. Any suggestions? It does work with android systems.

0 votes

Chad

Chrome has it’s own Flash player built into the browser. I don’t even have Flash installed on my Mac, I just use Chrome if I need Flash for a site.

0 votes

Bumferry H

The one and only thing that is stopping me from buying a Chromebook is the lack of a video editor.
The App store has about three, but all have a very annoying habit of charging to upload videos or only offer video quality of the lowest order…. bit of a con really imo…. If there was a video editor for uploading videos to youtube and the like I’d have one, but even youtubes own movie maker doesn’t quite make the grade. It’s a real shame because everything else seems perfect for my needs. *sad face*

0 votes

Babatunde

PELE, I mean SORRY in YORUBA

0 votes

jim

Put Linux on one and you have a nice choice of video editors, from E-Z (OpenShot) to powerful but complicated (AviDemux, KdenLive, a couple others I forgot the names of). But you would probably need one with a big hard drive, not the SSD.

0 votes

Chris R

WeVideo is a great cloud-based video editor. It also integrates easily with. Google Drive.

0 votes

Oliver

I’ve been a Mac user for a long long time and although I agree top end gaming/ Video Editing are not the Chromebooks Strong point, its not really what I bought one for. I wanted Speed – and its ridiculously quick, Simplicity (It even updates itself in the background) and most of all Security – No chances of viruses, not one, ever!

You see my day-to-day stuff, Office, Emails, Picture editing (Pixlr.com), Play Music (it has my entire iTunes collection up there, making it accessible from any device now), coding (Codenvy IDE), surfing, on-line banking, shopping, all this stuff I do regularly is so much more simple and safer. My “programs” even follow me to whatever computer I decide to log in to, even if its not mine, no version issues or compatibility problems ever again.
Not having a machine that slows down over time or runs out of space is bliss. My Chromebook is over a year and a half years old yet still it boots faster than 99% of the machines on the market even ones that are 10 times the price.
And technically its not the Chromebooks fault that 3D modelling is not an available product (although AutoCAD 360 is well on the way to being hugely powerful) for the Chromebook to use or Battlefield cant be played, its the developers of these applications that are behind the times.
Right now some people and developers are just not ready for this concept and that’s Ok. So When Steam decide to make all their games online, server side, Microsoft make a big effort with Office 365 and Music production moves in that direction too we will all be wondering why we weren’t using this technology before.
The simplest ideas are often the best.
If you worry about having to be on line just ask yourself this – “If I went home today and had no WiFi, no Mobile internet, no neighbours internet to use…..what would I really use my computer for?”…….plus you can use tonnes of these apps offline anyway.
I do still have my Mac and yet I find my primary machine, the one I reach for 9 times out of 10, is my Chromebook. I get it!

0 votes

Jason

No Java support.

0 votes

Donald R

It would be fun in a ‘toy’ sort of way. Take it with you when you are going somewhere with free wi-fi. waste some time listening to some music and read some RSS feeds and sort some email. I find this a legitimate reason to buy one. I wouldn’t be worrying quite so much as i do with my full laptop out with me. Not to mention you can log in to your home pc with the Chrome browser and use your home pc’s power to boost things a bit. Just use the Chromebook as a basic renderer. I’d like to have one of these rather than a tablet due to the fact that I always want a physical keyboard. I don’t care for smudged screens. That always happens to me. Not to mention I have large hands. It just makes sense for myself.
I just convinced myself to buy a Chromebook instead of that Nexus 5 I didn’t need :P

0 votes

likefunbutnot

I thought, until I got my hands on one, that a Chromebook would be very similar to the experience of using Android. Yes, it’s neat that Google has a whole app ecosystem built in to its web browser, but it seems more like a cute trick than anything legitimately useful. My actual reaction was really marveling that someone could make a device that’s actually less useful than an ipad – and in writing that do please understand that I’m of the opinion that a nine year old Windows Mobile phone has a higher degree of utility than an ipad.

I just can’t get that excited about being forced to use crummy web versions of things that have some kind of better, richer user interface as either desktop software or mobile apps.

