Things I realized when using a Google Chromebook for the first time

Google Chromebook - for what's next
Google Chromebook - for what's next

When Steve Jobs launched the iPad in 2010 he described it as a different kind of device – neither a laptop nor a smartphone. This was a completely new species, and we were to use it differently and think about it differently.

After the launch MG Siegler wondered if the iPad filled a need that users had “Is it a must have?” he asked, “The quick and dirty answer is: for many people, right now, no.”

The same questions have been asked about Google’s Chromebook – the company’s laptop-meets-tablet hybrid. Is it a low-end laptop or an entry-level tablet?

Last week we made the prediction that 2013 will be the year that Chromebooks go mainstream. So, having gotten our hands on one of the first review copies in Ireland, do we stand by that prediction?

We do, but having used the devices for over a week we can see that many of the questions and criticisms that users have about the devices are still valid.

To review the Chromebook I’ve ignored the tech under the hood – I can’t say anything that hasn’t been said before. Instead, I want to address the questions and concerns users, including myself, have over the devices.

So, let’s start from the beginning.

A few weeks back I had the pleasure of setting up a Windows 8 laptop. This was a high-end i7 device with more RAM than the user could ever possibly need. From box to login, it took over an hour to set up. A faulty install of Windows OS, a constant loss of Wi-Fi, and the machine’s pressing desire to get me to create a Windows Live account made it a laborious and, frankly, painful process.

I went from boot-up to browser in less than two minutes using the Chromebook. Preferences from my Google Account were installed instantly – my Chrome bookmarks were available to me as soon as I opened the machine’s browser. I couldn’t have done less to get this machine working.

Apart from being solidly impressive it was utterly seamless. For regular use I quickly forgot that I was using a Chromebook. Anything I would normally do with a tablet or laptop I could do with this device

But when working, the lack of industry standard media editing software was noticeable and annoying. Yes there are online media editing tools, but these still can’t compete with Windows or Mac software yet.

Because of this, it’s clear that Chromebooks aren’t a replacement for your laptop. As critics of the devices have repeatedly said, with Chromebooks you are completely dependent on Chrome apps and web apps. This is fine for most home use but for creative work the web isn’t yet competing with the likes of Photoshop or Final Cut.  This is something that we’ve discussed before; smartphones and tablets are designed for content consumers, not content creators.  Chromebooks address this, largely thanks to their physical keyboards but, at the moment, these aren’t devices for people who want to be creative. That’s why Chromebooks are a replacement for your tablets.

I spent the same amount of time using my Windows laptop over the week as I usually would but I spent less time using my tablet. Anything I wanted to do with my Nexus 7 (largely social networking and catching up on the news) was easier to do with the Chromebook.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve grown up using keyboards, or that a non-physical keyboard on a plastic slab is an odd input device (just look at how popular iPad Bluetooth keyboards are).

If Chromebooks are tablet replacements then, as with tablets, their usefulness can only really be measured by the number of apps available. There are plenty available in the Chrome Web Store but few that would be described as killer-apps. iOS has Flipboard and Android has Google Now but the Chrome Web Store doesn’t any such tent pole app (most of Google’s apps are simply links to their own sites, rather than actual apps). If Chromebooks are to become mainstream devices, the app ecosystem needs to be invigorated.

Other criticisms of Chromebooks (apart from the price of the Chromebook Pixel) aren’t as valid as they were when the devices were launched. Yes, Chromebooks are reliant on you having constant access to Wi-Fi, but then what modern computers aren’t.   Turn off the data and Wi-Fi on your smartphone and tablet and see how much you can do with the devices. Do the same for your laptop and you’ll see that you’re more dependent on the web than you think.

So as Google grows its app ecosystem the value of Chromebooks will increase. This means that you will use one, but not soon. Google’s challenge with Chromebooks is not just to sell the devices but to sell the idea. And they’re already doing this; this week Google completed a series of international Hangouts which were aimed at selling the concept of the devices to educational institutions.

At just over €200 Chromebooks are a logical investment for schools, the cost of maintaining the devices is almost nothing and the software/apps are not much more expensive.  The same is true for small businesses, which don’t want to dole out a couple of hundred dollars for licenses on Microsoft Office software.

Google is playing the long game. Chromebooks are capable, usable devices and when using one you have to keep in mind that they’re not designed to be, nor should they be seen as, laptop competitors. As we move more of our digital activities into the cloud, the need for a hard drive and executable files becomes less important.

