If you’re like a lot of people, chances are you do just about everything in your Web browser. And one of the most popular modern browsers is Google Chrome. So, what about an operating system that was just a Web browser? How may of you would be ready for that? Google thinks we are. For several years, the company’s been offering Chrome OS, which is exactly that: an operating system that essentially just runs Google Chrome.
Although the idea of a computer running a browser might seem limiting to some people, there is clearly a market for it. Samsung’s Chromebook is currently the top-selling laptop on Amazon, and a growing number of schools and businesses are adopting them as a platform of choice. Does Chrome OS make sense for the kind of work you do? Keep reading to find out.
Why Chrome OS?
The primary advantage of Chrome OS is how fast it starts up. Chrome OS devices boot in seconds. That kind of instant response is great when you’re itching to be productive (or, like most people, you’re just impatient). If you’re already familiar with Google Chrome, the learning curve is even shallower. All your bookmarks, extensions and browsing history will be synced when you first log in using your Google account.
Another major feature of Chrome OS is that it updates easily. The only real application that runs is the Chrome browser, allowing updates to be small. Plus, those updates download automatically about every six weeks. All you have to do when you get an update is reboot, which only takes a few seconds anyway. Chrome’s reliance on Web apps also means that you won’t have to update the apps on your machine either, because there aren’t any. Everything lives on the Web, although you can save files locally, as well as on external drives.
Second, the system has built-in security. The OS design is sandboxed, meaning that if somehow a piece of malware does get onto your system from a Web page, it shouldn’t affect anything else but the one tab you happen to have open that contains the malware. Chrome OS also has a built-in anti-virus system, which means that a malware infection might not even get that far.
Since almost all of your data is on Web-based applications, if your laptop gets run over by a truck, you can just pick up another Chrome OS device and get back to work immediately.
Because Chromebooks are designed primarily for the Web and don’t run local apps except for the browser, a growing number of businesses are taking a look at them too.
As amazing as Chrome OS devices seem, there are a few reasons why they might not be right for you. In fact, Chrome’s biggest feature – its reliance on Web apps – might be its downfall for certain users. Web apps are great as long as you have a Web connection. If you travel a lot, you might have some trouble finding one.
Fortunately, there are a few ways around this limitation. A number of apps available in the Chrome Web Store can work offline, including Google Docs and a special offline version of Gmail. Google also recently introduced a number of third-party apps that behave like desktop apps, working offline and opening in their own windows.
If you really need to get into a desktop app like Microsoft Office, you can use Chrome Remote Desktop to access one of your computers remotely. You can also access virtualized desktops from Citrix and other vendors using the right extension. If you’re a sysadmin, there’s also a nice SSH app available.
If you’re comfortable with Linux, you can even install Ubuntu or Debian within your Chromebook by using Crouton. You’ll have to enter developer mode, which turns off some of the security features and lets you install your own OS. If you’re an IT manager in charge of a fleet of Chromebooks and that last sentence gives you heartburn, you can customize what your users can do in the Management Console mentioned below.
Devices that run Chrome OS are called Chromebooks, and they’re made by several manufacturers. The biggest manufacturers are Samsung, Acer and HP. Google also has a flagship Chromebook, which is similar to its Nexus line of Android devices. Google’s own Chromebook is the Pixel, and it has a premium build quality and a high-resolution touchscreen. If you want a more traditional desktop form factor, you can get a Chromebox.
Another exciting new device is the Chromecast, which allows users to watch Internet video on a TV, similar to Apple TV and Roku. You use other devices as the remote, but since Chromecast is from Google, there’s a heavy Android/Chrome bias. (Get some tips on these technologies in Cutting the Chord on Your Cable TV.)
There’s a wide range of price ranges when it comes to Chrome devices too, ranging from $35 for the Chromecast to up to $1,499 for the Chromebook Pixel.
Managing Chrome OS Devices
Businesses and schools are increasingly being attracted to Chrome’s automatic updates and lack of apps, and are deploying fleets of Chromebooks. Google offers a management console for IT people through a subscription. You can whitelist apps, blacklist apps, and lock down the devices so that your users can stay safe and secure. You can also lock Chrome OS devices should they fall into the wrong hands. While there might not be a lot of local data to worry about, if the user was logged into any sensitive databases, an attacker could access them, so it’s a good idea to lock and wipe a device as soon as possible.
Is Chrome Right for You?
If you primarily use Web apps, particularly Google apps, then Chrome OS might be a good fit, even as a primary computer. If you have more sophisticated needs, you’re probably better off on conventional platforms.