Announced almost five years ago, in May 2011, at the Google I/O conference, Chromebooks are succesfully eroding Microsoft's market share. In this tutorial I'll explain what a Chromebook is, why it is different and why you could benefit from using one.
A Chromebook is a low-cost laptop computer that runs Chrome OS the Chrome operating system which, itself, is a stripped-down variant of Linux.
A Chromebook is designed, primarily, to be used with an internet connection. Many of its applications run, and their data is stored, in the cloud. There are exceptions to this and some functions can be undertaken offline.
Chromebook computers are invariably priced around the £200 ($280) mark. There are exceptions. Google's own, high-specification, Chromebook Pixel is priced at £799 or £999 depending upon model chosen.
Consequently, when compared to Apple's MacBook models or laptops running Microsoft Windows, the hardware specification of a typical Chromebook is comparatively low. A common specification, at the time of writing, is an Intel Celeron processor, a 16GB solid state drive and 2GB or 4GB or RAM.
Despite the low specification, in comparison to Mac and Windows laptops, the Chromebook boot time is lightning quick.
How it Works
Google's Chrome OS, and Chromebooks, rely on Google's Chrome web browser in conjunction with its online applications.
This means that, for the most part, applications and documents are stored in the cloud rather than on the computer. The Chromebook is essentially a thin client computer.
In order for it to function, the computer requires a connection to the internet ...usually via Wi-Fi, though some Chromebooks also offer connection via 3G/4G cellular services through a dedicated SIM card. Of course, setting up a mobile phone as a mobile hotspot for data is an alternative way of getting online.
Some applications offer offline functionality that synchronises with the cloud once an internet connection is restored.
This approach has a number of advantages. By moving the processing power from the desktop to the cloud (somebody else's computer), it is possible to retail computers with lower specifications and at a lower price point than competitors. The processing is predominantly done remotely from the Chromebook.
Furthermore, this means that battery longevity is incredible.
On booting a Chromebook you'll notice the speed at which it starts up. Compared with even the quickest of Macs, or PCs, the Chromebook really is incredibly quick.
Chromebooks allow for user profiles to be created, up to 17 of them in total. Logging in with your Google email address is all it takes to create a new profile. In the same way, work colleagues and friends could set up a profile on a Chromebook belonging to you. There's also the provision for a guest login.
The Graphical User Interface
If you're used to using a Windows, Mac OS X or Ubuntu graphical user interface, or GUI, then using Chrome OS should not be too much of a learning curve.
By default, the Chrome OS screen has few elements. At the bottom right is the app launcher, typically a magnifying glass symbol.
At the bottom left is information such as time, Wi-Fi signal strength, battery charge and an avatar for the account currently logged in.
Along the bottom of the screen is an area known as the shelf, a place for pinning app icons. This is an area known as the taskbar in Windows and the dock in OS X.
Though, by default, located along the bottom of the screen, the shelf can be repositioned on the left or the right hand side. It can also be set to auto hide.
The keyboard on the Chromebook is similar to Macs and PCs but there are a few differences that should be noted.
For example, there is no CAPS LOCK key. Realistically, nobody ever uses that enough to justify a dedicated key on the keyboard. Instead, on a Google Chromebook keyboard, there is a Search key, typically a magnifying glass symbol.
Along the top of the keyboard, above the numbers, are a number of function keys with symbols on them. From left to right, they are:
- Full screen
- Switch window
- Decrease screen brightness
- Increase screen brightness
- Decrease sound
- Increase sound
Additional functions, with particular key combinations, can be achieved through pressing the Ctrl and/or Alt keys. Rather helpfully, pressing Ctrl-Alt-? displays a keyboard on the screen that shows the available functions through relevant key combinations.
Apps, in the Chromebook sense, are web apps that are installed from the Chrome Web Store at chrome.google.com/webstore/category/apps
From the Chromebook, click the App Launcher icon or press the Search key to fire up a panel from which you can search. Any search results relevant to the Chrome Web Store will be displayed, alternatively you can click on the Google Web store icon to specifically open and browse the Web Store.
Once you've found an app you'd like to install, click the blue + Add to Chrome button. That's it. The app can be founder in the App Launcher, specifically in the All Apps section, and can be pinned to the Shelf if required.
Apps are not apps in the conventional sense that OS X and Windows users understand. If you absolutely require specific apps then you may find that a Chromebook is not for you, though by this I am not including people who think they need Photoshop to crop a photo or Microsoft Word because they want to write a letter.
Many decent, and often better, alternatives exist and if you buy into Google's ecosystem, you'll learn to appreciate the advantages of an online office suite that gives you only the tools that you need in an elegant web interface that gets the job done.
Hard Drive and Memory
Chromebooks tend to have internal storage of low capacity, typically a 16GB Solid State Drive, or SSD. The amount of RAM, Random Access Memory, is typically one, two or four gigabytes with the exception of high-end models like the Chromebook Pixel.
That said, you'll still find Chromebooks performing better than Netbooks and many Windows laptops. This is because the processing power is on a remote supercomputer. The Chromebook itself does not require a high specification when the work is being done remotely.
Most Chromebooks are not user-serviceable to the extent that many Windows PC laptops, and some Apple MacBooks are, in terms of hardware upgrades. It is not possible to update the memory or the solid state drive in most devices. Chromebooks, however, allow for storage expansion via USB drives and SD cards.
Chromebooks are typically supplied with a number of ports that should satisfy most users.
- Two USB 3.0 ports allow for the plugging in of USB drives and other peripherals
- An HDMI port enables screen output to an external monitor or television
- An SD card port provides expansion for additional storage or for importing photos or other data
- A 3.5mm socket combines microphone and headphones. A typical use would be a headset with mic to use to communicate on Google Hangouts
Given the thin client approach, of Chrome OS, where all of the processing horsepower is done on remote super computers there is limited, though adequate, local storage available.
Consistent with Google's approach, storage of files is undertaken by Google Drive. This is essentially storage of files and documents online. It works well and it means that files are available if you log in to a different Chromebook or via a Mac or PC.
Additional local storage can be achieved through the use of a USB drive or an SD card.
The screen resolutions of Chromebooks is usually 1366x768 pixels which only just makes it an HD screen. Some slightly higher specification machines run to 1080p displays but screen quality is reminiscent of 1990s Windows laptops: not at all good.
Chromebook screens will not satisfy more demanding users or those used to high-quality Macbook displays, perhaps with the exception of Google's own Chromebook Pixel, which favours an unorthodox 3:2 aspect ratio on a 12.85-inch high resolution IPS display of 2560x1700 pixels at 239 PPI.
The touchpad is a primary input device to control the mouse pointer, click items on the screen, scroll and swipe in particular combinations for specific actions.
The touchpad generally works well, though touchpads are not to everyone's preference. There are no physical mouse buttons, nor is there a rubber mouse pointer in the middle of the keyboard as many Windows laptop users have been used to.
Chrome OS is, and Chromebooks are, an interesting alternative to the traditional computing approach of having all of the processing power on the desktop. In 1995, I was only just starting to explore the Internet with Netscape Navigator; everything I did, work-wise, was done locally.
Twenty years on and most of what I am doing, work-wise, is being done whilst connected to the Internet. Perhaps Google has the right idea putting the processing power centrally with thin client computers accessing this computing power through the browser. Perhaps Google is ahead of its time and the market isn't yet appreciative of this technology.