Clearing up a few myths about the newly renovated Chrome OS

Chrome OS just got its first actual desktop. Cool--but is it something ready for the masses?

Chrome OS is odd. That’s the one thing almost everybody can agree on. Whether Google’s web-centered, Chrome-based notebooks are “odd, but also the future,” or just plain “odd, and probably not for me” is the central point. It doesn’t help that very few people have had a chance to actually use Chrome OS, and that the majority of those who have seem to be tech writers, programmers, IT administrators, or other folks who have reaching, exacting demands of their hardware.

There are public offices, universities, non-profits, and corporations that were given Chromebooks under a test program, but we’ve heard comparatively little from those institutions, other than through the filter of customer testimonials posted by Google. So the greatest public service I can try to provide in this very narrow topic space is to clear up a few ideas about Chrome OS, Chromebooks, and what they are and are not meant to accomplish. I’ve been using Chromebooks since December 2011, when the first reference model Cr-48 notebooks were released.

Now that Google’s released a developer preview of Chrome OS’ almost entirely new look, it feels like a good time to do some Q&A.

Chrome OS is basically Chrome running full-screen on your system, and nothing else, right?

That was mostly true until recently. Chrome OS had a login screen, a Settings page with more system-wide options, and a few specialty Chrome-OS-focused Chrome apps, but, generally, it was a Chrome window.

But that’s changed with the addition of a new window manager. The focus is still on web-based productivity, specifically Google-based apps, but now one can manage multiple Chrome windows on one screen, create “applications” out of web sites by removing all of the browser controls around them, and use a Windows-style taskbar to manage multiple browser and application windows. There’s even a bit of a Windows-style “Aero Snap” function, where dragging a windows to the left or right borders of the desktop instantly resizes a window to half the screen’s width for side-by-side operation.

But, still, it’s just Chrome, right?

That’s still true. But look at some of the upgrades that Chrome has seen recently that make it a bit more than just a window onto the web:

  • Offline access for Gmail, Docs, and Calendar. There’s full send-and-receive for Gmail, while still read-only for now with Docs and Calendar. But it’s a very helpful start down the HTML5-powered offline realm.

  • Offline access for other Chrome apps, including Scratchpad, which can, oddly enough, save and sync documents to Google Docs.

  • Multiple user profiles, which, you might think, aren’t so handy for a system that requires separate Google sign-ins, but for people with multiple Google accounts, they’re a handy way to avoid account confusion from one window to the next.

  • Tab syncing across computers, so you can pick up immediately on what you had open at work or home when you flip open a Chromebook.

Why would I want a laptop that does less than a Windows or Mac laptop (on which, of course, I could run Chrome)?

Good question--the best one, really. Google’s pitch so far has been one of hassle-free computing. A supremely secure core system, one that doesn’t need anti-virus production, and can easily and quickly be restored to factory condition if something did somehow get through. Automatic updates that don’t bother you, and install quickly whenever you get around to rebooting. Cloud-based documents, settings, and everything else, so you could throw it in a river, and you wouldn’t really lose a thing. No app stores or installer packages, no 32-bit-versus-64-bit questions, and only one folder, really, in which you can store a few necessary downloads.

What makes Chromebooks different from other laptops, hardware-wise?

Hardware-wise, they tout the long battery life (sometimes 8-9 hours, depending on usage, and pitched as an “all-day battery”), the built-in 3G connectivity on some models (likely upgraded to 4G in newer releases), and the relative lightness of the devices. The keyboard, while surprisingly full-sized, tends to draw mixed reactions, depending on what you need underneath your fingers. They have relatively tiny, solid-state hard drives, usually around 16 GB, meant for storing a few downloads, but with the majority of your storage based in the cloud.

Can I get work done on this thing?

The answer here is the same as with an iPad: it depends on what you’re doing for work, and how comfortable you feel working entirely on the web, without much local file access. If you need to create complex spreadsheets and work with them whether or not you have an internet connection, Chromebooks aren’t for you. If you generally work with email, traditional documents, and tend to travel in places with good Wi-Fi or reliable cellular coverage, Chromebooks might work great. If battery life, universal backup, and lightweight portability matter to you, a Chromebook can be a great kind of secondary computer. If raw power, Skype video chats, and development tools are what you need, look elsewhere.

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