What can I do with a Chromebook?

I recently bought a Chromebook. Over the years I have had a short, unimpressive experience with one of those “Netbooks” that tried to create a place in the market so I was prepared to be a little disappointed. However, the critical role this thing had to fulfill is to be a backup computer to RDP into work if my primary system died so I was willing to put up with some limitations as long as it could plug that hole.

The first thing I learned during this process is that customer reviews from Chromebook users are almost totally useless. They mostly consist of incredibly naive and clearly non-technical people who were shocked and dismayed that their $250 “laptop” did not run Windows or MS Office. I doubt the critical thinking skills of these people because if it were possible to produce such a beast at that price point, it seems obvious to me that the market would be flush with them. Having said that, there are some low end $350 full-blown laptops out there from Acer and HP so the market is pretty close.

Once you get rid of the cruft, the remaining reviews from bloggers and tech sites don’t really reveal any information that isn’t written right on the box. Chromebooks are such simple machines that it takes about 5 seconds to rattle off the specs and sockets and you’re done. Watch – sockets: 1 joint mic/headphone jack, 1 HDMI port, 1 USB 2.0 port, 1 USB 3.0 port, one multi-SD Card reader, 1 webcam. Now specs: 1 dual core 1.7 ARM CPU, 2GB RAM, Webcam, keyboard, trackpad. Done. So the real magic, the real reviews, the real information that I was looking for is not what is it but rather, what can I DO with it? That information is hard to come by.

Chromebooks run Google’s ChromeOS which is essentially a big ol’ browser. Therefore, the only apps you can run are extensions built for the Chrome browser, or apps built specifically for ChromeOS itself. If you want to know what a using a Chromebook is like and you happen to be running Windows 8, put your Chrome browser into Windows 8 mode. That is exactly what running a Chromebook is like except you can’t minimize it and go do something else. The browser is the OS.

So what does this mean to you? That depends entirely on how you use your computer. For me, switching to ChromeOS was a non-event. I don’t use local storage anymore except for a few documents I don’t want in the cloud and despite the relatively small storage space on my Chromebook (16GB), I am not even close to running out of space. For me, this is a fully functional laptop because pretty much the only thing I use my computer for anymore is as a connection point to the Internet. My life already is a browser.

On the flip side, if you make heavy use of your local machine (like you’re a gamer or you need to run specific applications) then you’re going to have a tough time and this machine is not for you. Chromebook critics like to point out that you can’t run applications that you may need and they almost always throw out Microsoft Office as an app you won’t be able to use. I have to ask myself, in 2014, who really needs MS Office anyhow? We’re past specific apps now and we’re well into functionality. In other words, we’ve gone from “I have to use MS Office” to “I have to create a document”. The application used to create documents, spreadsheets, slide shows, etc is irrelevant to virtually everyone but a small percentage of people who are locked into the Office product due to work or some other weird situation. I also have to wonder who actually creates documents and spreadsheets and slide shows anymore. I am definitely on the techie side of the world’s population and I have one spreadsheet to do some budgeting on and that is about it. I just don’t make documents anymore – if I am writing something down it is because someone else needs to see it so I write an email or blog post instead.

If you happen to be a technologist, you can drastically extend the Chromebook’s abilities. I mentioned at the top of my post that one of the critical roles I needed this device to fill was to be able to RDP into work. Generally, except in some very specific setups at work, this cannot be done with a Chromebook. However, being a Google device, Chromebooks are very easily put into “developer mode” and from there it is child’s play to use a tool like Crouton to install a full blown Linux distro side-by-side with ChromeOS. This setup is far and away the best part of my Chromebook for a couple of reasons. First, it is not dual-boot; I simply fire up my Chromebook, open a shell with CTRL+SHIFT+T and start up Ubuntu in a chroot. I can flip back and forth from my running Ubuntu instance to my Chromebook and it runs them side by side with ease. The second good part is that putting your Chromebook into developer mode is not like rooting or jail-breaking your phone. It is a totally reversible process so if you decide you don’t want it in this state any more, or if you sell your Chromebook, you can easily take it out of Developer Mode without leaving a trace.

I’m happy to answer questions about what can and cannot be done with a Chromebook if anyone is looking to buy one and wants some answers before hand.