Google has a hit-and-miss track record when it comes to product innovations, but the Chromebook is one of its major success stories. Launched in 2011 as a budget alternative to OS X or Windows-powered laptops, early models were dismissed by critics as underpowered and overly basic. Some saw Chromebooks as the spiritual successor to the netbook – a miniature laptop rendered irrelevant by the meteoric rise of tablet devices.
Yet the Chromebook has evolved far beyond its cheap and cheerful origins. Last year, Chromebooks outsold MacBooks for the first time. This year, the Chrome operating system is powering more computers in America than Linux. And though its Chrome OS is effectively a heavily modified form of Linux’s Gentoo distro, its simplicity has attracted users who might have been unwilling to use Linux.
Many people are starting to consider Chromebooks for the first time, but will they do everything you realistically need? Below, we look at typical Chromebook performance and specifications before concluding with summaries of who Chromebooks are – and aren’t – aimed at…
Chromebook: A laptop, but different
Visually, a Chromebook is largely indistinguishable from a conventional laptop. Some have aluminium casings and soft-touch keyboards, while track pads and HD displays are commonplace. Premium features like Bang & Olufsen speakers and 1080p screens are beginning to appear in higher-end models, though more affordable versions are typically powered by Intel Celeron chips with 11-inch screens and 2GB of RAM. Modest SSD storage is augmented with 100GB of free Google Drive storage for the first two years.
Chromebooks are now being manufactured by blue-chip brands like Dell and HP, as well as more affordable companies such as Acer and Asus. Google’s latest generation Pixelbook represents the premium end of the market, albeit at prices more familiar to Apple Store regulars. Other than a discreet Chrome badge on the chassis, there’s nothing to indicate Chromebooks lack many of the features commonly associated with laptops.
The need for speed
Chromebook performance is oriented heavily towards online activities, which is unsurprising for a product developed by the world’s largest search engine. Google has stripped out most of the ancillary functionalities associated with desktops, replacing the classic desktop interface with a lightly modified version of the Chrome web browser. Programs and applications open in new tabs rather than windows, which means there’s no compatibility with iconic software like Photoshop or iTunes. At least Android apps are now available, since Android and Chrome OS are both descended from Linux.
This streamlined functionality has had a dramatic effect on Chromebook performance. Boot-up times are hugely impressive compared to conventional laptops, with some Chromebooks able to get online within one second of awaking from hibernation. Updates occur far faster than with Windows or OS X, and there won’t be any evolutionary leaps like the ones periodically endured by Microsoft customers. Then again, current Chromebooks are unlikely to be in use a decade from now, in the way many late-Noughties Linux and Windows-powered desktop computers still work today. It’s better to think of a Chromebook as a cut-price MacBook – a sealed unit with impressive performance but a degree of in-built obsolescence.
You’ll want a Chromebook if:
- Your life revolves around the internet. As their name suggests, Chromebooks are glorified web browsers – ideal for Skyping and surfing. Using the world’s most popular browser platform means most sites will display quickly and reliably.
- You find computers intimidating. There are no command prompts to worry about, and no lengthy system updates. A Chromebook is instinctive to use, and its single desktop screen is populated with intuitive icons and a huge Google search box.
- You’re on a budget. Apple laptops incur huge premiums, while Windows laptops need expensive Microsoft operating systems. Chromebooks can be bought for less than £200, since Google has no upmarket pretensions or costly software licences.
- You’re security conscious. Chrome OS automatically updates with the latest virus and malware protection. Because programs and drivers can’t be installed, and commonly targeted software like Outlook isn’t present, Chromebooks rarely suffer from viruses.
- Speed is of the essence. Chromebook performance is typically excellent; a laptop that gets you online almost instantly is a perfect fit with the “I must look that up” nature of today’s world. Chrome OS and SSD storage ensure even basic machines are rapid.
You won’t want one if:
- You run a business. The absence of Adobe and Microsoft products is hugely significant for corporate audiences. Most companies would baulk at not being able to use Outlook, Photoshop, Excel or other staples of the modern workplace.
- You regularly spend time offline. Even though Google office apps can now be used offline, Chromebooks are largely ineffectual without an internet connection. The device also relies heavily on dependable access to Google Drive cloud storage.
- You rely on third-party software. Chrome OS is a closed shop, so installing third-party program or drivers isn’t possible on a Chromebook. This is not a tool for programmers or developers to buy – it’s for media consumption, not creation.
- You need peripherals. Chromebooks are incompatible with printers and label writers, CD burners and DVD players. At least standalone devices like digital cameras can be connected, and Google Cloud Print is compatible with some new wireless printers.
- You’re a gamer. The Android app store will be the limit of gaming capabilities. Most PC games require Windows or Linux to run, plus Chromebooks don’t allow software installation. Hardware specs wouldn’t support intensive graphics processing, either.
While Chromebooks aren’t for everyone, they absolutely serve their purpose as a light-weight, on-the-go option.