We used only a Chromebook for one week while completing the kind of everyday tasks that you would assume a laptop could achieve. The results were very interesting, as you'll see in our living with the Chromebook diary. Are Chromebooks worth the money? Read on to find out.
In the past year one style of laptop in particular has dominated discussion when it comes to low cost machines. This is all the more surprising when you consider that it doesn't run on Windows or anything Apple related. Google's Chromebooks are internet focussed devices that offer access to the company's complete online eco-system - including an office suite for creating documents, spreadsheets, and presentation, 100 GB of free cloud storage on Google Drive, plus a constantly expanding app store - and all of this for free.
No licences, no 30-day trials, just useful and usable software running on lightweight and reliable budget laptops. There are of course some compromises to be made, as the majority of functions require an internet connection to run, but Chromebooks do make a compelling case if you're looking to spend less than £250 on a new device.
With Google announcing a new range of Chromebooks, and more set to be released in the coming months from a range of manufacturers, we thought it would be a good time to put one through its paces and see if it really is a viable alternative to a fully fledged Windows laptop. The idea was simple: try to live solely on a Chromebook for a week while completing the kind of everyday tasks that you would assume a laptop could achieve. The results were very interesting. (Read all laptops buying advice.)
Living with the Chromebook: GENERAL DAILY DUTIES
If you've used the Chrome browser on your PC, Mac, tablet or phone, then you already understand about ninety per of how things works on a Chromebook. Each app you launch, be it Gmail, Google Drive, Evernote, etc., opens as a tab in the browser window and behaves just as it would on any other machine. This makes using the device a very simple experience.
Sign in with your Google account (you need one to use a Chromebook) and all of the data you have on any other Google service is there, or rather it's online and you have access to it. You can save data locally on the hard drive, but as they generally only come with a 16GB capacity this would soon fill up, and that's not the way Chromebooks are designed to work. Google gives every new user 100GB of online storage for two years (which is plenty for the general user to keep their photos, home videos, and documents safe) and has geared the entire Chrome OS around the principle of working primarily on the internet.
With this focus, it's no surprise that social media, online shopping, banking and web browsing are a perfect fit for the Chromebook. The hardware can prove a little slow on image heavy sites, but for most things the experience is smooth and unencumbered by pop-up dialog boxes prompting you to upgrade various plug-ins. This is down to the fact that Google constantly upgrades ChromeOS, taking care of Flash and Java at its end. You also access to the Chrome App store, from which you can download useful things like Tweetdeck (still our preferred way to use Twitter thanks to its multi-column design), Pocket, and Outlook, but as so many of these services are now available directly online there's no real necessity.
There are a few notable absences that a PC user might miss, such as Skype and iTunes, which will most likely never appear on the platform. But Google does offer alternatives, with Google Hangouts being an excellent online video chat option, and Google Music enabling you to store 20,000 songs online for free, all of which can be accessed and downloaded by your phone or tablet. Of course you'll need a music library already stored on another machine to achieve this, as the Chromebook doesn't have storage space, a CD drive, or seemingly the capability to run Google's own Music Manager software. When following the links to download it we ended up with a list of Linux based packages. Not exactly the carefree, simple lifestyle that the Chromebook ads project.
In many ways this does highlight something you need to know about these devices up front: they're not really meant to be your primary machine. If you have a desktop on which you keep your large library of data then the Chromebook will be an excellent companion device, one you can take out and about without worrying too much that someone will steal it or spill hot coffee over the keyboard. But if you want a powerhouse computer that you will do everything on, then maybe the full features of a Windows laptop would be a wiser choice, especially if you spend a bit more money. See also: Group test: what's the best budget laptop? Best cheap laptops reviews.
Living with the Chromebook: PRINTING
One instance where the reliance on another machine becomes apparent is if you want to print anything directly from a Chromebook, because basically you can't. Printing, like many other aspects of the Chrome OS, is handled in the cloud. If you have a ‘Cloud Print' ready printer then you can simply send your document over the internet, from your Chromebook, and it will appear on paper in no time. If of course you have an older printer (like most of us) then you'll need to connect it to an internet based desktop or laptop, download the Chrome browser and enable Cloud Printing.
Which of course beggers the question ‘So why don't I just use that machine to print it?'. There are advantages to cloud printing, as once you've set it up it is in fact easy and convenient to use, especially if you travel quite a lot, but it does require machines connected to the printer to remain on at all times. Not exactly great for your electricity bills.
Living with the Chromebook: PHOTOS AND VIDEO
A common use for laptops is a place to manage and edit photographs of your family and friends. This can be done locally on the Chromebook, but really you'll want to create a folder on Google Drive and put them all in there. Importing images is actually quite easy. If you use a mobile phone for your photography, and an increasing amount of us do, then install the Google + app (Android and iOS) and select the option to sync your photos.
Now whenever you launch the app it will upload any images on your phone directly to Google. This also means that if you have photos on USB sticks or memory cards that you want on your phone, then uploading them to Google + will achieve this too. Alternatively, if you use a DSLR or compact camera, you can remove the SD card and plug it into the slot on the Chromebook and drag the files either to Drive or the local storage. The file manager is painfully basic, but it will get the job done.
