Chromebooks: Should Google’s OS Be on Your next Laptop?

Are you in the market for a new laptop?  Perhaps it’s time to consider a Chromebook.  By the end of this feature, not only will you know exactly what a Chromebook is, you’ll also know what to look for when buying one.  For those of you who have already taken the plunge, we’ll look at the many different ways you should be using it.  These are the topics we’ll be covering… (click one to skip ahead).

Note. As this is a feature on Chromebooks, the word cloud may come up once or twice.  This is one of those buzz words that every man and his dog seems to like touting at every possible opportunity.  The cloud (as far as technology is concerned) simply means someone else’s computer – usually a server, or a whole bunch of them – located remotely somewhere out their on the internet.  With reference to what we’re discussing here, (unless stated otherwise) those servers will be Google’s.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s dig in…

What is a Chromebook?

Despite the name, a Chromebook is is not a shiny-covered novel (or any other kind of metallic-plated book).  Instead, its name is derived from Google’s Chrome web browser.  It looks like a laptop, but looks can be deceiving, and in this case you won’t find Microsoft Windows lurking beneath the hood.  Chromebooks take a different approach, coming pre-loaded with Google’s own Chrome OS (Operating System).

Chome OS explained

Chrome OS is built on top of Linux.  That statement, while technically true, is probably about as much use to you as the proverbial chocolate teapot, because now your likely also wondering what is Linux?  You could go look it up in the Glossary (in the top menu), but, to save you a trip, allow me to elucidate and let’s try and clear up any confusion.  To, hopefully, put it in simpler terms…

Linux is what’s known as a kernel (not to be confused with the American businessman who loved his southern fried chicken – that would be the Colonel).  The Linux kernel is software that talks directly to a computer’s hardware, issuing instructions to make it work; you could say it’s the beating heart of the operating system.  Chrome OS is Google’s implementation of the Linux kernel with a Graphical User Interface, or GUI (which is just a fancy way of saying a visual display) bolted on top.  The GUI enables us to interact with a computer, telling it precisely what those instructions – the ones that the kernel is carrying out – are (in other words, what we want the computer to do).

Getting down to brass tacks – what an odd expression that is – Microsoft (with its Windows) and Apple (with its Mac OS) aren’t the only companies to produce operating systems – though they’d probably like you to think that they are.  Believe it or not, there are actually other options out there for you to try.  Chrome OS is one of them, brought to us by Google (and this is what you’ll find on Chromebooks).

A trip back in time

Hard to believe as (relatively speaking) it still seems such a new device, but the first Chromebooks appeared on the scene all the way back in 2011.  At the time, these newfangled machines were little more than Google’s chrome web browser shipped in a form factor that very much resembled a laptop.

As a result, the functionality (back then) was pretty limited – it was also heavily reliant upon you having a half decent internet connection.  Fortunately, Google has spent a lot of time developing its operating system (and the Chromebook alongside it) and much has been added over the intervening years.  The Chromebook of today, as you’ll discover in this feature, is a much better proposition all round than those early offerings.

Getting up and running

After you’ve taken your shiny new Chromebook out of the packaging, it’s time to set it up.  This is a much more straightforward affair than with a traditional laptop.

Power on… connect to the Wi-Fi… sign in to your Google account… job done!

Tone’s Tip. Plug it in first – most Chromebooks won’t turn on until you do this.

Finding your feet

Great, so you’re all set up and have found your way to the desktop.  Let’s start to have a poke around.  First impressions are Windows-esque in appearance; a bar across the bottom of the screen, an icon in the bottom left where the Start menu would be – there’s even a notification area down at the bottom right.

Let’s start with a spot of personalisation.  To do this we’ll simply change the background, known as wallpaper.  Though the main screen on a computer is called the desktop, I prefer the mobile name, homescreen – for as they say, there’s no place like home.  Call it what you like, let’s start by make things a little more homely, shall we.

Wallpaper

To change the wallpaper, right-click on the desktop and select “Change Desktop Background”.  Then, either select from one of the built-in images, or load your own picture.

Right-click

Where’s right-click gone?

As you begin to find your way around, it may not be long before you start wondering what’s happened to the good old right-click.  You could be forgiven for thinking that Chrome OS has done away with it entirely (in which case, why did I just ask you to right-click in the last section).  Luckily, that’s not the case – it’s just lacking a dedicated right-click button.  If you’re already familiar with Macbooks, this won’t be such an alien concept.

Fret not, to use right-click (to open a context menu, for example), you can do one of the following three things.

1. (Probably the easiest way) tap the touchpad with two fingers.

2. Hold down the “alt” key on your keyboard while clicking the touchpad

3. Connect an external mouse that does have a right-click button

Shelf

If we were using Windows, the bar at the bottom of the screen would be called the taskbar, but this is Chrome OS and here it’s called the shelf.

You can change the shelf’s default position (should a different layout be more to your liking) by right-clicking on the desktop to reveal the menu shown in the screenshot and selecting an alternative location.

Games and apps can be pinned to the shelf for easier access.  To do this, launch the software you’d like to pin.  When the icon appears on the shelf, right-click on it.  You’ll see the context menu (as in the screenshot) from where you can select “Pin”.

App launcher

Tucked away in the bottom left hand corner of the screen is what you may be tempted to call the start menu.  Again, Chromebooks have their own terminology for this and it’s actually known as the app launcher.  It seems Google likes to call a spade a spade; as you’ve no doubt guessed, this is used for launching (opening) apps.  Once selected, you’ll see a very minimal menu revealing a search box and a handful of apps.

