Chromebooks feature a significant number of differences as compared to other operating systems on the market. Among the most prominent differences, at least in terms of how they are marketed, is that they’re intended to be straightforward, easy-to-use devices that require little-to-no maintenance and don't have the problems faced by users on other platforms.
That’s not entirely true, although problems are somewhat less likely to occur in Google's cloud-based operating system.
Any operating system will slow down over time and with enough use. Chrome OS, regardless of the variety of hardware platform it’s accessed through, is no different. Because Chrome is a cloud platform and built around a highly-controlled ecosystem, that doesn’t necessarily need to remain the case either and the problem is easy to fix thanks to a process Google calls “Powerwash.”
To “Powerwash” a Chromebook effectively means to completely reset it, just as an Android device or smartphone might be factory reset. That’s something other OS’s can do too but it’s typically much safer, faster, and easier to accomplish on a Chrome OS gadget.
Why is this important?
The most common reason to Powerwash is as straightforward as the fact that it acts as a way to regain some performance that's lost as free storage is depleted. That’s because Chromebooks are typically less likely to have firmware glitches, bugs, or malware that would require a complete reboot of the operating system for other reasons.
Conversely, a Powerwash might be used just prior to selling the gadget to buy something newer or before sending the gadget in to have warranty work done, if that’s ever needed, to protect private or sensitive information.
Because it's so quick and generally painless as long as backups are saved and re-downloaded again, it can serve as a fast and easy method to reset all users on a device that's become overloaded with secondary users too. There are other ways to do that, but a Powerwash will accomplish the same.
For users who are working in the development environment or using experimental Chrome OS firmware branches to access or test up-and-coming features, it serves yet another purpose. Powerwashing is a process that takes place as part of a move from any of the beta Chrome OS firmware branches back to the Stable Channel, clearing out any unstable code.
Since speed and security are the key selling points of Chrome OS and a Powerwash is the quickest way to restore either of those attributes if they're compromised, as is highlighted by the latter of the above reasons for resetting.
Now, problems leading to compromises in performance are much less likely to happen in Chrome OS due to how difficult it can be for a malicious entity to bypass isolation of software that can be downloaded and installed.
Setting aside Android apps, the vast majority of software or experiences that will be installed or used on a Chromebook are going to be web-based.
So the biggest threat on Chromebooks or other Chrome OS gadgets is going to be web-based too, at least for now. Google has steadily ramped up efforts to keep everything isolated and safe but has, in equal measure, focused on improving usability.
That won’t necessarily remain the case indefinitely though since Android apps are no longer the only downloadable or executable software on a Chromebook.
Even though Linux apps and Android apps are essentially isolated while actually executing on existing vulnerabilities discovered so far is difficult, those present not apps aren't just potential threats to security. They represent areas where Chrome OS can build up unneeded data that isn’t clearing properly -- as can be the case with any operating system -- and isn't easy to get rid of.
Other problem areas possible in Chrome OS beyond risks and vulnerabilities can include software glitches, maladjusted experimental flag settings, or something as simple as a Chromebooks comparatively small amount of storage filling up.
The former of those most often needs to be addressed in the hidden flags settings via a reset of those settings to default but that's not always the case. The latter of those will undoubtedly cause headaches left unchecked. Unless everything that's stored locally has been stored in the "Downloads" directory mentioned above -- which cleans out automatically when storage runs low -- data will eventually build up
Identifying which of the above-mentioned problems is causing slowdowns is not always an easy task and may not be possible for every user where the issue isn't obvious. That's what makes the Powerwash so powerful and such an important tool. It can't and won't fix absolutely every problem that's likely to eventually arise but it will fix the overwhelming majority of them that any given user is likely to see over the course of any one device’s lifecycle.
That makes it an essential part of the Chrome OS ecosystem, regardless of whether or not a user wants to perform one to fix some underlying problem or just to recapture that 'like-new' feel.
What differentiates a Powerwash from a standard OS reset?
The biggest difference between a Powerwash in Chrome OS and a reset on any other operating system is how straightforward a Powerwash is. Rather than users needing to worry about what files will be saved through the reset or navigating through a slew of different options for resetting, there’s really only one series of steps to follow and everything stored locally is removed.
That means that although it’s still vitally important that users backup any files stored under the “My files” directory of the “Files” application, the process of resetting itself is simplified.
Things saved in Chrome OS are exceptionally easy to back up as well, thanks to Google Drive integration and the way the Files app is laid out.
The ‘home’ view in Files showcases a layout similar to file managers on Windows or other operating systems but that’s simplified too. Recent files as well as Audio, Images, or Video files are sorted into categories in the top section followed by any directory locations -- online or off -- that have been pinned as shortcuts.
Underneath those, the “My files” directory shows any custom-created folders with files, a Downloads folder, and Google Play files -- also categorized by app and type. Google Drive is shown just below in its own separate section, as are any other cloud storage services.
Everything is laid out in effectively a single page. That means backing up is a simple matter of either copying or cutting files and pasting them into cloud storage. Conversely, users can click-and-drag files to back them up instead.
A progress bar will appear at the bottom of the directory and once that disappears, users can check whether their files are safe by navigating to the appropriate cloud storage service -- in this case, that's Google Drive -- online or from another device that has the app installed.
From there, the Powerwash button is easily found via a search in settings and a few subsequent steps will completely reset the firmware device to a like-new state, with backed up files safely stored and tucked away on a server.
The process, while not perfect, is in stark contrast to the plethora of steps and searching that can be required to completely reset a device in Windows or macOS. Because the system is so lightweight, it has the added benefit of being blisteringly fast to accomplish by comparison.
Typically, aside from the steps to get the process started, Powerwashing a Chromebook takes only a few moments. In some cases, the segment where the OS itself is being reset can take only a matter of seconds rather than minutes or hours as is often the case with a reinstall or factory reset with other operating systems.
Without getting overly technical, differences between a Chrome OS reset actually run somewhat deeper than that, with the walled-garden ecosystem allowing for a refresh that is often more comprehensive and thorough. The system is restored to a near carbon-copy how it was when it first left the factory from a restore file that's basically sandboxed by default.
That is not exactly how things work in other operating systems, which often require users to decide between system-level backups or just re-install firmware to start completely over from scratch. With some older systems, that requires a disc to be inserted while others require a download. Licensing keys need to be remembered or pulled up from where they've been written down or typed out for safe keeping.
Now, that's not always the case but as often as not it is. That's setting aside the notoriously long time something like Windows takes to re-install or restore.
Chrome OS doesn't require that. It really is as simple as just clicking through a few steps and signing back in. All of that takes mere minutes to accomplish instead of hours, just like the factory reset of a smartphone. In most cases, users will also be able to restore applications they had installed and other data that was stored in their Google account online prior to the undertaking once the Powerwash is complete.