Google’s Chrome OS has been around for a few years by now. I remember reading about it and checking out display models in stores when it first came out. Since I converted to Mac quite a while ago, I expect quite a lot from my computer. I need tons of power, speed, versatility… I need my computer to be able to handle everything and anything I can throw at it, and then some for good measure. To top it off, I need my computer to be able to handle all my demanding tasks simultaneously. That’s not unreasonable, is it?
Being a proud Mac user, I couldn’t imagine a situation using or wanting a Chromebook. The impression I got from playing around with Chromebook display units was essentially that it was a web browser masquerading as an operating system, so I didn’t feel like Chrome had the utility I needed. It seemed like Chromebooks would be rendered useless without an internet connection, although admittedly there are very few places where one can’t connect these days. However, I didn’t want my computer to be essentially a giant paperweight in those infrequent times when I wasn’t or couldn’t be connected to the internet.
Ever since I bought my first MacBook, my usage has evolved quite a bit. When I was in school, I was using Adobe programs pretty much every day; I was running Microsoft Office (for Mac), downloading tons of media and syncing it to my suite of Apple devices, editing photos and video, among other things. Nowadays, however, I don’t really do all those things: I write, I browse the web, I read, I stream videos. Most of my usage requires little more than modern specs and an internet connection.
Recently I dove headlong into content writing. As a full-time freelance writer, I found it to be a nuisance not to have a lightweight, portable, and still full-featured computer for writing that I could easily take with me wherever I go and have on my lap for an hour without setting my legs on fire or cutting off my circulation. When I started reading lots of praise about the new compact operating system, I began to reconsider the Chromebook, which I’d been eyeing curiously for several months anyway.
I reevaluated my needs and decided I would buy a Chromebook. (My boyfriend, however, beat me to the punch and got me a Samsung Chromebook for Christmas.) I briefly worked at a retail store that carried Chromebooks so I already knew how to navigate Chrome OS, but now that I’ve had more in-depth and hands-on experience with my Samsung Chromebook, I decided to write a review of Chrome OS, my thoughts and impressions, and dispel some misconceptions about Chrome OS and Chromebooks.
Development of Google Chrome OS
The first Chromebooks were available from Samsung and Acer and shipped in July 2011. However, it had been in development over the several years prior.
Chrome OS — a Linux-based operating system with an architecture based on web applications — was first officially announced on July 7, 2009, and initially slated for a mid-2010 release. A beta version was installed on about 200 computers for use and testing by Google employees to get the first usage statistics and metrics for analysis, which helped to identify bugs and useful features to add, and to generally refine the infant operating system. Noting their own usage, developers found that they used Chrome for frequent, short periods to browse the web, compose and send emails, and conduct searches. It was these features they identified in particular that they decided should be highlighted and streamlined in Chrome OS, making them as fast and accessible as possible.
In November 2009, an open source project was made publicly available to anyone with the skill set to contribute toward a new operating system; Google called it Chromium OS. A 17-year-old UK college student worked on it and made leaps and bounds of progress, surpassing what even Google had put into it. The teen tech prodigy is largely responsible for the Chromium that, after additional refinement and polishing, was repackaged as Chrome OS and shipped on select computer systems. This system in which developers do coding on Chromium and repackage the improved version as Chrome, the consumer version, is still in place today.
In the planning phase, one of Google’s primary objectives for Chrome OS was to develop an operating system that was faster than any other system available, compact, and affordable. To do this, developers stripped Chrome of all the intensive background processes that slow down computers running other operating systems.
At the time, Google had released and was having much success with the Chrome web browser. It was light incredibly and responsive. The concept for Chrome OS, then, was to take the Chrome browser and expand it, making it the basis for the operating system; in particular, they concentrated on the tabs and web applications. Simplifying the system so that only the barest skeleton would run on the computer’s physical drive while the cloud became the system’s primary storage eliminated the need for background system-checking tasks that tend to occupy much of the RAM on other computers. In fact, Chrome OS takes up barely any disc space at all and is just 1/60th the size of Windows [tweet]. Chrome OS could be installed on and run from a 4GB flash drive, which is actually how the first iterations of Chromium was passed from developer to developer.
