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Why Your Kid’s Next Laptop — But Not Yours — Should Be a Chromebook

Dan Tynan

Shopping for a laptop for your budding young genius? It may be time to ditch Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s OS X and start living la vida Google with a Chromebook.

If you’ve never heard of Chromebooks, don’t feel bad. These small and (mostly) inexpensive machines haven’t exactly been setting the world on fire since they were introduced in June 2011. Lately, though, Chromebooks seem to be taking off. Acer, HP and Toshiba have all released new models over the last few months, and tech research firm Gartner predicts that Chromebook sales will more than double in 2014.

Why Your Kid’s Next Laptop — But Not Yours — Should Be a Chromebook

What’s a Chromebook?
Chromebooks look like ordinary laptops, but they hold a huge difference inside: They run the Chrome operating system, which is built around the same code used by Google’s Chrome browser. And instead of storing software and data on the machine’s hard drive, Chromebooks are set up to put it online, in the cloud. And there’s more: On a Chromebook, you don’t spend a fortune on productivity software like Microsoft Office; rather, you configure your Chromebook to use lightweight apps that run on web pages. Many of the apps are free. And you won’t have to futz around with system settings while trying to decipher inscrutable error messages, so you’ll be able to get actual work done (or play games, watch movies and read Yahoo Tech, of course).

This doesn’t mean Chromebooks are the best choice for everyone. There are good reasons why Windows PCs and Macs will continue to rule in personal computing for years to come. But Chromebooks are a mighty attractive option for your kids, for three excellent reasons:

They’re cheap. WiFi Chromebooks typically cost between $200 and $300, so when your kids knock their laptop off the arm of the couch and break the screen (which has happened in my house more times than I care to recall), it won’t be quite so painful. And since most of the apps are free, you won’t be stuck forking over hundreds of dollars for additional software.

They’re fast. Press the power button, log into your Google account (if you don’t have one already, you’ll need to create one), and you’re in. Close the lid when you’re done, reopen it later, and you’re back exactly where you started. Your only real limit is the speed of your Internet connection.

They’re easy. If you know how to use a browser — and especially if you’re familiar with Google Chrome — then you know how to use a Chromebook. They’re less prone to the maddening technical glitches that drive owners of PCs (and, yes, Macs too) absolutely bonkers. They’re also more secure: Because Chrome OS has yet to become popular with malware authors, you’re unlikely to catch some nasty Net-borne virus. And if by chance you do, Google has built in some nifty safeguards to limit the damage and revert your system to its pristine state.

These things make Chromebooks an especially good fit for classrooms. Teachers don’t have to waste 10 minutes of class time waiting for everyone’s Windows machines to boot up or spend time troubleshooting someone’s iWork installation. If the machine isn’t working, kids can just grab another Chromebook off the hardware cart, log into their accounts, and get to work.

Working without a net
So what happens if you’re stuck on a WiFi-less plane or trapped in some godforsaken wasteland where the nearest Starbucks hotspot is 50 miles away?

The biggest rap against Chromebooks has been that once you’re out of range of a WiFi network, they turn into expensive doorstops. That isn’t completely true anymore, thanks to the offline capabilities that Google and others have built into their apps.

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There are now hundreds of apps in the Chrome Web Store that will work offline, including all the major productivity programs. For example, you can work on any Google Doc or compose emails without being connected to the Net. Once you’re reconnected, your files will automatically sync to your Google Drive or outbox. For some reason, however, this is not set up by default; you’ll have to dig into the Settings menu and tell your apps you want them to work offline, add new Chrome apps to enable this capability, or download files to your machine and use the built-in Quickoffice app to edit and upload them.

Read: 10 Kid-Friendly Chrome Apps That Shine

Another strange exception is Google Calendar: For reasons that surpass all understanding, you can view two months’ worth of your calendar offline and RSVP to invites, but you can’t add new appointments to it without a live connection. Hello, Google?

La vida Google
I spent a couple of weeks with an Acer Chromebook C720P as my traveling companion, and it was not that much different from using an ordinary laptop. The 3-pound machine is boxy and unexciting to look at, but it does the job. Acer promised boot-up times of seven seconds and seven-plus hours of battery life, and it delivered.

It’s got the goods in the tech department, too. It comes with 32 GB of local storage, which allowed me to download documents from my Dropbox account and open them up in Google Apps, as well as 100 GB of free storage on Google Drive (in the cloud). The C720P features an HDMI port for attaching an external display, two USB ports for plugging in thumb drives or external mice and keyboards, and an SD card slot for additional storage. The $299 unit also has an 11.6-inch touchscreen, though it seems mostly useful for flinging birds at pigs or tapping on tiles in Mahjong Solitaire. Outside of games, I hardly laid a finger on it.

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I used the Chromebook to write this post, check email, build spreadsheets, watch movies on Netflix, chat up friends on Facebook, share photos on Instagram, stream music on Pandora, and do almost everything else I’d do with a “normal” computer.

The key word in that sentence is almost. One of the most notable differences with Chromebooks — and a big reason why they’re not the best choice for everyone — is what’s missing. Like, say, direct support for peripherals. While you can connect your Chromebook to your HDTV, you can’t just plug your printer into one and expect it to work. You’ll have to connect it to the cloud and email your printer the document you want to see on paper. Want to hook up a scanner or a Wacom tablet? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Then there are the apps. There are thousands of them in the Chrome Web Store, but they may not necessarily be the ones you’re used to. Love GarageBand? Can’t live without Photoshop? You’ll have to make do with cheap imitations.

If you’ve been living on Planet Microsoft or inside the Apple universe for a long time, you’ll likely find it hard to transition to Googleville. While Chrome’s productivity apps do 90 percent of what most people need them to do, they simply aren’t as powerful as the ones you’ll get with Microsoft Office.

But your kids don’t have that problem. They don’t need to run powerful productivity apps. They aren’t set in their computing ways. Between home, school and the library, they’ll rarely encounter a situation where there’s no WiFi to be found. They will take to a Chromebook like guppies to a 50-gallon tank.

While they, too, will miss some apps — I could find no Chrome OS equivalent to Minecraft, for example — you might actually see that as a plus. And the next time you hear a sickening crunch as your child sits on the Chromebook she left on the couch instead of putting it away like you told her to, you’ll be thanking God, or at least Google, that it wasn’t a $1,200 MacBook. 

Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com