What is Chrome OS, and what are its benefits?
Chrome OS was released back in 2009 as an open-source project to help make a computer operating system that took away the fuss of all the other operating systems out there. March 2011 saw the release of the first two retail Chromebooks, the Samsung Series 5 and the Acer AC700. Since then, just about every major computer manufacturer has given their hand a try at the Chrome OS world: ASUS, HP, Lenovo, Toshiba, and Dell, with more on the way. Chrome OS also exists outside of just Chromebooks in the form of Chromeboxes, Chromebases, and now Chromebits.
I’ve recently adopted Chrome OS as my daily driver in the form of the Toshiba Chromebook 2, and I’ve decided I’ll never look back. Why is that, you ask? Well, that’s what I’m here to help you understand. What exactly is Chrome OS, and what are the benefits of owning a device that runs it?
What is Chrome OS?
Chrome OS is an operating system developed in-house by Google, much like Android for smartphones. The idea for Chrome OS was to simplify computing by running applications and the storage of data in the cloud (Don’t read: doesn’t work without internet connection; more on that later). Rather than installing programs that take up lots of space on your computer’s hard drive, and subsequently eats up RAM and bogs down on processing, the computer would run these applications on the web, saving the need for hard drive space, and only using processing power when you call for it.
What this means is most things run in the Chrome browser on Chrome OS. The average computer user would then ask “Well what about programs I use such as Microsoft Word and Outlook?” Don’t worry, those functions are still available, just in a manner you may not be used to.
For example, rather than running Microsoft Word, you’ll use Google’s word processing application called Docs. In Docs you can still format your page, type things, and other stuff you would do in Word. The things that are missing are some of the more processing-heavy stuff, but for the average user you won’t even notice they’re gone (you probably didn’t even notice they were there in the first place). If you feel like you can’t handle not using Word, that’s OK: Microsoft now has Word Online, which looks almost exactly like Word, but just in a browser.
Now that you have a basic understanding of Chrome OS, let’s look at what advantages it has over other OSes, such as Windows and Mac.
Note: I have more experience with Windows than Macs, so most of my comments draw from that. However, most of them still apply based on conversations I have with others.
The System updates don’t waste your time
One of my biggest frustrations with Windows was when it would force you to install updates, and then proceed to take hours installing said updates. Sure, had I just applied it when it prompted it wouldn’t have to come to the system forcing me to, but then I’d have to consciously stop what I’m doing, and wait for the computer to finish its business before I could resume working. With Chrome OS, this problem simply doesn’t exist.
Chrome OS quietly and without any hassle downloads the update while you’re working. That’s right. No blue screen that says “Downloading updates… 2%”. Once it has downloaded, the system doesn’t even bother you with it, except for a tiny arrow that appears in your system tray in the bottom-right corner. You can either open that notification, restart and install then and there, or you can wait until you’re down working and shut down your computer, and the update will install itself. For the record, the average Chromebook takes about 10 seconds to start from being shut down. So restarting and installing updates probably takes a total of 20 seconds. Twenty seconds.
Another thing worth noting here is Chrome OS has very regular updates. In fact, it gets updated every 6 weeks, and every Chromebook gets updated directly from Google (unlike Android) for at least 5 years from its release date. And yes, I mean it when I say at least. This means Google may update a device after that 5 year mark comes and goes, but they only guarantee 5 years (I say only, but 5 years is a pretty long time).
If you want to know what changes were made to the OS, you can visit the release notes that are updated with every update, here. If you want to know the date a particular device will stop being updated, you can visit this handy-dandy link here.
Applications are much lighter in storage space and processing power
This may not seem like a big deal, but it is. Let’s say you have about 20 different programs installed on your computer. If each of those are 100 MB in size (usually, they’re bigger), then that quickly adds up to 2 GB, and that doesn’t include the data those programs then store. On top of that, that’s 20 different programs that need regular updating that also take time, and sometimes even more space. Furthermore, as a computer ages, those programs tend to bog down the system and then working on the machine becomes more of a chore rather than a joy.
Since Chrome OS applications exist within the web, updates to applications perform in much the same way that a system update to Chrome OS does: in the background, quickly, and without fuss. Also, because you’re not actually downloading a program, but rather an extension or small app, these applications take up virtually no space. Not only does this mean you have more space to work with (especially considering most Chromebooks have small SSDs), but the system will not become bogged down by these applications. Considering your system will be updated every 6 weeks, it is unlikely your computer will become slower due to software (though, anything is possible).