Another source of inspiration was Android OS used in smartphones and tablet computers. Specifically, Chrome OS was designed to incorporate many principles of mobile operating systems, but expanded for a broader computing experience. This led to a dependence on web applications, which are a lot like apps you’d download on a mobile phone, but with some key differences. Web applications run in a browser window like a tab and have the same navigation bars and look as a browser normally would; by contrast, Android OS uses what are called packaged applications, which means that instead of the applications running in the web browser, they run independently on their own. For example, when you bring up all the apps that are running on your Android, they don’t show up as different pages in your web browser, but instead as separate programs running alongside your web browser.
Or to put it yet another way, if you were to open the Facebook app on a Chromebook, the Chromebook version functions like clicking a link or a shortcut; the Chrome OS Facebook web app opens as a tab in the web browser instead of as its own app. Although this frees up Chromebook hard drives — which typically only have between 8 and 32 GB of internal flash storage with most of Chromebook users’ storage being the Google Drive cloud — critics have been divided as to whether this is the most functional route to take with regard to apps.
Reception for Chrome OS
Upon its release, many thought that Chrome OS was directly pitting itself against Microsoft since Chrome comes with a suite of Google-made, cloud-based word processing, spreadsheet and slideshow-making apps for free. However, Google reps admitted that Chrome OS wasn’t intended for use with programs that require heavy-duty specs and resources like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Others suggested that Chrome OS addressed a niche market that had already been filled by competitors and, therefore, had nothing new to offer. Additionally, the fact that Google had released a second operating system alongside the popular Android OS was met with criticism despite Google co-founder Sergey Brin having said in 2009 before Chrome even launched that the operating system would eventually converge with Android OS into a single, unified OS for all Google devices.
Many of the biggest complaints and design features that kept skeptics from giving Chrome a try related to it being too simple to be a full-featured operating system. Especially for those converting to Chrome OS from Windows, many users found the user interface of Chrome OS to be counter-intuitive and difficult to navigate. There was initially no equivalent to the Windows Start button and taskbar, and everything down to browsing Chrome’s internal and cloud storage took place in tabs in the Chrome browser.
Since its release there have been quite a few updates to Chrome OS that have added some much needed and wanted features, making it much more user-friendly. One of the much-desired updates was the addition of an app launcher comparable to the Start Menu on Windows, the Mac OS X Finder, and the app launcher of the Android OS. There have also been a number of packaged apps released for Chrome OS — with many more to come — that run as standalone apps completely independent of the browser. The fact that most functions of Chrome OS took place in the browser meant Chromebooks were severely handicapped when without an internet connection; additional updates have given Chrome OS more offline functionality and made it possible to connect your smartphone via USB to transfer files back and forth.
At the Google I/O conference on June 25, 2014, it was announced that future updates will be making Chrome OS even more like Android in certain ways with the end goal being a single unified operating system for both Chromebooks and Android mobile devices [tweet]. The first step toward this integration is alleged to make Chromebooks compatible with packaged Android apps rather than maintaining web-based apps that open as a tab in the web browser, which has already started happening. It’ll be interesting to watch as the gap between Chrome OS and Android gets smaller and eventually closes.
That’s enough of that. Let’s get to the hands-on stuff.
Using Chrome OS
When you turn on your Chromebook for the first time, you’ll probably notice that it boots super fast. Allegedly it’s less than ten seconds depending on the specs of your computer system, but even at the upper limit with lesser specs that’s impressive and a testament to the OS’s compactness. Anyone who’s waited several minutes for a Windows computer to boot before finally making it to the user log in screen knows how difficult it is to refrain from putting a fist through the screen.
Like an Android device, you’ll have to put your info into Chrome: connect to your wireless network and your Google account, then you’re in business.
The Chrome Desktop and Shelf
The Chrome OS desktop screen you see today is a little different and much more user-friendly than it was at launch due to the cumulative updates that have been released over the past year or two. The Chrome OS taskbar is referred to as the shelf. The first icon on the left side of the shelf is the new app launcher, which opens in a small hovering window just above the shelf and shows all the apps installed on your Chromebook. You can rearrange the apps by clicking, holding, and dragging, or create folders by dropping an app on top of another. If you’re familiar with Android, it’s essentially the same thing as the app drawer.
Next to the app launcher are shortcuts to a number of apps pinned to the shelf similar to Quick Launch on the Windows taskbar. You can right click (click with two fingers using the trackpad) on each of the apps to unpin them, or right click on any app in the app launcher and choose to pin them to the shelf. If you want to change the order of the apps, it’s as simple as dragging and dropping to rearrange.