Clicking the up-facing arrow opens the full screen version of the app launcher.  Compared to Windows, things may look a bit sparse (especially next to Windows 10, with its big live tiles).  This is in keeping with what seems to be Google’s philosophy for Chrome OS: providing a streamlined and smooth experience.  Effectively getting out of the way so that the user (that’s you and me) can get on with the important stuff – be it work or play – which, let’s face it, is why most of us buy a computer in the first place.  A particular operating system that shall remain nameless (cough, Windows) – seems to have forgotten this simple principle.

Out of the box, Chromebooks come with just enough to get started.  It makes for a refreshing change in a technological age where so much kit comes stuffed to the gunnels with bloatware, but it does mean you’ll need to put in a little bit of leg-work to get things just how you want them.  On the upside, you’ll end up with a system that contains all the things you want, and none of the (unnecessary) crud you don’t.  Fear not, for as you’ll soon discover, it’s both quick and easy to add all the apps you’ll ever need.

Touchpad

Google have left this one alone – at least when it comes to the terminology – the touchpad is still called the touchpad.  Chromebooks support multiple finger gestures, so don’t be afraid to get stuck in.  Certain functions use one, two or even three fingers to carry them out.  Click here to take a look at Google’s support page on how the touchpad works – it includes a useful table showing the main functions.

Keyboard

Next we have the keyboard.

The keen-eyed among you will have noticed in the picture that a Chromebook’s keyboard has a slightly different layout than a traditional laptop.  Probably most notable by its absence is the Windows key – remember this machine runs Chrome OS.  You may have also noticed that a few keys are unique to the Chromebook.  If you’re not sure about the layout, the best advice I can give is to try one, but most people quickly get the hang of it.

Click here to visit Google’s Use your Chromebook keyboard support page.

Tone’s Tip. Chromebooks support keyboard shortcuts.  Pressing ctrl+alt+shift together brings up ALL of them on screen.

Quick settings panel

In the bottom right corner of the screen is the quick settings panel (where the clock is located).  If you click on this, the panel will open, as shown in the screenshot.

This contains some very useful functions.  You can adjust the volume and brightness, turn Bluetooth and Wi-Fi on and off.  There’s a Night Light that can be switched on to help protect your eyesight from harmful blue light on an evening.  You can Cast your Chromebook to one of Google’s Chromecast devices (Not sure what Chromecasting is?  Click here to read the article, How to Set Up Chromecast).  The Chromebook can also be shut down from the quick settings panel.

Settings

To access your Chromebook’s Settings, click the quick settings panel on the right-hand side of the shelf.  When the panel opens, click the gear icon to open Settings.

Once open, you can search for any setting by typing in top bar; type display, for example, to quickly access the display settings.

Since a Chromebook is linked to your Google account, a useful feature is that your settings will follow you around.  What this means in practice is that any preference you set is stored in the cloud.  So, say for arguments sake that you (heaven forbid) lose your Chromebook, or simply choose to replace it with a newer model.  When you log in to your new Chromebook, everything will be just as you left it and you won’t have to start from scratch – how handy is that!

Chrome Web Store

Right, it’s time to start populating your Chromebook with a few well chosen apps and getting things just how you want them.  For this, the Chrome Web Store should be your first port of call.

As shown in the image, you’ll see that the web store is divided into categories with Extensions, Themes, Apps and Games available.  Let’s look at each in turn.

Extensions

An extension is simply a small program that you install into the Chrome web browser that provides some sort of added functionality.  It could be something like LastPass: Free Password Manager (to securely remember all your website passwords), or it could be the excellent Save to Pocket (for saving web content – be it an article or even a video – for viewing later).

Themes

Really want to go to town customizing your Chromebook?  This is the main attraction of themes.  Many people’s devices tend to look like lots of others, keeping with the default appearance.  By changing your theme, you can dramatically alter (and personalise) the look of Chrome.  Dark modes seem to be creeping up everywhere at the moment; why not look for a shadowy theme.

Apps

This is where Chromebooks start coming into their own.  Sure, you may not be able to install those Windows-only titles you’ve been using for years, but perhaps you don’t need to as Chromebooks have their very own software at your disposal.  Known as apps, these dedicated programs are specifically designed to work with Chrome OS, utilizing such web technologies as HTML5, CSS and JavaScript (highlighting the operating system’s cloud-focused nature).

A huge variety of apps are available – Google themselves have created many of them – yet, still, some of the big players are missing.  While you will find such favourites as Spotify and Evernote, there’s no Netflix or Roblox, for example.  But, where there’s a gap, you could always fill it with an Android app (provided your Chromebook is supported) – we’ll look at taking advantage of Google’s Play Store later.  Often though, having been developed for the platform, you may get better results with apps from the Chrome Web Store (and many sites – even interactive ones – will work perfectly well in a web browser these days).

There are two types of apps on Chrome OS (excluding the more recent Android and Linux additions, which we’ll cover in due course): Packaged and Hosted.  Hosted apps are the original type; these hook into a remote web server and act like a kind of wrapper around the site, adding an icon to your Chromebook’s app launcher (many are nothing more than a Chrome web browser shortcut to the website).  Packaged apps are closer to native desktop applications; providing extra functionality, like being able to access local storage, display split-screen windows and work offline.

