Oh how the tables have turned
The tech world moves pretty fast and so do shifting opinions. If you searched for Chromebooks back in 2013, it seemed almost every stuffy article claimed they were useless and almost always missed the point entirely. By 2014 people were starting to take notice that Chromebooks were selling well, rapidly being picked up by schools, and consumers were enjoying their Chromebooks. That same year they overtook iPads in US schools. Indeed, they’re the ultimate school computer because they’re stateless, cheap, and have a physical keyboard.
Fast forward to this month and the Chromebooks now outsell Macs in the US (there isn’t an official word on European sales). So why did so many people initially hate the idea and why is it now so successful? Amusingly, it’s the very features that put people off Chromebooks that are driving their success today, which is a sure-fire sign of something released ahead of its time. The Chromebook is an unconventional laptop because users do almost everything within the Chrome browser (there is a desktop, taskbar, and file system). You can’t install applications to the hard-drive (technically you can, we’ll get to that), and a Chromebook is most useful when connected to the internet.
Sounds terrible? Read on. Here are our top 10 reasons to get a Chromebook.
The price of Chromebooks is driving its success and will surely have Apple worrying. You can pick up a new one for £129.99 on Amazon. However, there are many models of Chromebook made by several manufacturers so some cost more but it’s always a bargain for a laptop. Because of the nature of the system and the operating system it runs (Chrome OS), you get better performance for your money compared to a Windows PC the same price. That means if you want to type up documents, browse the web, and check emails, it will all run buttery smooth on a laptop that’s cheaper than a smartwatch.
The cheaper models have simple processors, not much RAM, and just enough of everything to let you happily check your emails and use web apps. The pricier models give you full HD screens (some touchscreen), plenty of RAM, and Intel processors and you’ll still rarely pay more than £400.
That you can pick up a working laptop, new, for less than £150 is amazing when tablets and phones generally cost much more these days. And those don’t have a physical keyboard that’s a necessity for some people. And your laptop doesn’t come with crapware. And you don’t need an anti-virus. And you can share it with other users. And… you get the idea.
What put people off the Chromebooks was their reliance on the internet. Instead of downloading and installing applications, you just use web apps. This is why the Chromebook was branded “a glorified browser” by some. This idea was a bit ahead of its time and the arguments against it don’t hold up as well now. Almost all of the top apps in the world have full functionality online (Facebook, Netflix, Gmail, YouTube, Evernote, Amazon etc). Google recent Instant Apps announcement only makes this more interesting.
What a lot of people don’t realise is that the Chromebook works offline. The operating system lets you manage files, move things from one computer to another, and save pictures from your digital camera just like any other laptop does. The offline functionality goes beyond the native OS features; the “web apps” are built with offline functionality now.
You can read and compose emails in Gmail, read your Google Drive docs and start new ones, read things you saved to Pocket, create diagrams in Giffy, draw pictures in Sketchpad… you get the point. They still run through the browser but the Chromebook can store and run them even when you don’t have a connection. The Chromebook isn’t bricked offline, despite what some would have you believe.
A couple of years ago Google hinted that select Android apps could be used on the Chromebooks. A select few arrived in beta but now they’ve just announced that the entire Google Play Store will make its way across. This means that any Android developer who wants to tweak their mobile app can have it run as a Chromebook app. This means their app can work with mouse and keyboard, it can have multiple window sizes, and can used during genuine PC multitasking.
People who knock web apps have missed the fact that the most popular apps in the world are web apps. Android apps will likely please these people as it’s more of a traditional application experience. But the best thing is that Google is working on Instant Apps so they’re Android apps can be used instantly from the web without installing them. This takes all the best things about mobile and web apps and mushes them together in a way that’s perfect for the Chromebook.
One of the best things about Chromebooks is how they play nicely with Google’s other services and products. If you use an Android phone or tablet, you’ll feel right at home despite the taskbar and desktop background that feels more like a Mac or Windows PC.
Your Chromebook listens for your commands, much like your phone does. If you say “OK Google”, it will start listening for the same requests you can make on other devices. And the best part? Small Google Now cards can appear in the bottom right corner or be accessed from a small icon on the taskbar. So you can see those important notifications, meetings, and sports scores without even looking at your phone. Google Now power users will appreciate this. We do.
The whole point of a laptop is that you can move it around easily, even if it’s just in your own home. Sit in the kitchen, sit in the living room, take it to work, use it on the train etc. If your battery is crap then you lose some of that freedom because you’re constantly tethered to the wall. The Chromebooks have exceptionally battery life. The average now is about 10 hours but some like the Dell Chromebook 13 last almost 14 hours. To have a laptop that’s nice to type on and is guaranteed to last the whole day is a joy when you have serious work to get done.
