I’m not a Google fangirl. I have Gmail accounts for personal and work use, and I spend some time in Google Docs and Calendar, but that’s about it. And until a few weeks ago, I had never even more than glanced at the Chrome OS or browser, let alone touched a Chromebook.
I have, however, read the vitriol aimed at Chromebooks by my tech press colleagues. The low-cost laptops that make up the majority of the Chromebook market have been dismissed as disposable toys. The new Chromebook Pixel, meanwhile, has attracted much greater interest—and even greater disdain, because it’s seen as an outrageously expensive disposable toy.
But is the Chromebook platform really such a bad idea?
With a basic Samsung Chromebook 3 in one hand and Google’s new Chromebook Pixel in the other, I spent a week finding out. I lived off of the two Chromebooks as much as I could—at work, at home, and out and about. My goal: to determine whether a Chromebook could substitute for a full-fledged Windows laptop, all without performance issues and compatibility headaches.
After that week, I can testify that many of my cohorts have it wrong. They’re dismissing the Chromebook because it’s not for them, but ignoring how useful it might be for broad swaths of users.
Power users don’t get the Chromebook
Most tech journalists are power users: tinkerers and early adopters. They want full laptop flexibility. They want to play games and run processor-intensive applications like Photoshop and video editors. The Chromebook is not for them. Yet many of them have compared the Chromebook to the full desktop experience, where Google’s hardware platform not surprisingly falls short.
I understand the Chromebook’s shortcomings, and I’m not giving up my Windows machine anytime soon, either. But I also know that there are millions of users who have happily abandoned full-fledged PCs for tablets and even smartphones for many common computing tasks. For these users, Chromebooks offer something more: a decent keyboard and a bigger display—like the one on the new HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook, or, of course, the mesmerizing, 2560-by-1700 display on the Chromebook Pixel.
We technorati need to step aside and let the rest of the world enjoy the Chromebook—and especially, the Pixel—for what it is: the more functional alternative to a smartphone or tablet for online life.
The Chromebook idea is right
The first day I got my Samsung Chromebook, it was stolen. Not by some subway thief, but by my husband, who pretended to greet me at the door and grabbed the Chromebook while I was taking off my coat. In a flash he was on the sofa and opening the lid. A few minutes later, he was busy downloading stuff from the Chrome Web Store. Welcome home, dear.
When the Chromebook Pixel arrived a week later, it took me almost an hour to walk with it across our lab. Everyone wanted to touch it and check out the display. Everyone wanted to try it.
Here’s the point: The Chromebook idea is right. Just as it’s fun to download apps for your smartphone or tablet, it’s fun to do it for the Chromebook as well. Even better, limited choices can be surprisingly liberating. The last time I bought a Windows PC, I had to fret over whether to buy Microsoft Office from the PC vendor, or find it somewhere cheaper online, or muddle along with my older copy—if I could find the CD, and if the product key hadn’t expired, and so on.
The Chromebook saves us from that hassle. Or at least it’s supposed to.
Apps make—and break—the experience
The problem isn’t with Chromebooks, but with the apps. For instance, it took only a few hours for my husband to hand the Chromebook back to me. He had tried the movies and the books, and a few other things. But he spends a lot of time in a specialized Windows application that is not available on the Chrome store, so he returned to his own laptop.
And the lab staff at PCWorld? They’re eager to hack into the Chromebook and load Linux so they can add things they can’t get from the Chrome OS.
The Chrome Web store looks like it has a lot of apps. Google has worked hard to provide alternatives to the major office applications that most of us know, and it’s also attracted some recognizable, popular online services.
Many of these so-called apps, however, are just links to websites, rather than Chrome-specific apps. Like the disillusioned users who wrote in their app reviews on the Chrome store, I can make my own bookmarks, thank you. And some of the other apps are worse than junk, throwing up ads or otherwise taking you for an online ride. People expect more from something called an app. They also want choices, and there might be only scant or second-class choices in the Chrome store.
I don’t think I’m alone, however, in not needing much more than what the Chromebook can give me. I’m a heavy Web surfer, not a heavy app user. I don’t even play games.
I went to my own PC and uploaded some documents I needed to my Google Drive account for work. I had to convert my Office documents to Google Docs to be able to edit them. Then I hopped back to the Chromebook and started working.
