Google’s Chrome OS offers a cheaper and easier alternative to Windows or the Mac OS, with a few key advantages and some real limitations. But it’s not for everyone. Here’s what makes it different.
With the Chrome OS, your software and data live in the cloud, accessible via the Chrome browser. Instead of loading software, you install Chrome apps and extensions that appear under separate tabs inside the browser. The OS comes with Google Apps, which you can use for word processing, spreadsheets, email, and the like. Many (though not all) of these apps can operate offline, so you can get work done even when an Internet connection is unavailable. Chrome devices also typically come with smallish solid-state hard drives, which you can download data to.
Having your stuff mostly in the cloud means it’s less likely to be infected with malware or other nastiness that uses your computer as a carrier. All the members of your family can also have their own log-ins (depending on their ages — more on that below), but you can also create things like shared calendars and to-do lists using Google Apps.
Because Chrome machines are so much simpler to set up and manage, they avoid many of the headaches that still plague Windows and Mac owners. And they’re dramatically simpler if you want multiple people to share the same computer.
Another great thing about the Chrome OS is that it starts and stops on a dime. The log-in screen appears within seven seconds of pressing the power button and restores all your previous browser tabs (though that might take another five to 15 seconds, depending on how many tabs you left open). So if you’re suddenly seized with inspiration or just need to jot a quick note and your computer is off, you don’t have to grit your teeth and wait for it to be ready for you. The latest Windows and Mac machines are better at this than they used to be, but they still lag behind Chrome boxes.
Every new Chrome OS device comes with 100 GB of free storage on Google Drive, though that comes with a major caveat: After two years, you’ll need to pony up $5 a month to maintain that account. (If you decide not to, you can still access the files already stored there, but you won’t be able to add any new ones.)
Once you’re running Chrome, you’ve got hundreds of apps to choose from, most of them free. But you may not be able to find the ones you’ve grown comfortable using on Windows or the Mac, so you’ll need to choose substitutes.
One cool Chrome OS feature you might not ever need (but if you do you’ll be thankful for): Powerwash. It’s just like the factory reset option on your phone. It wipes any data from the local drive and lets you start over, without nearly the muss and fuss required by Windows or Mac machines. Three clicks and 15 seconds later, you’ve got a factory-fresh installation of Chrome. Windows 8 and Mac OS X have similar simplified restores, but they’re a bit more involved. Prior versions of Windows were a nightmare to reset and restore. I still get the shakes just thinking about it.
No visible means of support
On the downside, file management on a Chrome OS device is definitely inferior to using Windows Explorer or the Mac’s Finder. For example, you can’t view both your local files and your Google Drive folders at the same time, which makes dragging files from your local storage and dropping them into a Drive folder more annoying than it needs to be.
Chromebooks also support far fewer peripherals — really, almost none — compared with their Windows and Mac brethren. And while there are a lot of Chrome equivalents to standalone software apps, power users of photo or video editing software, or devoted gamers, will feel the lack.
Tech newbies may also gag at the paucity of support options, which typically begin and end with searching the Chrome OS support site and asking questions in support forums. While Google does offer phone support, it seems to want to keep that a closely held secret. If you’re not comfortable digging around for answers when you run into a problem, a Chrome OS device probably isn’t for you.
A bigger problem for families who want to let a youngster use a Chrome machine is the fact that Google can’t figure out what to do about accounts for younger kids. You need to have a Google account to use a Chromebook, and because of federal privacy laws you can’t create a Google account unless you’re 13 or older.
If your child’s school has given her access to a Google Apps for Education account, then it’s not a problem — she can sign in using her school log-in and access any sites or Chrome apps her school has deemed appropriate. If not, though, you’re facing a dilemma. You can create a “Supervised User” account for her and do some extremely basic Web filtering (essentially manually blocking or allowing certain sites). But she won’t be able to install any Chrome apps, which is a bit like giving her a bicycle but letting her ride it only in the driveway. Why not simply let parents approve app installs, the same way they approve websites? I do not understand this at all. The point of buying a Chrome OS is to replace a Windows or Mac machine — not just to provide another dumb browsing device.
Your other options: Let her use your account (giving her access to all the information you store in Google), create a single account everyone in the family can use, or lie about her age when you create her account (thus teaching her it’s OK to lie about your age online). Nice.
Good for a lot of uses
I still recommend Chrome OS computers to a lot of people: students, parents looking for an inexpensive family computer, and even some people who just want a good, cheap laptop. There are no perfect technology platforms, but the Chrome OS is different enough from other operating systems to be the best choice for a lot of uses.
Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.