The Chrome Web Store enables you to filter search results.  This can be particularly useful in the Apps section, as you can narrow down your searches by selecting criteria such as Runs Offline (if you’re looking for applications that will work without an internet connection), By Google (to find apps developed by Google themselves), and Works with Google Drive (to look up apps that can access Google’s online Drive storage), among other things.

Games

Just because you’ve purchased a Chromebook doesn’t mean you can’t have any fun, and to prove it the Chrome Web Store has an entire category devoted to Games.  From puzzles to RPGs (Role-Playing Games), and classics like Frogger and Tetris, there’s plenty to keep you entertained – better yet, many of them are free.

Storage

Concerned that the hard drive seems tiny?  What about all my stuff; how am I supposed to fit my entire collection of Rick Astley albums on there?  Good question.  Since we can’t have you losing access to the kind of listening pleasure only Rick can provide, let me explain how the storage works.

You are quite correct, a lot of Chromebooks have a pretty feeble amount of internal storage.  This is because Google wants you to utilise its cloud services, thereby freeing your device from the data typically found on your average consumer laptop.  Instead of installing countless programs and downloading huge numbers of files, the idea is that you access the vast majority of software through your internet connection and save your documents, pictures and videos to the cloud.

At least that’s the way Google intended it, and in the early days this was basically your only option.  Fortunately, things have changed, and while cloud storage still makes a lot of sense, it no longer remains your only option.  Chromebooks now feature an offline mode, which we’ll look at later.

Google Drive

The default storage method on a Chromebook is Google Drive.  As a result, most new Chromebooks come with 100GB of storage space on the platform, which is free for two years.  Once you have a qualifying Chromebook, you need to click the following link to Redeem this offer.

https://www.google.com/chromebook/offers/

Unlike Rick’s paragon of pop, Never Gonna Give You Up, after two years you will have to relinquish your 100GB of online storage space, either that or pay for it.  As a home user (with a personal Google account), you’ll continue to get 15GB of Google Drive storage for free, which, as I’m about to show you, can actually go a LONG way.

Tone’s Tip. Store unlimited photos and videos completely for free.  Just follow these simple rules.  Select “High quality” rather than “Original size” when uploading any image(s).  Likewise, ensure any video(s) have a resolution of 1080p or lower before uploading them.

That’s right, by using the above tip, you may never have to pay for extra storage space.  Unlimited photos and videos won’t use a single kilobyte (KB) of your 15GB, meaning (if you keep it for documents alone) it should go a very long way.

Important. Note that High Quality photos can be up to 16 megapixels in size, any larger and they will be compressed – it’ll probably only be an issue if you’re dealing with detailed images from a DSLR camera.  Also, be aware that any photos or videos that exceed the quality restrictions required in order to store an unlimited number for free will still upload (provided you haven’t exceeded your allowance), but will be count as part of your 15GB of free storage space.

Note. Any photos saved to Google Drive will automatically appear in Google Photos.  If you have the Google Photos app on your smartphone, it can automatically upload your snaps straight to to the cloud so you can view them on almost any device with an internet connection – whether or not you want to do this is another matter entirely.

But what about music, that can use heaps of storage, can’t it?

Yes, it can. So you could either use a streaming service like Spotify, or look into Google Play Music, which offers a very attractive alternative if you already have a large music library.  Basically, it allows you to add up to 50,000 songs from your personal collection – all without paying a penny for online storage.  As an added bonus, Google’s support site states that any music purchased from the Google Play Store doesn’t count towards your song limit”.  Alternatively, you can continue to store your music locally, which handily enough we’ll talk about next.

Local storage

As mentioned earlier, most Chromebooks aren’t overly generous when it comes to internal storage; presuming you’ll save your files to the cloud.  While this is all well and good, you may not want to do this – at least not all of the time.  If you don’t want to save any files to the cloud, perhaps you should consider if a Chromebook is really for you – even now, these devices are still built primarily as portals to the internet – but there may be valid reasons why you don’t want to store ALL of your data in the cloud.  Here are three such scenarios.

* Limited internet connection (amount of data is capped)

* Cost of online storage (once Google Drive offer has expired)

* Not keeping personal files in the cloud

This is where external storage comes into play.  Connectivity on Chromebooks is generally quite good.  Most of them come with USB ports and an SD, or microSD, card slot.  This makes it very easy to add extra storage in the form of an (micro) SD card or USB flash (or hard) drive.  A micro SD card in particular makes a great deal of sense as there’s nothing sticking out of the side of your Chromebook and you can get quite large capacities (say 64GB or 128GB) for not a lot of money.  You’ll be able to put lots of music on one of these.

Offline mode

Another feature of the modern Chromebook is offline mode.  This makes Chrome OS far more versatile.  Gone are the days of productivity grinding to a halt because you lost your internet connection.  Many apps can now work offline, including Google’s office suite (docs, sheets and slides), Gmail, Calendar and even Google Drive itself – though, by default, this will only be the most recent files you have worked on, but other files can also be made available offline.  Click here to learn how to set up Google Drive’s offline functionality on the official support page.

If you’ve purchased any movies or TV shows through Google Play, these will be available for offline viewing – you’ll need to make sure you downloaded them first.  Lots of games, too, can also be played offline.  Once your internet connection is restored, everything syncs back up so that any changes you made while disconnected are updated in the cloud.

File manager

Okay, now that we know what our storage options are, how do we actually access our files?

Chromebooks ship with the Files app pre-installed.  This is similar to Windows File Explorer and let’s you navigate around the file system.  Clicking the magnifying glass icon will allow you to search through all of your files.