I used to hate Google Docs, but my feelings have mellowed as the functionality has improved. Serious spreadsheet jocks and specialized document creators need to stay inside full-fledged applications. But many of the rest of us can use Google Docs without feeling much of a pinch.
Offline and corporate features can be tricky
I ran into real roadblocks when I arrived at work. For one thing, the Offline function was not enabled for my corporate Google account, so I had to hurriedly move over my professional work to my personal Google account. Offline saving also taxes the Samsung Chromebook’s underwhelming processing power—it definitely felt slower when it was busy saving locally. However, I did like how smoothly the offline docs synced when I next hit a network connection.
It was finding that network connection that proved tricky. Our corporate network at PCWorld didn’t like the Chromebook. This is a BYOD problem, but it’s a problem nonetheless. I was able to log onto the guest network just to get online, but I couldn’t get onto our servers or use our online content management system. The IT staff, which is familiar with wacky requests, tested a workaround, but it didn’t work reliably for me.
At the office, therefore, I led a double life. I wrote content on my Chromebook with my personal Google account, and then shared the documents with my professional Google account so I could transfer it to our corporate applications. It isn’t quite as klunky as it sounds. It was actually very easy to keep working on the same, shared Google Doc as I moved between my two Chromebooks and my work PC. I even enjoyed a little geeky fun by loading the same document on all three systems, editing it on one, and watching it change dynamically on the others as I worked. The cloud’s not completely dependable yet, to be sure, but it has its charms.
The Pixel adds much-needed luster
Working on the Samsung Chromebook’s smallish screen got old. For this reason alone, I can see why the low-end Chromebooks that have flooded the market haven’t received much love.
But the Google Chromebook Pixel, now, that’s a machine I could get used to. That design. That power. And especially, that gorgeous display. But I really fell for it when I left work with it one night, and my commuter train got stuck behind an accident for almost two hours. I found an AC plug on the train, fired up the Pixel’s LTE connectivity, and I was set. Even the touchscreen came in handy: In the train’s cramped seating, it was easier to reach forward to the screen than cram my elbows against my body to use the trackpad. I was probably the only reasonably happy person on that train until it started moving again.
Is the Pixel overkill for today’s Web-based life? Absolutely. Is it the marquee product needed to move the Chromebook category away from its econobox reputation and give it a futuristic gleam? Absolutely.
If you wonder whether the Pixel is necessary, you might as well ask why we need sports cars or haute couture. We don’t need any of these things (though the Pixel is a lot more practical than Porsche 911s and Alexander McQueen gowns). But all three set lofty standards that benefit their industries—including selling a lot of cheaper products to normal people.
Chromebooks are for the rest of us
Speaking of normal people, I’m going to share something that Google probably doesn’t want to hear: I want to get a Chromebook for my mom.
She’s not the urban hipster that Google almost certainly wants to target. She’s 79 years old, and all she does is use email and surf the Web. But she constantly gets lost in the Windows jungle on her PC, and I have to thwack in there with a machete to get her out. She also clicks the wrong stuff, and suddenly there’s some virus or malware causing trouble. The Chromebook’s just-a-browser simplicity and Google’s constant updates make it a good choice for users just like her. And for me, her tech support department, I love the Powerwash feature that lets me return the Chromebook to a pure state if I really need to.
But I wouldn’t mind one for myself, either. During my time in Chromebook exile, my life got simpler. I didn’t miss my personal desktop, and I got hooked on having my Google Docs available from any connected PC or Chromebook I happened to be using. I’m not ready to surrender all my content to the cloud, but it’s certainly handy for day-to-day use.
The Chromebook is still an immature platform. The app deficiencies are a huge issue. But these devices still don’t merit the derision that they’ve received. The Chromebook isn’t supposed to be the desktop they want it to be. It’s the antidesktop that’s the better solution for many people going forward.
Melissa Riofrio spent her formative journalistic years reviewing some of the biggest iron at PCWorld--desktops, laptops, storage, printers--and she continued to focus on hardware testing during stints at Computer Currents and CNET. Currently, in addition to leading PCWorld’s content direction, she covers productivity laptops and Chromebooks.