Chromebooks are designed for how we use modern computers – not for how I’ve grown up using modern computers.  For those us that are more nerdy or have used Windows or Macs since we were old enough sit up Chromebooks aren’t yet a replacement, yet. But as a post PC world approaches (just look at the sales of Windows 8) Chromebooks, with some improvements and a lot of buy-in from the public, might be able to do to Microsoft what Android did to Nokia.

We’ll just have to wait a few years to find out what happens.


  1. In the many Chromebook reviews I’ve read the author inevitably comes to the “not a laptop replacement” conclusion part of their review.  And every time it surprises me, mainly because I have happily (and successfully) replaced my laptop (Macbook) with a Chromebook.  
    I surf the web, I use a word processor, I watch movies/videos, I use email…that’s it.  It seems to me that most computer users need the aforementioned list of items…and that’s it.  Most people are not “power users” (I will never re-compile the kernel), most people are not hard-core gamers.  It seems like most people would rather pay a fraction of a traditional laptop cost and enjoy not having to worry about software updates (isn’t it great updating itunes [seemingly] every week fun!), viruses, lost data etc.  Oh and don’t forget about paying $100 for the latest feline OS every other year?  Add that to the cost of owning a Mac.
    I think Chromebooks provide what most people need in a laptop.  It would be refreshing if a reviewer acknowledged this.

    1. uva214 
      I think the main issue is using existing legacy printers, scanners, and Windows apps people have already purchased. If you get a modern printer with Google Cloud Print support, and modern scanners with scan to email which can function as standalone devices as opposed to old fashioned legacy printers where you have to physically plug your printer and install drivers on each device using it. The same is true of legacy Windows apps – what Google is saying I guess is don’t throw away you existing Windows/Macbook computer and the apps you have already paid for – it may be hot heavy, noisy and have a short battery life, but there is still life in the old piece of junk. You can simply turn it into a fully functional print server, and with Chrome Remote Desktop, also a fully functional terminal server for your old apps. Of course if you just bought the latest greatest Macbook or Windows ultrabook, you would probably want to use it for more, but for people who are buying a new Chromebook computer to replace an old Windows or Macbook computer, Chromebooks will bring extended functionality to those devices as back end devices.

  2. not being smart enough to click a button to bypass the win live stuff is a fault of win8?
    I installed it in 15 minutes.
    and I dislike it and will be staying on win7.
    used chromebook before, to dependent on a solid internet connection for me.

  3. Creative people are e.g. writing books or articles. Why would such creative people need a Windows. Ofcourse not. I am writing a blog and participate writing a digital newspaper and do some digitalizing of books for Gutenberg and I do all that using Chromebook only.

  4. There’s only one reason to buy a Chromebook – it’s cheap. That’s it. It loses in every other conceivable measure.
    A tablet, such as the iPad is more powerful, lighter, thinner and has better battery life. Pair a bluetooth keyboard with it and there you have it. Twice the price, but 5 times the pleasure.
    Let the Apple hate commence.

    1. RodiOL
      iPad more powerful??? Oh you poor dersnged fool! iPads are less than half the speed of the slowest Chromebook or Windows netbook. It is more of a toy for media consumption and something you give to K2 school kids who can’t spell or type.

      1. @SMah 
        You sir are the fool. A fool to judge power purely on specs of the processor. 
        Can you can manage and manipulate photography to a near professional level on a Chromebook? No. 
        Can you edit video on a Chromebook? No. 
        Can you can create and edit multi-layered music tracks on a Chromebook? No.
        You can do all these on an iPad and more. More powerful then by the only measure that matters – what you can actually do with the device.

        1. RodiOL Agree and disagree with you. 
          My philosophy is: I have some use cases like reading eBooks and using web. That is 90% of the use cases I have. I use eBook reader for reading books (Kindle) and Chromebook for web. I could ofcourse use iPad or MacBook for both but I think Kindle + Chromebook is a pretty optimal solution for my use. Very cheap at least.
          Than I have a small HP laptop for the 10% which are not yet served by Chromebook.

        2. RodiOL a second thing which I love about the Chromebook is every member of my family can use my Chromebook without me losing any privacy.

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Piers Dillon Scott
Piers Dillon-Scott is co-editor of The Sociable and writes about stuff he finds. He likes technology, media, and using the Oxford comma (because it just makes sense).