The space after the app launcher and pinned apps is for apps you open and having running, but which aren’t pinned to the shelf. If you close an app that’s not pinned to the shelf, it will disappear from the shelf and you’ll have to find it in the app launcher to open it again. If you right click on the shelf you’ll see an option called “Autohide shelf,” which means that the taskbar will disappear and only show up when the mouse cursor moves to the bottom of the screen; it’s the same feature that the Start bar on Windows and the dock on Mac computers have.
On the right side of the shelf you’ll see a couple familiar things. The small picture in the very corner is the picture you chose when you first powered on your Chromebook, typed in your Google account information, and chose your user account photo. To the left of your user photo is the battery indicator and the time. Clicking on the time or your user avatar will open a small window where you can access sound settings, turn on and off the WiFi and Bluetooth, and shut down the Chromebook.
After the time is where you’ll find your notifications. When you do not have any unread notifications, it’ll read “0”, but when you see a number it reflects how many unread notifications that are waiting for you.
Much like the notifications in the Android system, your notifications alert you to background and app activity. You can either close each of your notifications so you won’t see them again, or you can leave them in there to see later; if you leave them, Chrome OS will still change your notification count to “0” since the number reflects only the number of unread notifications. Click on the gear icon at the bottom-right of the notification window to manage the apps and services that can send you notifications.
Accessing Chromebook Storage
If you’re like me, then you may be curious about what’s it’s like to navigate the internal and cloud storage of a Chromebook. To do that, you open the Files app from your app launcher — I actually pinned the Files app to my task bar because I found that I use it quite frequently.
When you’re in the Files app, which is just like any file manager app you’d use on an Android device, you can see and manage all the content in your Google Drive account and in your Chromebook’s physical storage, labeled the “Downloads” folder. You can create folders by right clicking in much the same way you would with other operating systems, and move files in and out of folders as you please, even the Google Drive folders. I also plugged my Samsung Galaxy Note 3 into my Chromebook’s USB and was able to copy files from my phone’s storage; it even separated my phone’s internal storage, which it labels “Galaxy Models (MTP)” by default, from the 32 GB microSD card, labeled “Galaxy Models (MTP) (2)”, that I have in it.However, I found that I wasn’t able to transfer files to my smartphone, only from it.
Downloading Chrome Apps
If you want to browse and download apps, you open the Web Store app from the app launcher, which opens as a tab in the Chrome browser. Windows and Mac have had app stores for a while at this point, so this is probably familiar to even users of other operating systems.
The search options are pretty straightforward, and somewhat minimal. At the top left you have the search bar as well as toggles to filter your searches for apps, browser extensions, and themes. Themes are exactly what they sound like; they allow you to customize the appearance of Chrome OS on your Chromebook. There’s also a “Type” toggle where you can search for either packaged apps or web-based apps specifically. At the bottom you’ll see check-boxes to filter your results by features like offline functionality, apps made only by Google, free apps, and apps with an Android version. The option to search for apps with an Android version is likely related to how Google is slowly merging Chrome and Android into a single operating system.
When you find an app you want to download, clicking it will open a smaller hovering window where you’ll see additional details, screenshots, information about the app and its developer, and reviews. Again, if you’re familiar with Android devices, this will mostly look familiar.
To download the app, click the button at top-right that either says “Free” or has the app price. Clicking that will prompt you to confirm, yes or no, whether you are sure you want to download the app. When you click yes, your Chromebook will begin downloading the app.
While the app is downloading, you’ll see it’s progress in two places: in the status bar at the bottom of the browser window where you’d normally see files downloaded via your Chrome browser, and in the app launcher alongside apps already on your Chromebook. The app will appear grayed-out in the app launcher while it’s still downloading. When the download is finished, the app will appear just like your other apps and can be moved or placed into a folder.
Personalization Options in Chrome OS
While there are some personalization options in Chrome OS, they aren’t too overwhelmingly exciting. When you right click anywhere on the desktop or shelf, you’ll see an option for changing the wallpaper. The operating system has a very respectable selection of high-resolution wallpapers to choose from, many of which are very beautiful; aerial landscape photos, cityscapes, nature, solid colors. If you have your own photo you want to use as wallpaper on your Chromebook, you can navigate to the photo that you downloaded from the web. It will remain in the wallpaper-selection window so that if you want to make that photo your wallpaper again, you won’t have to navigate to it a second time.
