Personal Computer Buyers: Pass on Chromebooks
I read an article today stating that a new model of the sub-$300 notebook computers known as Chromebooks could be an “Apple-killer,” and that if they were stamped with Apple logo they would sell impressive numbers. That inspired an eye roll that nearly left me blind. Chromebooks are nice enough for limited purposes, and they get a lot of hype, but don’t let anyone sway you into thinking that these computers are a viable option for personal computing.
Chromebooks are powered by Google’s “ChromeOS,” which is a systems-level version of the Chrome Web browser. At their core, Chromebooks are solid computing devices, offering the basic features a user would need—office productivity, email, media consumption, social networking, and so forth. That simplicity makes them attractive to institutions such as schools and libraries that make use of them as public terminals and classroom tools. It also makes them deceptively appealing to no-frills, budget-conscious users who might declare, “I just do email and word processing. I don’t need anything else.”
Their usefulness to institutions was pointed out to me by a colleague, and I was forced to agree. However, I still believe them to be poor choices for home users with even the simplest needs. Two main problems hinder Chromebooks: they are probably the least extensible computing devices on the market, and they require an Internet connection to really work properly.
You might shrug your shoulders at the Internet requirement—many people have been online continuously since the late 1990s, so a ubiquitous Net connection is perhaps less of deal-breaker than it might previously have been. But think about it this way: if you lose power (and very likely your network connectivity), a standard laptop running Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux still maintains a great deal of functionality thanks to locally-installed software. A Chromebook, on the other hand, becomes little more than a paperweight given that all its software is powered by the Web. Without connectivity, those Web apps aren’t going to do anything.
Chromebooks are also the most appliance-like computing device on the market. Like your refrigerator or your microwave, they are designed to do very specific tasks, almost entirely based on the Web. They can’t do anything beyond what is advertised on the box. You want to install a better office productivity suite such as Microsoft Office? Too bad—you can’t. Want to play the newest game, or heck, the oldest game? Nope, sorry. Don’t care about any of that? Use a Chromebook for long enough and no matter what, I guarantee that you’ll run into some limitation with which you just can’t reconcile. Another colleague came to me roughly a year back and announced her intention to buy a Chromebook, as she was of the “I don’t need much” mindset. I told her not to, but she did. Just a little while later she sold it.
This isn’t me bashing Chromebooks. They really are good solutions but only for a very limited number of needs. They are not acceptable gifts for the holidays or any other days. Spend another $100 and buy a proper laptop. Or, spend the same as Chromebook and buy an Android tablet with a bluetooth keyboard. Heck, buy an abacus and a box of crayons. Just don’t buy a Chromebook.