Chromebooks can be laptop replacements and it’s time to address common misconceptions holding the OS back.
Chrome OS has steadily driven itself into the public sphere, with new features and improving hardware but that hasn’t necessarily gone a long way to change the public perception of Chromebooks or other gadgets. Long-standing views of the OS are still held over from Chrome’s early days too. The presumption is that it acts as little more than a somewhat expensive way to access a browser.
Those misconceptions aren't completely wrong or entirely correct but have been able to cling on in the minds of many resulting in the widespread opinion that Chrome OS devices cannot be viewed as true computer hardware. Many presume that like Android tablets, the benefits of Chromebooks are comparable to an iPad and that because of failures on behalf of developers who haven't optimized their apps properly, the operating system is failing there too.
Put simply, neither of those statements gets to the underlying point of the OS and both fail to recognize what Chromebooks are. In developing Chrome OS, Google has given the world a third option outside of macOS or Windows that can accomplish all of the tasks required to qualify as a laptop or fully-featured tablet. Its shortcomings are primarily of its own design as well.
Having long-since overcome limitations that -- at least in the past -- would have made most criticisms still persisting both fair and reasonable, Chromebooks today represent a viable platform. Many of those complaints remain and some of them are still valid points to be taken seriously.
With that said, the degree to which those remnants can continue to be claimed as fair and reasonable is no longer quite so clear. In worse cases, the claims have become factually incorrect.
What are the misconceptions and where are they coming from?
First and foremost, it’s important to point out that at least a few of the common misconceptions about Chrome OS and Chromebooks are not necessarily leaning in the ‘negative’ direction. For example, one of the most commonly spread positive aspects of the gadgets -- that Chrome OS isn’t susceptible to malware -- is entirely false at a number of levels.
The above-mentioned misconception stems primarily from the fact that Chrome OS is cloud-based with nothing to ‘install’ and that it attains regular security updates. Other preconceived notions are generally born from the assumption that because Chrome OS is heavily geared toward the cloud, Chromebooks are incapable of intensive tasks ranging from deeper productivity to gaming.
Along those same lines, many assess that because of those types of perspectives Chrome OS and Chromebooks aren’t truly laptops or alternatives to Windows, Linux, and macOS at all.
Bolstering that position, accomplishing some tasks on Chrome OS either requires a workaround via Linux. Or that users submit to more specialized tools in the form of either Android or web apps. It does require some adjustment and often a shift away from the tools, features, or apps found on what could collectively be dubbed ‘traditional’ operating systems. That tends to be compounded even more, the closer to the "professional" end of the spectrum the desired capability gets.
Similar scenarios exist across the ecosystem and all of the various functions users have come to expect from a computer. That’s coupled with the fact that, for a very long time, Chrome OS was essentially just a way to browse the Internet via Chrome but is no longer the case, following considerable changes over the past couple of years.
Setting aside that most laptop owners are accessing their laptops for light application use and to get online -- with the majority doing so through Chrome. That could, in its own right, place the device as a 'true' laptop and OS with no further discussion needed. But what exactly a "true" laptop or computer is, depends entirely on individual users.
The truth is that Chromebook can and will get the job done in suiting the needs of the overwhelming majority of users and that's only improving alongside Google's continued push to make PWAs function like native software. The idea that a Chrome OS device cannot replace a computer for most users can be summarily tossed aside.
Malware and threats are not prevalent but not impossible
The biggest misconception about Chrome that needs to be addressed is one that doesn’t directly harm sales or the perception of the OS but which does leave potential users vulnerable. Namely, Chrome OS is not malware-proof and doesn’t automatically make its users safe from bad actors.
Browser tabs are run in isolation and Linux apps via Crostini are fairly well contained apart from the underlying system but that doesn’t necessarily negate risks entirely. Aside from the fact that malicious Android apps can still wreak havoc if users aren’t diligent about their downloads, there have been several patches released over the past several months that really highlight that fact too.
Among those patches is a recent fix that addressed a problem with opening files in Chrome that could bypass certain protections in terms of both elevated permissions and the execution of malicious code. Without even downloading anything, the vulnerability left users open to a vast array of problems that can stem from the exploitation of the weakness. Worse still, Google discovered it was already in use and was forced to push a fix forward more quickly than initially planned.
Privacy represents the other side of that coin, bad extensions, website, and other concerns are consistently and constantly being addressed by Google. It has even begun reworking the way sign-ins and syncing work as well as giving users more transparent granular control over their data. But users need to explore the settings and their deeper account records -- via a click on their profile image on Google.com -- if they want to take advantage of those. It is not automatic or secured as well as some might like by default.