Editing on the included software is also quite rudimentary - pretty much just rotate and crop - but if you head to the app store you can download a wide variety of photo editing programs. As a test we took a picture on our Nikon D50, imported the image using the SD card, then edited its size, saturation and sharpness all online through the free app Pixl Editor. The software handled everything easily, and also offered an impressive range of photoshop style features which included layers, masks, and a variety of filters. Finally we downloaded the finished image and posted it on Facebook, all without issue.
Video editing posed a far greater challenge, and not one in which the Chromebook fared well. There are several good editing apps available, all of which store the videos online, so the processing is done there rather than on the slow, local hardware. But this means everything has to be uploaded when you want to work on it, something that takes time, a lot of time. Sure, it can be argued that video editing is possible on a Chromebook, but really it's not at all enjoyable. A Windows machine, with the right software running on its hard drive, would score heavily against the rather ponderous experience on the Chromebook.
Consuming media is a more straightforward task. Video services are well catered for on the Chromebook, with Google's own Youtube site working happily when streaming 720p video. Netflix was a similar experience when accessed directly through its website, but iPlayer performance was a little disappointing, with stutters in the video a regular occurrence alongside pauses to buffer content.
The Chromebook we were using came fitted with a HDMI port so we hooked it up to a TV and found that it performed pretty much the same, with the only real issue being that the mouse pointer didn't automatically disappear when a video was playing. So as well as being a cheap laptop it's also a way to turn your TV into a smart device.
Where the Chromebook can lose a little ground is when you open lots of tabs at once, due to the fact that its components are not exactly high powered. HD video playback can slow to a stutter if you're also running Facebook, several web pages, and Gmail at the same time, as the device struggles to cope with the load. In fairness though, lower-end Windows PCs often feature similar specs and can begin to lag in the same way. So a good rule of thumb is to close tabs you're not using if you want your machine to run smoothly. See also: The 9 best budget tablets: What's the best budget tablet of 2013?
Living with the Chromebook: GETTING WORK DONE
Many people have switched from Microsoft Office over to Google's alternative offerings in recent years, mainly due to the fact that they're reliable, available on any machine, and free. Chromebooks plug directly into these services and using them is an excellent experience. Creating documents, spreadsheets, and even some presentations is simple, and as long as you don't use lots of intricate formatting you can export them in .docx, and .xls formats that can be emailed to clients or friends with no compatibility issues.
You can also do all of this offline (one of the big issues initial Chromebook users faced) and then when you find yourself in a Wi-Fi spot again the apps automatically sync up the changes to the online versions. After trying this several times to see if it would cause confusion we gave up, as the syncing was fast and incredibly reliable. There's also the feature of online collaboration, where more than one user can work on a document at once. This, again, is implemented flawlessly, showing that Google really does know its stuff when the web is involved.
Living with the Chromebook: GAMING
There's a surprising amount of games in the Chrome Store. From driving titles and puzzle games to first person shooters, you can certainly wile away some time with these browser based efforts. Sadly many of the big name titles are just links to websites that want to sell you a game, and anything graphics intensive struggles unless you're on a fast internet connection. With iOS and Android games improving all the time, aided by their touch interfaces, there's no doubt that the offerings here feel pretty old school. There's fun to be had, but if gaming is important to you then you best look elsewhere. Of course it should be mentioned that you won't be playing Battlefield 4 on a £250 Windows laptop either.
Living with the Chromebook: DEVICES
While Chromebooks will happily accept USB sticks, external drives, and Bluetooth speakers on the newer machines, you will definitely run into problems if you want to use more specialised equipment. Fitness widgets like the Nike Fuelband or Fitbit list no support for Chromebooks at all, instead foccussing on Mac or PC. You can't plug your latest mobile phone into them either, as they don't support the transfer protocols that many of these devices use. That isn't necessarily the end of the story though. Using our resident Samsung S4 we were able to download an app called Airdroid that allows Chromebooks to access its files via wifi and move things on and off the internal storage. We were even able to use the phone's camera remotely. In typical fashion iOS proved not so pliable.
Living with the Chromebook: VERDICT
Reading through this article might leave you with the impression that Chromebooks aren't very good. For some readers this will definitely be the case. The inability to print directly, or run mainstream software like Photoshop or iTunes, are deal breakers for many. Others may point out that any Windows based computer with the Chrome browser installed can achieve everything a Chromebook can, plus loads more, and again you can't argue with that.
But this would be oversimplifying what the machines have to offer. In truth most of the things we do on our computers these days happen online. Sure there are those who make movies, or do heavy editing on photos, but if we're honest the majority of us just update our Facebook profiles, browse the virtual shelves on Amazon, compose a few emails, and work on the odd document or two. For these tasks the Chromebook is an excellent choice.
Google have carefully marketed the devices as second or even third machines, and we think that's exactly where they belong. Chromebooks offer enough functionality to make them genuinely useful, while eschewing any bells and whistles that would add to the cost. Most of them run silent, barely get warm, and are light enough (and cheap enough) to throw in a bag when you're leaving the house. A few years ago the idea of machine like this seemed, well, a bit daft. Today, they make a lot more sense for a lot more people.