Chromebooks started life as the ultimate budget laptop, with restricted functionality, impossibly tiny price tags, and sometimes, unnervingly flexible construction.
Now, as Chrome OS gets more versatile, the cloud becomes more ubiquitous, and some Chromebooks rank among the best laptops out there, is it time to jump ship on traditional operating systems and get the cloud-friendly Chrome OS?
In this post, we’ll look at what Chrome OS is, what it can and can’t do, and who it suits best. We’ll touch on how to get it for your non-Chromebook machine too.
What is Chrome OS?
Chrome OS is an operating system based on the same code as the Chrome browser and found natively in Chromebooks.
If you’re interested in technicalities, it’s based on a Linux kernel, runs on ARM and Intel x86 chips, and its code was released in 2009 as part of the wider Chromium project. If you want to get practical, it uses about one-twentieth of the space required by Windows 10 and boots fully in just a few seconds.
It’s designed to be fast and light—to quickly and easily do basic things, rather than to support more full-featured endeavors. Chrome is an easy, intuitive OS, and that’s one of its main selling points. If you can use a Chrome browser, you can use Chrome OS immediately with no real learning curve.
How does Chrome differ from other operating systems?
The main difference between Chrome OS and other operating systems is that Chrome is much more weighted toward the cloud. You can use a Chromebook when you’re not connected to the internet, but that’s not really what it’s for.
Traditional operating systems like Windows and OSX were largely created before cloud storage and computing became common. Their assumption was that you would have a computer, capable of doing most things you wanted to do. Then, you would connect to the internet to share information. The OS is an interface to the computer.
Chrome OS approaches things the other way around. Its main productivity and communication tools are already in the cloud, and the OS provides a portal to these and minimal local computing power. In Chrome, the OS is an interface to the web.
Unlike traditional operating systems, Chrome is largely controlled by Google: the company issues security and software updates over SSL, and users can’t control, refuse, or revert these.
The practical upshot of this is that Chrome is tiny. Chrome-based laptops can have low-performance specifications and perform high at the same time. They have a lot less to chew on and much more processing takes place in the cloud. This means Chrome OS is limited but intuitive, and makes for cheap but effective laptops.
Chrome OS: Advantages and disadvantages
Chrome makes a virtue of a shortcoming: it can’t do as much as a full-featured OS because it’s so small. Mostly it functions as a portal to the cloud-based Google world.
That makes it a great choice if you’re already happy using that ecosystem. Chromebooks are physically light and reliable, and Google favors solid-state storage so they’re often physically robust with excellent battery life.
But what you’re essentially getting is a keyboard and screen. The “computer” is on Google’s servers. That approach comes with upsides and downsides.
The downsides: Using third-party tools
Chromebooks initially didn’t offer much support for tools outside the Google ecosystem, and if you wanted to use design, graphics, or other standalone software you had to find a web version and run it through the browser—substituting Photoshop for Pixlr, for instance.
This means that if you do any kind of work where a lot of fast computation has to happen locally, Chrome isn’t your optimal OS. Chromebooks won’t support applications like Photoshop. At least not yet.
Google and Adobe have arranged a Chrome-friendly version, likely a sign of good things to come. As time goes on, Chromebooks swing more toward a hybrid model where local computing power is (in some cases) more impressive and more third-party flagship software gets integrations with the OS. Some newer Chromebooks are able to run Android applications too.
But remember that you’re reliant on a good internet connection. If you’re an engineer or engineering student, your laptop budget is better spent on something that will reliably run AutoCAD without having to MacGyver it.
Chrome OS will let you set up the offline version of Google Docs, Sheets, and so on. But you have to do that yourself. Out of the box, a Chromebook requires internet connectivity to do pretty much anything.
Ecosystem lock-in isn’t as serious as it looks at first glance. You can often access alternatives to Google’s applications via the Chrome browser. If you want to use Microsoft’s cloud productivity apps, for instance, you can do it on a Chromebook. You can even install Dropbox, though as with most things with installable components, it’s best to do this through the file manager rather than the browser.