Pay attention to the folders (and drives) on the left-hand side, where you’ll see Recent files that you’ve had open, Google Drive (for accessing your online data), Downloads of files to the internal storage, and Offline – the mode we discussed in the previous section.  You may also see an External Drive (or possibly more than one), if you have such devices as a micro SD card or USB flash drive connected.

If you recall, earlier I mentioned that plenty of apps are available for Chromebooks.  So let’s delve into some of them…

Productivity
Office

Google’s office suite is handled by Google’s Apps.  There are three main services to take care of our document, accounting and presentation needs.

Word processing

Google’s version of the traditional word processor is called Google Docs.

Spreadsheets

Spreadsheets are handled by Google Sheets.

Presentation

Lastly, Google Slides is there for putting on a presentation.

Alternatively, you can actually use Microsoft Office – be it in a slimmer free web version called Office Online.  This comes with Word Online, Excel Online, and – you guessed it – PowerPoint Online.  Although it’s not the fully featured office suite, it does possess a similar appearance – complete with ribbon – and should suffice for the casual user.

Note. It saves your files to OneDrive (which is Microsoft’s equivalent of Google Drive), so you will need a Microsoft account – you can set one up for free, if needed, and you’ll get a, not quite so generous, 5GB of storage space.

If your Chromebook supports Android apps, another option (albeit one that may require a subscription) is to visit the Play Store and install the official Microsoft Office apps for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneDrive, if you’d prefer to use these rather than Office Online.

Email

For electronic mail (email) the obvious choice – when using a Chromebook – is Gmail, but that doesn’t mean you have to.  If your existing email isn’t with Google (I believe there are still other providers!), they may also have a webmail service you can log into.  If not, you could install an email client from the Chrome Web Store, such as the Thunderbird email client and use that to connect to your email account instead.

Google Assistant

Why not really boost your productivity by getting an assistant, and with Google Assistant you won’t even need to pay any overtime – it can even make coffee (when connected to a smart coffee machine)!

Media creation

Partly due to their relatively basic hardware (combined with the current limitations of Chrome OS), Chromebooks won’t make for professional editing studios.  That’s not to say you can’t produce any content – just don’t go expecting such luxuries as 4K video output.  Having said that, some services are online (offloading the heavy lifting to a remote server, rather than your Chromebook) and you access the software through your web browser.  This being the case, almost anything’s possible.

Google and Adobe certainly seem to think so, having partnered on a streaming version of Photoshop, imaginatively called Project Photoshop Streaming.

For video editing, Kinemaster should fit the bill nicely (check your Chromebook supports Android Apps for this one).  If splicing snippets of sound is more up your street, you could take a look at TwistedWave (available as an online audio editor; depending on the length of your files, you may need a subscription).  Image editing is another area where you can achieve some surprising results.  Photopea is a good option here (once more taking advantage of cloud computing to process the resource-intensive tasks; providing you don’t mind a few ads, the free account offers full functionality).

There’s also Photoshop Express (requiring Android App support), or the Sketchpad app (which should work on any Chromebook) pictured in the screenshot.

Working with images can be even more productive if your Chromebook has a touchscreen – some even come with a stylus (which, depending on the model, may or may not support pressure sensitivity).

Chrome web browser

There from the very beginning, the Chrome browser remains an integral part of Chrome OS.

Google services

Clicking Chrome’s Google apps menu reveals a selection of Google’s most popular services.  All the usual suspects are present and correct, including Maps, Calendar and Photos.  It’s nothing you won’t find in the Chrome browser on any platform, but its nice that the layout remains consistent – if you’re already familiar with Google’s popular web browser, you’ll have no trouble finding your way around.

Put Google’s interpreter to work for you.  Fluffing French or sputtering Spanish, Google’s Translate can come to the rescue.  Type in or speak/dictate single words or complete sentences (you can even upload an entire document).  The translated text can be read or listened to – helpful for those words you’re not sure how to pronounce.

If you click “More” at the bottom of the menu, as you might expect, this brings up even more Google apps, such as Docs and Books.  Then there’s Hangouts – for staying social – and Earth – to remind us the planet is round.

Just in case you’re not all Googled out, there’s an “Even more from Google” option at the bottom to discover lots more the Big G can do for you.

Just for fun

What’s that saying?  All work and no play…  No, just because he/she owns a Chromebook, doesn’t need to make Jack a dull boy (or girl).  To ensure life doesn’t become boring we have…

Media consumption

When work time’s over and you want to relax, what can a Chromebook do?

Being internet connected devices, they excel when it comes to consuming media.  Stream video from the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and YouTube.

It’s also easy to share this content on the big screen, either by plugging a cable from your Chromebook directly to the TV, or by sending the picture wirelessly over Chromecast.

If media doesn’t float your boat, how about a spot of…

Gaming

For years, Microsoft gave us games like Solitaire pre-installed with Windows, and it’s easy to get the experience on a Chromebook, too, with the Solitaire app (available in the Chrome Web Store).

Gaming is far from the Chromebook’s biggest strength – gaming PCs and consoles certainly have nothing to worry about in terms of competition.  Still, for the casual gamer, there’s plenty of fun to be had.  As mentioned earlier, the Chrome Web Store features an entire category devoted to games.

Tone’s Tip. If you have an Xbox 360 wired controller, you can connect this to your Chromebook’s USB port and use it to play some of the games.

