Should I Buy a Chromebook? A Must-Read Guide



Illustration: Gordon McAlpin

Did you hear about this new thing that Google announced? They’re not quite laptops or netbooks or tablets, but seem to contain features of all three. Google calls them Chromebooks. So should you buy a Chromebook? They’re innovative, but I’m going to spell out nine reasons NOT to get one. And four reasons why you might want to consider it anyway.

NINE REASONS NOT TO GET A CHROMEBOOK

1. VERY LITTLE STORAGE

The Acer version of the Chromebook only has 16 gigabytes of solid state mass storage. Like a hard drive, but much faster, solid state drives typically don’t have nearly the space of their hard drive cousins. Even phones are shipping with more than 16 GB lately; the cloud storage is one thing, but getting all your music on this device in order to get it TO the cloud is going to be a chore with only 16 GB to work with.

2. LITTLE RAM

Google hasn’t announced how much RAM these devices come with. If they’re anything like the netbooks they resemble, they’ll only have 2 gigabytes. While Google’s Chrome operating system ought to run in 2 GB more easily than, say, Windows 7, it’s still going to chug with a lot of Flash games running at the same time.

3. WEB APPS ONLY

Google’s Chrome OS is designed to run everything through web apps. It’s not likely to be able to run your favorite Windows applications because it’s not Windows at all. Even something like a Skype video call is going to be difficult to pull off, let alone important apps like Photoshop or Microsoft Word.

4. GOOGLE BRAND EVERYTHING

Although the Chrome browser can run web apps from other companies, the main focus of the browser and OS is running Google Docs, Google Music, Google search, and so on. Google wants you using their products and nobody else’s. Will competing apps like Amazon Cloud Player run and upload music correctly within Google’s operating system? We don’t know.

5. ONLY CHROME WEB BROWSER

Once in awhile, you run across a website that only works in a specific web browser, as dumb as that may seem. People have jobs with websites that still only work with Internet Explorer’s outdated “Active X” framework thing. For a long time, Netflix Instant only worked with Internet Explorer and no other browser, though that’s changed now. In the past, I would use “IE Tab” for Firefox. Google’s Chrome OS and browser has no such solution. If the website won’t load in Chrome, you’re stuck.

6. EXPENSIVE FOR FEATURE SET

The Samsung Chromebook is $429 for the Wi-Fi version and $499 for 3G (with 100 MB of free data: that’s not much). The Acer is $349 for Wi-Fi, and the 3G price hasn’t been released yet. That’s a premium price for a netbook with less storage than a typical one has. If you want something that’s not a Windows PC, for that price, you can get a nice tablet. Or a fully-featured Windows 7 laptop.

7. CAN’T RUN EXTERNAL APPS EASILY

It’s difficult and requires expert-level workarounds to run programs that aren’t web apps within Google’s Chrome OS. And these apps would have to be compatible with Chrome, which is a variation on Linux. You might become frustrated by needing to do something that’s not available as a web app, and won’t work externally, either.

8. HAVE TO TRUST EVERYTHING TO THE CLOUD

Google wants you to store your music, photos, docs, e-mail, and everything else in the cloud, with no local backup whatsoever — there simply isn’t the space. Two recent incidents involving Gmail losing accounts, and a cloud password company getting hacked, makes me think that putting all your trust in the cloud may not be wise … and with a Chromebook, you have no choice.

9. REQUIRES WI-FI OR 3G INTERNET CONNECTION

And finally: the Wi-Fi versions of the Chromebook only function inside a Wi-Fi connection, which isn’t everywhere. You’re going to have a lot of trouble doing anything at all on a Chromebook when on a plane, say. Nothing will work at all without the Web, which is frustrating, to say the least.

Even the 3G version will only work where there’s 3G. I still travel to major U.S. cities that still haven’t got 3G yet, let alone 4G. If you were stuck with EDGE speeds, I doubt you’d be able to get anything done at all. And, again, you’re out of luck on a plane, unless you get lucky and your ride has airplane Wi-Fi.

To be fair, here are four reasons why you might want to consider the Chromebook, despite the above.

FOUR REASONS TO GET A CHROMEBOOK

1. NICE RENTAL DEAL FOR BUSINESSES AND SCHOOLS

Schools can rent a Chromebook for $20 per month, and businesses can rent one for $28 per month, per machine. That might turn out to be a really good deal versus buying them outright, especially since it spreads the cost out throughout a whole year instead of being a big one-time investment.

2. NEW AND INNOVATIVE

Chromebooks are the latest new thing, and sometimes you just have to try it, even if it ends up sinking like a stone.

3. STREAMLINED CHROME OS

The Chrome OS is very fast, and gets you where you need to be on the Web quickly. And as we’ve discussed in the past, web apps are free, less resource intensive alternatives to the standalone apps we know and love.

4. FAST STARTUP AND WAKE TIME

Chromebooks start up in eight seconds and come out of sleep instantly. That’s terrific for people who need the web right now. Even the best Windows 7 machines still take way too long to start up from a shutdown and take up to a minute or longer to wake up from sleep. If time is of the essence, you may want a Chromebook.

There you have it. Now you’re armed with information about whether you ought to get a Chromebook. In other words, don’t get one. Yet. Wait until the price comes down and the features go up before you buy a chromebook. By then, the pluses might outweigh the minuses.

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