Hardware

Your questions answered: What Chromebooks can and can't do

Chromebooks start shipping on June 15, 2011, but can you actually productively work on one? Kevin Purdy answers the questions everyone is asking.

Google's done a decent job of getting the word out that the first wave of Chromebooks, the very portable laptops that run the nothing-but-the-web Chrome OS, are available for purchase and shipping out on pre-orders June 15. There is, however, still a vast distance between Google's confidence in the cloud as a viable workspace and what most of us know about these new not-quite-a-netbook devices.

Can a Chromebook handle your regular workload? Is it worth buying now, or should you let the early adopters discover the kinks? If you've got questions about Chromebooks, we think we've got your answers.

Questions

Basically, these are laptops with nothing but a browser, right?

Yes, but not with the kind of weight the word "laptop" has come to carry with it. You're thinking of a system that takes a good bit to boot up, load your programs, activate a bunch of tray icons, and inform you of 10 things you're not doing right on your system. The Chrome OS boots in about 8 seconds, according to Google, and sometimes faster in real-world tests. Once it boots, you log in with a Google account, and you're inside the Chrome browser.

So everyone needs a Gmail account to use a Chromebook, huh?

You need a Google account unless you're using the "Guest" account on someone else's Chromebook. You can create a Google account with a non-Gmail email address. Once it's set up, you'll automatically be logged into Google services in your Chromebook, and if you use Chrome on any other system, you can set up your bookmarks, extensions, settings, and passwords to stay synced between browsers.

What applications can I run on my Chromebook?

Mostly web-based applications, which Google just calls "Apps," but also Extensions, which latch directly onto the browser and allow for interaction and notifications. Apps are written in the same language as web pages, but they're specialized for the Chrome experience. Search around in the Chrome Web Store, and you'll see apps from the New York Times, Popular Science, popular social media manager TweetDeck, and more than a few interesting games - including the modern gold standard for any platform, Angry Birds.

On the Extensions side, you'll find notifiers that can ding and show unread counts for almost any web mail service, and extensions that shuttle pages around for you - print-to-PDF tools, screenshot captures, and the like. But you'll also find essential utilities like LastPass for managing passwords, FlashBlock for preserving CPU and battery life (and putting the kibosh on embarrassing auto-play videos), and more.

No Outlook, huh?

Nope, nor Microsoft Office, Lotus, Skype, Photoshop, or anything with an installer. Chromebooks are meant to work on the web, and Google is moving ahead with them because they believe it's possible for a lot of people to do that. It's a convenient stance, too, given that they make many of the tools intended to replace desktop software.

For documents, you'll use Google Docs, or maybe Office Web Apps. Instead of Skype, you might consider using Gmail's built-in voice and video chat. There's no image editor on the web that covers all of Photoshop's functionality, but Sumo Paint and Aviary's advanced suite come close enough for most non-designers.

But what happens when I'm not online?

The slightly pricier Chromebooks come with built-in 3G cellular service, and a free monthly teaser allowance of 100 MB. The idea, then, is that you're very rarely offline. But in the thicker buildings and cheaper airplanes of this world, you will be offline. You can still log into your Chromebook, and some Chrome Apps can store data for offline use, including the New York Times and NPR, task and note manager Springpad, and even some games, like Angry Birds and Entanglement.

The heavy hitters of Google's offerings, Gmail, Docs, and Calendar, will provide offline functionality sometime this summer, the company announced in May.

So, hold out until the Google Apps arrive offline, maybe?

You could do that, and maybe you'd see some new hardware before then, too. But Docs actually does a have a limited offline mode through the Scratchpad app, which syncs any Docs you've marked with the Scratchpad label. And the offline Google Apps will be available on all Chrome browsers, and Chromebook hardware, so there's no iPhone-like imperative to hold out for the Ultimate Latest Model.

What do I do about attachments? And what about thumb drives, or the files on my phone?

The earliest builds of Chrome OS on tester hardware were a bit befuddled by actual files, it's true. But the Chromebooks shipping on June 15 have lightweight file managers that can read from USB sticks, SD cards from cameras, and plugged-in storage devices, such as phones. The solid-state hard drives aren't big, maybe 50MB or so, but they're designed to be just big enough to hold a file, then upload it to a service like Picasa Web Albums, Dropbox, Gmail, or other places - which the file system provides quick links to.

Bottom line: What's the value of a Chromebook over a cheap netbook, or even an iPad?

Chromebooks have a better keyboard than netbooks, and obviously a much better keyboard than iPads, and that's all some folks might need to know. They also have tremendous battery life, fast boot-ups, and none of the maintenance and fiddling of a traditional Windows, Mac, or Linux system.

The real question, though, is how much you work on the web right now, and whether you want to invest in moving more of your work into the cloud. Can you trade in Outlook for your company's web mail, or ask about importing that mail into Gmail through IMAP? Could you install Dropbox on your office computer to maintain access to your files at all times? Can you pull off quickie presentations in Google Docs, or are you in need of a full suite of corporate messaging tools?

Hopefully that's a bit more helpful than the standard "It depends." If you've got more questions about Chromebooks and their strengths and limitations, let us know in the discussion thread following this blog post.

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About

Kevin Purdy is a freelance writer, a former editor at Lifehacker.com, and the author of The Complete Android Guide.

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