After two weeks with a Chromebook, did Chrome OS prove to be an impressive and productive platform?
As I started packing for a trip across the Atlantic, I realised I needed something more svelte and efficient than my ageing laptop.
With the low price point and positive reviews, a Samsung Chromebook seemed just enough for my needs. In the two weeks between the first boot and my return trip I took a look at Chrome OS stable with verified boot enabled – the “out-of-box” experience – as a productive tool for both everyday use and development.
As A New User
Though the first boot of a new operating system is often a bewildering experience, in Chrome OS all roads lead to the browser. As Chrome is always the first app I download on a fresh install of an OS, the process was just one step shorter.
In fact, the entire todo list was down to a single item: install extensions and apps. And even that was taken care of after signing in with my Google account.
If apps and settings can sync on your Android and iOS devices, why not on your desktop too? Having bookmarks, passwords, extensions, and apps synced (given they haven’t disabled it) is both a time saver and a simple way to familiarise new Chrome OS users to their already somewhat familiar surroundings.
“…the sheer number of finger-twisting combinations also include a shortcut to access an interactive shortcut overlay!”
There’s no denying the beauty and simplicity of Chrome OS either – the raft of keyboard shortcuts one of the few exceptions. Though useful, the sheer number of finger-twisting combinations also include a shortcut to access an interactive shortcut overlay!
From the first few minutes of use to the last jet-lagged words in a Google Docs document, there wasn’t much to dislike about the user interface or ease of use. Between Chrome OS and more “mature” operating systems – Windows, OS X, and various Linux distributions – I’m tempted to give Chrome OS the top prize for sheer polish and convenience.
As A Writer
But polish alone doesn’t make a platform usable. I spend a significant amount of time staring at and writing sprawling literary analyses. As a traveller, I also wouldn’t be in a position to have a constant, reliable internet connection for most of my journey. Between a browser-oriented operating system, spotty wifi connections, and a fear of catastrophic word processor crashes, I was deathly afraid of Chrome OS eating any papers I wrote.
But fear not. Google Drive’s offline mode works well (usually) and Google Docs has improved significantly the last few years. After relying on it during my trip, I doubt I’ll need to use a desktop office suite again.
Offline mode isn’t perfect, however. The spell checker disappears and Google Drive’s syncing has been fairly unreliable even with a stable connection. A blank document is a horrifying sight after an entire day of writing and spotty syncing.
Nevertheless, I haven’t outright lost any documents or edits from these issues and Google Docs performed well enough for me to trust documents to sync eventually. My needs are fairly dull as a writer, but sitting back with Google Docs in fullscreen and an operating system that stays out of my way is perfect for pushing out another hastily written essay or casual email.
As a Developer
As a web developer, I had my initial reservations about Chrome OS and its ability to replace a more featureful platform. But I wouldn’t be doing any heavy coding and design work on holiday or even when I’m lazing around the house away from the desktop.
Though it’s relatively painless to drop into developer mode for a “full” developer experience in Chrome OS – terminal and all – the lack of automatic updates and more “everyday” features (like Netflix support) makes the process a no-go for a part-time casual user like me.
Though you won’t have access to vim and the like, a variety of web-based editors and IDEs, like Cloud 9, as well as editors as Chrome packaged apps are available, offering offline mode, local file editing, and remote file access. When I inevitably needed to edit remote files during my holiday, ShiftEdit came to the rescue, even managing to cope with a cafe’s intermittent wifi network.
But without access to a suitable build environment in non-developer mode, a large portion of web development becomes significantly more difficult. With the wealth of preprocessors, testing frameworks, and any number of command line tools in development workflows, a browser alone isn’t enough to sustain a web developer.
Without access to source control tools like git, even Chrome extension development is far more difficult than it should be. Though Google Drive can sync your codebase (when it decides to sync properly that is), a limitation with Chrome OS’s file picker prevents extensions from being loaded from or saved to the Google Drive folder. But the Chrome OS devs are already on the case.
“What [Chrome OS] gains in a slick everyday experience, it loses in many developer-friendly features.”
But since I’m an Android app developer as well, fixing folder access alone won’t fix the limitations a browser-based approach puts on mobile development, even for Google’s own Android platform.
There is, however, some hope on the horizon. If Google are serious about the prospects of Chrome OS – as their well-specced Chromebook Pixel suggests – it will only be a matter of time before Android development comes to the platform. A Google desktop OS should be the best platform for development on their mobile OS.
Until then, Chrome OS will still be lagging behind its more mature brethren. For what it gains in a slick everyday experience, it loses in many developer-friendly features. Though on holiday this wasn’t as much of an issue, it certainly will be for anyone travelling with work in tow.
When I returned from my trip and switched on the desktop for the first time in nearly two weeks, I couldn’t help but open up the Chromebook again. The Chrome OS experience isn’t perfect, but the potential is overflowing in the near seamless integration between OS and browser.
Whilst Linux, OS X, and Windows still offer an, as yet, unmatched experience, Chrome OS is shaping up slowly but surely. Whether browsing, writing, or even coding, a humble Chromebook may be all you need in a bustling airport, quaint cafe, or the cozy comforts of your own living room.
Beginning your own Chromebook adventure soon? Check out our getting started guide for pointers.