What’s a Chromebook, anyway?

Toshiba Chromebook 2
Not long ago, we would utter the word “Chromebook” in the presence of a not-so-tech-savvy consumer and get looked at like we’re speaking in Klingon. Not any more. Chromebooks dominated 2014, doubling their shipments and becoming nearly ubiquitous in schools and universities.

Chromebook is a different breed of computer. It runs on Google’s web-based Chrome OS, which is designed to be used with an Internet connection. Most of Chromebook’s documents and apps exist in the cloud. And Google automatically provides 100 GB of cloud storage for every Chromebook. This guide will rundown Chromebook basics and speculate if a Chromebook could be your next primary computer.

Chromebook 101

You can think of a Chromebook as an Internet-dependent laptop that starts up super fast (roughly 7 seconds, or a fraction of the time it takes to boot an older model Windows-based computer). When you turn on the Chromebook you’ll notice the only native app is the Google Chrome Internet browser. And that’s pretty much your key to all that is Chromebook. Everything else is composed of Web apps (email, photos, documents), or apps that run while you’re connected to a network. Google also throws in 100 GB of cloud storage for every Chromebook.

Acer C720P Chromebook
Acer C720P Chromebook

The obvious benefits of everything being saved on the Web is that you’ll have access to it from any computer. Plus, if your Chromebook ever bites the dust, you won’t have to worry about losing all your apps, documents, and settings.

Chromebook Offline

Most Chromebooks can connect to the Internet with both Wi-Fi and 3G, but there are times when you simply can’t find a Wi-Fi signal. Fortunately, there are workaround for plenty of routine tasks. You can still compose and read emails with Gmail Offline and wordprocess with Google Drive Offline. The offline apps will automatically sync and save when your computer has an Internet connection. Listed below are the tasks that Chrome OS can manage without Internet connection:

  • Check calendar for appointments
  • Write emails with Gmail Offline
  • Create and edit documents with Google Drive
  • Listen to music (you can store music on Chromebook’s internal hard drive)
  • Note taking with Google Keep
  • Save webpages for offline reading

Gaming, however, is not really Chromebook’s thing. Due to Chromebooks’ small storage and relatively weak specs, offline gameplay is usually limited to 2D games like Angry Birds.

The specs that matter

Chromebooks usually don’t stand out because of their hardware. Even so, it’s best to know your options.

RAM: Typically, Chromebooks have 2GB of RAM. But that’s beginning to change. Chromebooks are beginning to ship with 4GB optional. The Lenovo Yoga 11e has 4GB of RAM for $360.

Storage Size: All Chromebooks come with at least 16GB of storage. That’s plenty if you use Chromebook as Google intended. Some Chromebooks are available with a 32GB SSD, which will be handy for anyone looking have a little more offline capability.

Processor: Chromebooks mostly offer entry-level processors that can easily handle word processing, emails, and movies but lag in more sophisticated procedures like running 3D games and managing two tasks at once.

Screen Size & Resolution: Chromebooks are offered in several different screen sizes. The  kit common is 11.6-inch but there are also 13, 14, and 15-inch options. The current options don’t really impress in the screen department. We had a trouble viewing the Samsung Chromebook 2 from any angle that wasn’t direct. And most Chromebooks don’t offer HD resolution. That’s about to change, as the Acer Chromebook 15 (available sometime in 2015) will have a full-HD screen.

Battery Life: Chromebooks have long battery life. It’s not uncommon to find a Chromebook that can last all day on one charge. However, the very best Windows notebooks can last longer.

Limitations

For all the workarounds, there are times when Chromebook will fail. For example, anyone who depends on Photoshop or any other downloadable software. The web-based equivalents, like Pixlr, aren’t really a viable alternative. Along the same lines, most Chromebooks have a disappointing screen resolution. And that may not be a huge factor when checking emails and using drive, but you’ll notice when you try to stream Netflix.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 screen
Toshiba Chromebook 2

Printing and Bluetooth pairing is also a headache on Chromebooks. Google’s native Cloud Print isn’t really up to par and Bluetooth pairing is inconsistent. Especially disappointing when you find that the lion’s share of Chromebooks have major tracking pads woes.

The best budget laptops

Maybe you noticed that Chrome dominated the budget laptop scene in 2014. Sure, several similarly priced Windows laptops that are equally stellar for the buck, but Chromebooks are the best way to utilize productivity suites online for under $350. Google’s Acer 720p includes a touchscreen and quick processor, and an all-day battery life for $280, which, in spite of any offline deficiencies, gives you plenty of utility for a low-budget option.

Chromebook as a primary computing device

So maybe we aren’t drooling over the the current batch of Chromebooks. For the most part, their specs are underwhelming and web-based OS is too much of an adjustment. But that’s about to change. Example One: the Acer 15 Chromebook that debuted in Vegas earlier this year. We’re about to see Chromebooks with full-HD options, all day battery life, and Google’s fleet of useful apps.

Acer Chromebook 15
Acer Chromebook 15

It’s now reasonable to imagine that a Chromebook can be used as a primary computer. And if you don’t believe me, just look at the numbers. They’ve appeared on Amazon’s best seller list since 2013 and Gartner predicts that Chromebooks will be shipping at a rate of 15 million in 2017. They might not be a powerhouse, or eye-catching, but they’ll tackle basic Internet tasks like the best of them.

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