The Chromebook Pixel project: Chrome OS

March 8, 2013
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Google Chrome

Perhaps the most misunderstood part of a Chromebook is the operating system. Some don’t even think it’s a proper OS, while some swear by it. It definitely has limitations, but Chrome OS is probably a lot different than you’ve heard. Let’s get into some truths about Chrome OS, shall we?

What Chrome OS is

The central part of any computer is the operating system, and Chrome OS is just not the typical offering. It has a lot going for it, which is rarely discussed. Chrome OS may be a fairly new concept, but it’s not a bad one by any means. In some cases, it may be just what you’re looking for.

Lightweight

When your operating system is based on the browser, there’s not much you need on top of it. This is, perhaps, the central point of confusion about Chrome OS. Rather than design and build an entirely new OS to combat Microsoft or Apple, Google went a different route. With the world increasingly moving towards being online almost constantly, Chrome OS makes a lot of sense for many due to it being straightforward and effective for what they want to do.

Chrome Security

Secure

Chrome, be it browser or operating system, is about as secure as you’ll find. A recent hackathon aimed at Chrome OS garnered no viable security breaches, which is rare. Chrome is sandboxed, meaning each tab in the browser operates as a separate function. If one tab is compromised, the nefarious bug is relegated to that tab, and is halted immediately. The likelihood of any virus infecting a computer or network is unlikely, at best.

This is where having a lightweight OS comes in handy. If an OS is based around the browser, and that browser is inherently secure, your concerns about safety are mitigated. You’re on the web, concerned about safety… and Chrome is central to both.

Cloud based

You’ve heard all the arguments about it before, and it’s true… Chrome OS is cloud based. To make good use of Chrome OS, we should understand that cloud based is not cloud reliant. There is local storage on a Chromebook, so you’re able to avoid the cloud if you like. If you need more storage, an external hard drive works well. The operating system makes good use of cloud based services and storage to make your information available anywhere, on any device, but it’s not mandatory.

Sometimes, referencing a document doesn’t need a big computer screen… a phone or tablet will do just fine. This is the purpose of cloud storage, to have our stuff available anywhere we go, and is something all of us should be comfortable with by now. Google Drive storage is secure, and accessing it on your Android device is really simple.

Hack Prize Chrome

What Chrome OS isn’t

Nothing is perfect, and Chrome OS is far from it. Admittedly, it’s still a work in progress for Google, but still pretty good for what it is. Some glaring omissions are present, but may have a silver lining to them.

The OS you’re used to

When you get a Chromebook, there is one glaring omission that screams at you: there is no optical drive. That’s right, there is no way to load software from a CD or DVD. For some, this is a deal breaker, but that’s just the nature of Chrome OS. With such a lightweight layer on top of the browser, there is no bulk for software to make a home.

Applications take the place of software, making the Chrome Web Store your go-to source for all your needs. Some of us need software that can’t be duplicated or mimicked, so Chrome OS won’t make sense in those instances. Others may find a suitable alternative on the Web Store, perhaps one they like more than their current offering.

Time consuming

With a 10 second boot, there is no grand entrance. Chrome OS is up and running in quick order, ready to work or play. All updates are fed to the device over the air, and the device updates every 6 weeks or so. You are rarely even aware of the updates, a stark difference to a traditional PC which can take up to an hour updating itself. Being lightweight has its benefits!

google_drive

Productivity and offline usability

One of the first things you’ll hear about Chrome OS, or Chromebooks in general, is “it’s only a web browser” or “it’s useless without an internet connection”. That has a touch of truth to it, but that’s not the whole picture. If you look at the “competition”, you’ll find they’re making their own push to be web-based. We have to wonder… is Chrome OS ahead of the curve?

Productivity

We’ll be getting into this much more next week (spoiler alert!), but Chrome OS is definitely a viable option for productivity. Google drive is a really stellar productivity option, and has a full gamut of services. If that doesn’t suit you, and you still are in need for Microsoft Office, there is Office 365. While Office 365 will cost you handsomely, all Google services are free, including Drive.

With so many companies switching to Google for their enterprise solutions, we have to consider that Chrome OS is a very realistic option. Whereas Microsoft once ruled the business sector, Google is making a strong push. Their recent purchase of QuickOffice promises to be a real boon for Chrome.

steam-android-app

Software and Games

Some software simply can’t be duplicated with a web app. In those rare instances, Chrome OS isn’t for you. The same goes for PC gaming… right now, Chrome OS just doesn’t support that type of activity. Photoshop has an online option, photoshop express (which also has an Android app), but it’s not the full suite. Gaming is also migrating to the web ever so slightly, so in a few years time this won’t be a concern for most.

If Chrome OS has an achilles heel, this is it. Developers have been slow to develop for Chrome OS, and a lot of that has to do with varying opinions and trends with coding language. As the Chromebook Pixel becomes a tool more developers pick up, we can expect more tools to be coming to Chrome OS. Some immediate needs or wants aren’t met right now, and that’s to be expected with a fairly new OS like Chrome. A day will come where all of our needs are web-centric, but that day is definitely not today.

Need versus want

Can a Chromebook be used offline? Most think not, but they’d be wrong. There is an entire suite of offline apps Chrome OS makes use of. You can create a Google Drive document offline (I wrote this whole article offline to prove it to myself), and there are quite a few games available.

Let’s also be honest about our internet connection and how they relate to our computers. Setting aside the OS argument, when was the last time you considered a computer useful without an internet connection? If we’re being truthful, most of us will admit we don’t think computers in general have much use when offline. What would we use them for without a connection? Create a document, maybe a presentation… play a few games. All that can be done within Chrome OS.

Chrome OS is better with a web connection, but it’s not mandatory. For most people, offline productivity won’t change. If a web connection is something you can’t live without, there is always a 3G or LTE version (Pixel only) of the Chromebook available. It may require a different method of accomplishing things, like using Drive rather than MS Office, but that could end up being beneficial.

Chromebook devices-selector-home-pixel

Conclusion

Chrome OS isn’t for everyone, and that’s alright. What everyone should do is consider their needs, and what they want out of a computer. While Chrome OS is a lot like the Chrome browser, it’s not identical. In a weird way, what you give up with Chrome OS can be more valuable than what you get with other operating systems. If you’re looking for a device in which the OS almost disappears, a Chromebook is something you should consider. If you live in the cloud, there is really no reason you should feel the need to wade through a clunky OS to get there.

If you still have some software needs Chrome OS can’t satiate, perhaps using Linux as an aside is a good option. Many are using the Chromebook Pixel to dualboot Linux, opening up a realm of possibilities. If you’re comfortable with Linux, this is definitely worth a shot. The video below is courtesy of GigaOM (just forgive that he keeps referring to Chrome OS by another name!), which showcases how dualbooting can have some wonderful benefits.

The debatable factors are always going to be there, but which OS is the best option lies solely with you. As the one using the device, you’ll be the one who needs to see value in it. Do yourself a favor, and take an honest, objective look at your needs and wants. If a Chromebook sounds like a good option, pick one up. If you have a set of needs that isn’t met with Chrome OS, there are plenty of options for you. The only thing you owe yourself is to consider Chrome OS an option.

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