However, you won’t be able to use browsers other than Chrome on older versions of the Chrome OS (it’s the newer ones that will let you use the Android version of other browsers).
The upsides: Ease of use and security
One of the best things about Chrome OS is that it’s very simple and easy to use for its main purpose: supporting productivity on the cloud. If you’re familiar with the Chrome browser, you can just open a Chromebook and start working.
(Though you will have to learn how to use the file manager, which is closer to something you’d expect on a mobile device than on Windows’ or Mac’s equivalents.)
Finally, security and privacy. There’s little malware for Chrome OS and it’s designed to be easy to “power-wash” (reset to factory defaults). If you are infected, it’s simple to solve, and deleting your local storage doesn’t matter anyway if everything is stored in the cloud.
Chromebooks are sandboxed and come with security chips that encrypt onboard data, secured sharing, and verified boot, though some of these features are hardware-dependent and don’t transfer with the OS to non-Chromebook computers.
It’s also easy to run VPNs on Chrome OS, and many VPNs have Chrome extensions—or Android apps.
But this is Google we’re talking about. If you care a lot about privacy, Chrome OS might not be your best choice. Chrome syncs all your data to the cloud by default, runs Google as your default search engine in the default Chrome browser, and probably uses DNS tracking and other data collection tools too. Chrome for Education users get additional privacy intrusions.
If you’re concerned about how to set up your Chrome OS for more privacy, here’s a good guide, and if you specifically want info for education users, here’s the EFF’s take. But who are we kidding? If you’re seriously into privacy you’re probably reading this on Tor and running DuckDuckGo on Tails already…
Who should get a computer with Chrome OS?
If the first thing you do when you turn on your computer is fire up your web browser, and most of what you do takes place in the browser, you’re paying rent on a house when you live in one room. A Chromebook or other computer with Chrome OS will probably do everything you need.
That’s true for many students, writers, business people, and plenty of people who have to use a computer for work but mainly for just a few tasks.
And for some people, the standard Chrome OS vehicle—a Chromebook—also comes with inherent advantages. If you’re going to be carrying it around all day, but mostly in places with good internet connectivity, a Chromebook is a great choice.
Don’t get a Chrome OS computer if…
…you need a lot of processing power independent of the internet. Chrome OS isn’t great for this. If you need to carry your work laptop around or work in places where internet connection is patchy, Chrome isn’t the best choice.
And if some element of your work relies on the availability of the desktop versions of more powerful productivity apps, especially Exel, it makes more sense to go with a traditional laptop. Salespeople will find that Salesforce doesn’t work in Chrome OS offline mode, and Sheets can’t handle very large CSV files, for instance.
Chrome isn’t really a desktop OS, though you can install it on a desktop (see below). If you’re sitting down every morning to the entire Adobe Creative Suite plus Poser and Blender, Chrome OS isn’t for you. And Chrome computers are restrictive for developers—they won’t run Data Loader or local IDEs, for instance, making them a poor choice for a primary machine.
Can I install Chrome OS on a computer myself?
The short answer is “yes, but…”
Chrome isn’t really designed to be installed on anything but Chromebooks, and Chromebooks aren’t designed to run anything but Chrome OS.
However, with a bit of ingenuity, it’s possible to separate the two. You can modify Chromebooks extensively, including installing Windows and Linux. And you can install Chrome OS on a non-Chromebook computer.
One option is to go to Neverware and install a Chromium OS. Chrome refers to Google products, while Chromium is the open-source codebase they’re built on. Neverware has built Chromium OSs that will run much like the Chrome OS but on other hardware.
Another option is to install Chrome OS directly. There’s a project, Project Croissant (formerly known as Chromefy), which aims to make the standard, Google-issue Chrome OS available on any device. Right now, it works only on devices that can boot from live USB. This requires a bit of technical know-how and doesn’t work on everything. On the plus side, it’s free. The download and installation guide is here.