Similar vulnerability fixes are found in effectively every Chrome OS update, though not usually to the same extent, highlighting the inherent dangers of the web itself as well as the fact that Chrome OS is not completely secure at all times. No system truly is.
While Chrome does have a much cleaner track record and will be more secure for users who are paying attention to security at almost any level, users do still need to pay attention. It isn’t risk-free. To claim that it is -- and although owners and developers of any OS will tout areas where they are more secure -- causes damage in terms of lulling others into a false sense of security.
This works for both work and play?
Google's work to ensure that documents, PDFs, and other office-type files can be accessed and edited online has been widely reported and is among the few things that most realize Chrome OS is capable of already. That solves one of the biggest roadblocks for many who could potentially migrate to Chrome OS.
The search giant has gone to great lengths to ensure that users not only realize how the basics of the OS work in that context but offline as well. That includes tips and guides showcased in a simulation-style walk-through posted to the Chromebook support page along with other helpful items. Although not a complete guide, that does provide the groundwork to introduce and prepare users for the differences between Chrome OS and other operating systems.
Entertainment follows a similar vein. Reading books, watching movies, listening to music. Setting aside gaming, for now, there’s no question Chrome OS is a great option even at the budget end of the spectrum in the modern age of cord cutting. The key drawback is that disc-based media such as DVDs and Blu-Rays are effectively out of the question but users have their pick from both web- and app-based services.
Regardless of the caveats, those are areas where Chrome OS shines in the fact that the OS itself gets out of the way and allows work and play to commence.
...but maybe not so much for printing
One key Chrome OS productivity problem remaining, at this point, aside from Google’s ongoing efforts to tie everything together more neatly behind a true file management tool, is printing. The number of printers that are compatible with the OS continues to grow and Google has come a long way in terms of ensuring that printing is possible. But for many, particularly on older printing hardware, the system simply isn’t there yet.
In those cases, a second computer is required -- connected to the printer, internet, a user account, and turned on -- to perform the task remotely. Depending on the printer, performing a print job from an SD card or flash drive is possible but a hassle. Some printers also have Android app counterparts that allow for remote printing without the requirement for another computer.
While there are ways around the problem, those aren’t clean to execute either and it can be a hassle. The reality of that situation, however, is that the same is true whenever any user switches operating systems between any other computer on the market. Printers can be fickle and no OS is going to support every printer out of the box in every circumstance.
What about programmers?
For those who want to utilize the various available IDE or associated tools to program apps and software on Chrome OS, options will mostly be limited to web apps or Chrome extensions such as Caret. Those will be limited experiences, to say the least, centered mostly around HTML5 and similar languages.
Those tools can be used for the most basic programming needs but the power of a Chromebook or other Chrome OS gadget for the purpose of creating code really starts to become apparent using Crouton and Crostini. For the average computer user, the steps to get started in that regard may represent a barrier. For developers with any knowledge above the basics, getting started using Linux in Chrome OS for programming should be a fairly straightforward affair.
Google's recent moves opening up local files more readily for Linux apps takes matters further still, ensuring that the experience is much closer to that of programming on a more 'traditional' OS.
Improvements on that front are, of course, not entirely altruistic. That's highlighted by a more prominent example of how far efforts have come and the fact that Android Studio can now be used in Linux on Chrome OS, having even been given its own page on the developer website for the IDE.
A case for gamers
Gaming, to the contrary, is an area where Chrome OS doesn't and may never truly live up to the capabilities of other operating systems. On the one hand, that's not necessarily a deal-breaker in terms of the question of whether Chrome OS is a true computer operating system or not. Mac and Linux, while capable of running games, aren't really at the forefront in the market either. In short, Windows is really the only way to go for top-level triple-A games.
Stadia, if Google is correct about the future of gaming, could change that for many gamers. For those who haven't kept up on the search giant's efforts in that space, Stadia is a streaming game service that is essentially a pooling of the best aspects of services already on the market but without the majority of pitfalls. It's not ideal and still isn't immediately clear what the extent of the available game library will be, setting aside that some will always decry any service where actual 'ownership' of the content is questionable.
Games on Stadia, once it launches, will run at 4K at 60 frames-per-second. A minimum of 15Mbps is required and that likely won't result in the highest framerates or resolution but a 25Mbps to 30Mbps should. Latency should be reduced as well thanks to Google's decision to use a dedicated backbone to the servers underlying the service. That should make gaming possible either at home, on a hotspot, or at other locations, depending on network conditions.