Although most Chromebooks simply lack the horsepower – imagine Shetland ponies trying to race the Grand National – to handle AAA (referred to as triple-A) gaming, there are a couple of other options…

Internet Game Streaming Service

Another route to explore is using an Internet Game Streaming Service.  As internet connections get faster (with fibre becoming ever more popular), more of these services are starting appear on the scene.  Sony already has its PlayStation Now, while Microsoft and Google have announced their xCloud and Stadia game streaming services respectively.  As far as gaming on your Chromebook is concerned, you may like to check out Shadow at the link below.

https://shadow.tech/

Being a cloud service, this is subscription-based.  It works by running the games on a high-end remote (Windows) computer that you connect to through an app, thereby negating the need for your device to have its own powerful hardware.  As with the Steam link option, your Chromebook will also need to support running Android apps (as Shadow doesn’t provide a native app for Chrome OS).  This brings us nicely to the next section, which has a rather large gaming component.

Android

Google states that “Soon, you’ll be able to use the Google Play Store and Android apps on many Chromebooks”Click here for a list of which models are currently supported (links to Google’s site).

Tone’s Tip. If you can’t see the Play Store (and it’s a supported model), check that your Chromebook is up to date.  You can manually check for updates by opening Settings, going to the Menu (the three horizontal lines) and selecting “About Chrome OS”, then clicking “Check for Updates”.

Google Play Store

Having access to the Play Store on your Chromebook opens up access to a HUGE catalogue of software.

Productivity, news, sport, entertainment… you name it, there’s probably at least a handful of apps that have been developed for almost anything you can think of.

Apps can be run in windowed mode or full screen.  Usefully, you can position two apps side-by-side to take advantage of your Chromebook screen’s extra real estate.  Some may look better this way, as lots of apps aren’t optimized for the larger screen.

Note. The Android operating system is primarily used on smartphones (and tablets).  Consequently, apps are designed to work with a touchscreen interface.  Unfortunately, this is something not all Chromebooks possess.  If you intend to really take advantage of Android apps, you’ll want to invest in a Chromebook that does have a touchscreen.

The Android ecosystem also brings with it a massive collection of games.  Again, all the limitations that plague many an Android app (when running on a Chromebook) are there in the games as well.  Some titles aren’t supported on Chrome OS, some simply won’t work with a keyboard and touchpad/mouse (or even a games controller).  If the idea of getting Angry at those Birds on a larger screen appeals, having a touchscreen Chromebook is going to be an absolute must.

Yes, some apps are going to work better than others on a form factor they were never intended for (some aren’t – quite literally – a good fit at all).  Nevertheless, being able to run Android apps on your Chromebook is infinitely better than not being able to utilise the wealth of material available through Google’s Play Store.

Battery life

How long can I survive away from a power socket?

When contemplating any portable device, a key consideration must surely be battery life.  Remember the Duracell bunny, the one that just kept going and going?  If Duracell made laptops, they’d surely be Chromebooks; battery life is excellent.  Since Chrome OS is such a light-weight operating system (and uses relatively few resources) it merely sips at the juice, consuming very little power compared to some full-fat alternatives.  It will vary by model, but you shouldn’t be surprised to realise somewhere in the region of nine hours of use on a single charge; more than enough to get you through the average working day.

Security
Do I need antivirus software?

This is possibly the most asked question by prospective Chromebook buyers.  The answer is a resounding NO.  Some antivirus companies would have you believe otherwise, but the truth is that (at present) there are no viruses on Chrome OS.  That’s not to say you should go around in a pair of bright red pants, believing yourself as invincible as Superman to every threat out there.  Even superheroes have weaknesses, and, while you may not find any kryptonite lurking in the darkest corners of the internet, even the most secure computer in the world won’t stop you falling victim to a phishing scam.

That said, neither should you overly concern yourself with the kinds of little nasties that would bring the most powerful Windows PC to its knees.  For one thing, most malware won’t even run on a Chromebook, and, even if you happened to install a dodgy browser extension, you’d only need remove it to put things back to normal.  Chrome OS is inherently more secure than some of the more popular operating systems due to a technology known as sandboxing.  Basically this isolates apps from one another, so even if one did become infected this would stop it spreading throughout the rest of the system.  Additionally, Google scans Gmail and Google Drive for viruses, as well as using Google Play Protect on the Play Store to check for harmful content.

Hardware encryption

Chromebooks encrypt any data stored locally on the device using tamper-resistant hardware (which is exactly what it sounds like), so even if you lose it, you don’t need to worry about your personal information staying safe.

Powerwash your Chromebook

When selling any computer it’s essential you make sure that all of your data is completely removed.  Chromebooks have a very useful feature to help with this called Powerwash.  This will completely wipe your device, so use with caution.

Updates

Another element of security is keeping your device secure, namely through updating the operating system.  These updates can also improve the Chromebook experience, as Google is constantly working to add functionality to Chrome OS.  Don’t worry, while you can manually update your Chromebook (as described earlier in the Android section), usually you shouldn’t have to as the process happens automatically.  Better yet, most of these updates run in the background rather than constantly taking over and forcing you to endure a painfully slow procedure.

On the subject of updating, be aware that Google (like most manufacturers) puts an expiration date on products running its operating system.  This typically means that most Chromebooks receive around six years of support when it comes to updates.  Note. This is from the release date, NOT when you make the purchase.