0 votes

Deepak kapoor

Can you write a simple tutorial so i can install chromos on my laptop and test run it (without virtual box) so i can check chromeos before purchasing?

0 votes
0 votes

Chris

Aside from borrowing a Chromebook from someone, the best way to try it out is to restrict yourself to using the Chrome browser on your current machine. Try it for a few days, a week, whatever. See how often you absolutely must switch to another app in order to get something done. The less often that is, the more likely a Chromebook might be a good choice. And remember, you don’t have to switch completely. I go back and forth – at work I must use a Windows machine to connect to various internal systems, but for anything else I can use my Chromebook.

0 votes

G

I bought a 7″ Android tablet and a separate bluetooth keyboard. It works as a mini 7″ netbook running Android. It can do most of what I need to do. It’s small so I can take it anywhere and very portable. The only time I ever use my PC, is when I need a bigger screen or play games. When this breaks, I will probably consider buying a Chromebook as a replacement or another 7″ tablet.

@Deepak kapoor
Here’s a guide that may be what you need and I haven’t tried it for myself
http://www.squidoo.com/build-a-chromebook

0 votes

Rick

I love the idea, and would love to have one, but my main stumbling block is how much I depend on Evernote. If they ever make an offline-capable app with the ability to save offline folders like the Android app, I would probably be sold.

I do have a couple other issues that would still keep me from being able to use one full time though. Mainly the inability to use Expert GPS and Mapsource to interface with my gps, and not being able to interface with my Canon scanner.

Not being able to use Picasa and Paint.NET are problems I could possibly deal with – though I’m sure the web-alternatives are slower and less capable.

0 votes

Trek

I don’t get it. Why would you use software from a company that blatantly said that you shouldn’t expect any privacy when using their services?

0 votes

Playing

Can you use offline local storage instead of google drive?

0 votes

Bone

@playing
Yes

0 votes

Andy vj

Is some one making a code editor chrome app . I’ll gift it to my friend if it had a quality app for code editing!!

0 votes

dragonmouth

“It even updates itself in the background”
I wonder what else it is capable of doing in the background?

It sounds to me that when one buys a Chromebook, one owns only the hardware. Everything else is rented from Google: O/S, apps, web browser, storage. Any time Google wants to make changes, it will; the user has no warning and no control. A very precarious state of affairs. Reminds me of the time Amazon deleted e-books from users’ e-readers.

Looks like Chromebooks are potential Google zombies. Whether Google would or would not turn all Chromebooks into zombie PCs is immaterial. It’s enough that the capability is there. No Chromebook for me.

0 votes

James L

I’d use a Chromebook if I could use it as an X-terminal to bring up my desktop screen from my system in my home office (I’m talking about being within the same network here, not necessarily connecting when away from home). Of course, if the Mir and Wayland folks have their way, X11 will be executed and you wouldn’t be able to do it anyway.

0 votes

Mary

I would get a Chromebox for my elderly mother except it won’t work with her new printer. I don’t think anyone here has mentioned printing.

0 votes

christine fuentes

I have found my Chromebook to be the perfect travel companion. No, it is not ideal for heavy office work (neither is an ipad or tablet) nor is it intended to be used for such. Google docs and drive have proven to be quite useful and my handy-dandy flashdrive serves to store and transport work-related files. I’ve had it for about a year now and have not stopped singing its praises. Oh, for you Google paranoids – get over it. If there is information out there about you it can and will be obtained whether you use Firefox , Safari or whatever…and let’s not forget the NSA!

0 votes

laura

Where do you plug in the Ethernet cable?

0 votes

Niku D

Can I install Chrome OS on my PC?

0 votes

Abhi Khatri

Man That really sucks! :P

0 votes

Caroline W

I’ve just ordered a Chromebook for its speed and that it’s simple and lightweight. I’m more than happy to embrace more of cloud computing. It will be a second machine though. But for all my Google+ social media, it is perfect. I tried recreating Chrome OS in a way by dedicating my browser to the apps, but on a windows machine it’s not easy what with all my programs but the Chromebook solves that. I am looking forward to it’s arrival and it will be a great machine to do my writing on.