Chromebooks are becoming more popular, with nearly 2 million sold in Q1 of 2016 alone. But a Chromebook still seems a bit scary—how do you live with just a Chrome browser? Is that really enough for a laptop?

How Can You Just Use a Browser?

Many people spend most of their computer time in a browser, and that browser is often Google Chrome. For people who already spend most of their time using Chrome, a Chromebook is an interesting prospect. Even if you don’t use a browser most of the time, much of what the average person does on their computer can be done in a browser.

A Chromebook is Google’s vision of the future. Chrome OS argues that much of the computer experience we take for granted today is outdated, clunky, and unnecessary. Antivirus software, locally installed applications with their own separate updaters, system optimization tools, huge control panels full of settings going back to Windows 3.1, drivers for compatibility with 20 year old printers, the twenty system tray programs running when you boot up your new Windows laptop, a huge user-visible file system that allows you to dig into your C:\Windows\System32 folder—it’s all unnecessary.

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How this sounds to you will depend on how you use your computer and how much you’ve moved to “the cloud.” There was a time when a geek with a media library had several additional hard drives packed into their PC, each of which were full of movies and seasons of TV shows—probably downloaded from unauthorized sources, because few legitimate sources existed in those days. Now, you can just stream movies and TV shows from Netflix, Google Play, iTunes, etc. Why bother downloading, storing, and backing up all those files?

There was a time when you needed to download all your email messages over POP3 and store them on your computer, ensuring you regularly backed up your email program’s data so you wouldn’t lose your email. Now they’re generally stored online and accessed in a web-based client. Even if you use a local email app, you’re probably accessing your email using IMAP, which stores the main copy of your email on the remote server.

Services like Spotify, Rdio, and Pandora have obsoleted huge music collections. Google Docs (and even Microsoft’s Office Web apps) is good enough for most average users, who don’t need all the advanced features found in Microsoft Office. Microsoft is even pushing simpler, “cloud-based” apps with its new Modern interface in newer versions of Windows.

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Additional Chromebook Stuff

A Chromebook isn’t really just Chrome—it’s Chrome OS. In addition to the standard Chrome browser that you may already be familiar with, Chrome OS comes with:

  • A login screen that allows you to log in with your Google account. After logging in, your Chrome bookmarks, extensions, apps, and other browser data will sync with your Chromebook. You can allow anyone to log into your Chromebook with their Google account or restrict it only to specific people.
  • A desktop background with customizable wallpaper.
  • A desktop taskbar with an app menu (listing your installed Chrome apps), pinnable shortcuts, and icons for running browser windows.
  • Window management features that allow you to open apps in their own dedicated windows, easily resize windows to take up the left and right sides of your screen, and so on.
  • A system-tray like area with a clock, Wi-Fi menu, battery indicator, and icon for the current user. You can click it for quick access to settings and information like your volume, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and battery status.
  • New settings on Chrome’s settings page that allow you to configure your network connection, connect to a VPN, choose a wallpaper, tweak trackpad settings, control users who can log in, and reset the Chromebook to its default state.
  • A Files app along with local file viewers that allow you to view images, watch videos, play music, open documents, extract .zip files, and so forth.
  • Some “packaged apps” that run offline. For example, it has a camera that uses your webcam, a calculator, and a help app that teaches you about your Chromebook. The future of Chrome OS and more powerful software for it may be in the form of more packaged apps like these.
  • The ability to run Android apps. Google has been slowing adding the option to run full Android apps from the Play Store on Chrome OS devices, dramatically broadening what the OS capable of.

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Chrome itself is already more powerful than you may give it credit for. Check out this list of 10 new browser features being used by real websites to see just how powerful “the web as platform” is getting.

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Chromebook Challenges

You may be thinking that a Chromebook is pretty cool, but so what? You may be thinking that you need to print/use your laptop offline/view local files/play games/run Photoshop. Let’s take a look at how you’d do that on a Chromebook.