This may seem a tad harsh at first, but if you think of the cost of a modern smartphone, and then consider that most of these only come with a couple of years of updates before being declared (technically) obsolete…  In that light, officially supported Chromebook updates actually look pretty good.  If you’d like to read more on the subject, and see a list of current device end dates, check out the link below.

https://support.google.com/chrome/a/answer/6220366?hl=en

Child safety

Google’s Family Link service can be used to set up parental controls on a Chromebook.  This allows you to turn on safe search and change account settings (to lock things down).  While better than nothing, I would also advise looking into dedicated internet filtering solutions – especially if you have younger children.

What about printing?

Printing has been something of the Chromebook’s Achilles’ heel, though the situation is definitely improving.  HP printers are generally well taken care of; there’s a HP Print for Chrome app available, which you should install if you own one of these.  Models by other manufacturers may also print directly, provided the printer is joined to the same network as your Chromebook (or connected with a USB cable). Click here to read more about this process on Google’s support page.

If you’re still having trouble connecting to a printer, another option – if you have an existing Mac or Windows PC which is already connected to said printer – is to install the Chrome web browser on that computer (if it isn’t already), log in to your Google account, and add Google Cloud Print (GCP).  This will then allow you to set up printing from your Chromebook (effectively relaying the print through the other computer).

Alternatively, if you don’t mind splashing out on a new printer, look for a cloud-ready model.  These printers will enable you to print straight to the printer without requiring any additional hardware.  If you’d like to see a list of devices that support this, click on the following link.

https://www.google.com/cloudprint/learn/printers/

Connect a Chromebook to an Android smartphone

If you already own an Android smartphone, you can use it to unlock your Chromebook’s screen (this feature requires Bluetooth).  Another benefit of joining the two devices together is being able to send and receive text messages directly from your Chromebook.  Click here if you’d like to visit Google’s support site to read up on how to do the latter.

Let’s get advanced (with Linux)

If you’re of a technical disposition and really want to get the most out of your Chromebook then why not put Linux on it?  Project Crostini makes this possible, provided your model of Chromebook is supported.  To find out, visit the following link.

https://www.reddit.com/r/Crostini/wiki/getstarted/crostini-enabled-devices

If your model is on the list, then you’re good to go.  First, make sure your Chromebook is up to date.  Back in Settings there should be an option to enable Linux by clicking “Turn on”.  This will download and install a virtual machine running Linux.

Out of the gate, this does very little other than place a Terminal (which is the Linux version of the Windows command prompt) application in your Chrome OS Launcher.  So, to really benefit from this feature, it’s best to install Gnome Software – this is like an app store for Linux software.  To do this you will need to get your hands a little dirty – don’t worry, I’m talking figuratively.  This is because Gnome Software needs to be installed through said terminal.

At the flashing cursor, enter the following commands; press Enter on your keyboard after each one.

sudo apt-get install gnome-software gnome-packagekit

sudo apt-get update

sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

Note. Type “y” (without the quotes) and press Enter at any point where it asks you to confirm that you want to carry out the above commands.

Finally, reboot your Chromebook and Gnome Software should now show up, allowing you to browse all of the apps.

Tone’s Tip. If you’re not already familiar with the program, you should definitely check out GIMP – an excellent (and completely free) Photoshop alternative.

Developer Mode

For advanced users (particularly as the name suggests, developers) Chromebooks include Developer Mode.  While easy to do so, I don’t recommend turning this feature on unless you really know what you’re doing (which is why I’m not going to describe how to do it here, sorry).  If you’re determined to do it anyway, a quick Google search will reveal the procedure, but please be aware of the following.

Caution. Google does not officially support Developer Mode and enabling it may void your warranty.  Also, turning it on will wipe your data from the device.  If that’s not enough to dissuade you, among the other things it does, Developer Mode will disable Verified Boot (which checks that the firmware and Chrome OS operating system haven’t been tampered with) which could potentially make your Chromebook less secure.

Chromebook specifications

At the end of the day, whichever Chromebook you buy, they all run the same operating system.  However, the hardware can differ quite dramatically as (like Windows laptops) various manufacturers produce them.

Typically, Chromebooks contain lower specs than equivalent Windows laptops.  This is because Chrome OS is a lightweight operating system and doesn’t require lots of system resources.  You’ll see this reflected when examining the hardware of available Chromebooks; some models have as little as 2GB RAM and 16GB internal storage – though the latter is not only due to Chrome OS requiring less space, but also because of the various file storage options (as we discussed earlier).

Similarly, lots of Chromebooks come with (what on a Windows laptop would be described as) a low power processor – part of the reason they have such excellent battery life; Intel Celerons are particularly popular.  Remember, Chrome OS doesn’t need lot of power to run nice and sprightly.

Variations on a theme

If you like the sound of using Chrome OS, a Chromebook isn’t your only option.

Chromebox

You could pick up a Chromebox.  If a Chromebook is Google’s idea of a laptop, then a Chromebox is the desktop equivalent.  These share many of the same principals as their portable sibling – lightweight hardware/software, small form-factor, low cost – but, unlike the laptop version, you connect these little boxes to a monitor, keyboard and mouse as you would any desktop PC.

Chromebit

If a Chromebox doesn’t fit the bill, how about a Chromebit?  Again, these tiny devices also run Chrome OS, but this time it’s squeezed into a dongle (manufactured by Asus and Google).  The obvious benefit here is you can use its HDMI connector to plug it straight into a TV, for example, turning your dumb old television into a modern smart internet connected device – especially useful when combined with media apps, such as Netflix and YouTube.

