My Year of Chrome: A follow-up review after 365 days with Google Chrome OS

( Words)
It was Christmas of 2014 when I received my Samsung Chromebook. I'd been very intrigued about Google's Chrome OS for months and was really looking forward to taking it for a spin. The Chromebook became my primary computer for daily usage, giving me a thorough idea of what the young operating system can and can't do. It also helped me understand Google's intent with creating this very unique ecosystem, which I plan to discuss a little later. Recently, I bought a new MacBook Pro. I've loved Macs ever since I bought my first in 2007 just after Apple redesigned the base model MacBook,…

Chrome OS on Samsung Chromebook

Design & Build Quality - 75%
Hardware - 60%
Display - 58%
Software - 71%
Performance - 50%
Battery Life - 75%
Value - 82%

67%

Fair

A slim, web-dependent operating system meant for low-cost, basic hardware, Chromebook is optimal for web browsing, email, word processing, light YouTubing, and very little else. Seamless integration of Google apps is nice, and Chrome OS does occasionally impress in certain areas. However, don't expect many tasks that you'll get from a Mac or Windows PC. Also, prepare to be disappointed by the pitiful app selection and lack of crossover with the Android. Anyone with more than basic computing needs should pass on Chrome OS unless it's going to be a second computer.

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It was Christmas of 2014 when I received my Samsung Chromebook. I’d been very intrigued about Google’s Chrome OS for months and was really looking forward to taking it for a spin. The Chromebook became my primary computer for daily usage, giving me a thorough idea of what the young operating system can and can’t do. It also helped me understand Google’s intent with creating this very unique ecosystem, which I plan to discuss a little later.

Recently, I bought a new MacBook Pro. I’ve loved Macs ever since I bought my first in 2007 just after Apple redesigned the base model MacBook, making it stark white and plastic and kind of ugly. Since then, the designs of personal computers have become much sleeker than my old MacBook, and the software running these machines has evolved a lot, too. Many of us are expecting our computers to breeze through multiple layers of ever-intensifying tasks, but there are those whose computing needs remain simple, limited to the most basic essentials of computing like Facebook and email.

Asus Eee PC 7-inch
Photo courtesy of Engadget

The term “netbook” isn’t exactly new, but it’s used much more now than it was when I first heard it. Back then, a netbook was a small, ultra-portable notebook computer running Windows XP and intended for basic tasks like web browsing and word processing; those tiny Asus netbooks with 7-inch screens sold at places like Staples and OfficeDepot for $150 nearly a decade ago come to mind. They were perfect for students on a budget, kids who were just beginning to use computers for more than book reports, and those whose needs were basic or required portability. While the netbooks of today are based on many of those same principles, they’ve become more faithful, literal interpretations of the term with many even requiring a connection to “the net” for a user to gain access to certain functions. However, portability and practicality remain paramount a crucial objective in today’s netbook designs.

When Google first introduced Chrome OS and Chromebooks in 2011, the traits that identified a computer as a netbook rather than a regular notebook or laptop shifted. With today’s personal computing revolving around the internet, it seemed logical to design Chromebooks with internet connectivity at the very center of its interface. It’s as if Google asked, “Do non-internet-connected computers even exist anymore?” So when you buy a Chromebook, you use your Gmail login in the same way you would would type a user password into a protected Windows notebook, giving you access to the home screen. When you begin downloading apps, you’re downloading the same apps on Chrome OS that you’ve probably used on the Chrome browser of your Windows or Mac computer. With the advent of cloud storage, Chromebooks have done away with big, internal hard drives, which would only add unnecessary weight, right?

With Windows and Mac, internet connectivity is a feature or capability of the operating systems, which source the internet as an information network; with Chrome OS, your Chromebook is the conduit through which you exchange data and interact with the internet.

Needless to say, many aspects of Chrome OS were intriguing to me because of how different Google’s OS was from anything I’d used before. With Windows and Mac, internet connectivity is a feature or capability of the operating systems, which source the internet as an information network; with Chrome OS, your Chromebook becomes the conduit through which you can exchange data and interact with the internet. So being the naturally curious type that I am, I was very interested to see whether Google’s version of the netbook could offer the same level of functionality and user experience, even if that functionality and user experience are different from what I’m used to.

I was most interested in finding out whether the tasks for which a person uses a Windows of Mac computer could also be completed using Chrome OS with its highly publicized simplicity, compactness, straightforwardness, and strategy of leveraging web apps and cloud storage instead of installing programs on an internal hard drive, the latter of which is essentially the premise of the operating system and supposedly intended to make the OS more secure.

