For the last few years Google Chromebooks have outsold all other laptops at Christmas. This is perhaps because they’re so cheap, with prices rarely getting above £250. Sound enticing? Below we look at how Chromebooks work, and whether they’re a realistic prospect for those who make words their business.
What are they?
Chromebooks are manufactured by a variety of companies but they all have one thing in common: They run Chrome OS. This is radically different from Microsoft Windows, which powers most PCs, or OS X/macOS, that runs on Mac computers. Chrome OS is little more than the Google Chrome web browser that you might already use on your PC. Virtually everything you do on a Chromebook takes place inside the Chrome browser window: playing games, or word processing, and even complicated tasks like image editing.
Something similar to a Start menu is provided, on which you’ll find apps (and more can be installed via the Google Web Store: http://goo.gl/mCVXkz), but this is a pretence and these “apps” are really just bookmarks that take you online. Some apps might hide the browser toolbar, and pretend to be real apps, but they’re still powered by web technologies.
This means a Chromebook needs to be online virtually all the time. Considering many homes, workplaces and even schools have Wi-Fi nowadays this isn’t unreasonable but it does mean that using a Chromebook on public transport can be tricky. Many cafes and pubs offer Wi-Fi but it’s not always reliable. A minority of Chromebooks have built-in cellular modems, just like a mobile phone, but you’ll pay through the nose for data plans.
Any files you create with a Chromebook are stored online too. This is described as storing your data “in the cloud” (don’t ask me why.) Google partners Chromebooks with 100GB of cloud storage via its Drive service, but Microsoft and others offer competitor services.
This is why Chromebooks typically have just 16GB of their own hard disk storage, compared to at least 500GB on other cheap laptops. Even worse, around 6GB of that 16GB of that already eaten-up by the operating system. If you really want to you can store files “locally” within this storage space, and you can even do some tasks without a net connection, such as play music and videos, or tweak documents (but not create them). However, virtually every aspect of Chrome OS pushes you towards working online.
Buying a Chromebook
Chromebooks powered by Intel processors tend to be faster. However, Chromebooks powered by Samsung or Nvidia chips are entirely silent because they don’t require a buzzy cooling fan. All Chromebooks come with solid state storage, rather than traditional hard disks, so there’s no whirr from that department either.
Four gigabytes of RAM will mean a speedier computer no matter what chip you go for, and Chromebooks with 2GB are best avoided. The quality of the screen varies tremendously but models with in-plane switching (IPS) screens are the best, with vibrant colours and good viewing angles. Trying out a Chromebook before purchase is a good idea and PC World stores sell many of those available.
Even the worst Chromebook offers around 4-6 hours of battery life and the best can eke out 12 hours. That’s more than a working day for café writers.
It’s unlikely you’ll need to buy any software, and updates for the system and your apps are installed automatically and invisibly. Security is built-in and impressively strong, to the extent where online threats are negated and even physical theft is not a threat to the privacy of your data.
Google created the Chromebook concept and it would very much like you to use Google Docs. This is a free online office suite that includes a word processor and you can use it right now using any computer — just head off to http://docs.google.com. You’ll need a Google account if you haven’t already got one — you will if you have a Gmail (or Googlemail) email address and if not you’ll be invited to create one for free.
Google Docs isn’t sophisticated but that’s not an issue for most writers, who usually require little more than basic formatting tools.
Assuming you have a stable Internet connection, whatever you write in Google Docs is saved within a few seconds. You’ll see at the top of the screen a status update along the lines of, “All changes saved in Drive.” In other words, there’s no need to click FIle > Save As, or to keep tapping Ctrl+S. To give your document a name, just click in the name field at the top left.
Tap the full-screen button found on most Chromebook keyboards, which will hide the toolbars, and using Google Docs is just like working in any traditional word processor.
Sound too good to be true? Sadly, it is.
Printing and sharing
Plug a printer into a Chromebook and not much will happen apart from a message appearing mentioning something called Google CloudPrint. You can’t print directly from a Chromebook. It boils down to this: The only way to print from a Chromebook is across the Internet to a printer attached to another computer that’s been logged-in via the Google Chrome browser. This is true even if the other computer is in the same room as you.
That’s not the only annoyance. Once you’ve finished writing, you’ll probably want to send off your copy as a Word document attached to an email. At the top right of each document is a button marked Share, which might seem to offer what’s needed, but this is designed to let you add other people to the document so you can collaborate via the Google Docs website. To get a copy of the file so you can email it along with a personal message, you’ll have to click File > Download As. The document will then be converted into a Microsoft Word file or PDF (the choice is yours), and saved to your Chromebook’s hard disk, where you can attach it to an email like you would on any other computer.
Dealing with documents sent to you via email — as you might do repeatedly when working on a document during the editing phase — is equally tricky. If you use Gmail there will be an option to import the file to Google Docs, but not if you’re using Microsoft, Yahoo or any other email service. In that case you’ll have to download the file again to your Chromebook’s hard disk, then open it for editing and click File > Save As Google Docs.
The whole process is confusing and long-winded — and that’s before we discuss the difficulties of dealing with zip files, which can quite frankly be baffling.
Other online services
Google isn’t the only show in town when it comes to online office suites and the strongest competition is provided by Microsoft. It offers free online versions of its core Office apps, including Word. Just visit http://onedrive.live.com and login with your Microsoft account, which you may already have if you use an Xbox games console or have an Outlook.com/Hotmail/Live.com email account. If not, creating an account is free of charge. Again you can access the online Office apps from any computer and not just a Chromebook, so can try-out using them for your work before investing in a Chromebook.
Like Google Docs, the online Office apps also save to cloud storage but this time it’s Microsoft’s own OneDrive (and it should be obvious that the various cloud services are mutually incompatible). Coupled to an Outlook.com email address, which are also free to those who haven’t already got one, this arguably offers the best toolkit for a writer using a Chromebook — documents sent to an Outlook.com email address can be opened in the online version of Word, where they’ll automatically be saved to your OneDrive. However, once edited, you’ll still need to download them to your Chromebook’s disk and then reattach them to your reply via OneDrive because, like Google, Microsoft enforces online collaboration as the chief method of sharing files. This is likely to perplex most editors.
Working within Microsoft’s empire also keeps documents in Word format and avoids converting the document to and from Google Docs format, which is sure to corrupt the layout sooner rather than later. There’s still the issue with getting files out of zip archives, however, and I experienced a few crashes.