Demand for Chromebooks is skyrocketing as consumers look for less expensive notebook computers for school and home, and even for business use. Why? Blame the pandemic for starters.
The best reason for increased demand is that Chromebooks are ready for their spotlight, ready for prime time.
Though I am a Windows and Mac user, I’m having fun with my first Chromebook, an Acer 311. This thin & light starter, 11-inch notebook weighs in at just about 2.2 lbs (about 1 kg), and is about the size of a sheet of copy paper.
This experience has led to an epiphany, a realization from hands-on experience that Chromebooks are not toys and not just for young students. I am convinced that today’s Chromebooks are the right choice for the majority of mainstream consumers.
••WHAT IS A CHROMEBOOK?••
What is a Chromebook? They are mostly thin and lightweight notebook computers that run not on MacOS or Windows, but on the ChromeOS, using the owner’s Google account sign in to log on and use all the services.
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Is Chrome OS better? Now 10 years old, ChromeOS is mature and more capable than when it all started. By this I mean there is little that most consumers cannot do on a Chromebook, even the most basic model such as mine, with a price of about $220. See an assortment of options from top brands here. More are here.
Chromebooks are largely free from malware or viruses. This is because Chromebooks rely on and must be connected to the Internet in order to fully function. Because the user’s account is tied to a Google account through Gmail, they have a nifty fail-safe capability through their control panel called Power Wash (and here) that wipes the Chromebook and resets it to factory fresh. Then, simply sign in as when it was new, and all that has been saved to the user’s account is once again instantly available.
Chromebooks can also be set up for multiple users, the same as on what I used to refer to as, “real computers.” I was so wrong!
••STOP HERE AND TAKE A BREATH••
I hope that as you follow along you will be convinced that there may be a Chromebook in your future. Now is a good time to do a personal assessment, the old way. Get out a pen and piece of copy paper or a writing tablet, drawing a line from top to bottom down the middle. On the left, write as many things as you can think of that you do now or may wish to do in the future on any computer in daily use.
On the right side, start to match what is on the left with whether these things are possible on a Chromebook. Take your time. You may need to look things up if they are not covered in this article. While you’re at it, you may wish to do the same for a computer purchase for children. Help to decide is here, here, here and here.
When completed, you’ll have a good idea whether a Chromebook of any type or description is right for your needs now and into the known future.
There are options, too. If the answer is not clear cut, consider buying a starter Chromebook like mine to see how it goes and if, as I discovered, you can get along just fine with a Chromebook. Not that this Chromebook is free, but it is a pretty inexpensive way to check out the possibilities. For about the same money, 14- and 15-inch Chromebooks are available. These sizes could easily be both the starter and long-term keeper.
Chromebooks come from more manufacturers than you might have guessed; Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Samsung, and more expensive Google-branded Chromebooks.
••CHROMEBOOK DATA STORAGE••
With such a small amount of built-in storage space on most Chromebooks as compared with Windows and Mac computers, I was concerned about how I would manage the disparity. Though there is data stored on the Chromebook drive, it relies on an Internet connection to shake hands with cloud servers where the larger part of data, the user’s work product, such as word processing and other documents are stored instead of on its generally small internal drive.
There is an easy, inexpensive workaround for onboard storage concerns. Plug in a stubby, low profile flash drive that barely sticks out from a USB port on the side of the Chromebook. These are less of a target for disaster from a standard USB drive that sticks out a couple of inches. I bought one of these. Chromebook will instantly recognize that a drive has been plugged in. Choose to format it. I use ExFAT to avoid file size limitations. Name it and then there is an abundance of storage. I bought a 256GB USB 3.0 drive that purports to read data at up to 400mbps. Tell Chromebook to store files there and any storage concerns fade away.
It is also possible now to use Chromebooks offline for many activities. (Here, here and here.)
They startup quickly, usually in less than 10 seconds. System updates are automatically pushed to the Chromebook as needed.
They even tell you the year of their end-of-life (1), when they no longer can be updated. Don’t worry, though, this is at least five years in the future. What does this mean (1), (2)? Only that Google will no longer push updates to that particular Chromebook. It will not become a brick. There are many options at that time, one of which is to keep using it. Other options include turning it into a Linux computer (1), a great option for learning the ins and outs of this fascinating, somewhat geeky operating system that has become more mainstream with each passing year. Variants of Linux already run things you probably were not aware of, including these, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Pretty cool, isn’t it!?!?! What do they know that we don’t? They know that Linux is pretty cool and useful.
When setting up a Chromebook, users will be asked if we want to also set it up to run on Linux. Dip your toe into Linux? All the cool kids are doing it! You’re cool, aren’t you?
At end of life, or before, there are Linux variants ready to revitalize a Chromebook, moving to a wide choice of Linux distributions, distros, as they are called. Gallium OS is the most often recommended universally useful distro, and it is FREEEEEE, though they will happily accept donations. I chose this one because it’s for those of us new to the concept. There are others for the more adventurous and experienced users.
No longer can it be said that, “You can’t do that on a Chromebook,” at least for most mainstream consumer needs.
