Google’s Chromebooks are surprisingly good laptops. They’re cheap — only $249 for what’s probably the best one at the moment — lightweight, portable, and quick-to-boot. They may not be the ideal computer for a PC gamer or heavy-duty desktop software user, but they can be great portable web browsers to drag to class.
Chromebooks have become surprisingly capable, but they can’t do everything. They can’t play the latest PC games or run the desktop version of Photoshop. You can’t install iTunes and maintain a 500GB collection of local music files. But you’d be surprised at all the things a Chromebook can do. A Chromebook can accomplish most of the things most people do on laptops.
What’s a Chromebook?
Chromebooks run Chrome OS, which is primarily just a Chrome browser with some other software around it to make it more useful. There’s a simple local file system that lets you view files like images, documents, videos, music, and archive files, but you’ll be spending most of your time in Chrome. If you’re someone who already spends most of your time in Chrome, a Chromebook might be a good option.
That said, you’ll be limited to applications you can run in Chrome. There’s definitely offline support, including a Gmail Offline app, so you don’t have to worry about being unable to read your email, look at your calendar, or write documents without a Wi-Fi connection, but if you depend on software that’s only available for Windows or Mac desktops, you may want to skip the Chromebook.
Rather than rely on local files — there’s some local storage, but not very much — you’re encouraged to use cloud-based file storage services like Google Drive, Dropbox, or SkyDrive. Google Drive is the most integrated solution, and buying a Chromebook like the Samsung Series 3 Chromebook will get you 100GB of Google Drive space for two years.
There’s no Skype just yet, but Google Hangouts works great and offers the ability to have video chats with up to ten people for free — unlike Skype, which requires you pay for this feature.
Documents, Spreadsheets, and Slideshows
Chrome OS has access to all the web-based office software out there. This includes Google Docs, and Chrome offers offline access to your documents so you can keep writing new documents and editing existing documents even while you’re offline.
If you really need Microsoft Office, you won’t find the desktop version of Office available to you on a Chromebook — but you will have access to Microsoft’s Office Web Apps. They don’t offer any offline access, but you can edit documents from SkyDrive and use familiar Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote interfaces in your browser. You won’t find every advanced Office feature here, but basic document editing and viewing are all many people do with Office.
Best of all, the Office Web Apps and Google Docs are completely free — there’s no boxed software cost or monthly subscription fee, as there are with Microsoft’s other Office products.
Notes, To-Do Lists, Reminders
Chromebooks have a variety of notation and to-do list apps available. There’s a web-based version of Evernote that can be used on Chrome OS, while Google offers their own Google Keep app that works offline with an online sync feature — so it will work perfectly when you’re not connected to a Wi-Fi network.
All web-based to-do list apps will work, but apps like Any.DO and Wunderlist offer offline packaged app version that work entirely offline. So-called “packaged apps” that work entirely offline are becoming more common — even Pocket now offers a packaged app that will sync your reading list to your Chromebook, allowing you to read your saved web pages even if you don’t have an Internet connection.
You can easily grab photos off a digital camera using a USB cable or by plugging in an SD card. The photos can be saved to your Chromebook’s local storage, but you’ll probably want to upload them to a web-based file service like Dropbox, Google Drive, or Google+ Photos.
You can also easily access photos stored in the cloud — if you use an Android smartphone and set up instant photo upload in Google+ or Dropbox, all the photos you snap will be automatically uploaded and available on the web on your Chromebook.
When it comes to photo-editing, there’s a built-in basic image editing, but otherwise you’re dependent on web-based tools. There are countless web-based image editors out there, but if you’re looking for an extremely powerful one, you should try Pixlr.
Listening to Music
You could download MP3 files to your Chromebook and listen to them locally, but there’s not much local storage space and your Chromebook isn’t really designed for that. As long as you have an Internet connection, you can stream music from all the typical websites — Spotify, Pandora, Rdio, TuneIn Radio, and more.
If you want to take your local music collection with you, you can use Google Play Music. Install Google Play Music Manager on your current Windows, Mac, or Linux computer and it will upload up to 20,000 songs to your Google account — entirely for free — and allow you to stream them on-demand from anywhere, including your Chromebook.
Chromebooks have access to all the standard web-based video services, including Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and anything else using Flash or HTML5 to play back videos in your browser. You can also play local video files, such as ones in MP4 format, so if you can find a link to an MP4 file online you can download it to your Chromebook and watch it using the local video player.
If you have an Android phone or tablet, it’s simple to plug in your phone and copy such local music or movie files back and forth via the Files app. Chromebooks don’t play too well with Apple’s iPhones and iPads.
Games are definitely a weak point of Chrome OS. If you’re a PC gamer, you won’t find all the games you’ve come to expect on your Chromebook. However, if you only play a few casual games — maybe you’re a gamer but you prefer consoles, anyway — you’ll find you have access to quite a few games.
Unlike iPads and modern Android tablets, Chromebooks officially support Flash content. That means you have access to all the Flash games online, including ones on sites like Kongregate. There are also the games in the Chrome web store, including ones that use HTML5.
Nevertheless, if you plan on doing major gaming, you’re going to want a Windows PC or a console — that’s just the way it is. If you’re a gamer but you already have a Windows PC or console and don’t expect your laptop to do any gaming, you can get along pretty well with a Chromebook.
Working with Windows and Mac Computers
You can’t run Windows or Mac desktop software on your Chromebook, although you can set up Chrome Remote Desktop on a remote Windows, Mac, or Linux PC and access its desktop remotely. If you have access to a Windows desktop, you could remotely access it from your Chromebook if you ever needed to use a desktop program. Nevertheless, if you depend on running such software regularly, a Chromebook isn’t for you.
You can also connect standard USB flash drives to a Chromebook, allowing you to transfer files between computers. Files can also be transferred with web-based services — for example, by sharing them in Dropbox or Google Drive. Chromebooks also work with other standard peripherals, like USB mice.
Should you Get a Chromebook?
Chromebooks aren’t for everyone. If you’re in a class that requires you use Photoshop, Office, or another desktop program, you can’t get by with just a Chromebook. If you want to sit in the back of class playing Call of Duty on your laptop, a Chromebook won’t do that, either.
If you’re looking for a cheap, lightweight, and fast laptop that lets you get on the web and gives you access to the Chrome browser without any other junk getting in the way, Chromebooks can be a great option.
At the moment, the Samsung Series 3 Chromebook — check out our review — is probably the best one to get. It’s inexpensive at only $249, quick to boot, lightweight, and portable with decent battery life. The hardware — keyboard and touchpad included — feel fairly good, too. Samsung and Google made all the right compromises to hit a $249 price point while offering a good experience.
Have you picked up a Chromebook yet? Would you recommend one, or did you find it too limited? Leave a comment and share your experiences!