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Chrome OS keeps improving, but it still doesn’t work for me

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Chrome OS, one of the newest and most talked-about operating systems around, has been making steady progress over the past several months. Android app support, enhanced tablet functionality, and more improvements are making the secure, easy to use, and easy to maintain OS an increasingly attractive option. That’s true even for someone like myself, who’s been a dedicated Windows users since version 1.0 hit the streets.

But its advantages come at a price: Chrome OS remains significantly limited compared to Windows 10 in some important ways. Do those limitations matter to you? That’s the question, and let’s take a look at a few of these limitations to see if they apply to you.

It’s fine for writers

Consider my role as a technology writer. My core task is to put words down on paper, literally or figuratively.  For the most part, the simple act of writing and editing requires very little in the way of computing power, advanced applications, or much complexity of any kind.

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If someone asks me if I could do my job as a writer using Chrome OS, my answer would be an unequivocally, “Yes.” 

I use OneNote for creating many of my own drafts, and then I mostly copy and paste into WordPress when it’s time to publish. This step requires nothing more than a browser, and just about any browser will do. And my limited photo editing can be done in a browser, using any one of the free, online photo editing tools out there.

Even Chrome OS’s reputation as an online-only solution no longer holds much water. Thanks to a local file manager, Chrome OS apps that can work offline, and the contribution of Android apps, the main limitation to using Chrome OS when you can’t access the internet is how little local storage many Chromebooks equip. But that’s changing as well, and in many cases you can overcome that limitation with the use of external storage.

Therefore, if someone asks me if I could do my job as a writer using Chrome OS, my answer would be an unequivocally, “Yes.” But there are plenty of roles, even in my own life, where things are very different.

Most people aren’t just writers

I was a sales and marketing professional just a few short years ago — and spent half a decade as a sales engineer. In each of these roles, my professional computing requirements were very different than they are today. I needed to access all sorts of enterprise systems, to plug in all kinds of peripherals, and to run a number of desktop applications.

Chrome OS
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But again, the world has changed since then. Many enterprise systems are available to Chrome OS users today through increasingly capable web apps, and many of the peripherals I used back then — such as scanners — aren’t as important as they once were.

That’s not to say the Chrome OS’s peripheral support is equal to Windows 10 — you’re not likely to find the same software support for all of the features of that new wireless mouse, for example, nor will you be able to seamlessly connect the hardware necessary for eye control of the user interface. There’s just not the same breadth and depth of hardware support for Chrome OS and likely won’t be for some time.

At the same time, desktop applications also remain a problem, and if you rely on one or a couple of them, you’ll want to be careful making the switch to Chrome OS.

Thousands of robust desktop applications are stripped-down in the Chrome OS versions. 

For me, the clearest examples are the various Microsoft Office apps, particularly Excel. While Microsoft makes versions of its popular productivity suite available to Chrome OS, via both the web and Android apps, these versions are severely limited. In fact, they could more accurately be called Office “Lite.”

For example, I regularly used the desktop Excel application’s PivotTable function, which let me slice and dice data in complex ways. And then there were the various powerful tools for getting data into and out of the application. The mobile and web versions of Excel don’t have these capabilities, not to mention the various advanced formatting, charting, and printing options. Any serious sales or marketing professional would be poorly served by these cheap imitations. Note that you can find some of these features in Chrome OS alternatives — Google Sheets, for example, does support pivot table functionality — but if you’re an Office devotee or your organization relies on the complete Office feature set, then you’re out of luck.

The same is true for the other web and mobile Office apps, to one extent or another. The same could be said about Adobe’s applications, as well as the many thousands of robust desktop applications that simply don’t exist for Chrome OS.  If you can find good enough alternatives, then you’re all set — but as of right now, I couldn’t do so myself.

The problem of Google’s ecosystem

Let’s face it: If you use Google’s properties exclusively, then a Chromebook is much more likely to work for you. In fact, that really the only way to get the most out of a Chrome OS device.

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For example, the Google Keep notetaking app likely works better on Chrome OS than Evernote or Microsoft’s OneNote. Google Docs works better on Chrome OS than does Microsoft Office. Gmail is a better Chrome OS email client than any other option. And of course, there’s the Chrome browser itself. You can run Firefox, Edge, Opera, and other browsers as Android apps, but the experience isn’t the same.

You get the theme here, right? All of Google’s properties are integrated directly into Chrome OS — or perhaps it’s more precise to say that Chrome OS is literally built around Google’s various tools. Everything is backed up, synced, and readily accessible on Chrome OS, as long as it’s made and supported by Google itself.

That’s fantastic if that’s how you already operate. However, that’s not me.

On a Chromebook, I’m primarily stuck with what Google offers, regardless of how I feel about any individual app or service.

I rely heavily on Microsoft Office products, as well as Firefox for my browsing experience. In Windows (or even MacOS), I’m more free to move between platforms, try out new apps, and adjust my workflow accordingly. On a Chromebook, I’m primarily stuck with what Google offers, regardless of how I feel about any individual app or service.

While Chrome OS is simple and relatively easy to use, I’m the kind of computer user that would have have plethora of features and customization options (even if I don’t use them all), then be in a spot where I needed something and didn’t have access to it. It’s really that simple, and while there are some complex and fidgety options to consider, such as streaming and virtual machines, none of them quite do the trick.

So, while Chromebooks might be a good option for a certain demographic out there, it’s just not me. At least — not yet.

Mark Coppock
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