Chromebook, the wave of the future?

The Chromebook came on with a bang, and then seemed to quiet down just as fast. Now you hardly hear much about them at all, but they are still there.

An Acer Chromebook

So what is a Chromebook anyway? They are computers, predominately notebooks, that run on Google’s ChromeOS. This OS is a variant of Linux.

A Chromebook differs from standard computers in that they run mostly off the internet. They are designed to run applications based in the cloud, store your data and settings in the cloud, and get their updates from the cloud. They certainly can run without an internet connection in a kind of limp along mode but that was never their intent.

Why would you want this type of functionality? If anything were to go wrong with your Chromebook, say a bad hard drive or if it simply gets lost, your data is in the cloud. This means you can sign on from any other Chromebook (or through the Chrome web browser on a regular PC) and all of your stuff will be there. In fact, if you sign in from a different Chromebook everything including your background and all your setting will be exactly like they were on the old unit.

They even have a button or key combination you can press to do what they call a Power Wash which erases absolutely everything off the computer and downloads your profile from the cloud.

This is fantastic should any kind of problem happen. Simply power wash and log back in to a nice clean profile with all your settings, documents, images, etc.

Now you add in the fact that these devices are far cheaper in general than standard laptops and you see their appeal. The one I use was about $150 new from Amazon so if I lose it, break it, or generally abuse it that’s OK, it didn’t cost me the typical $700-$1100 of a business class laptop.

Look at a school for example. Say you need 25 units for a class. For 25 of the ones I bought that comes to $3,750 including office (Google’s version of office). Now take a reasonable business class bottom end Windows laptop at $700 each and add $100 for Microsoft Office, $25 for antivirus, $5,000 for a server to centrally manage them and you get  over $25,000!

Notice in the amount above I mention a server to centrally manage the notebooks, but not the Chromebooks. That is because a Chromebook can be centrally managed through the internet using Google Apps for Business or Google Apps for Schools. If you are just one person you use regular Google Apps.

Google Apps Console

Google Apps for Business main management interface

This central management allows you to add, remove and edit users such as changing passwords etc. You can disable an account, a Chromebook, or just restrict what certain users on certain devices can do. You can also remotely erase any unit should it get lost so that no sensitive data can be compromised even if it was copied to the local machine.

You may have also noted that I did not mention antivirus for Chromebooks. That is because as of today, there are no viruses for ChromeOS and malware can not run on the OS either. So far, this makes them immune to virtually all forms of attack. Even if the Chromebook did get infected, a simple power wash would delete the offending code and re-download your settings and information.

Another interesting tidbit is that ChromeOS and all the components are updated automatically. This ensures you always have the latest version and fewest bugs. The update process is fast and painless.

That all sounds great, so what is the down side?

You can only run web based or ChromeOS based software so your Adobe Photoshop and Quickbooks software will not run. Any kind of game other than simple web based games will not run either. In fact, there is a lot of software you can not run.

Never fear, there is still a lot you can do.

  • Work with documents
  • Work with spreadsheets
  • Work with presentations
  • Stream music from sources such as Pandora and Spotify
  • Stream video from sources such as Netflix
  • Surf the web
  • Work with email

You can even open Microsoft Office documents, spreadsheets and presentations and work with them.

The big down side is that you really need to be on the internet to do a lot. Yes, you can edit documents offline as long as you set up that feature but you are really limited. Creating new documents is not a problem, existing documents have to be set to work in offline mode in advance.

You also can not connect to local services, for example, servers in an office. Want to stream your MP3s off your main computer to your Chromebook? Nope. Want to print to a local printer? Nope. Want to connect a scanner and scan to your email on your Chromebook? Nope.

Your Chromebook is however connected to Google Drive, the online cloud drive. Installing Google Drive on your PC using the same account and you can pass information back and forth just as if they both shared a folder on your local network, albeit slightly slower.

You can print to local printers in much the same way, by hooking your printer up to Google’s Cloud Print service which for older printers basically shares a printer already installed to a standard computer over the internet. Some manufacturer’s have cloud print services that come with their printers and allow you to print through an email address, which works fine on your Chromebook as well. Lastly, some modern printers can connect directly to Google’s Cloud Print services allowing them to work without being connected to any computers.

So what does all this mean?

A Chromebook has some serious strengths. Couple that with the fact that a lot of software is moving to “software as a service” in the cloud which can be used on any platform and you have a powerful yet inexpensive tool. If like most people you spend almost all your time surfing, emailing, and using documents, spreadsheets and presentations, you can make great use of Chromebooks and save a lot of time, money and aggravation.

Admittedly this is not a viable solution for everyone. If you enjoy any gaming more serious than solitaire or mahjong then this is not for you. If you need professional photo, audio or video editing, again not for you. You can however do professional web development and write books using the platform (and I am currently writing a book on a Chromebook just to make sure!).

I hope you enjoyed my article on the advantages of a Chromebook!