Themes offer another layer of customization. Accessible from the Web Store, you can either search or browse themes in order to make your Chrome browser and wallpaper more colorful. I’m not super impressed with the selection of themes at the moment although I’m sure most people would be able to find at least a couple that they like. Personally I prefer the look of Chrome OS and the browser by default, but I did download and set the wallpaper you can see in the photos.
Review and Impressions
Although I’ve not had my Chromebook for long and I won’t soon be using it for video editing or graphic design, Chrome OS is a slim, smooth, peppy operating system that has become my go-to choice for general use. I’d go so far as to say that I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft and Apple soon released netbooks or condensed, web-intensive versions of their operating systems in the same vain. For someone like myself who currently has little need outside word processing, web browsing, and video streaming, the Chromebook is pretty much the ideal choice, especially since you no longer have to worry about crashes, security, glitches and bugs. I’m surely not going to miss sending regular error reports to Microsoft every time Internet Explorer crashes for no reason.
There are many features of Chrome OS that I really like and appreciate. First is the speed. I absolutely love how my Chromebook boots up and is ready to use in ten seconds or less; that’s faster than even my Galaxy smartphone.
Another feature that I really appreciate is the simplicity of Chrome. There’s no need for maintaining and installing daily updates, no need for internet security software with its constant subscription renewals and interrupting my work to ask for my permission to get rid of a virus or suspect file when it really shouldn’t need to ask anyway. The simplicity of Chrome OS is smartphone-like, and yet Chromebook doesn’t feel like a smartphone [tweet] — although it probably did before the app launcher and before it could do more things without an internet connection, Chromebook offers much more computing power than a smartphone or tablet.
The Google integration is very nice, but might not need mentioned since this a product that’s made by Google. However, as a consumer engaged with technology on a daily basis, I want everything to just work with a minimum of time and effort on my part. I was skeptical about not having much of an internal hard drive, especially since I save my all of my writing files for my own reference, I download and listen to music and watch or stream videos. I wasn’t sure what I’d be sacrificing for the streamlined portability that Chrome OS offers, but I’m very pleased — not to mention relieved — that the only thing I feel I’ve sacrificed is the ability to install a program from a physical disc; however, I honestly don’t even remember the last time I needed to put an installation disc into a computer.
Even though Chrome is its own operating system, when I pulled my Samsung Chromebook out of the box and turned it on, Chrome didn’t feel so foreign to me that I needed to read an instruction manual or watch an tutorials. If you’ve used a computer of any sort, then Chrome OS is going to feel very familiar to you. The operating system does look different, but more so rearranged or like someone took Microsoft Windows and reduced the bloat and gave everything an injection of speed.
I’ve seen various articles that compare Chromebooks to tablets: “How to Decide Whether to Buy a Chromebook or a Tablet.” While it’s true that Google did take some cues from Android, Chrome OS is more a computer with the usability and pep of a tablet rather than a tablet in a computer’s body. If you ask me, Chrome incorporates some of the best features of each.The area where Chromebooks dominate most decisively is in price. You can pick up a very respectable Chromebook for under $200 with the majority costing between $200 and $300. If you were to buy a Windows notebook for $200 (assuming you could even find one that cheap to begin with), you can count on about six months to a year of usage before it’s so worn out and ridden with viruses that you’re already shopping around for a new computer. Windows-based computers are notoriously susceptible to viruses. Mac computers rarely, if ever, get viruses, but you also pay a high premium for that peace of mind. Chromebooks, on the other hand, promise security and reliability, but at a tablet’s price. The sheer affordability makes Chrome at least worthy of consideration.
There’s really very, very few instances when a Chromebook wouldn’t be sufficient for most: If you’re someone whose primary activities on a computer involve extensive video or photo editing, using professional design software like the Adobe Creative Suite, or if you play intensive games, then Chromebook probably wouldn’t be the best option. Otherwise, Chrome is a great response to the state of technology today with a device’s functionality judged by how connected its users are to the internet and to each other. Given the reputation Google has for innovations, it’s very likely — perhaps guaranteed — that Chrome OS will continue to grow and evolve into a versatile, powerful platform with an eye toward simplicity and function.