ChromeBooks: Where dumb, limiting and simple are good things

Two years ago Google showed off the first Chromebooks. It’s taken that long for New Zealand to get a reasonable supply of the devices from a range of computer makers.

Now Chromebooks are here in volume.

Chromebooks are laptops that run Google’s Chrome operating system. This makes them quite different from Windows or Mac laptops.

The browser is the computer

While the version of Chrome inside a Chromebook is an operating system in the sense that it handles normal OS tasks, it is also a web browser. Everything you do with Chrome – strictly that should read almost everything you do – is done in the browser.

If you’ve used the Chrome browser on another computer, you’re fully training in the Chrome OS. That’s about all there is to it.

Being a browser, Chrome is mainly used to run web apps. That is applications hosted somewhere on the internet in the cloud. Most of the heavy lifting is done by distant computers in vast datacenters.

Chromebooks in the cloud

In addition to web apps, Chromebooks can run apps that are essentially browser extensions. Although they link back to the cloud, some can do minimal local processing. Among other things this means you can write using Google Docs while not connected to the internet.

All of this means Chromebooks are limited in comparison with Windows or Apple OS X computers.

Or maybe not. There are things you can’t realistically do well with Chrome that are doable on those machines – but far fewer tasks than you’d imagine.

Chrome isn’t great for creating audio or video content. It’s not the best tool for building web sites. Developing software is hard going.

Dumb terminal

In effect a Chromebook is a dumb terminal – most of the computing is done at the other end of the line somewhere on a server in the bowels of a Google datacentre.

Dumb, but in a good way, because it makes computing simple.

That may sound strange – for the first 25 years after the first PCs appeared the computer industry mainly went out of its way to make computing more complicated. Each time Microsoft launched a new operating system or new applications, there would be a long list of new features. They were promoted as reasons to buy – sometimes they were – but they also made computers more complicated and bloated.

Some like it complex

Complexity and bloat is music to the ears of a certain breed of hardcore computer user. To everyone else it sounds like bad news. Most people just want to get things done – without worrying too much about the technology.

Fast forward to when Apple introduced the iPad in 2010. It scored precisely because it was a computer pared down to its essentials. It could only do 80 to 90 percent of what can be done with a PC, but for most people those are the only tasks that matter.

Suddenly the myth that everyone wanted complexity was burst. ChromeBooks are a different take on the same idea. Being dumb, limited and simple can mean a better focus on the work in hand, which in turn means better productivity. There’s less scope for fiddling with settings and so on – although having a browser connected to the web means there’s still plenty of distraction.

Safety first

There are other advantages. Because web apps store documents on remote servers, there’s no question of losing everything if there’s a hardware problem. You don’t even have to worry about making back-ups. On the other hand, you run the risk that every spy – and possibly Google – can read all your documents whenever they choose.

Chomebooks are not for everybody. You can pay the same money and get basic Windows devices with the potential to handle a wider range of tasks – pay another $200 or so and you’ll get considerably more computer.

 

4 thoughts on “ChromeBooks: Where dumb, limiting and simple are good things

  1. I’ve been using a Acer Chromebook since just after Christmas. I love it. For writing and the like it’s amazing. That said, it’s not a replacement for my other laptop: as you’ve said, if I need to do anything that requires a proper app (e.g. coding) I need to use my Macbook (I tried booting Ubuntu into it in developer mode, and while it works, it doesn’t make my Chromebook very happy).

    It does help if you’ve been using Chrome for a while to date: it’s been my primary browser since Firefox got too buggy and slow a couple of years back. It’s handy that everything saves across browsers as well.

    The only issue I have with the model I’ve got is that it does crash a bit (at least once every few hours, sometimes more). OK, it only takes 30 seconds to boot again, but it’s a little annoying.

    There are some quirks with streaming video (no Amazon Instant, no Netflix etc), and I particularly hate not having any real options for a twitter app aside from Tweetdeck (which I’ve never liked) but all up it’s pretty good.

    The only serious gotcha with ChromeOS is if you have more than one google account (my work uses Google Apps and I’ve been on Gmail for nearly a decade): your login is your Google address so there’s no way to be logged in as more than one user at the same time. For me that just means that I don’t look at work emails at all on it as it’s too much of a pain to do the switching, but for some people could be its own form of relief (a way of not getting sidetracked).

    And the battery life is great. And so light!

    • Have you tried Profiles? You can login to separate browser windows with different Google Accounts.

      No Netflix etc is because they are Windows(/Mac) only deals. We on the Linux side don’t get anything like that either withour “full-featured” OS.

      I haven’t played with a Chromebook yet (I would like to), but I don’t see anything truly different from an Android tablet, other than the paradigms.

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