Google's Chrome OS is one of the world's most misunderstood computing platforms. Chromebooks are foundationally different from traditional PCs, after all -- and consequently, there are a lot of misconceptions about how they work and what they can and cannot do.
Since people are always asking me whether a Chromebook might be right for their needs, I thought I'd put together a quick guide to help any such wonderers figure it out. Whether it's you or someone you know who's curious, the following three questions should help shed some light on what the platform's all about and for whom it makes sense.
1. Do you spend most of your time using the Web and Web-centric services?
Think carefully here, as the answer might surprise you: What do you do most often on a computer?
If the majority of your time is spent in a Web browser -- whether it's reading news stories, surfing social media, or using Web-centric services like Gmail and Google Docs -- then Chrome OS would probably meet your needs just fine. In fact, there's a good chance it'd actually make things easier than what you're used to with a traditional PC setup (more on why in a minute).
Now, it's important to note that just because something is "Web-centric" doesn't necessarily mean you have to be online in order for it to work. One of the most common misconceptions I hear about Chromebooks is that they're completely useless without an active Internet connection. In reality, a huge and ever-expanding number of Chrome OS-compatible apps works both online and off, including things like Gmail and Google Docs as well as calculator apps, calendar apps, news-reading apps, games, and even Google Play Movies. (You can browse through the "Offline" section of Google's Chrome Web Store for many more examples.)
The truth is that for most people, using a Chromebook offline isn't terribly different than using a traditional PC offline. You aren't going to be able to get on the Web or download new content, obviously, but aside from things that inherently require an active connection, there isn't a heck of a lot you'd want to do that wouldn't be available.
2. Do you have specific local programs that you absolutely need, or could most of the things you do on a computer be accomplished with Web-centric equivalents?
Take a moment to think about what programs you use that are locally installed on your PC -- things like word processors, email apps, image and video editing software, resource-intensive games, or specialty software you need for your work.
Now think about how many of those programs could or couldn't be replaced with Web-centric equivalents. If you use Outlook for email, for instance, would you be okay with using either Microsoft's Outlook.com or Google's Gmail instead? If you rely on Microsoft Word on your PC, would Microsoft's Office Online app or Google's Google Docs utility do the trick just as well? If you use Adobe Photoshop for image editing, would a Web-centric suite like Pixlr be powerful enough for your needs?
If the answers are "yes" or even "maybe," then Chrome OS could work for you. If, however, you have specific local software that you absolutely need and that has no suitable Web-centric equivalent, moving into a Chromebook might be a stretch. While Chrome OS has plenty of viable options for common everyday computing tasks, you aren't going to find any robust multimedia editors designed for the Web, nor will you find Web-centric versions of many specialty business programs that were created with Windows in mind.
There is an asterisk to that: Google offers a simple tool called Chrome Remote Desktop that lets you tap into a traditional PC from a Chromebook and work on it remotely. With that tool, you can effectively use local PC software via the Chromebook, provided you have a PC that's on and available for the remote session. It's not entirely ideal, but depending on your situation and how often you use the local PC software, it might be enough to bridge the gap.
(For Photoshop specifically, Google is also working on a pilot program to provide simple universal "streaming" access to the app from Chromebook devices. As of now, however, the program is limited to a small number of U.S.-based Adobe education customers with paid Creative Cloud memberships, so it isn't exactly a wide-scale solution.)
3. Try living only in the Chrome browser on your PC for a week, without opening any local programs. How does it feel?
This is the real test. And let's be clear: In order for this to work, you'll probably have to make some adjustments to your routine -- switching to Web-centric apps like Docs for word processing if you haven't already, uploading any pertinent files to an online storage service like Dropbox or Drive, and so forth. Spend a few minutes browsing through the Chrome Web Store to find the tools you need, then give it an honest go.
If you can ignore your local PC programs for a week and get everything you need accomplished in your browser without much trouble, Chrome OS will definitely work for you. If it's a struggle, you may want to think twice about going the Chromebook route.
Now, keep in mind that this is merely a simulation -- a test of the basic tools and limitations of the Chrome OS environment. Crucially, though, while the limitations are similar, using only a browser on a PC is not the same experience you'd get on an actual Chromebook. (That's another one of those pesky Chrome OS myths.)
As I've noted before, the reason Chrome OS doesn't run regular local apps and act like a traditional PC environment is because the type of person the platform is designed for doesn't need regular local apps or a traditional PC environment -- and eliminating those elements allows some attractive benefits to be added in.
To quote a devastatingly handsome writer I know:
Startup speed aside, the Chrome OS systems make a lot of things about traditional computing environments feel outdated: the cumbersome setup and installation procedures; the annoying and time-consuming OS upgrades; the need to manually update applications over time; the need to use antivirus software (and the accompanying likelihood and potential consequences of infection); the reliance on complicated drivers; and the inevitable bogged-down, slowed-down effect that always seems to happen to PCs after you've had 'em for a few months.
Plain and simple, for folks sold on the cloud-centric concept, Chrome OS can take much of the hassle out of computing -- because as a result of the platform's very nature, you don't have to deal with the types of annoyances mentioned above. By utilizing Google's universal syncing system, the OS also allows any Chromebook to look and act like your own personal machine within moments of your signing in. All of your data, settings, extensions, and applications are instantly and continuously synced across all systems, so you're never tied down to any one device.
With all of those advantages, a Chromebook can be a refreshing alternative to the traditional PC environment -- if it makes sense for your needs. And it certainly won't make sense for everyone.
Answer the three questions above, and you'll know if it does for you.