Turn an old laptop into a Chromebook

This one is great if you’ve got an old laptop lying around that’s no longer fit for running Windows.  Rather than dumping it, think of the environment and recycle instead by turning it into a Chromebook.  A company by the name of Neverware have released a product called CloudReady.  While this is chargeable for business use, it’s free to home users.  To get started, visit their website.

https://www.neverware.com/

Click the “CLOUDREADY EDITIONS” tab and choose “HOME”.  You can do this on Windows, Mac or even a Chromebook.  For the purpose of this feature, I’ll assume you’re using a Windows computer.  Scroll down the page and select the “Download USB Maker” button.  Save the file to your computer.  Note. You will need a USB flash drive of at least 8GB in size.

Connect the USB drive to your computer and double-click the file you just downloaded to run the software.  If a pop-up box appears asking if you want to allow the program to make changes to your computer, click “Yes”.  The CloudReady USB Creation Utility will open, click “Next” to proceed.  Leave the selection on “64-bit (recommended)” and click “Next” again.  Click “Next” on the Please insert… USB storage device screen.  Select your USB drive and click “Next” – wow, that was a lot of Nexts!

Now be prepared for a LONG wait (depending on the speed of your internet connection) as the operating system downloads.  Once it’s downloaded, it will extract and create an installer on your USB flash drive.  Again, this can take a while – why not put the kettle on and make a cuppa.  You will receive a CloudReady USB created message when the process has completed.  Click “Finish” and remove your USB flash drive.

It’s time to connect your USB drive to the laptop (or PC) on which you’d like to install CloudReady and turn the computer on.

Tone’s Tip. You may need to change the boot order for your computer in order for it to boot from the USB drive.  Some models of computer allow you to access a boot order screen (usually by tapping a key immediately after turning them on), on others you may need to change the boot order in the BIOS/UEFI.  Try googling the make/model of your computer followed by the words boot order to find how to do it on your specific hardware; “Lenovo Yoga 920 boot menu” (without the quotes), for example, if you happen to own a Lenovo Yoga 920.

You’ll know you’ve successfully enabled your computer to boot from the USB flash drive when CloudReady’s logo appears on the screen.  To read Neverware’s instructions on how to install the operating system, click on the following link.

https://www.neverware.com/freedownload

Tone’s Tip. Installing CloudReady will wipe your laptop/PCs hard drive, so make sure you back up any data first!

CloudReady is based on the free and open source Chromium OS (also produced by Google – in fact, Chrome OS itself is also derived from it).  In operation, there’s not a great deal of difference between them – you may have noticed that the colour of the Chrome web browser icon has changed from the usual red, green and yellow to three shades of blue (as this is actually the Chromium web browser).  Just as Chrome OS is based on Chromium OS, so, too, the Chrome web browser is based on the Chromium web browser.

Unfortunately, CloudReady doesn’t provide access to Google’s Play Store and its Android Apps (according to Neverware’s website this is “due to multiple legal and technical constraints”, and the situation doesn’t look likely to change).  Otherwise, you get most of the functionality you’d experience on a fully-fledged Chromebook – not bad for free!

Click here if you’d like to watch a technology show (on YouTube) discussing Neverware’s CloudReady.

Chrome OS on Raspberry Pi

A final option (at least for this feature) for getting your hands on Google’s operating system is available to those who have a Raspberry Pi – again, completely for free.  Here, you can install Chromium OS (the open source project introduced in the previous section) onto your Raspberry Pi.  To read more about this project and download the operating system, click on the following link.

https://sourceforge.net/projects/chromnium-os-for-all-sbc/

Why buy a Chromebook?

Now we’re getting to the real meat and potatoes of the topic.  Hopefully you’re starting to get to grips with precisely what a Chromebook is, and what it offers – particularly when compared to a (Windows) laptop.  Just to make life a little easier, let’s list some of what makes them such a good buy.

* Smaller size (lightweight) makes them easy to carry around
* Starts (boots) in seconds
* Operating system is quick and smooth
* Apps launch fast – even on relatively modest hardware
* Great shareable devices – permit multiple people to login
* Excellent battery life
* Data is secure (encrypted)
* Protection against malware and viruses
* Google Play Store (Android apps) – supported models
* Less intrusive updates

What’s it going to cost me?

The one thing I deliberately omitted from the previous list was price, as I thought it warranted a special mention here.  While Chromebooks come in all shapes and sizes, generally one thing that unites them is value.  Put simply, you get an awful lot of bang for your buck.  The fact Chrome OS can run comfortably on some pretty humble hardware means a large proportion of Chromebooks can be manufactured at a lower cost.  A substantial number are available at the cheaper end of the market – especially when compared to traditional laptops (some starting well under £200/$250).

That said, there are a growing number of more premium devices, catering to all manner of audiences.  Whether you just want to browse the web and chat on social media, or you’re seriously looking for something that could potentially replace your Macbook, there’s a model of Chromebook for you – and mostly at a lower price point than you may expect.

Certainly, your use case will need to be taken into account when choosing which Chromebook will best fulfil your needs.  This brings us nicely to the next point…

What to look for when buying

As I mentioned earlier, different manufacturers produce Chromebooks; it’s therefore important that you know what you’re looking for.  If you’re the sort of person who likes to have a lot of tabs open when browsing the web, and generally like to multi-task, then you’re going to want sufficient memory – definitely go for 4GB of RAM as a minimum.  If this sounds like you, then you may also want to consider a core i3 or i5 processor, rather than a slothful Celeron.

