Why Google's Chromebooks make more sense than ever
If you've got a good memory then you might be able to remember back to the summer of 2011 and the first Chromebooks, which appeared to less-than-universal acclaim. Despite a slow start, in the five years since these laptops have become a much more viable proposition – so what's happened?
In today's computing climate the idea of a computer based around a browser doesn't seem quite so bizarre as it once did. It was almost as if Google knew what was coming down the line (perhaps it did) and made a laptop to match.
When they first appeared though, the list of complaints was lengthy. So-so specs. No local storage. No desktop applications. A complete reliance on the web and very little offline support. Here are the main reasons those problems matter a lot less in 2016.
The internet is available (almost) everywhere
It's easy to take Wi-Fi access for granted these days. If you're too young to remember the time when even setting up a wireless network in your own home with broadband you'd already paid for was a tricky proposition, consider yourself lucky.
Average internet speeds have gotten a lot faster in the last half decade, and internet access itself has become more ubiquitous, covering coffee shops, hotels, planes and all kinds of private and public hotspots.
If you think about it, there aren't that many places left where you can sit down and open a laptop and don't have at least a few Wi-Fi options to pick from (in developed, urban parts of the world anyway), even if some of them involve coughing up a fee.
That's partly because the infrastructure is improving, partly because we're all now carrying data-hungry smartphones, and partly because of the demand for streaming services like Netflix and Spotify (and trying to sell someone on a Chromebook when the whole of the world's recorded music is stored in the cloud is a lot easier).
Yes, there are places where getting online is difficult, but the situation is a lot better than it used to be, and it's only going to improve from here on in. Indeed, that's part of the reason why Netflix has so far refused to offer an offline mode to its users.
Web apps are better – and work offline
One of the original problems with relying solely on web apps was that as soon as your connection went, your Chromebook became just a very expensive paperweight. That situation has changed dramatically too, with Google leading the way.
Google Drive and its online office suite can now work perfectly happily without a web connection. You can create and edit files, with all the changes getting synced back to the cloud as soon as a connection is restored. That means with Google Docs' offline support you can use a Chromebook to go and write a novel in a cabin in the woods. You just won't be able to look up any background facts while you're there.
Unlike Netflix, Google Play Movies does offer downloads for offline viewing, and you do get a few gigabytes of local storage on Chromebooks if it's media files you're interested in (there's always the USB stick or external hard drive option too).
Of course you'll still come across a lot of web apps that break when there's no Wi-Fi available, but like Wi-Fi access itself, the trend is in the right direction. With or without internet access, these online apps are becoming more powerful and feature-rich, like the online versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint now offered by Microsoft.
Even Apple is getting in on the act, adding features year-on-year to its iCloud offering. We're still a long way from getting iTunes through a web browser, but there are already some decent Photoshop alternatives if you can live without the most advanced features.
Android apps are coming
Greater Wi-Fi coverage, better apps, and better offline support would be great reasons in themselves why Chromebooks are more appealing than ever, but on top of all that there's the recent introduction of Android apps to Chrome OS.
Whether or not Google ever merges these two operating systems together, putting the Google Play Store on Chromebooks is a clever move. It increases the offline capabilities of the devices for a start, because a lot of apps can use local storage.
It also opens up more possibilities for apps that feel like native, desktop tools, such as the Microsoft Office apps for Android, for instance. It's an opportunity to install a whole new pile of games too, in addition to those already available in the browser.
It's no coincidence that the first Chromebooks to support the Play Store have touchscreens, giving users another way (and a very natural way) to interact with Android apps running in windows on Chrome OS.
Full-scale web apps combined with all the variety of the Android app store really is the best of both worlds.
The original Chromebook advantages still stand
One trending point of view when Chromebooks came out went like this: Why buy a laptop that's just the Chrome browser, when for a little extra you can buy a Windows or Mac machine that's the Chrome browser and so much more?
What that perspective misses is that sometimes less is more. Not everyone wants to have to deal with antivirus programs, OS updates, desktop applications and regular backups. In fact, it's probably fewer people than ever that are willing to trade the extra hassle for the extra capabilities.
Google's very first Chrome OS adverts focused on the benefits of a laptop that never slowed down and never needed updating – one that you could drop in a river without losing a single document, email or photo. A lot of people are now growing up with the idea that when you move from device to device, everything moves seamlessly with you.
Are Chromebooks for everyone? Absolutely not. Are Windows and Mac laptops more versatile and powerful? Of course. But for a growing number of people who spend all their time in a web browser anyway, Chromebooks make a lot of sense – particularly with the added bonus of Android app support.