At this point, it’s been a year since I began using a Samsung Chromebook as my primary personal computer. Over the past 365 days, I’ve gained a lot of insight into the utility of Chromebooks, the areas in which they excel and those in which they fall short. Being as unbiased as I can, I’m conducting a follow-up review, recounting the Chromebook’s strengths and weaknesses to debrief my year of using Chrome OS.

So let’s jump right into it…

Design & Portability of Samsung Chromebook

Although there are now larger-sized Chromebooks for those who want more screen real estate, the first Chromebooks — including my Samsung Chromebook — were designed to be small, light, and portable. Picking up my Samsung Chromebook, it’s almost hard to believe it’s a full-functioning computer with how little it weighs. According to the specs, it’s less than an inch thick at 0.7 and weighs just 2.4 pounds, which is less than the 13-inch MacBook Air (2.96 pounds) and only one-third of a pound more than the new ultra-light MacBook (2.03 pounds), which has been stripped of all but the one port it needs to charge. However, having only a very small internal flash drive and no internal fan is what helps Chromebook stay girlishly slim, which is a godsend when it comes to travel. I’ve taken my Chromebook with me on a number of brief out-of-town trips as well as to a few coffee shops and I was always impressed with how easy it is to carry around.

Samsung Chromebook MacBook Air
Samsung Chromebook (top) and MacBook Air (bottom) courtesy of CNET

As for aesthetics, it’s more or less on par with other computers, such as any you might find on display at Best Buy, but with a few notes. The hinge connecting the two halves of the Chromebook is clunky and would be more elegant if it was smaller. The main issue I had with its design was the bezel around the screen, which seemed enormous to me; at a glance, I’d estimate it to be an inch on all sides but the bottom where it approaches an inch and a half. While you can definitely see elements of Samsung’s design in places like the tapered edges that are most apparent when you see the computer’s profile, it’s clear that this is a budget-friendly computer and, therefore, wouldn’t get the same razzle-dazzle treatment reserved for devices with bigger price tags.

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Samsung Chromebook Features & Specs

Since it was made to be a bargain-priced, easy-to-use netbook, my Samsung Chromebook didn’t come with too many bells and whistles; however, there are more and more Chromebooks offering higher-end features these days, namely Google’s own Pixel, an admittedly stunning Chromebook that comes in 8GB of RAM with Intel Core i5 ($999) and 16GB of RAM with Intel Core i7 ($1,299) configurations. At such a high price, Pixel will appeal mostly to the die-hard Chrome OS lovers, however many there are.

I think I covered all the specifications of my Chromebook when I did my Samsung Chromebook and Chrome OS review more than a year ago, but I’ll mention them again here to use as a reference when I talk about performance. The diagonal screen size is 11.6-inches with 1366×768 pixels, which is adequate but definitely not HD. It’s reported to offer 6.5 hours of battery life and packs a Samsung Exynos 5 dual-core processor, which is tablet-level in terms of power, and 16GB of hard drive storage in the form of a solid state drive. There’s a front-facing VGA camera, Bluetooth 3.0 (not 4.0), and dual-band WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n with optional 3G compatibility although my Chromebook doesn’t have the wireless compatibility. Additionally, it offers a single USB 3.0 port, two USB 2.0 ports, and an HDMI port as well as 100GB of cloud storage from Google Drive when you first setup the Chromebook.

Chromebook’s Power & Usability

When it comes down to performance and usability, this is where the Chromebook both excels and falls short. I know that sounds confusing, but here’s what I mean…

Samsung Chromebook profile
Photo courtesy of Google

The best things about the Chromebook are its ease of use, its simplicity, the seamless integration of Google’s services and apps, and its quick startup time (10 seconds or less). If you’ve used an Android phone and/or Google’s Chrome browser on a Windows or Mac computer, you’ll have little to no difficulty sitting down at a Chromebook and navigating the user interface. Chrome OS feels a lot like the Chrome browser that’s been expanded to encompass an entire computer, which is reminiscent of how AOL was packaged as an all-in-one program for web browsing, email, searching, messaging with others, &etc. back in the dial-up era.

Chrome OS was designed so tasks that pertain to browsing the web are readily accessible at all times. However, when I first started using my Chromebook it seemed like that was all there was to it: a glorified web browser. Although I’d known beforehand that Chromebooks couldn’t run the programs I’d used on my MacBook Pro, I could immediately feel just how cut off I was from programs like the Adobe Creative Suite and Microsoft Office.

