Is a Chromebook right for you?

Like a lot of people, I’ve wondered if a Chromebook is for me since they hit the scene a couple of years ago. The price tags on these devices are certainly attractive and their lightweight, minimalist design is appealing from a portability standpoint but would I miss the functionality of the full operating systems my desktop PC and MacBook offer? Would I lose productivity when not connected to WiFi. Naturally, I had to investigate by getting my mitts on an 11.6” Samsung Chromebook.

Chromebooks run on Google’s own Chrome Operating System, which is almost completely stripped down and consists primarily of a Chrome web browser—no traditional software here. The few apps that I did see on my screen once I set it up were primarily just links to the browser apps. Essentially, this means that the Chromebook is little more than a doorway to the Internet. However, the increasing number of web-based applications at our disposal turns this simple doorway into a very powerful tool.

When I first started up my Samsung Chromebook, I signed into my existing Google account, which synced my Chrome browser bookmarks and set up my Gmail, Google Docs, etc. Aside from some OS updates—Google releases new ones every six weeks—I was ready to go… That was easy!

As I mentioned earlier, a Chromebook does not use traditional software. Instead, it relies on web-based applications such as Google Drive and Google Calendar. While the Google Drive applications provide most of the functionality the average user needs in their word-processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software, I found that since I’m more familiar with Microsoft office a subscription to Office 365 was the perfect complement to my Chromebook.

Having mentioned a couple of times now that a Chromebook only runs web-based applications, you’re probably wondering what happens when there isn’t an Internet connection. I have to admit that this was my chief concern as well. Like most users, I’m very accustomed to having a lot of my applications residing on my system and there’s a certain comfort in knowing that I can access them both on and offline. With the presence of WiFi in most establishments, airports, and offices, this turned out to be less of an inconvenience than I anticipated. When I really didn’t have access to WiFi, I could use my phone to create a personal hotspot. In a pinch, an increasing number of Chromebook apps have limited offline functionality. For example, Gmail Offline allows me to read, write, and archive my email without an Internet connection. Once my Chromebook connects to WiFi, the application syncs the messages and folders.

Another concern I had about using a Chromebook was the limited hard drive space, which is designed to encourage you to use the cloud for storage. I quickly discovered that this isn’t as big of an adjustment to my existing workflow as I anticipated. Because I often collaborate on documents, I was already using cloud storage solutions such as DropBox to store files and make them accessible to employees and clients. My Chromebook files are saved to Google Drive, which provides 100GB of free cloud storage.

So, what’s the bottom line? I actually found that using the Chromebook was not quite as much of an adjustment as I had anticipated, thanks to ubiquity of web-based applications, WiFi, and cloud storage services. The minimalist operating system also means that the Chromebook is always fast and doesn’t get bogged down with software. It’s also incredibly light and portable. For the price tag, this is definitely a worthwhile addition to my tech arsenal.

By Mike Agerbo

August 20, 2013