Working in the Cloud has more advantages than you may think
Although, I’ve already listed one of them: updates are easy and seamless. Considering I’ve covered that, I’ll move on.
Pretty much everything is saved all the time. Google Docs (Word), Slides (PowerPoint), and Sheets (Excel) all work in Google Drive, which saves every change you make instantly while you are working. So unless aliens invade and destroy the internet and all of Google’s servers and all computers and other connected devices, your work is backed up and saved.
You can access anything you do from just about anywhere. Forgot your Chromebook at home? No matter. Just log on to your Google account on your coworker’s computer to bring up that presentation you had prepared. Forgot to print out grandma’s birthday card? Just use your phone to print it out on another printer.
The operating system is simple, and therefore fast. Chromebooks aren’t going to win any performance awards, but that’s because they don’t need the type of horsepower a Windows or Mac machine needs. Unless your streaming music, watching a video, playing an online game, and have 25 tabs open, you’re likely not going to notice much lag.
A neat aspect of this is your Chromebook powers on from being shut down almost instantly. Like I’ve said, the average Chromebook goes from being powered down to you surfing the web in about 10 seconds. I still can’t get over this coming from Windows, usually waiting 5-10 minutes before I can start working.
Another huge benefit is battery life is overall much better than the average Windows computer. I usually get about 9-10 hours of use out of my Toshiba Chromebook 2, compared to my previous Windows machine I was lucky to get 3 hours.
The operating system is truly safe. One of the most annoying things I hear from Mac users is “Macs never get viruses or malware, they’re impenetrable!!!” JUST LAST WEEK I talked to a Mac user who told me she got a “system message” telling her to call a number to get a virus removed. Turns out, someone had hacked her computer and showed that pop up, and the person on the other side of the phone was asking for credit card info. Luckily at that point she smelled something fishy and hung up, proceeding to take her computer to an Apple Store. The point is, any operating system that can install programs is susceptible to a virus, it just happens less to Mac users because there are less Mac computers in the world (sorry to burst your bubble).
Since Chrome OS is essentially just a browser without a place for installed programs, there isn’t really anything for a virus to latch onto. Add onto that the fact that Google updates every 6 weeks to make any security patches they find, and you’ve got an operating system that actually doesn’t need a firewall because it is truly safe.
Note: this isn’t to say it is impossible for a Chromebook to be hacked, as anything is possible. Just saying it’s highly unlikely, because it is very improbable.
A few notes to make
Naturally, I should address a few things that are typically mentioned by the average person regarding Chrome OS.
But aren’t Chromebooks worthless without an internet connection?
I have two things to say to that:
- Aren’t we all connected to the internet at all parts of our day? Nowadays, it is rare to be sitting with your computer in a place that doesn’t have Wi-Fi access. Furthermore, the average user goes onto their computer to go onto a browser to access the internet anyways. However, for those shaking their heads when I say that, my next point is for you.
- Chromebooks CAN work offline. Sure, when Chrome OS was first released, this was largely untrue. But now, every Chromebook can work without being connected to the internet. Google Drive (Docs, Slides, Sheets) will work for you, and will simply sync the next time you are connected. Other things like Gmail Offline, games, and more all work offline as well. You can watch local videos, and most other things you would do on a Windows or Mac without an internet connection.
What if I DO need a large program like Adobe Photoshop?
Let’s set something straight: Photoshop does not exist on Chromebooks. There is a solution Adobe is working on for that, but it is currently in the very beginning stages. However, there are applications that substitute Photoshop. My favorite, Pixlr, looks a lot like Photoshop, but just doesn’t do as much (akin to Word Online being a stripped down version of Word). Generally, this is true of other programs one might need. If the program itself doesn’t have an app in the Chrome Web Store, more than likely there is a sufficient substitute by another company.
However, it is certainly possible that what you need simply doesn’t exist on Chromebooks. If that’s the case, perhaps Chromebooks aren’t for you. However, one way to solve this is to have a Windows desktop at home, and use a Chromebook as your daily driver. Although I wish I didn’t, that’s what I do since my wife needs a desktop for certain things (that and my Plex server runs through it).
I just don’t want to risk diving into Chrome OS and realize I miss something and then regret it.
If this is you, I recommend you take a look at this article. JR Raphael has spent a lot of time in Chrome OS, so knows his stuff. Take a look at the questions he asks in that article, and I’m sure you’ll find the answer.
If you’re still not sure, don’t sweat it. Chromebooks start at $199. In the computer world, that is not much money you are spending. It’s not like you’re investing a ton of money in trying it out. Another benefit of Chrome OS.