When it comes to internal storage, obviously how much you’ll require is going to depend on the amount of data you’d like to store locally.  If you’re happy to put nearly everything in the cloud, you’re not going to need a lot.  If, on the other hand, you’d prefer to keep a few things offline, then you’ll naturally want more.  Remember, most Chromebooks include a (micro) SD card slot, so you can always expand your local storage that way.

As Chromebooks are internet connected devices, it’s worth paying special attention to the wireless specification.  Check what network adapter the model you’re interested in is using.  Be sure that it supports Wireless-AC, for the best connection speed.  Also ensure that Bluetooth is supported, as this can be handy for connecting other devices wirelessly – a Bluetooth mouse, for example.

Another important component to look at is, quite literally, the screen.  You may have noticed that lots of Chromebooks have relatively small displays; with sizes around 11 inches not being uncommon.  My advice here is to try and see one in the flesh to make sure you’re comfortable with the viewing experience (and the overall proportions).

Also, take into account the screen’s resolution: 1366×768 might not look too bad on a 10 inch display, but at 14 inches things will be looking decidedly less crisp.  Full HD (1920×1080) is always a nice option, if available.  Likewise, an IPS (in-plane switching) panel is preferable for it wider viewing angles.  Lastly, with regards to the screen, if you’re planning on taking advantage of all those Android apps, definitely go for a Chromebook that includes a touchscreen – some of these models even flip right over into a full-blown tablet mode (often called convertibles).  You may also want a stylus, possibly a pressure sensitive one.

If you plan to spend much time consuming media, give the speakers a thought.  Likewise, think about HDMI for extending the display, or USB-C – the connector formerly known as USB Type-C (sounds like a pop artist reinventing him, or her, self) – with an adapter.  You may also want to consider a back-lit keyboard – could come in handy when dimming the lights to watch all those movies.

Whatever your use case, make sure the model you’re contemplating has all of the ports you need to hook up any external devices.  Lastly, consider the finish; are you happy with plain plastic, or would you sooner go for a swish-looking brushed aluminium?  To help you get started finding what’s out there, check out the following Google page.

https://www.google.com/chromebook/find-yours/

Is a Chromebook for you?

Decision time.  If you haven’t already, should you invest in a Chromebook?  They’re certainly gaining in popularity – we’ve deployed lots of them at work – and it’s not hard to see why.  It really boils down to what you want to use it for.  For lighter tasks; office work, email and browsing the web, they’re ideal – you can even throw in some light video editing and casual gaming, too.  The key word then is, perhaps, light. If you’re looking for a powerful workhorse – a video encoding, data chewing, tripe-A-gaming monster – you’d best turn your sights elsewhere.

To use a Chromebook, you will require a Google account (which are free, if you don’t happen to have one already).  Even Microsoft prefers that you login to Windows 10 using one of their online accounts.  Yet Windows doesn’t foist this upon us; you can still create a local account, if you’d sooner.  With Chrome OS, if you opt not to use a Google account (and, even then, you’ll still need one to set it up in the first place) that just leaves you with guest mode.  Sure, it doesn’t require you to sign in, which is okay for a friend wanting to look something up on the internet, but everything (including files) will be deleted when you log out – making it practically unusable as a regular account.

You may also be concerned about privacy; after all, won’t Google know even more about you than they already do?  This may be true, but, if you’re already using any of their “free” services, they already have a pretty good idea of what you get up to online.  Since they’re most likely tracking your digital footprint right now, why not jump in with both feet and sell your electronic soul to the Big G in the cloud (that’s Google, by the way).

Maybe you’re not keen on the fact that, despite all the improvements, Chromebooks still require an internet connection to get the best out of them; but, come on, it’s not 1990 any more – you tell me what computer these days doesn’t benefit from being connected to the World Wide Web (WWW)?

Of course, Chromebooks make the most sense if you’re already on-board with Google’s web services – just look in the figure at how many there are!  If you currently default to Google search to browse the web, Gmail for your email and YouTube for watching those all important cat videos, you’ll certainly get a smooth and streamlined experience by using a Chromebook.

That’s not to say that you have to use all of Google’s services; even on a Chromebook.  There’s nothing stopping you from taking advantage of a few alternatives.  For example, you could use a different email provider almost as easily as Gmail, especially if that provider offers webmail.  You can even use a different search engine, such as DuckDuckGo (if you prefer a bit of privacy).

As we’ve discussed, there are lots of ways you can start using Chrome OS; suiting a wide range of consumers and an even wider range of budgets.  Of course, you can carry out much of what a Chromebook offers on an average Windows laptop (and more besides).  You could install the Chrome browser and away you go (though you won’t have access to the Google Play Store, or the dedicated apps and games), but to think of a Chromebook this way is kind of missing the point.

If the functionality a Chromebook provides is sufficient, why spend more?  Sure, if you need to install some program or other that you simply can’t do without, then, by all means, buy a Windows laptop (or a Macbook, if you have the cash to splash), but we’re moving into an age where more and more can be done with nothing more than an web browser.

If your workflow (and leisure activities) can be taken care of with the features that a Chromebook provides, they’ll be more benefits than the price; it’ll start faster, run smoother, and generally cause you less aggravation than a fully-fledged laptop.  Nor will you be worrying about all the malware and viruses that specifically targets those Windows machines…

When you start to look at it like this, Google’s proposition starts to make a whole lot more sense and a Chromebook could be just the ticket.

Full disclaimer. The screenshots in this feature were taken on my own personal laptop running Neverware’s Cloud Ready, as reviewed earlier.