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Not sure you want to buy a Chromebook this fall? Try out Chrome OS in Windows first

With the back-to-school season gearing up, PC shoppers are going to have a lot of choices in front of them: hybrids, convertibles, Windows tablets, and Chromebooks. Although they've been around for several years, Chrome OS-powered laptops have gained in popularity recently as they shed their browser-in-a-box, online-only reputation.

The offline capabilities of Chromebooks are pretty solid these days and the laptops themselves are getting ever-improving processing power.

If you're considering a Chromebook for school, whether a teacher or student, there's a lot to like, including a relatively low price and fast boot times.

But even in 2014, can you truly survive without a traditional desktop PC? If you have a Windows 8 or 8.1 machine, there's an easy way to find out.

In late 2013, Google introduced Windows 8 mode for Chrome for PCs running the latest versions of Windows. Windows 8 mode for Chrome is pretty much the Chrome OS experience, and will give you a good idea about what it's like to run Chrome OS full-time.

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You can relaunch Chrome in Windows 8 mode directly from the desktop.

To get started, Chrome has to be your default browser in Windows 8 or 8.1. The easiest way to do this is to click on the "hamburger" menu icon (three horizontal lines) in Chrome on the desktop and then select Relaunch Chrome in Windows 8 mode.

If Chrome isn't your default browser, Windows will throw up a window asking you how you want to open HTTP links. Choose Google Chrome from the list and you'll be moved over to the modern UI side of windows. 

Chrome OS in Windows

Now that we're here, you should see something like the picture at the top of this story: a grey desktop background, a Chrome window and a set of icons in the lower left corner. Welcome to what is essentially Chrome OS.

This interface is very similar to Windows, but there are a few key differences. First, you can't change the desktop background. Second, you can't place app icons, copies of files, or links to files on the desktop.

The only thing you can do that is desktop-like is pin Chrome app icons to the area at the bottom of the screen known as the shelf. This is basically Chrome OS' version of the taskbar.

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You can pin Chrome apps to the shelf.

To pin Chrome apps to the shelf for quick access, click on the grid in the far left corner, which is the app launcher for Chrome OS. Right-click any of the installed Chrome apps that you have and choose Pin to shelf. You can also drag-and-drop apps to the shelf if you prefer that method.

Now you have a quick way to launch Chrome apps, you can check out the lower right-hand side of the shelf. If you're an Android user, you should see a number counter in a single square, which is just a limited set of the Google Now alerts you see on your phone.

Next to the Google Now counter is a clock displaying the current system time. Click on that and you'll see a volume control, as well as a question mark that takes you to Google's Chrome support pages.

As for the browser itself, it works just as it does on the desktop. You can install apps and extensions from the Chrome Web Store, open multiple tabs in one window, or tear tabs off and put them in separate windows.

That's about it.

If you're wondering if you can live inside Chrome OS, just give Chrome's Windows 8 mode a try for about a week. Make sure you resist any urges to go to the desktop or the Windows 8 Start screen and try to get everything done inside Windows 8 mode.

When you want to return Chrome to the desktop, go back to the hamburger menu icon, select Relaunch Chrome on the desktop and you're back to normal.

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