Chromebooks are portable, laptop-style personal computers that run Google’s Chrome OS operating system. It is based on Linux, and inherits much of the stability and security that Linux is famous for.
ChromeOS supports a variety of USB devices, including cameras, mice and flash drives, and employs a verified boot feature, which enables the system to check for system integrity and potential security breaches at startup.
However, as Chromebooks are intended to be used while connected to the internet, their user interface consists of a variation on Google’s Chrome web browser, with a media player and file manager built in. No other native applications are provided, and, as a result, their offline capabilities are somewhat limited compared to a standard laptop.
Rather than installing native software onto the Chromebook, as they would on other types of operating system, users are expected to take advantage of online services – such as Google’s GMail email service, for example – or install web apps from the Chrome App Store.
This approach ensures that the user is always automatically presented with the latest version of their favourite software, without being constantly prompted to install updates. It also means that a lost, stolen or damaged Chromebook need not cost the user their important documents, as, in most cases, files are stored in online repositories, like Google Drive, rather than on the machine itself. The user need only obtain a new Chromebook, then sign in with their Google account, to have virtually instant access to their documents, settings and apps.
Helpful though this is, and despite efforts to make web apps at least partially functional offline, the inevitable consequence is that, without access to the internet, a Chromebook is not at its best. It follows that they are most suitable for use in areas where network access, either via WiFi or a cellular connection, is both ubiquitous and reliable.
Ideal environments include school and college campuses. Here, and in similar establishments, wireless networks are widely available, and a routine need to access information and documents quickly and easily from a variety of locations makes a small, inexpensive, highly portable, internet-capable device extremely desirable.
To meet these needs, Chromebooks are designed to be lightweight and easily portable, with an emphasis on low cost and rapid startup – many of the models on the market are able to go from a cold start to a fully functional web browsing session in much less than 30 seconds. Most of them are built around Intel’s relatively inexpensive Atom or Celeron processors, feature 2GB of RAM alongside a 16GB Solid State Drive (SSD) for permanent storage, weigh around 3lbs and sport displays that measure approximately 12 inches diagonally.
Naturally, some models deviate from this general theme to some degree. For example, Samsung’s Series 5 XE550C22 Chromebook features 4GB of RAM, while the Series 3 XE303C12 is built around Samsung’s own, ARM-based, Exynos 5 Dual System on a Chip instead of an Intel processor, Acer’s C7 uses a 320GB Hard Drive in place of an SSD, and Hewlett Packard’s Chromebook Pavilion has a 14 inch display that dwarfs other models.
Despite these minor physical variations, however, most Chromebooks share a considerable degree of common ground – an HD webcam and two USB 2.0 ports are fairly standard, for example, while optical drives seem to have no place in the lineup. This is an understandable omission in view of the need to keep these machines as lightweight as possible; an optical drive is, essentially, redundant when an internet connection is expected to be present at almost all times for online backup, software installation and entertainment streaming.
Chromebooks also feature a customised keyboard, which includes keys dedicated opening and controlling multiple browser windows, and a web Search button where the Caps Lock key is usually located; to activate Caps Lock, the user must press both ALT + the Search Key. While one-key searching may well be useful for some people, it is easy to see how it might be terribly inconvenient for users who regularly use Caps Lock. Fortunately, the Search key can be persuaded to work like a standard Caps Lock key by a simple change in the Chromebook’s Settings page.
Although early Chromebooks received a distinctly lukewarm welcome – due, in large part, to their unexpectedly high price and limited offline functionality – recent price drops and improvements in their offline capabilities have made current models far more popular than their predecessors. They are clearly no match for a stand-alone laptop, but then, they are not intended to be. Their objective is, first and foremost, to provide low cost, reliable, secure and easily portable internet access in a form-factor that enables real work to take place. The latest Chromebooks are well on their way to meeting that objective, and it is easy to see why, within their target market, they are beginning to look like serious contenders.