Anyone who has been shopping for a laptop computer lately has been surprised at least momentarily when they have stumbled across a couple of machines that are much cheaper than most of the others on the shelf. Most laptops of even moderate specifications are $400 and up, but there are these few particular exceptions that start in the low $200s and top out at less than $400. Is this too good to be true? Not necessarily. For many people, the pros and cons of a Chromebook are worth considering.
WHAT IS IT?
Simply put, a Chromebook is a laptop that runs on Google’s Chrome OS (Operating System). Although this OS has certain limitations in comparison with Microsoft Windows or an Apple OS, it does have surprising capabilities in today’s web-based computing world. Google itself sells models of Chromebooks, but other well-known manufacturers such as Acer, Asus and Hewlett-Packard have their own offerings, in ranges of speed and power. Some versions are even convertible to tablets.
WHAT CAN IT DO?
When you start up a Chromebook, the first (and almost the only) thing that you will be offered is the Chrome browser. This, with a wifi connection (but probably not Ethernet) will allow you access to any function that the web provides such as web-based email, banking, research, booking a hotel, checking your calendar, planning a route on a map, and so on. A set of very basic apps will also be available, so that you can do rudimentary photo editing, enjoy some games, or play back music and videos. Most important for some people is access to Google Drive, which is basically an online office suite that is integrated with cloud file storage. This allows creation, storage and sharing of documents, spreadsheets, photos, presentations, music and even (with April looming) tax records. Google Drive offers 15 Gigabytes of cloud storage free, and you can buy additional increments.
One nifty feature of most Chromebooks is to allow various user accounts, so that everyone can log into their own established preferences, look and shortcuts.
WHAT CAN’T IT DO?
You may have noticed that nowhere above did we mention a hard disk for local storage of files and programs. That is because there isn’t one – at least not really. Most Chromebooks do have a miniscule solid-state disk to hold the OS, a few apps, and very little else. In fact, many smartphones have a larger hard disk than many Chromebooks. This is why there is such emphasis on web-based apps and cloud storage. That having been said, most models do have at least one USB 3.0 port and many have a slot for an SD camera card. Although these are external storage solutions, the modern-day speed of these devices does allow you to approximate an internal hard disk, in a clunky sort of way.
For once, we are going to go out on a limb and offer some concrete advice: A Chromebook will probably not be satisfactory as the only computer in the house. On the other hand, the speed and low cost make the Chromebook a serious contender as a second or later machine for carrying to class, lugging back and forth to the office, or even for keeping you up to date on a vacation.