I was too distracted by its incompatibility with traditional software to realize I didn’t actually need most of what Chrome OS couldn’t run. And for things like word processing and light image editing, there were Chrome apps either just as good or nearly as good as what I was used to.

After that initial shock, I realized that the Chromebook was pretty much sufficient for my daily needs, most of which revolve around internet usage. Although I love having powerful Adobe software at the ready, I wasn’t using those programs on a daily basis at the time. I was too distracted by the Chromebook’s incompatibility with traditional software to realize that I didn’t actually need most of the programs Chrome OS couldn’t run. Moreover, for things like word processing and some light image editing, Chromebook either had its own offerings that were just as good or nearly as good as what I was used to.

It took about a week or so to find all the replacement apps I would need in order to do just about any task on the Chromebook that I had previously done on a Mac. Essentially, my use had been distilled down to using Google Docs and Google Sheets in lieu of Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel; additionally, I was using a Chrome app called Pixlr to compensate for a few photo editing tasks for which I’d occasionally used Adobe Photoshop. Granted, one could say there’s no comparison between the two as Pixlr is nowhere near as nowhere near as powerful and efficient as Photoshop, but Pixlr has a layers system and blending modes that are very similar to that of Photoshop and which more or less served my occasional needs.

Pixlr Chrome OS
Pixlr screenshot courtesy of Google

Perhaps my favorite thing about Chrome OS is a testament to its impressive usability. When you log into a Chromebook with your Google username and password, it connects to your Google Drive where you’ll immediately see and have access to all of the files you’ve created using Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Slide, and other Google apps. This gives you on-demand access to your entire catalogue of past and present documents, which is unbelievably useful if you find yourself needing a file while you’re not near your computer. Additionally, you can use your Google login on any Chromebook and get the same level of access. I know that Windows and Mac computers have been offering built-in services that achieve the same effect, but it’s perfectly seamless in Google Chrome, requiring zero setup or effort.

Samsung Chromebook keyboard
Photo courtesy of Google

Concerning the Samsung Chromebook in particular, I really enjoyed its full-sized keyboard. Although typing on them produced somewhat cheap-sounding, hollow clicking, the keys are nice and big, making typing very enjoyable. I’d heard that Chromebook trackpads were problematic and unreliable, but I didn’t really have much of an issue with the one on my Samsung Chromebook. Granted, I used a wireless mouse for about eight months of the past year, but when I was using it the trackpad seemed to work fine. I found it to be of more than adequate size as well, bigger even than the trackpads of many compact Windows notebooks I’ve seen lately.

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The Trouble with Google Chrome OS

Unfortunately, Chrome OS isn’t without its drawbacks. In fact, many of its strengths, when considered from another perspective, could also be considered weaknesses, the most obvious of which is its dependence on Google’s apps, services, and cloud storage. While this dependence on internet connectivity makes certain things more convenient, there are a couple issues inherent with this.

Firstly, there’s the issue of what happens when you have no internet connection? There was a rumor when Chromebooks were first released that they were virtually useless without an internet connection, a rumor likely due to early feedback of Chrome OS being the Chrome browser on steroids. That’s not quite the case and with the updates released since its initial launch, Chrome OS is a bit more functional without the internet. Still, there are a number of things that Chromebooks can’t do without the internet, including using most apps that aren’t made by Google and, therefore, aren’t integrated into the operating system in the same way as Google Docs, for example. Additionally, you can still do your word processing without the internet, but the security that you’ll have when you can’t fully save your work is questionable and, I find, not worth the gamble since it’s not clear how the wait-to-save-when-it-connects-to-the-internet function really works.

There’s also the fact that you’re essentially locked into using Google’s apps and services whether you want to or not. It’s true that there’s a cloud-based, subscription version of Microsoft Office and even Android versions of Microsoft Office apps, but you’ll have to go figure out how to get those setup and working on your own, and I believe there’s a subscription involved. Plus they won’t get the benefit of native integration and support, and there’s also the likelihood that they’ll be rendered useless without an internet connection.

Samsung Chromebook rear ports
Photo courtesy of Google

Speaking of which, I found that the most desirable apps for Chrome OS actually required internet access to be used. Those that could be used “offline” were typically Google’s own apps, and, again, I’m leery as to exactly how much offline functionality you actually get. I can’t help but to feel more secure using programs that are installed on my computer and files saved to an internal hard drive rather than using web apps and relying on the enigmatic, intangible cloud.