  • Printing: Unfortunately, printing just won’t go away. So how do you print on a Chromebook? You use Google Cloud Print. Most new printers support Google Cloud Print, so you can connect them to your network and easily print to them. If you have an old printer connected to a Windows or Mac computer, you can use the Google Cloud Print Connector feature to make an older printer accessible to Google Cloud Print. Don’t try to plug your printer directly into your Chromebook, though—that won’t work.
  • Working Offline: Chromebooks have some offline support. The Gmail Offline app allows you to use your Gmail account, Google Calendar allows you to use your calendar offline, and Google Docs allows you to view and edit documents offline. Amazon’s Kindle Cloud Reader app allows you to read Kindle eBooks offline. Video files can be downloaded to your Chromebook and played back locally. You can find more offline apps in the offline-enabled section of the Chrome Web Store–the selection is getting bigger every day.
  • Using Local Files: Chrome OS offers a Files app, which allows you to download and view many types of common files offline. The Files app also gives you access to your Google Drive—and buying a Chromebook will give you bonus Google Drive space (most offer 100GB of additional Drive space for two years). You can connect USB drives, external hard drives, SD cards, digital cameras, and other types of storage devices to your Chromebook and their files will appear in this window.
  • Using Peripherals: Chrome OS supports a variety of peripherals, including USB mice and keyboards, Bluetooth mice and keyboards, monitors with a variety of connections, headsets with typical audio jacks, USB webcams, smartphones, and MP3 players. As we mentioned above, Chrome OS also supports storage devices like USB drives, SD cards, and digital cameras. You can’t connect printers directly to a Chromebook, nor can you use external CD burners or watch video DVDs (although Netflix works!) Find more information about supported file types and peripherals on Google’s Chromebook help website.
  • Finding Apps: Google provides a list of Chrome apps for various purposes.
  • Playing Games: Depending on how you play games on your computer, you may be in luck or this may be a big speed bump. If you play web-based games in your browser, Chrome OS allows you to play the same Flash and HTML-based games. The Chrome web store contains some popular games, such as Angry Birds and Cut the Rope. However, you can’t install Windows software (or any local software), so you can’t play PC games. They can be ported to the browser via native client, but few games have been.
  • Running Windows Software: You can’t run Windows software on a Chromebook. However, you can use something like Google’s official Chrome Remote Desktop or the VNC and Citrix apps available in the Chrome Web Store to access Windows apps running on remote systems.
  • Using Powerful Local Apps: If you really depend on the advanced features found in Microsoft Office or need Photoshop, a video editor, or other powerful desktop applications, you won’t find their equivalents on a Chromebook. However, let’s face it: most people don’t actually need all these features.

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Advanced Geekery

If you’re not a geek, you can skip this part. If you are a geek, you’ll want to read this.

Chromebooks actually run Linux. Chrome OS is a stripped-down environment running on Linux—Chrome OS even uses Gentoo Linux’s Portage package management system. While a Chromebook ships in a locked-down state for maximum security, you can enable “developer mode” to do whatever you want with the underlying system. You could install Ubuntu alongside Chrome OS and switch between Ubuntu and Chrome OS with a keystroke, getting a powerful Linux environment with local applications alongside Chrome OS. You could even replace Chrome OS with a standard Linux distribution.

This makes a Chromebook a much more powerful and open ARM machine than a Windows RT device like Microsoft’s Surface RT, which doesn’t allow you to install desktop applications and has a locked boot loader that prevents you from installing Linux.

What’s more, Chrome OS actually has some surprisingly powerful software available for it—in addition to Chrome Remote Desktop for accessing PCs, the Chrome web store even offers an SSH client. You could use the SSH and remote desktop applications to access everything from remote Linux terminals to Windows desktops on your Chromebook.

Try It Yourself

If you’re curious about Chrome OS, you can play with Chrome OS in VirtualBox. Of course, you won’t really get the same experience that you will when you sit down with an actual Chromebook, just as Windows in a virtual machine isn’t the same as Windows on a touch-enabled physical machine—it’s slower, for one thing.

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For all its advantages, a Chromebook really shines as a secondary PC. Many people could get by with a Chromebook 95% of the time, but there’s that 5% of the time when you may want to play a Windows game, use a desktop application, or do something else. If you can embrace the limitations, you may be fine ditching your Windows PC for a Chromebook—but that’s still a pretty drastic step.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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