Chromebooks – Useful or Useless?
My wife gave me a choice of gadgets for Christmas – a new MP3 player, or a Chromebook?
I have never seen the need to upgrade my ancient MP3 player, and the remaining lifespan of standalone MP3 players is now surely limited by the relentless march of smartphones, wearable tech, and cloud based music services. On the other hand, netbooks have been edged out of the market by the ever increasing capabilities of tablets and the competitive pricing of standard laptops – is the Chromebook not merely a watered-down version of these redundant models?
I have never been a big listener to music whilst ‘on-the-go’ (my iPod serves one purpose, in-car entertainment), so driven by the recent total malfunction of my trusted Samsung NC10 netbook, I was convinced to try a Chromebook.
There is a lot of misinformation regarding Chromebooks. A quick scan through popular tech blogs will reveal two opposite ends of a spectrum, with some authors doing review pieces in which they directly compare Chromebooks to the latest Windows 8.1 enabled high-spec laptop, and others pointing to the news that Amazon’s top two selling computers over the festive season were both Chromebooks as evidence that traditional computing is ending and stateless operating systems and cloud-based services are the new status quo.
The truth is somewhere in the middle. Google does not pretend Chromebooks are currently a replacement for Windows 8.1, and that is not the market at which they are aimed, yet I have been using a Chromebook for exactly one month and have been highly impressed. My primary machine remains a Samsung Windows 8.1 laptop, but since the arrival of my Chromebook I am yet to switch my tablet back on.
The oft-repeated fallacy that without Internet access the Chromebook is worthless is inherently untrue. The machine does excel in online environments, but Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Calendar, and Gmail can all be used when unconnected , and machines come with a small hard drive for locally saving data. Additionally, the OS has USB ports and comes with a built-in media player, meaning if you are using the device on a plane or other long journey it is equally as capable as a tablet or traditional OS.
The Chrome Internet browser is lightning fast, and the integration between the Google’s Web apps is clean and efficient. The laptop feels responsive and apps open instantly, especially when compared with the sometimes-slow speeds experienced on Windows machines when dealing with large files or applications.
The stateless design of the OS also carries two major advantages. Firstly, it means machines are almost immune to viruses, and in the worst case they can be painlessly formatted and re-synced without loss of data. Secondly, OS updates are delivered seamlessly with minimal user involvement, the only onscreen notification you will receive is a small popup in the bottom right-hand corner prompting you to reboot your machine.
The whole Chrome OS is based on Linux, meaning for technologically skilled users the ability to put the machine into developer mode and install a Linux distribution as either a dual-boot or in a chroot environment via Crouton is a big selling point. Of course, those who do this can then install a Skype desktop client, OpenOffice, and myriad other offline-enabled Linux-friendly apps to give their device the functionality of a fully-fledged laptop for a fraction of the cost.
As competition increases and more developers release Chrome-based machines, you can expect to see hardware specifications quickly rise and an ever increasing number of quality apps available in the Chrome Webstore. Already, users can find excellent alternatives for Photoshop, a wide range of productivity tools, and the obligatory choice of games.
With highly affordable prices, boot speeds of under five seconds, extended battery life, and a highly intuitive gesture-enabled track pad the Chromebook is perfect for using as a secondary machine for power users, or a primary machine for users who simply do not require nor want the complexity and power of Windows and Apple products.
It is clear that a browser-only life is not for everyone, but Chromebooks feel like the natural successor to netbooks and are undoubtedly here to stay. Whilst they may not yet have the functionality required to be the primary machine of the masses, they are quickly gaining market share and should not be dismissed as useless when they undoubtedly have a bright future ahead.