11 years. 11 short years since the Chromebook was first released to the public. (ChromeOS was introduced in 2009 but the first consumer Chromebook actually launched in May of 2011.) In just over a decade, ChromeOS has evolved into a massive ecosystem the like so of which, not even Sundar himself could have predicted. You may have heard someone say “a Chromebook is nothing more than a browser” and once upon a time, that would have been fairly accurate. Problem is, that synopsis has stuck around entirely too long and has created a stigma around ChromeOS that prevents many from even giving a Chromebook a chance.
What is ChromeOS?
At its debut, ChromeOS was an operating system built off of the Ubuntu Linux distribution. Less than a year after its initial announcement, Google switched the core of ChromeOS to Gentoo Linux for its more-flexible “Portage” package management system. So, at its heart, ChromeOS was and still is a customized Linux-based operating system. Like Android, ChromeOS is built on the Linux kernel which is similar to but not the same as a full-blown Linux operating system. That said, the original Chrome laptops were built completely around the Chrome browser and that quickly created a direct dichotomy between ChromeOS and traditional operating systems like Windows or macOS. Initially, even Google likened Chromebooks to the once-popular “netbook” that was designed solely for use on the web.
The beauty of the early days of ChromeOS was the fact that the operating system itself was extremely lightweight and the Chrome-based system could boot in less than ten seconds from a cold state. The other advantage, which still rings true today, was the fact that your ChromeOS login was tied to your Google account and thanks to Chrome’s sync feature, your web apps, history, and user preferences followed you across devices. As you can see in the demonstration below, a user could log into a new device for the first time and in less than a minute, everything that was synced to Chrome was now available on the new device.
Speed, simplicity and security
Speed, simplicity and security are the key aspects of Google Chrome OS. We’re designing the OS to be fast and lightweight, to start up and get you onto the web in a few seconds. The user interface is minimal to stay out of your way, and most of the user experience takes place on the web. And as we did for the Google Chrome browser, we are going back to the basics and completely redesigning the underlying security architecture of the OS so that users don’t have to deal with viruses, malware and security updates. It should just work.Chrome Blog, 2009
Google launched Chromebooks with these three core principles that have become the mantra of the Chrome operating system. Earlier this year, Google added Stability as the fourth core principle of ChromeOS. This principle focuses on the sandboxing of processes to prevent a bug in one area from affecting the system as a whole. This, combined with updates every four weeks, the Trused Platfrom Module, and other security features make ChromeOS one of the most secure operating systems on the planet. This is why you may hear ChromeOS described as a “hardened” operating system. Traditionally speaking, Chromebooks are ultra-resistant against any form of malware, viruses, or other pestilences that often plague Windows or macOS.
Because of the lightweight, secure nature of ChromeOS, budget-friendly prices, and the ability for one user to easily move from one device to another, Chromebooks quickly rose in popularity among K-12 institutions. As a matter of fact, 2016 saw Chromebooks as the most popular platform in the K-12 education market. That trend has continued which is a great thing but it hasn’t helped to curtail the impression that Chromebooks are nothing but netbooks designed for school kids. Are they great for schools? Absolutely. The deep integration of Google Classroom and the cloud-based nature of ChromeOS makes it perfect for the modern classroom.
Are Chromebooks kids toys? With all due respect, those that knock Chromebooks for being “cheap” and incapable of most tasks are simply ignorant of how far ChromeOS has come or they’re married to their current OS and are content bashing something different at the expense of those who could greatly benefit from a Chromebook. Perhaps it’s because some people just don’t like Google or maybe it’s a simple case of being entrenched in the old way of doing things. I know a lot of people that still believe that you HAVE to download and install an application (.exe file) to have a product that’s actually capable of doing work. Whatever the reason, ChromeOS has gotten a bad rap but I’m here to clear the air. That said, there will always be naysayers. They won’t go away and the more popular a product or platform becomes, the more the resistance will come out of the woodwork. Let ’em come.
What CAN ChromeOS do?
I started using my first Chromebook way back in 2013. It was the HP Chromebook 14 with LTE and I took that thing everywhere I went. At that time, ChromeOS was still very much tethered to the Chrome browser. I was working in the auto industry as a Ford consultant but I was learning how to code and do web design. I very much wanted to live solely in the ChromeOS ecosystem and for the most part, I did. Chromebooks still had some compatibility issues with select technologies such as Microsoft’s Silverlight but I found workarounds and quickly abandoned Windows entirely. Anyway, I can honestly admit that it did take a bit of work back in the day to go all-in on the cloud-based computing lifestyle but the shift has paid an exponential dividend.
