Software? Large hard drives? They’ll be old-school someday if Google has its way with the Chrome operating system and Chromebook laptops. But is Google’s plan the kind of computing you’ve been waiting for?
Unlike Windows and Mac OS, Chrome is a browser-based operating system. The laptops that run Chrome are meant to be inexpensive, secure, quick to start up, easy to use, and resistant to malware. They use apps instead of full-blown applications, and most of those reside online, where most of your documents will be stored too.
We took a look at five Chromebooks—four costing $250 to $450, and Google’s showcase Pixel, $1,300—and tried out the hardware, the operating system, and the apps. Here’s what to expect.
A fast start
People are getting used to how quickly tablets turn on, which is one of the main features Chromebooks are meant to address. Those we tested started quickly, in about 8 seconds or a little less, with one exception: The Acer Chromebook took a comparatively slow 20 seconds to turn on from a fully off state, which is comparable to some Windows 8
laptops but slower than the other Chromebooks. Like a tablet, all the models turned on virtually instantly from a sleep state.
Don’t expect a top-performing processor in most models. Except for the Google Chromebook Pixel, which uses Intel’s Core i5 processor, the models we tested used either Intel’s latest Celeron processor or a Samsung processor.
All performed adequately, fast enough for Web browsing, powerful enough for playing music and watching movies, and fine for typing and scrolling. But when we had 15 or more browser tabs open at once, performance sputtered a bit. Also keep in mind that the benchmarks we used were browser-performance benchmarks, not computer benchmarks, so we can’t compare Chromebook performance directly to that of conventional laptops.
A different keyboard
The keyboards are a bit different than those on standard laptops. All have a Search key, but some didn’t have Delete, Page Up, Page Down, and Caps Lock keys. Also, the letters are lower- rather than upper-case.
No optical drive
None of the Chromebooks we tested had a DVD drive, but you don't really need one, since there’s no software to load and you can stream movies from the Web. All had SD card readers, so you can add to the sparse internal storage most offer. There are also USB ports (though only the Samsung XE303C12-A01US had a faster USB 3.0) and 802.11n Wi-Fi, with all having dual-band 5GHz capability.
A surprisingly familiar interface
Chrome OS may be a new operating system, but it’s based on a browser. So it should look familiar and be easy to learn. The most important thing you need to know about using Chrome and Chromebooks is that all your documents get stored online. (You can use the small amount of storage on most models for documents sometimes, but that’s defeating the purpose.)
No more clicking for software updates
Apps and the operating system are automatically updated. Unlike with Windows and Apple, you don’t have to pay for major upgrades of the OS. Google says you should expect an update every couple of months.
Make sure you don’t miss the reboot notices, which are tucked away in the lower-right corner of the Chromebook’s display. It’s important to check for them every so often, since Chromebooks are meant always remain on, and you’ll probably only infrequently shut down manually.
Continuous cloud storage
Chromebooks are all about the cloud. Everything you save goes to Google Drive automatically, not to your hard drive. That includes documents, photos, videos, music, e-books, and any other type of file, making them accessible from whatever device you’re using wherever you go—provided, of course, you have Internet access and a browser.
So all your data is backed up and safe from theft, fire, or a broken laptop. But there are also a few pitfalls. First, you’re trusting everything to Google and the cloud, leaving you vulnerable to potential data breaches. In addition, downloading a lot of your files can be slow going, especially since Google isn’t likely to provide maximum bandwidth for downloads. And, you need that Internet connection to get to your files, or you have to set up your Chromebook to work offline. (Read "Be prepared before you go offline," below, to find out how.)
Free storage—for a time
Except for the Google model, all the models we tested came with 100GB of Google Drive storage free for two years (at $4.99 a month for that much storage, that’s $120 worth of storage). The Google Chromebook provides a hefty 1TB of storage for three years (worth close to $1,800).
The downside: Once the time is up, you’ll have to pay to store whatever you’ve already put up on Google Drive, or download everything and move it elsewhere, a process that could be time-consuming. You also get 12 free Gogo in-air Internet passes good on several airlines (a $150 value).
Limited app selection
The offerings in the Chrome app store don’t come anywhere near the breadth or number of apps you’ll find in Google’s Android store, Google Play. Many, including Facebook and Pandora, simply link to the home pages of these services. So they’re more like bookmarks with icons sitting on your Chrome home page.
Also, Google Drive handles Microsoft Office files in a non-elegant way. You can open Word, Excel, and other Office files from Google Drive, but only in read-only mode. To get around that, you have to convert the Office file into a Google Doc by opening the Chrome browser, then Google Drive, then right-clicking on the file and selecting "Open with." From there, you can select Google Docs or Google Sheets to convert the file into editable form.
Some security advantages
Since the operating system, Chrome OS, is automatically updated, its vulnerabilities should be reduced or eliminated on a regular basis. The operating system is a browser, so malware should have a hard time infecting anything more than a single browser tab. And with their small user base, Chromebooks are likely to be relatively unattractive targets to malware writers compared with Windows and Mac OS-based computers.