All You Need to Know About Chrome OS

Take advantage of cloud computing and web applications

HP Chromebook
John Karakatsanis/Flickr/CC 2.0

Chrome OS is an operating system developed by Google to take advantage of cloud computing, online storage, and web applications. Devices that run Chrome OS also have additional Google products and services built in, such as automatic security updates and Google web apps such as Google Docs, Google Play Store, and Gmail.

Chrome OS Features

Like Windows and MacOS, Chrome OS is a complete computing environment. It ships on hardware specifically designed for it from Google's manufacturing partners--laptops called Chromebooks and desktop PCs called Chromebases. Currently, Chrome OS devices include Chromebooks from Samsung, Acer, Asus, and HP, as well as a premium Pixelbook from Google with a higher resolution display and higher price tag. Features include:

  • Open-source and Linux-based: Chrome OS is based on Linux and is open source, meaning anyone can look under the hood to see the code underlying the operating system. Although Chrome OS is mostly found on Chromebooks, because it's open-source, you could install the operating system on any x86-based PC or systems running the ARM processor.
  • Cloud-centric: Besides the file manager and the Chrome browser, all of the applications that can run on Chrome OS are web-based. That is, you can't install proprietary desktop software such as Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop on Chrome OS because they're not web applications. Anything that can run in the Chrome browser (a separate product not to be confused with the Chrome operating system), however, does run on Chrome OS. If you spend most of your time working in your browser using office suites like Google Docs or Microsoft web apps, then Chrome OS might be for you.
  • Designed for speed and simplicity: Chrome OS has a minimalist design. Apps and web pages are combined in a single dock. Because Chrome OS runs web apps primarily, it has low hardware requirements and doesn't use up a lot of system resources. The system is designed to get you to the web as quickly and unobtrusively as possible.
  • Included features: Integrated into Chrome OS is a basic file manager with Google Drive online storage integration, a media player, and Chrome Shell ("crosh") for command-line functions. The built-in Google Play Store serves as the source for apps and music.
  • Built-in Security: Google doesn't want you to have to think about malware, viruses, and security updates. Chrome OS automatically updates for you, performs system self-checks at startup, offers a guest mode for friends and family to want to use your Chrome OS, and has other security layers, such as a verified boot.

Who Should Use Chrome OS

Chrome OS and the computers that run it are targeted at people who work primarily on the web. Chrome devices aren't powerful, but they're lightweight and have long battery lives, which makes them perfect for travel, student use, or road warriors.

Web App Alternatives to Desktop Apps

The two biggest hindrances to Chrome OS are:

  • It can't run proprietary software that isn't web-based.
  • Many web apps require an internet connection to work.

Regarding the first issue, most things users do in a Windows or Mac environment can be replicated online. Instead of using Photoshop, for example, you can use the built-in Chrome OS image editor or an online app such as Pixlr. Instead of iTunes, you have Google Play Music, and instead of Microsoft Word, Chrome OS computers use Google Docs. You'll likely find an alternative to any desktop software in the Chrome Web Store, but it may mean adjusting your workflow. If you're tied to a particular software, though, or prefer storing your app's data locally rather than in the cloud, Chrome OS might not be for you.

As for the second issue, it's true that you need an internet connection for most of the web apps you might install on Chrome OS. Some of the Chrome OS apps, however, are built for offline use: Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs, for example, so you can use them without Wi-Fi or wired internet access. Many third-party apps and games work without an internet connection.

Not all apps work offline, however, and Chrome OS has its pros and cons. For many people, it's best as a secondary rather than primary system, but with more apps being ported online, it could well be a mainstream platform soon.