Laptops

Why Google's Chromebooks make more sense than ever

After a slow start, Chromebooks are taking off
After a slow start, Chromebooks are taking off
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After a slow start, Chromebooks are taking off
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After a slow start, Chromebooks are taking off
The second Chromebook Pixel from Google
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The second Chromebook Pixel from Google
Android apps are now on some Chrome OS devices
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Android apps are now on some Chrome OS devices

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

The second Chromebook Pixel from Google
The second Chromebook Pixel from Google

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

Android apps are now on some Chrome OS devices
Android apps are now on some Chrome OS devices

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.

5 comments
Augure
There's not a single point to a Chromebook. Why would you carry a full underpowered and extremely limited system and eco-system, instead of a Linux/PC/OSX laptop OR...and Android Phone? Why hasn't Google implement a dockable Android interfaces, wireless or tethered, that lets you use you Android smartphone in a desktop format on any screen, tablet or VR, with the touch-screen as a mouse/keyboard interface with the possibility of connecting external bluetooth keyboard/mouse? Yeah right, it's not like these mediocre multi-billions thousands employee corporation hired any actual conceptors.
Eggers
Think of Chromebooks as a wireless terminal to not just connect to the Internet, but also to nearly any computer across the room or across the globe. All you need is a decent Internet connection and a little piece of terminal host software at the other end. My 8 way workstation at home beats any laptop hands down in power, versatility, and upgradability. As long as I have a decent Internet connection, that workstation is at my finger tips anywhere in the world! And the Chromebook *terminal* at my end is lighter, cheaper, more secure, less bother, and easily replaceable to get back exactly where I left off.
CajunMoses
Well written, factual article. As far as I'm concerned, Android HAS been merged with Chrome OS. Any further merging would probably degrade Chrome OS. I love being able to open the lid to my Asus Flip and have my gmail opening within about ten seconds after it cold boots. I rarely use my Windows 10 PC anymore, even though it should be far more "powerful." I turn in on periodically to let it churn and spin and reboot itself repeatedly. After it finally quiets down enough to accept user input, I assume that it's finished updating itself, and I shut it down until next time.
RickFimple
I totally agree with this article. I am a huge Apple fan, but I sold my Mac Desk top and a few days ago bought an Acer 14 (with aluminum body) Chromebook. I was telling my wife yesterday that I can not find one thing wrong with it. I absolutley love my chromebook (I am using it now to type this). Everything that this article said are all the reasons I bought one. I love the simplicity. To be honest my family was a bit overwhelmed with our Mac. Great computer, but we really did not have a need for it. For $300 you simply can not go wrong (at least with the Acer 14). I am totoally in agreement that (chromebooks) and cloud computing are the future. I started noticing this the last couple of years when I found myself accessing and putting everything in the "cloud", my music subscriptions, Movies, books, pictures and videos. Chromebook works for my family (they love it too, especially my five year old). Great idea.
LisaLombardo
I bought one of those early chromebooks - 2012 I believe, and will never go back to a traditional laptop. It has proven to be more reliable and trouble free than any of the 6 or 7 laptops I've gone through in my lifetime. Now for folks who are using it for work, I don't know, but for an average person who is looking at the internet, doing basic word processing, emailing and such, it is fantastic. It is inexpensive, I've never run out of storage locally or on my cloud account that come with the book, and it runs trouble-free. No updates that screw everything up, no virus's, no blue screens of death. Just a laptop that works, everyday.