Whether you’re using a Chromebook or you’re just interested in switching from installed desktop apps to browser-based ones, web-based software can replace many of the programs people use on their computers — and can often improve on them.
One advantage to using web-based apps is that they’ll natively sync across you devices — for example, to your smartphone. Your data will always be backed up and accessible away from your computer.
Unless you’re a demanding Office user that makes use of macros and other advanced features in the desktop version of Microsoft Office, you would probably be just as happy with a web-based office suite — or maybe even happier, since web-based office suites are free.
Google Docs allows you to open and create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations with the Docs, Sheets, and Slides apps built into Google Drive. Microsoft’s Office Web Apps allow you to use web-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote with interfaces similar to the desktop apps.
We’ve covered these two office suites in more detail in the past — read our overview of Google Docs and Office Web Apps for more information. Best of all, both are completely free.
Other productivity apps are also available in web-based form:
- Calendaring: Google Calendar offers a full-featured online calendar solution with recurring events, availability scheduling, and many other features. Microsoft also recently renovated their web-based calendar from the stuffy old Live Calendar into a Windows 8-style Calendar app. Both are solid choices. Google Calendar is the more mature application, but Microsoft’s Calendar is probably ideal if you’re tied to Microsoft’s ecosystem — for example, it can sync with the Windows 8 Calendar app, while Google Calendar can’t sync with Windows 8 anymore.
- Tasks: Google offers its own simple task manager built into Gmail and Google Calendar. It’s not very full-featured, but if you need something simple that’s accessible from within both your email and calendar, it will do the trick. Task managers are a fairly common type of application, and many others are available — including Remember the Milk, Any.DO, and more. They can all be synced to your smartphone so you can access them on the go.
- Notes: Without a doubt, Evernote is the most popular online note-taking app. Evernote is for more than notes — it can capture and store images, documents, and other types of files. Evernote can also be accessed with a Windows desktop app, so you don’t have to use it in your browser. Many other note-taking applications are also available, from the minimal Simplenote to Google’s new Google Keep note-taking solution. Microsoft’s OneNote is also available as a web app via Office Web Apps.
Unsurprisingly, communication apps work very well in a browser — whether you want to email, send instant messages, or even have voice and video chats.
- Email: The three most common web-based email systems are Google’s Gmail, Microsoft’s Outlook.com (formerly Hotmail), and Yahoo! Mail. Gmail was once the undisputed winner, but Microsoft is competing more strongly with Outlook.com. Even Yahoo is now serious about improving Yahoo! Mail and its other web apps. We prefer Gmail, but Outlook.com is certainly a contender — and might even be preferable if you use Microsoft services or are still using an old @hotmail.com address as your main email address. Whichever solution you choose, you can forward mail from your old account and combine them into one email inbox with Gmail or Outlook.com
- Messaging: Messaging features are built into many websites, with Google Talk built into Gmail, Skype and MSN built into Outlook.com, and Facebook chat built into Facebook’s website. If you still use other instant-messaging networks like AIM and Yahoo — or just want all your friends together in one place for chatting — we recommend imo.im as a strong web-based alternative to multiprotocol desktop instant-messaging programs like Pidgin and Trillian.
- Voice and Video Chat: You can voice and video chat via Google Talk or Google Hangouts via Gmail or Google+. If you want to use Skype, you can use the Skype feature built into Outlook.com. However, Skype requires a plugin so it won’t work on a Chromebook — but it will on Windows PCs.
- Social Networking: Of course, you don’t need a new web app for social-networking sites — everyone just uses the web app version of these anyway. It’s a good reminder of just how common web apps are — we’ve all been using web apps for everything from social networks to online banking and shopping without thinking of them as web apps.
We’re spoiled for choice when it comes to online-music services. Whether you want to upload your collection of MP3 files to the cloud and gain the ability to listen to them anywhere, subscribe to an all-you-can-eat music listening service that gives you access to 17+ million songs, or use a radio-like streaming service that just chooses what to play for you, you have a wide variety of choices.
- Music Lockers: Popular web-based music lockers include Amazon’s Cloud Player and Google Music (Apple’s iCloud isn’t accessible via a browser.) These services will scan your computer for music and give you access to copies of that music via a website and mobile apps. If they don’t yet have copies of that music, they’ll upload it for you. You can then access your music collection in a browser from anywhere without worrying about backing it up in case your music collection’s hard drive ever fails. Both Amazon and Google Music will sell you songs and allow you to store them in your online music locker as well as download them. These services are free — you’ll have to pay if you want to buy a song or store a very large number of songs.
- All-You-Can-Eat Listening: If you want to give up on maintaining a music collection entirely, use a music-streaming service like Spotify, Rdio, or MOG. Many of these services offer some free plans, and paid plans will run you $5-$10 per month. You’ll get access to over 10 million songs (17+ million on Spotify, for example) that you can listen to in a browser or mobile app without having to worry about purchasing or downloading the music — just search and play.
- Streaming Radio: Pandora allows you to build your own streaming radio station based on songs and artists you like. You can skip songs, but Pandora chooses the playlist for you. Slacker also offers streaming radio services with a variety of radio stations put together professionally as well as custom radio stations you can make. TuneIn Radio is the most like traditional radio — it allows you to listen to web-based streaming radio stations, the kind you would have played inside Winamp in the past. TuneIn Radio also gives you access to many terrestrial radio stations that stream online.
Web-based video services have also improved, gradually reducing the need for BitTorrent clients and local video players or desktop media stores like iTunes. Unfortunately, most of these services primarily function in the USA.
Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video are the most popular streaming video services with the largest selection. You can also often watch a variety of recent TV show episodes on the appropriate network’s website. Many websites will allow you to rent movies online — even YouTube allows you to purchase and rent movies and TV shows.
Online video streaming services are a bit complicated — unlike with music services, you will probably have to use several services to get all the videos you want to watch. Many services are also limited to the US — Netflix isn’t, but has very limited catalogs elsewhere — leaving users elsewhere in the world without much luck.
Here are a few other common tasks you might want to do in a browser:
- Image Editing: If you already store your photos online in a service like Google+ Photos (formerly Picasa), which automatically uploads photos from your Android device, you’ll likely find a basic photo editor included in your image-storage service. If you’re looking for something more powerful, you should give Pixlr a try — it’s no Photoshop, but it’s surprisingly powerful for a browser-based image editor.
- Video Editing: Believe it or not, you can record and edit videos in your browser — even if you have a Chromebook. YouTube includes a basic video editor that will work if you’re uploading a video to YouTube, while WeVideo is probably the most powerful browser-based video editor.
- Accounting: If you use an accounting program to keep track of your finances, you don’t necessarily need Quicken anymore. Mint.com, owned by Intuit, who also developers Quicken, QuickBooks, and other popular programs, is a finance management site that will automatically keep track of your bank account, credit card, and investment balances, showing you all your balances and transactions in one place. You can make budgets, categorize transactions, and view reports. Mint.com is convenient because it automatically fetches so much of the data for you, eliminating busy work.
This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of everything you could possibly want to do in a browser, nor does it list every web app you could use to accomplish these tasks. We’ve tried to include some of the most common tasks and highest-quality web apps to get you started, whether you’re using a Chromebook or are interested in web apps on your Windows PC.
Image Credit: Carol Rucker on Flickr
Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.
- Published 05/16/13