On the other hand, one could ask, “Why would you buy a Google Chromebook if you don’t want to use Google’s services? And why would you buy a netbook if you’re so concerned about offline functionality?” It’s not so much about having unrealistic expectations of a device that’s pretty upfront with what it can and can’t do, with its capabilities and limitations; however, at a time when most companies are trying to break down the partitions between disparate technologies by making versatile technologies that offer the functionality of several devices in one, Chromebook is a device that claims to offer versatility while actually being rather limited in its applications. In other words, rather than making the Chromebook a computer than can suit a variety of user needs, it seems to be best suited to those who need only the most basic functions in their computers. For anyone with more-than-basic computing needs, it’s virtually impossible to use a Chromebook as your primary, sole computer. The problem with this is much the same as what I thought about tablets when they first started appearing several years ago: If you have to keep a second device to compensate for what the this device can’t do, what’s the point?

Samsung Chromebook
Photo courtesy of Google

What’s more, although I’d never really considered myself a “power user“, spending a year using only Chrome OS on a Samsung Chromebook made me realize that I need a lot more functionality in a computer than the bare minimum.

With 2GB of internal RAM, my Chromebook was peppy at opening apps, but it got considerably slower when juggling different tasks simultaneously. According to how its advertised, Chrome OS is designed to source additional RAM from the hard drive once the actual RAM is nearing full usage. This is supposed to be most apparent when web browsing with multiple tabs as the Chromebook will begin feeding off the internal hard drive in order to simulate additional RAM and keep each of the tabs loaded, saving you from having to wait for each tab’s webpage to reload every time you switch between them. While I found this to be true when using only a handful of tabs, anymore than that and the feature no longer works, which got incredibly frustrating. After the first handful, when I’d click back on a previous tab it would begin loading the page as if I’d just typed it into address bar in a new tab. By comparison, I’d been accustomed to the power of my old MacBook Pro that could continue loading tabs without needing to dump the data from the first ones as I loaded more, but that’s a bit beyond the capability of my Chromebook.

Chrome browser on Chromebook
Photo courtesy of Amazon

Another major drawback to the Chromebook is something that I actually didn’t experience until very recently when I tried to print something. With my MacBooks, I could basically plug a printer into the USB and be printing less than a minute later. However, printing with the Chromebook was problematic to say the least. In fact, after I spent ten stressful minutes trying to figure it out, adding the printer’s settings to the Chromebook directly and then to Google’s Cloud Print so I could select the printer as the destination of the PDF I needed, I ended up having my boyfriend print for me using his Windows PC because I just couldn’t get it to work on my Chromebook.

It also didn’t seem to give me many options in terms of connectivity with other devices, such as when I connected my Samsung Galaxy Note 4 with my Samsung Chromebook, both via USB and via Bluetooth. At first, I could copy files from my phone into my Chromebook, but not the other way around. Then a few months later I was able to copy files both ways, presumably due to an update; however, there didn’t seem to be any options for tethering to a smartphone in order to connect to its wireless network. Fortunately, that’s a feature I’m very unlikely to ever need or use, at least anytime soon.

Finally, there’s the issue of apps. The app selection for Chromebooks is abysmal. You’d think that with there being so many Android apps available for Android phones, Chrome OS would have a pretty extensive library of apps available, too, but that was most definitely not the case. I looked for many of the apps I use regularly on my Note 4 in the Chrome app store and nine times out of ten, there wouldn’t be a version of the app available for Chromebooks. And while apps on an Android smartphone operate separately and completely independently of the device’s web browser, most apps you can download on a Chromebook open as a tab in the Chrome browser, making it feel cheap or like I’m using some knock-off substitute for a personal computer. In Chromebook’s defense, many apps give you the option to open in their own window rather than as a tab in the Chrome browser, but it’s technically just opening a web app in a separate Chrome window.

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Why Review Chrome OS on Samsung Chromebook?

In this review of my year using Chrome OS, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve been reviewing both the operating system and the Samsung Chromebook simultaneously, almost as if they’re one and the same. Since I don’t want to ruffle the feathers of anyone who’s on Team Chromebook, I thought I’d take a moment to clarify why I chose to do my review(s) in this way.

As I mentioned above, Google intended for Chrome OS to be a very lightweight and almost minimalist operating system that would leverage web apps and cloud storage rather than installing large programs to a big, heavy internal hard drive. The major reasons for designing the operating system in such a way, among the many reasons I’m sure Google had, were to make Chrome OS safer and less susceptible to malware, with much simpler architecture than Windows and Mac OS X, and to allow Chrome OS to perform well on systems with relatively low specs that are, therefore, incredibly affordable compared to MacBooks and Microsoft’s Surface line.

