Should You Buy A Chromebook?

With the death of Windows XP, Google is pushing the Chromebook pretty hard. In fact, if you own a business and buy in bulk, Google will shave $100 off the already dirt-cheap price of each Chromebook. But is it worth it?

As a Chromebook user… kinda. Here’s a breakout of whether a Chromebook is right for you.

You Get What You Pay For

Chromebooks are a fast-growing segment of the market because, well, they cost damn near nothing for a computer. Even the highest-end Chromebooks will run you as little as $250 if you know where to shop or can take advantage of deals.

The main drawback in terms of hardware is that the storage is absolutely terrible. Most Chromebooks use SSD for storage and are built to keep costs down, which means you get a paltry 16GB. The expectation, of course, is that you’ll use Google services for all your storage needs; in practice, it means you’ll be keeping lots of USB sticks handy, especially if you’ve got large music and video collections. You might want to shell out for an SD card to keep slotted in, just for your own sanity.

Also, well, it’s a $200 computer: Don’t expect the heft of a $500 laptop. However, the low-power construction means it lasts damn near forever on a far lighter battery; Chromebooks can be tossed into a bag and the power brick is fairly light and space efficient too.

The other drawback is, to be honest, Chrome OS. It’s not as bad as you’ve heard, but it still assumes you’ve got access to WiFi, all the time: Take that away and basically you can make spreadsheets and use any offline apps you might have downloaded. Also, it’s closely tied to your Google account, which is incredibly annoying if, say, your work uses GMail and you need to stay logged into that account.

The ties to Google are also annoying in that you have all the disadvantages of corporate squabbles. For example, Netflix runs pretty much perfectly on a Chromebook, while Amazon Instant Video looks like YouTube from 2006.

The advantages, though, are surprising. Chrome’s fast boot time is actually a lot less impressive than how smooth and sensible the system is. It takes a little work to get the hang of gestures on the touchpad, but once you do, it’s a surprisingly weightless and simple Internet experience. If you spend a lot of time working in a browser or goofing off in one, it’s slick as hell.

And for when you need a real computer, there is, of course, a fix.

Working Under The Hood

Namely, by installing Ubuntu. Yes, joining the ranks of the open-source true-believers is incredibly irritating in some respects, and I’m a begrudging Ubuntu user. But, first of all, it’s free, and secondly, it’s relatively painless as installing software from a command line goes if you use Crouton. You could also use ChrUbuntu, but it expects you to recompile the kernel just to use the trackpad, showing the grand tradition of user contempt among the open source community, and the dual-boot nature of it means you have roughly a gigabyte of space for the two systems. Don’t bother.

Chrome OS is really just a flavor of Linux, so you can actually run both Chrome OS and a real desktop at the same time. Even better, you can switch between the two, screwing around on one while the other plugs away at something. Being able to switch environments completely with a hotkey is incredibly useful. And you can wipe the whole system with the press of a button, to boot.

Probably the nicest benefit is that it gives you more powerful tools and really opens up the Chromebook. Yeah, every single program is the hillbilly cousin of the one you use on Mac or PC, but they work, and you can install a surprising amount of useful programs. You can even install Mac and PC emulators.

Essentially, if you need a lightweight, cheap computer, a Chromebook is your best choice. Just go in knowing what to expect.