In 2016, we started writing about Chromebook and it was that very same year that Google announced that Android apps would be coming to ChromeOS. The road to the end of that journey was long but in the end, we now have Chromebooks that double as Android tablets. While a good portion of the general public may have no idea what ChromeOS can do, the average consumer is very familiar with Android phones and the fact that applications come from the Google Play Store. This added an entirely new dimension to ChromeOS that not only boosted consumer appeal but also gave app developers a very big reason to care about Chromebooks. Today, any Chromebook launched in the past few years will have the ability to run Android apps out of the box, and that bridges the gap for many users that are looking to access tools such as mobile games, video editing apps, social media applications and much, much more. With very few exceptions, what you can do on your phone you can also do on your Chromebook.
Arguably one of the biggest obstacles for ChromeOS, cloud printing was once a cumbersome undertaking that required users to find an elusive Google Cloud Print-capable printer or else, use a device that wasn’t a Chromebook. Forums are filled with countless tales of Chromebook users that can’t print and they want to know why or they simply want to verbalize their disgust with Google’s once-convoluted method of printing over Wi-Fi. Funny thing is, printing with a Chromebook has become exceedingly easy over the past few years and once Google axed the whole “Cloud Print” thing, printer manufacturers started making printers that actually work over the internet without the need for additional software installation. I’d wager if you went to your local Walmart right now, walked down to the section that has the wireless printers, and picked one with your eyes closed, it will almost certainly work with a Chromebook out of the box. The printer argument is all but dead but you don’t hear those that long bashed ChromeOS taking to the web to praise Google. Whatever. Moving on.
This is probably a hot button for a lot of PC users. I totally get it. If you’re a hardcore PC gamer, you probably haven’t given ChromeOS a second thought and that’s okay. The right tool for the right job. If I need a tractor to use on my farm, I’m not going to go purchase a new Toyota Camry. Do they both drive? Yes. Will they both pull a hay baler or a bush hog? Absolutely not. That said, the average consumer is at best a casual gamer. You may be passionate but like us here at the office, you play some mobile or PC games for entertainment and that’s it. We aren’t winning any eSports competitions any time soon.
You know what? Chromebooks are fully capable of providing a variety of platforms for gamers just like you and me. You can start with the Google Play Store. Many popular Android games are finally getting some full-screen love and developers are optimizing them for the larger screens and input methods found on Chromebooks. Turn-based games are especially fun when you play them on a laptop-sized device but there are countless games that work seamlessly on just about any ChromeOS device – premium and budget-friendly alike.
If mobile games don’t get your fire started, Google launched a little streaming platform by the name of Stadia and the streaming service offers a ton of awesome titles that include big-name AAA brands like Destiny 2, Far Cry 6, Borderlands 3, and the list goes on and on. These games all live on Google’s servers which means you don’t need high-end hardware to play them. All you need is a decent mid-range Chromebook and a solid internet connection. That’s it. No expensive consoles. No aging hardware that will be obsolete in a year or two. While Google’s direction with Stadia is still a bit confusing, the fact remains that the service is solid and it offers a premium gaming experience with very little investment.
In addition to Stadia, Nvidia’s GeForceNow and Amazon’s Luna streaming game services also work very well on ChromeOS. So well in fact that manufacturers are starting to advertise all three platforms in the marketing material for their Chromebooks. Unless you’re just hell-bent on playing on a PC or console, there’s really little to nothing stopping you from gaming online let alone on a Chromebook.
Last but by no means least, you have gamers like myself that have an extensive library of games that were purchased through Steam. I love my old Valve games like Half-Life, Portal, and TF2 but to play them on a Chromebook, I’ve always had to dual boot Linux and install Steam. Not exactly ideal nor something that the average consumer wants to do just to play some games. Now, you don’t have to. Select ChromeOS devices now support “Borealis” which is the code name for Steam on ChromeOS. Currently, in Beta, the on-device performance of the Steam container for ChromeOS is light years better than we could have hoped. When Steam for ChromeOS finally makes its way to the general public, it could be a game-changer for many Steam users. Pun intended.
I need Applications
Hey, I get it. For years, I have tinkered with ways to actually install applications other than Android apps on a Chromebook. I don’t really need them. I just wanted to do it so, that when people asked, I could help them overcome the obstacle that stood in their way. Much of my tinkering is a result of readers emailing me and asking me how to use a certain application on ChromeOS. Thankfully, Google added another layer to ChromeOS that added to the platform’s versatility and further bridged the gap for those dependent on legacy and non-web-based applications.
The Crostini Project brought a new containerized way to install traditional Linux applications on a Chromebook. The Linux container is sandboxed from ChromeOS and runs a Debian Linux framework. Users can install applications directly from the Linux terminal or download compatible Debian packages and install them with a double-click just like you would an executable on a Windows device. When the Linux applications run, they look no different than any other applications and you’d likely never know that they are running in a container alongside ChromeOS. This brings powerful tools such as Android Studio and VSCode directly to Chromebooks but there are thousands of practical and useful applications available for Debian Linux which means that your Chromebook just added another shop for applications.