Users will be able to a dedicated Stadia controller or one from any console to play the titles on any system running Chrome, from Chromecast to Chromebooks. A subscription will be required. For developers, a minimum of one single GPU at 10.7 teraflops will be available but multiple instances can be used simultaneously.
If done properly, and it's still up in the air whether that will be the case, Stadia could ultimately be the answer to gaming needs on Chrome OS -- for those who find the service acceptable. For everybody else, gaming is going to be a major area where Chromebooks and other devices really just fail to live up to some users' requirements.
Music, photo, and video editing are possible but not intuitive
Editing media -- specifically photos, video, sketching or drawing, and music -- falls into a similar vein as pretty much anything else on Chrome OS in terms of capability and functionality but there is at least one important difference. Chiefly because of how applications on Android have progressed -- unless users are turning to cloud-based experiences using GIMP or some of Adobe’s software -- the tools tend to be very specialized.
For end users, that means learning to utilize multiple applications or web apps, stretching certain tasks across the various tools to accomplish things. The most obvious example of this comes with photo editing, although other artistic tasks will require different tools. For instance, a user might utilize Google’s own web-based Squoosh app for resizing and compressing, while using Android’s photoshop tool to make color and cropping changes. Fine-tuning for color saturation and similar adjustments might require another one of Adobe’s apps.
At first glance, that sounds like a real hassle but whether or not that’s true comes down to how a workflow is divided. Chrome OS is capable of accomplishing those things and it can be just as straightforward, fast, and easy as on any other platform once a process for work is developed.
Better still, things won’t always remain quite so split since Google is pushing forward with changes that will make editing, publishing, and formatting much easier in the future. The chief difference between Chrome OS and something like Windows or Mac is that Google wants that to be heavily reliant on the cloud and downloadable PWA experiences.
The good news is that the search giant is actively listening to the developer community behind those tools in order to make that transition smoother in the future.
A word on the value aspect
With PWAs, Linux and Android apps, and everything else on offer here, the value question is really the only one that remains.
No. The average user does not need to rush out and buy a $1,600 Google Pixelbook. Arguably, almost nobody needs that kind of power. Once the quirks of Chrome OS are navigated around or through and the system is set up to accomplish whatever needs to be done on it, that's really just overkill.
The OS itself just kind of moves out of the way and an Intel Core m3 or similar processor is going to be more than enough.
What does that say about spending money on a Chromebook, particularly in the upper reaches of what's available? It says that buyers should utilize common sense and buy what they need. If some of the more intricate tasks discussed here are on the docket, such as programming or genuinely professional-level media editing, a $700 to $1000+ Chrome OS gadget does make some sense.
Otherwise, a $700 device is really at the upper end of what's reasonable.
Breaking that down further, for basic web browsing, document editing, photo editing -- including cropping or resizing, and entertainment purposes, a sub-$400 Chromebook is going to be more than enough for the average user. That's going to be the right down to the sub-$300 range. For deeper work, Chromebooks falling into the $400 to $600 range will suffice and that’s where the best gadgets typically fall.
The value at any price bracket, thanks to the wide assortment of available devices, is limitless. There are devices for those who need a great display, slightly better processing and resource management, or more storage and RAM -- or any combination of those. Chromebooks exist that support pressure-sensitive styli, touchscreens or keyboard only configurations, detachable devices, tablets, clamshells, or two-in-ones.
Users can afford to be picky and select a device that suits their own personal needs. There are plenty of circumstances where paying more than $1,000 is reasonable but that's not going to be great for everybody.
What does all of that really mean?
When it comes down to it, Chrome OS is feasibly as great a tool as any other that’s available in most respects but each OS has its strengths and weaknesses. Buying into Chrome typically means spending less money, gaining an advantage in security with due diligence, and losing the baggage that has often been associated with competitors.
Users won’t need to worry about enormous, infrequent, or slow-to-install updates, for starters, or about losing their work if they ever do need to completely reset their machine. The overwhelming majority of tasks that need to be accomplished by just about any user are achievable too, just as with Windows, Mac, or Linux.
The key difference here isn’t even truly a difference because taking the time to learn how to accomplish things on a new OS is a requirement regardless of which OS is being switched to. In reality, Chrome OS simply lacks the download, install, and use process its competitors are reliant on and utilizes local resources less.
Simply put, there just happen to be more differences between Chrome OS and is competitors than between any two competitors. That can make learning how to do all of the things you’ve done on other computers more daunting but it doesn’t take away from just how powerful and useful Chrome OS is or can be. Chrome OS won't suit everybody but it can suit just about any use, bringing much-needed competition and innovation to the computer market.