Chromebook is a cheap and easy alternative to laptops
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TechnologyWhat is a Chromebook and should I buy one?

As the Christmas period is approaching, laptops and PC’s are going to be on many people’s wish lists, either for themselves or for others. The level of choice out there is huge, and I’ve previously posted about the specifications and the requirements you might look for when buying a new device, but one of the items we haven’t touched on is the idea of the Chromebook. So what is a Chromebook and how and why is this different from a normal laptop?

If you’re familiar with the web browser Google Chrome you’ll be part of the way there to understanding what this type of PC does. Essentially Chromebooks are similar to laptops designed primarily for browsing the web and are not meant as gaming machines or serious work stations. Several years ago, many PC manufacturers released scaled down laptops which they marketed as ‘netbooks’. The idea of these was simple, you needed a laptop for social media, e-mail and web browsing, but generally weren’t going to be using it for lots of program or things like photo editing or playing games.

The netbooks filled a certain gap in the market, and for people who weren’t very computer savvy they gave a cost-effective device for getting online and being connected to the world-wide web without feeling like they’d forked out for technology and specifications they didn’t need. There was a catch though, if, as you progressed your usage and became more confident, you did want to expand your programs, or do something more advanced you’d very quickly hit limitations with storage space and speed. Effectively these laptops were meant to be the entry-level device for someone who didn’t want a tablet but also was on a budget.

Over time the bigger hardware players decided to do away with the label of netbook and instead simply upped the specifications of the devices slightly and market them as entry-level. It’s a clever technique as you are still getting a device that is primarily for net access but it theoretically capable of running the likes of Photoshop or even average games. Google however decided to take the idea of the netbook and run with it. With the basic premise that you’ll mainly be doing things online with the laptop they have come up with a range of affordable devices made by different manufacturers for this primary task.

So why call them Chromebooks? We’ll this is where the difference between these pieces of hardware and something you buy from the likes of HP or Dell as a standard laptop will become apparent. Generally as a consumer or a home or small business user, when you buy a laptop it will come preloaded with Windows. Today, that will come in the flavor of Windows 10. This is the operating system for the laptop, and if you’re still unclear as to what an OS (operating system) is, this software runs everything on your PC. Without it the screen wouldn’t display things, the sound wouldn’t come out of the speakers and so on. The OS is the basic software that controls everything the hardware does. Every program, app or game runs on top of this.

If you're used to the chrome browser then chromebook will seem familiar

If you’re used to the chrome browser then chromebook will seem familiar

So here’s the difference. You may be used to Windows with is icons and tiles as well as menu bars etc, but these Chromebooks do not run this as their operating system. Instead they are preloaded with an OS created by Google called Chrome OS. What they’ve done here is taken all the elements of their Chrome web browser and the basic things you’d need from Windows, and mashed them together. When you start up the device, instead of getting the Microsoft Windows logo and the familiar chimes, you’ll get Googles bright colors in the Chrome circle.

So what does this mean for the user? We’ll the first thing to note is that everything is meant to be run in the cloud. As we’ve looked at before, the cloud means that you are running your applications online through a web browser and storing your files on a server somewhere rather than running things locally on your machine. It means that certain things will run quickly and not slow the machine down, but you are no able to install Windows applications and programs on this OS. Now’s the time to think about who you’re buying for. Effectively you cannot install games, or even things like the standard Microsoft Office on this machine, so this may not be for most people.

Your operating system runs everything on your pc or laptop

Your operating system runs everything on your pc or laptop

There are some plus sides though. If you’re used to using the app store on your phone, most of these laptops will have access to the Google Play Store, so you’ll be able to install many of the apps you get on your phone onto the device. Bare in mind though you won’t get all the apps you’re familiar with as there are differences between the phones and a laptop style device. These apps tend to be smaller than normal PC versions and you may also have limited features. The good news is that, for the most part, you can find a mobile equivalent of most PC software. In fact Microsoft will even let you, as of now, install a Chromebook version of Office on compatible devices.

There are lots of pluses to having a limited amount that you can do with the device, for example, if you wanted to get a beginners laptop for a child, this might be a good option as you’ll be very easily able to setup security and restrictions as to what they can do. Plus they will be less susceptible to viruses and malware which can be difficult for novice users. For small businesses, a device where you can ensure that everything is stored in the cloud can mean that IT admins can ensure that everything on the device, should it be lost, is stored remotely.

So there are definite advantages to this type of laptop, and the general price starts much lower than your average PC version. Not only that the Chromebooks tend to be a little lighter and, depending on the version you get, can be more durable and robust than their PC cousins. If a cheap, web browsing device is what you’re after, and have made the decision that a laptop form suits better than a tablet then Chromebooks are a good option. If, on the other hand, you need the flexibility of installing Windows apps and programs, time to browse elsewhere.