I thought Chromebooks were “cheap”
This is yet another misconception about Chromebooks. Yes, you can find “cheap” Chromebooks at Best Buy that will run you less than $200, and no, you will not be happy with their performance, features, or build quality. However, you can also find Windows devices that fall in that very same category. Plastic, clunky, horrible screens, and just downright trashy. That’s not a ChromeOS thing. That’s a consumer goods thing. You get what you pay for. As a matter of fact, there are Chromebooks on the market now that will run you as much or more as a premium Windows PC.
Where Chromebooks shine is in that mid-range market. Most manufacturers launch a new flagship device each year that features a premium build, a good screen, and most of the latest features to be found on a laptop. These Chromebooks like the Acer Spin 713 or ASUS Flip CX5400 can be purchased for around $700. Unless you stumble upon a sale, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a Windows laptop that’s a touchscreen convertible in the $700-$800 price range that doesn’t feel cheap. Many Premium Chromebooks come with features like a backlit keyboard, aluminum body, USI stylus compatibility, and fingerprint sensors. All that for under $800 is a really good deal when you check out the competition.
By now, I hope that you’ve realized that Chromebooks are capable of doing nearly everything a traditional PC can do. If what you’re needing wasn’t covered in the content above, it’s worth researching to see if a web-based version of what you need is available. Perfect example. I used to do web design on a daily basis. There are tons of code editors out there for coding CSS and HTML but I needed something web-based. I was introduced to ShiftEdit and that was the end of my search. The online text editor has been packaged as a web app for years and when you “install” it and pin it to your Chromebook shelf, you’d never know that it’s really running in the browser. Even Microsoft proper is embracing the shift to the cloud. Office 365 online is quickly replacing standalone Office apps for many and tons of software makers are following suit.
So, what can’t you do with a Chromebook? Well, you certainly won’t be mining cryptocurrency but practically speaking, the only missing link is now video editing. The latest 11th and 12th Gen Intel Chromebooks have very powerful onboard GPUs thanks to Intel’s new Iris Xe graphics but they still pale in comparison to the dedicated GPUs that are needed to run heavy video editing software. That said, Iris Xe graphics are capable of handling pro-level editors like Davinci Resolve and others but that requires the installation of an application. This can be done via the Linux container and honestly, there are a number of Linux-based video editors out there that will actually work on a Chromebook. Unfortunately, they don’t work quite well enough to be a viable solution for those that edit videos for a living. For you, you’ll have to stick with a Mac, Windows, or Linux PC for the time being.
Now, that doesn’t mean that you can’t edit video on a Chromebook. There are quite a few online editing platforms out there that offer a robust editing experience with plenty of graphics options, effects, and stock audio/video options. Personally, I’ve used a number of them. Right now, I’m using FlexClip because I like their graphics packs but some other great options are WeVideo, Kapwind, InVideo, and Clipchamp (which Microsoft actually owns.) There are also some great video editors in the Google Play Store. KineMaster has been a longtime favorite and it’s packed full of pro-level features but it still works better on mobile than on a Chromebook. If you’re new to video editing or maybe you’re just looking to get your feet wet in the social media/influencer space, there are plenty of options that work on a Chromebook. There’s no need to invest thousands of dollars in a MacBook and Final Cut Pro just to make some good-looking videos about your charcuterie skills. You totally can. You just don’t have to.
Well, that’s my two cents and a bit more. All this to say, Chromebooks are so much more than “cheap laptops” for kids, and ChromeOS is growing more capable every day. Soon, we could have Chromebooks that have actual GPUs and that opens the door to an entirely new segment of users. If you’ve considered a Chromebook or even if it’s never crossed your mind, I challenge you to challenge yourself before you buy a new PC. Spend a week living entirely inside the Chrome browser on your current laptop. If you need an app, install it on your phone and use it there. If you get to the end of the week without hitting a log jam, a Chromebook will almost certainly be a good device for you.
In addition to making the inevitable shift to life in the cloud, you’ll be adopting an extremely secure operating system and hardware that’s guaranteed to get monthly updates for as many as 8-9 years. The beautiful thing is that ChromeOS generally gets faster as time goes on. That means that your 2-3-year-old Chromebook won’t start to get bogged down like some other operating systems. ChromeOS. Three operating systems in one, clean platform. What else could you ask for? If you’re still not convinced, feel free to shoot me an email and let me know what your objection or hurdle is. I’d love to chat and see if perhaps a Chromebook really is the device you’re looking for.