The big list of Chromebook work-arounds and caveats

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Chromebooks are finally getting some love. Let's define what you really can and cannot do on a web-only laptop.

You may have heard that the latest Chromebooks are finally seeing good reviews. The kind of reviews that suggest people actually buy a computer that is, at its core, a secure, well-synced, thin, light, fast-booting browser machine. For $250, Computerworld, Laptop Magazine, and The Verge, all recommend the $249 Samsung Series 3, or its even cheaper Acer cousin, with some reservations and caveats.

The wait-a-minute warnings focus on how a Chromebook isn't a "main computer" for anyone who uses a computer every day for their work. Even Google has picked up on this, and has changed the way it frames the Chromebook pitch: it's a great secondary computer, it's great for kids, for travel, it's handy for everything that counts as "casual usage." And every Chromebook reviewer who's ever had a friend use their Chromebook will tell you exactly the ways in which a Chromebook will not work for people who need Photoshop, iTunes, modern graphics-intensive games, or other unspecified but necessary tools.

Allow me to get specific, then. I will try here to list the most common needs of a modern computer, such as they arise when trying out a Chromebook.

Things a Chromebook can do that you might not know

In no particular order:

  • Switch easily between multiple users (and Google Apps accounts): Unlike a typical laptop, Chromebooks are remarkably easy to share among families or friends. Just log in with your Google account and run with it.

  • View and upload photos and files: from a standard camera (through SD card or USB connection), non-Apple smartphone (most of them, via USB), or other standard storage connection.

  • Work offline: In particular: Gmail, Calendar (read-only), Drive/Docs word documents (and viewing for spreadsheets), Kindle books, the New York Times, and quite a few more than you had thought.

  • Stream Netflix, Hulu, or Google Play videos:. Netflix requires a special Chrome app, while the others just work from their websites.

  • Use many external USB devices: External hard drives, DVD drives, keyboards, ethernet-to-USB converters, wireless mice, webcams, and headsets are usually plug-and-play. Chromebooks won’t fling open an app or a Windows-like “Installing” dialog upon connecting a device. They’ll just generally work, or be available whenever a web service is looking for them.

  • Be hacked to dual-boot with Ubuntu: All Chromebook/Chromebox devices have a “developer mode,” for those who like to try out deeper hacks. If you like the form factor and price of a Chrome device, but ChromeOS just isn’t enough of an OS for you, look to Jay Lee’s “ChrUbuntu” project. It’s a single script you download and run, and the how-to is quite detailed.

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The Netflix app for Chromebooks

Things a Chromebook cannot do

In no particular order:

  • Run desktop programs for Windows, Mac, or Linux: Some computer programs have web-based equivalents that might surprise you. Alternative To has quite a few of them. And you might use a VNC-like connection through Chrome Remote Desktop to step into a full-fledged machine and do what you need. But if there’s a particular program that’s crucial to your every hour of work, Chromebooks can’t run them.

  • Connect to wireless printers: Unless the printer offers some handy ways to print from Google Drive or another cloud-storage site, you’re not going to get around the printer thing with a wireless model.

  • Keep 30-plus Chrome tabs open at once: Some of us have bad everything-at-once tendencies that our more powerful systems can tolerate. The best of Chromebooks, with 4 GB of memory and Intel processors, start to feel the burn with around a dozen tabs open, especially if you’re streaming music or video in a background tab.

  • Serious computer development work (usually): Chromebooks have grown in their remote-computing powers, and they have VPN, VNC, and SSH capabilities that might let a prepared programmer jump into a system and move some things around. But you certainly can't build a whole development environment into a web-based, Chrome-only computer.

The big what-ifs: iTunes, Photoshop, Microsoft Office

  • Adobe Photoshop: If you need to produce actual Photoshop output—if the job depends on delivering multi-layer PSD files, or using particular Photoshop-only filters or actions, then you need Photoshop. For everyone else, and all those other jobs, I really like Pixlr. It takes in most graphic file types, including Photoshop PSD files, and can do many of the multi-layer tasks of Adobe's warhorse.

    Pixlr also integrates tightly with a Chrome workflow, with a great Chrome extension for capturing, editing, and sharing web pages and images, an "Express" version for quick image tweaks, and a Drive "app" that lets you send files directly into Pixlr for editing. I've been testing web-based image editors since the launch of Chromebooks, and can't really fathom a better tool for Chrome.

  • iTunes: iTunes, because you want to organize your music, stream your music, buy music, and handle other tune-related matters? You might try Google Music, Amazon Cloud Drive, or have faith that you'll soon receive your invite to Spotify's browser-based player. All of these services can import your playlists, stream music to you, and offer you music purchases.

    If you need iTunes to keep your iPhone or iPad in sync and updated, and you can't imagine not being able to do that from only one of your two computers, then Chromebook isn't your computer.

  • Microsoft Office: This is the tricky one. As with the other two big what-ifs, the key is your end product. If everyone at the office works with Office, Exchange, and Outlook tools exclusively—if you regularly receive documents that use Word tools for revisions and version control, or Excel spreadsheets with very deep functions and formulas—then a Chromebook would be frustrating. Microsoft has Office Web Apps that can fill in if you're not trying to work as a Level 15 Lawful Good Office Psion, but you won't know exactly what your boss can't figure out until a field trial.

    If, however, your concern is more about having online and offline access to a Word-like document and spreadsheet tool, Chromebooks are better than you think, as noted earlier. Google Drive offers offline access to hundreds of your recent documents. You can view word-based documents and spreadsheets offline, and edit word-based documents, too. Plus, working in Drive and Gmail, you avoid the brain-crushing task of trying to keep everybody in touch with the same document, and can send gigantic attachments while you're at it, too.

    And there's always the option to download a Google Drive doc, spreadsheet, or presentation you're working on as a standard Office-format file, then send it out the old-fashioned way.

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Pixlr in action

The Other Can't-Live-Without Chromebook Tools

  • Chat client (“IM”): If you only use Google's own chat service, then a tab with Gmail open works just fine (and learning the keyboard shortcuts helps). If you need Skype, MSN, Yahoo, Facebook, and more, head to imo (a.k.a. "imo.im"). It logs you into all your chat accounts at once, in one tab, with desktop notifications that can reach you at any other tab.

  • ”Skype:” In quotes because, while an actual Skype app is a requirement for some, others just need a one-on-one video chat that works with their friend. Here are some work-arounds for a Chromebook:

  • File handling: Chromebooks generally have an extremely minimal hard drive by modern standards: 16 GB, with a small slice of that already taken up by the OS, your Chrome data storage, and the recovery partition. So you’ll end up storing most of your files in the cloud—on the 100 GB of space Google gives all new Chromebook owners, in particular. You could use Dropbox, Microsoft’s SkyDrive, or another storage service fairly easily, but Drive is baked deep into ChromeOS, and is just easier.

    What if you’re sent a file that can’t be worked as a Google Doc or by any other web app? Send it over to Zamzar, which handles over 1,000 conversion types, and wait for the download link to arrive by email.

What did I miss? Leave a comment with your question or addition below—you can quickly sign up or sign in with Twitter or Facebook. Or hit me up directly at Google Plus or on Twitter. I want to make this a rather robust question-answering post, so, please, press your edge case forward.

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