Chromebooks do not need to rely on third party software such as Microsoft Office or anything else from Microsoft, or Apple for that matter. It’s all baked into the Chrome cake. And these laptops are not handicapped for the lack of Microsoft inside. Workarounds for those who must run the true Office apps are available, as well. One option is a $69 app called CrossOver on compatible Chromebooks powered by Intel processors.
The ChromeOS is lightweight, lean and mean, which is why Chromebooks are so quick, even with pokey processors that would barely get out of the starting gate in a Windows laptop. Apps for Chromebooks come from the Google Play store, just like on Android phones as well as through this link from Google. I promise that you will be both surprised and impressed as I was with the apps selection.
They also need less memory, that is, RAM, and usually have smaller drives, now in the form of a chip-based Solid State Drive or SSD. Less RAM and smaller capacity SSDs contribute to their lower prices.
What can Chromebooks do? Just about anything a traditional notebook can, including word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and so on, using Google Docs, Sheets, Slides and Forms online, all compatible with the Microsoft apps. Perfect for web browsing, email, social media, audio files and streaming, videos from all the popular streamers using either web-based access or apps for Amazon Prime Video and Netflix from the Google Play Store. Why download these apps? The only way to download videos for offline viewing is through the apps.
With the built-in Webcam, use Zoom and other meetings apps.
Audio files may also be played from a thumb drive plugged into side ports.
Printing is a different than on Windows PCs and Macs, but it is easy to set up. Now I can print and scan using all of our wireless printers.
What can’t a Chromebook do? Serious gaming, video editing and music production are best done on more powerful traditional computers. Other than for these kinds of high processor demand operations, I have discovered that Chromebooks can be a good and economical choice for most users. On the other hand, as you will have discovered from the link above, repeated here, some of these are possible on Chromebooks after all!
Battery life is excellent on Chromebooks, up to 10 hours on mine and typical on others, more on some others with higher prices. With fast Gigabit Wi-Fi technology built in, users will find the best online speed capability, depending upon the speed of the ISP. There is one Type-C USB 3.1 port on the left and a twin on the right, so either side may be used with the power supply. The unused Type-C port can be used to connect external drives or hubs. Other ports include a pair of USB 3.0 USB Type-A ports as well as a microSD slot for additional storage, though I find this option to be useless due to limitations of formatting as Fat32, as well as limitations as to what can be stored there, but I still put in a 128GB MicroSD card just in case I find it to be of some use.
Signing on through a Google/Gmail account affords the user all the benefits of cloud storage that comes with the account. Standard Google accounts come with 15GB of cloud storage for mail and whatever else the user puts there. Student accounts offer even more cloud storage.
**WHAT’S IN THE BOX**
- Acer Chromebook 311
- Power supply
- Setup Guide and warranty
Equipped with an Intel Celeron N4000 processor, 4GB Memory, 32GB eMMC solid state drive, setup is so simple. Plug in the charger. While waiting and charging navigate to the URL at the, “Getting to know your desktop” page in the Setup Guide to locate and download the “User Manual.” , open the notebook, press the power key and follow the prompts to sign in to the user’s Google (Gmail) account or create one. In a few minutes, setup will be completed and it will be ready for action.
**PUT TO THE TEST**
With rare exception, I can do any of the basics on this Chromebook that can be done with a Mac or Windows computer.
Current and former college students with an active “.edu” email address are afforded free use of the full suite of Microsoft Office apps online. Though the apps cannot be downloaded and installed, all can be used through the Chrome Browser. I will let all you college graduates figure this out.
Speaking of the browser, I said yes to enabling Linux and now both are available. Users can install Firefox through the Linux OS and use it in addition to Chrome.
I connected the Chromebook to an external 27-inch 4K monitor using the HDMI port. Success!
I tried an external Bluetooth mouse and keyboard. Success!
I installed Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
Wherever an app or setting allowed, I chose the USB memory stick as the place to store apps and downloads, including movies for viewing anywhere, any time.
If more USB ports are needed, a little 4-port USB 3.0 hub like this one that I bought will work well. If peripherals need to be powered, then this little and inexpensive 4-port hub will do the trick.
Where does it stop? Nowhere! There is much more that can be done with a Chromebook than what cannot be done.
Click to see an Acer Chromebook User Manual
Even my little Acer starter Chromebook has been impressive.
As you have seen from links above, there is a huge selection of popular name brand Chromebooks available as well as some from makers you probably don’t know. Also, don’t get hung up on the processor brand. Mine has Intel. The MediaTec M8173C processor is another highly competitive processor used in many Chromebooks.
I like this Lenovo model and this Samsung, both with larger screens. Larger screens with larger keyboards are included to show that users can be self-contained, possible not needing or wanting an external keyboard, mouse or monitor.
Do some math with me. If you can find everything you want and need in a Chromebook for $300-ish, or less, and if it works as hoped for, say, five to seven years before you’re itching for a replacement, and maybe longer, isn’t this more cost effective than a Windows PC that has to cost more? We know that Macs are not in the price range.
The point is that if you can’t find a suitable Chromebook, well, you don’t really want a Chromebook. By not trying one, you will never know.
One year parts and labor on hardware.