Living With a Chromebook: Can You Survive With Just a Chrome Browser?

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 Chrome OS argues that much of the computer experience we take for granted today is outdated, clunky, and unnecessary.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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.