The Chromebooks concept defines laptops and convertibles under Chrome OS and they are the most popular, but not the only computers with this system, since Google tried to enter other market segments such as mini-PCs, Chromebox, or the compact AIO Chromebase, without too much success.
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Chromebooks hit the market almost a decade ago and have managed to carve out a niche for themselves on the computer desktop. Perhaps, still, they do not cover the needs of all users, but it is a platform that has not stopped growing and the improvements in recent years in software and hardware have made them a very real alternative to Windows and macOS. Today we update our guide dedicated to these laptops, we review their advantages and limitations, news from recent months and select some models from the available offer.
More than ten years ago that Google announced Chrome OS. An operating system that replicated the Android model, but on personal computers. Based on the Linux kernel and the Chromium OS project, it was conceived halfway between a cloud operating system and a traditional desktop such as Windows or macOS. Although Chromium OS is open source, Chrome OS is a proprietary commercial version that Google offers (royalty-free) to a number of manufacturers working on the platform.
Although Chrome OS (Chromium OS) can be installed on almost any PC, the experience is far from what the dedicated teams sold by Google and all major PC manufacturers offer. This OEM segment has been responsible (as with Windows) for the increase sales and make Chromebooks the only «Linux» capable of outperforming Windows in some segments of the computer desktop.
Clarify before starting that the Chromebooks concept defines laptops and convertibles under Chrome OS and they are the most popular, but not the only computers with this system, since Google tried to enter other market segments such as mini-PCs, Chromebox, or the compact AIO Chromebase, without much success. Unlike some Chromebooks that are the ones that truly define the entire platform.
How much have Chromebooks improved?
Forget the first models that hit the market at the beginning of the decade. They were necessary to open the market due to their low cost, simplicity of use and ease of administration, the keys to their enormous success in the educational segment. Today they are something else and there are already some models that can rival in hardware with their counterparts under Windows and macOS. Also in software, improving Chrome OS from the base and expanding its functionality in order to bring it closer to a more traditional desktop, but maintaining its initial advantages.
The total approach to the cloud; running web applications from Chrome and a graphical interface consisting of WIMP-based web browser windows resulted in a simplistic and unattractive desktop. Shortly after the launch of the first models, Google implemented a new hardware accelerated graphical environment (Aura), which greatly improved it.
Chrome OS is still betting on simplicity, but it has improved a too limited environment for an operating system to the interface of a web browser and today it offers multiple desktops, taskbars, animated transitions, backgrounds, status bars for each of the applications. open, desktop or overlapping windows with the possibility of maximization or size variation.
Understanding that the “web was the platform” the approach to the cloud was total in the early days of Chromebooks. The system relied almost entirely on servers and the Internet to run web applications on the Chrome browser, its main working tool. It was soon found to be a highly limiting factor and the improvement of offline support for application execution has been a constant. And also of the support by important external developers.
Here we must highlight the arrival of the Creative Cloud graphics suite starting with a version of Photoshop in the cloud known as Project Photoshop Streaming (PPS). The arrival of the Office suite to Chromebooks was also sounded after a Microsoft agreement with Google or the approach of Windows applications through a collaboration with VMWare and that was used in the promotion for companies and administrations of the Chromebook Enterprise.
It was clear that Google was going to take advantage of a system that sweeps mobile devices and that has thousands and thousands of applications. Although there was partial support almost from the beginning, the definitive advance came from the launch of the App Runtime for Chrome and especially from the availability of the Google Play Store on Chromebooks. Today, potentially, any Android app can run on them.
Considering its base in the Linux kernel, since the release of Chrome OS there have been unofficial approaches to both running Linux applications and full systems. Crouton could be used to run GNU / Linux distributions along with Chrome OS for a long time and another new feature was Ubuntu in Chromebooks, with official Canonical tutorial.
It was necessary and finally came the announcement of Google’s official support for Linux applications on Chromebooks. Thus, at Google I / O 2019 the company announced that Chromebooks “would be Linux laptops.” They do not pre-install a custom distribution, but they allow you to run Linux applications as if they were native running a custom Debian 9.0 Stretch system in a virtual machine. An improvement that adds muscle to Chromebooks and makes it much more interesting.
Chrome OS runs all the games compatible with web browsers, those available in the Chrome Web Store and also those of Android, but it is obvious that it falls short in this section for PC games. Windows overwhelmingly dominates PC gaming, and the limitations on Chromebook gameplay are even greater than on any Linux system. Google’s intention to bring Steam to Chrome OS will be a breakthrough and will open the doors to a good number of games, if the support for dedicated graphics that has appeared in the development code is confirmed at the same time.
And Stadia. If we think that cloud execution is the future of video games and with it the client machines (or consoles) will be much less important, Chrome OS is perfectly positioned to be a relevant platform. These types of services require a high-performance client Internet connection, servers and the effort of developers. Google promises to run triple-A video games from its Chrome browser and without the need for a machine with advanced hardware. It remains to move forward, but the way is open.
Ease of use and configuration
Google has maintained the ease of team management both for the user and for the administration of teams that are introduced corporate or educational segments. Familiarity with Chrome OS equipment is immediate through the interface used. Chrome syncs bookmarks, passwords, and web apps across all devices, saving all of the above, system settings, and user data to the cloud.
Cybersecurity and support
A strong point of Chromebooks from the beginning and in fact, from Google have highlighted that their system “is virus free”. Chrome OS checks at boot if the system is compromised by reverting to previous stages if necessary. Chrome OS also encrypts all the data that is downloaded to disk, while the root filesystem is ‘read only’ and the system isolates processes (per tab and application) that may compromise the system. Both Chrome OS and the applications are kept permanently and automatically updated.
Chrome OS also stands out for the great speed with which computers start (7 seconds) and the speed of execution of web applications. In addition to being able to work with modest hardware due to its low requirements, below the average of a standard PC with another system.
Are they for everything and for all Chromebooks?
You, we and Google know the answer. The same conception of Chrome OS offers advantages such as those mentioned, but also limitations. The interface has improved, more complete and attractive, but it is still far from a traditional desktop like macOS, Windows 10 or the one that offers the same GNU / Linux distributions.
The applications section has also improved in number and execution, but if you leave the cloud and the web, you will surely be missing some. The same in games. Android has thousands and you can run a huge amount via the web or with emulators, but a gamer searches for great titles and those are not possible on a Chromebook, except for what comes from Stadia.
Certainly, this type of equipment presents limitations for a part of users, but, at the same time, it offers advantages to convince an enormous number of clients who seek simplicity, ease of use, administration or security. And in all segments, because from its initial focus on basic equipment and for the educational segment, its expansion to the consumer market is underway and also to the corporate market thanks to the Chrome OS Enterprise variant.