As an exciting new product that many people didn’t understand, manufacturers had to experiment quite a lot with their Chromebooks to find what people like. At first most models were very cheap and had average components. Now you can get Chromebooks with an Intel Core i5 processor with 8GB of RAM. The experimentation means that today there’s a wide range of Chromebook options, making it easier to find something that’s right for you.
The variety of models means you can get the best value for money. You aren’t going to be storing much on the computer except documents and pictures? Then there’s no point paying the model that costs £100 more for the bigger hard drive. You watch a lot of movies on your laptop? Then get the one with the HD screen.
Sure, you can customise most laptops these days. Head on over to Apple and you can change just about everything in your MacBook setup to make it cost thousands more. The difference is you can choose between very expensive MacBooks and extremely expensive MacBooks. You can find great Chromebooks from around £100 up to £1000 and the perfect one for you will be in there somewhere (and likely at the cheaper end).
This was Apple’s mantra and worked well when comparing the user experiences of OSX and Windows but today it feels true to the Chromebook vision. Chromebooks are simple and that is an precious thing these days. Your Chromebook just works. No system administration to worry about, no anti-virus software to upgrade, no bloatware pre-installed. You just sign in with your Google credentials and everything just works. Sharing it with others is easy. Upgrading is easy (and automatic). File management is easy (yes, Chrome OS is more than just the browser).
The main advantage of a simpler laptop is that more people can use it. A Chromebook is ideal for someone who just needs to go online and do stuff, and that’s most users. An £800 laptop is overkill for many people and will probably cause more problems than it solves when it comes to maintenance. People just want to work and play without worrying about the upkeep.
But don’t for one moment think that simplicity isn’t good for more advanced users. Firstly, the most popular apps are present as web apps these days so you can get a lot done on a Chromebook. If you’re a writer or blogger then chances are you’ll never need another device. You can create images in Gimp (offline), email contacts (write them offline), read all of the web and type up documents (offline).
We know what you’re thinking. “What about programming? What about gaming? A Chromebook can’t do any of that!” Oh yes it can.
The Chromebook’s secret weapon. For a pleasant, simple experience that genuinely makes you more productive: work in the native Chrome OS. But for when you absolutely need to use powerful applications that must be installed: use Linux. There are a number of ways to run Linux distributions on your Chromebook, including dual-booting, but the best is definitely Crouton. Developed by a Google employee, it installs a Linux distro such as Ubuntu but it runs alongside Chrome OS and lets Googe’s operating system handle all the drivers and hardware. It’s amazing.
By using Linux on your Chromebook, you have the best of all worlds. You can do programming more easily in Linux than on a Windows machine and now you have access to terrific standalone apps. See our top 15 Linux apps to get an idea of what you can do on a Chromebook with Linux. You can even install Steam. Saying all that, we find that Chrome OS is so enjoyable and simple that we use it for almost everything until there’s a specific need for Linux and that’s a testament to Google’s clean OS.
If you bought the cheapest Chromebook possible, it wouldn’t necessarily be a great Linux computer but it would let you get more things done. We had an old Samsung Chromebook Series 3 running Ubuntu and it uses an ARM processor more like your phone than a typical laptop. But some Chromebooks are better than others and the very best are formidable machines. Speaking of which…
This is a joyous machine. On paper the Pixel sounds incredible but a bit of a paradox. It’s a high-end, flagship Chromebook made by Google. It’s beautiful and powerful. If you charge it for 15 minutes it will run for over 2 hours. The bar with Google colours on the lid shows your battery level at a glance without having to open it. There’s an Intel Core processor, 8 GB of RAM, and handy USB-C ports. When you turn it on, you’re on the desktop in less than 10 seconds. It feels premium and the keyboard is great. The 2560 x 1700 touchscreen is stunning.
Doesn’t that sound great? The thing is… it’s a Chromebook. We can all see the value in a beautiful screen and a nice keyboard but why throw so much into a device that’s a “glorified web browser”. Well, because the Android apps are on the way. And the Instant Apps. And the ability to use the elegant and fast Chrome OS along with the full Linux operating system makes this a beautiful Linux computer. It’s an absurdly pricey Chromebook at £799, but it depends who you are and what you’re going to do with it. But nobody can deny it’s an amazing laptop.
For most people, the perfect Chromebook is going to be a cheaper model. That’s the point of them really. A lot of people have MacBooks but use them for the same things they could do on a Chromebook. Of course there are also those that really need a MacBook. The Pixel is a weird machine because it’s only going to fit a few people who want a beautiful laptop with an absurdly good screen and has the best features of Chromebooks but is also great for programming and running Linux apps. It’s weird but we like it anyway.
We don’t recommend the Pixel as the Chromebook for most people, but we love that it exists. It also might be a sign of the future for laptops if Google continues to realise its vision of Instant Apps. Watch this space.
Main image: Google