Just a few years ago, choosing the operating system on a laptop seemed to be a no-brainer. There was the Mac OS X, and then there was Windows for everything else. Linux would appear every now and then on cheaper laptops, but they barely registered on the radar.
Fast forward to 2014, and we have laptops running Android, and some running Google’s Chrome OS, known as “Chromebooks”. They first went on sale three years ago, but today they have already a 4.5% market share. Analysts are even predicting that their market share will triple within the next three years.
So… what exactly is a Chromebook?
By now, you’ve probably guessed that Chromebooks are laptops running the Chrome OS. You may ask: apart from the OS, how are they different from conventional laptops?
The answer is a little complicated. There are actually two types of Chromebooks: the first runs an ARM-based processor, which are basically those used in the majority of smartphones and tablets. The second type runs an Intel-based processor, making them very similar to their Windows counterparts. In fact, many Intel-based Chromebooks are simply rebadged from Windows. Unfortunately, Google has locked down the BIOS such that you cannot install Windows on them. Performance-wise, Intel-based Chromebooks are faster, though their ARM-based counterparts are catching up and may even outperform it in terms of battery life and graphics performance.
Another distinguishing characteristic of a Chromebook is its low storage space. Naturally, Google wants you to use their cloud services, thus explaining this peculiarity. Chromebooks typically come with only 16GB or 32GB of storage space, with an additional 100GB of Google Drive storage. This means that to use your Chromebook to the fullest, you should have an internet connection whereever you use it.
What can I do with a Chromebook?
To answer this question, we need to look at the paradigm of the underlying Chrome OS. Chrome OS basically revolves around its namesake browsers. “Applications” are simply HTML 5 webpages that look and feel like normal applications, without an address bar and such. Thankfully, the versatility of HTML 5 means you won’t be missing out on much. The Chrome Web Store today has a plethora of apps, and they even run in the Chrome browser on Windows, so you could plausibly try using just the Chrome browser for one day with the apps to see if it’s good enough for you. Additionally, Google has started porting certain Android apps to run natively on Chrome OS, and eventually we may see convergence of these two OSes.
Since Chrome OS is designed around a browser, you would expect most interactions to be done online. Fortunately, certain applications, such as Google Docs, can be run offline, so you aren’t really a slave to your internet connection. A popular misconception is that Chrome OS is designed just for web browsing. The truth is that you can run productivity apps like Google Docs and Evernote, play games, unzip files and even run developer tools on the device. You can even run the online version of Microsoft Office, though it’s feature-limited and only available online.
To sum up, what you can do with an Android or iOS tablet, it’s likely you can also do with Chrome OS. The main issue that most people have is that their concept of a laptop is that of a main PC that can do everything. The Chromebook will not do everything, but it can do plenty, and be rather adept at it.
What makes them so popular?
Surely, with the limitations they entail, there must be reasons explaining their popularity.
Price is obviously the top of the list. Compared to most Windows laptops, Chromebooks are priced much lower. Remember those netbooks of yore? Chromebooks have supplanted them. Starting from $199, they are cheap enough to be an impulse buy for some, and good enough to be a decent present for birthdays and holidays.
Value comes a close second. Linux notebooks never did take off in part because it was just so difficult getting the things you wanted onto the system. Chromebooks have the advantage of a burgeoning ecosystem, and one that will potentially grow even larger with the inclusion of Android apps. Backed by Google, you know that it won’t just disappear into oblivion overnight. Chromebooks seem to be thoughtfully designed as well, making them really portable devices you can chuck into your backpacks. There’s a saying that goes “the best camera is the one that’s with you”. Similarly, you’ll probably not lug around a full-sized laptop unless absolutely necessary, but with a Chromebook, you may not even think twice about it! Thus, while price makes one consider a Chromebook, it is value that seals the deal.
The million-dollar (or $199) question: Should I get one?
The first question you need to ask yourself: I already have a smartphone, and probably a tablet, do I still need another device that does essentially the same thing, just with the comfort of a bigger display and better keyboard? If what you do on the Internet is mainly reading websites and perhaps post the occasional tweet, there really isn’t much reason to get one. On the other hand, if you’re a blogger, or if you have the need to type long articles often, then a Chromebook would be really convenient. I think that students and journalists are two categories of people that would benefit from a Chromebook, especially if they don’t already have an ultraportable laptop.
A Chromebook is probably also a worthwhile investment if you’re looking to buy one for your kid. It’s cheap, so you won’t have to worry much about it being damaged, and it’s probably enough for a typical kid’s needs. He or she can surf the Internet, use Facebook, edit documents and slides, and play casual games.
The above is said, however, without reference to other alternatives. The Chromebook faces pressure on several fronts. The first is the tablet, for you could easily plug in a Bluetooth keyboard and/or mouse. The next are Android-based laptops, though I do not think they are suitable as yet since the interface is designed for touchscreens. Lastly, Microsoft has recently made Windows free for manufacturers if certain conditions are met. Thus, soon you’ll be seeing Windows-based laptops at the current price range Chromebooks sit at. It remains to be seen how Google and its partners will react to this threat: will they make Chromebooks cheaper or will they make the OS even more compelling to withstand the onslaught from Windows-based laptops? It may be wise to wait till then, since as of now, Windows-based laptops are indisputably more flexible than their Chrome OS counterparts.