To put this another way, Chrome OS was the expansion of a very powerful web browser into an operating system with more oomph than a mobile OS and slightly less functionality than a desktop OS, in which Google was quite successful. And if you remember, the first Chromebooks — made by Samsung and Acer — were cheaply made and designed, running on Intel Atom dual-core N570 processors, which was one of the worst-performing processors even when it was brand new in 2011; look at these benchmarks if you want to see just how bad. However, Chrome was intended to be such a simple, compact operating system that it could run well even on a system burdened with an abysmal processor.

Within a year or two, the Chromebook market exploded; everyone was intrigued by a new desktop operating system made by Google, one of the most trusted tech companies with millions of devoted fans. And while plastic, 11-inch notebook computers running Chrome OS were a dime a dozen, it was very uncommon to find a Chromebook manufactured with anything but basic, off-the-shelf components. When we did eventually begin to see these more premium Chromebooks, the public had become well aware of the limitations of Chrome OS, resulting in most Chromebook buyers not wanting to pay a premium for a high-end Chromebook when it’s going to be a secondary computer that lacks a number of key functions they’d get in a Windows or Mac notebook.

And that seems to be the conundrum that we’re finding ourselves in. I readily admit that a number of the complaints I have about Chrome OS would likely be resolved by using a more premium Chromebook; and while there are plenty of them that exist now, there’s really no market for them. Again, who’s going to spend what they could pay for a Microsoft Surface or MacBook for a Chromebook?

So while I could’ve reviewed Chrome OS and my Samsung Chromebook separately, I chose to review Chrome OS on the Samsung Chromebook, both of them together as a single experience, because I strongly feel that Chrome’s performance on my Samsung will be more or less the same as Chrome’s performance on just about any other Chromebook. The bleak reality is that you’re probably not going to have an optimal Chrome experience unless you buy a Pixel or some other higher-end Chromebook, but at that price tier you’ll probably be much happier going with an actual full-featured computer with a bonafide operating system instead of a cheap notebook with an operating system consisting of a web browser on steroids.

My Year with Chrome: Summary

The bottom line is that while I’m pretty impressed with my Chromebook, I’m also relieved to be using a MacBook Pro as my primary computing device once again. Being an Android smartphone user, Chrome OS has a very familiar landscape, but there’s weirdly a lot less overlap between the two ecosystems than you’d expect; I mean, Chrome OS doesn’t even utilize the Material Design style. Moreover, you can’t download apk files to install Android apps on a Chromebook like you can on an Android smartphone, which feels like a missed opportunity and serves to highlight the partition between the two systems. Making apk files compatible with Chrome OS feels like a no-brainer and the most obvious way to make Chrome and Android operating systems feel more like members of the same family. And this would also encourage crossover between the two operating systems, which is yet another reason why I don’t understand the lack of compatibility.

In terms of what I liked, I am impressed with how much I ended up being able to do on my Chromebook. The seamless Google integration is definitely another major selling point for some, especially if you’re someone who isn’t very tech savvy. Being a writer, Chrome OS gave me on-demand access to hundreds of files containing everything I’ve written for my clients, never more than just a few quick clicks away. However, the drawbacks of having a Chromebook rather than a Windows or Mac computer outweigh its strengths, at least for me personally. Lately, I’ve had more need for Adobe programs and having been taking web coding and development courses that would be all but impossible on a Chromebook. Due to the functionality I need from a computer right now, my Chromebook no longer meets my needs.

Samsung Chromebook
Photo courtesy of Samsung

Having said that, there are a number of people for whom Chromebook offers everything they need and more. If your computing needs are web browsing, sending and receiving email, word processing, and some light YouTubing, Chrome OS is more than enough. In particular, I feel like children who are just learning to use computers and the elderly who are befuddled and discombobulated by technology are well-suited to this intuitive and somewhat minimalist operating system. There’s certainly a market for low-priced, ultra-portable, entry-level netbooks, but they’re Chromebooks are not well-suited to everyone’s needs, especially those who need the specs and power of higher-end devices.

About the author

My name is Dane. I'm a writer at Android Authority as well as a tech journalist in general. As well, I'm a marketing guru, designer, and a budding web developer. My passions include portmanteaus, artisanal coffees, jackets, and the smell of fresh technology in the morning.