On one hand, Chrome OS is really nice. Known for good security, great portability and a clean interface, it’s got a lot going for it. And the ability to run Android and Linux apps makes it even more appealing.
When the OS first came out, most of us in the geek world laughed. It was very limited and the whole idea that a user could do everything they needed to do in a web browser was ludicrous. What about Photoshop? What about programming IDEs, Office Apps and running scripts and things? What about that one proprietary app I can’t live without?
But with the rise of progressive web apps (PWAs) and the proliferation of Electron-based desktop apps, Chrome OS doesn’t feel as web-restricted as it used to. (Progressive web apps allow users to install web apps like desktop apps. Electron facilitates writing desktop apps using web technologies.)
However, in practice, the usefulness of Chrome OS really depends on your use case. It all starts with a simple question. Where is all your stuff? If your files, email, notes and other things are in Google’s world and if all your other devices are Google-friendly, then Chrome OS might be a great choice for you. Just don’t buy the cheapest one you can find. (Same as any other product)
But don’t be fooled by the marketing. Yes, Chrome OS can run Android apps. Yes, you can install the Linux environment and run Linux apps.
However, in my experience, it is fairly common for Android and Linux apps to crash Chrome OS. At that point, why not go back to Windows? (not that I use Windows anyway, but still) This was a faulty assumption. The problem turned out to be a firmware issue.
For me, the big draw of Chrome OS was the unique product I found (Lenovo IdeaPad Duet 3). I was intrigued. The idea that I could run Android and Linux apps alongside Chrome apps convinced me to give it a try.
What I discovered is that for people like me, with more diverse (or demanding) technological needs, Chrome OS is a disappointment. Not necessarily at first, but soon enough. Because technically speaking, it can do the things it promises. With some caveats.
One day, you want to be able to access something, but you aren’t able to access the internet at that moment and … well … you’re screwed. Some things have offline access. Some don’t.
And maybe you’re a Linux user and you think it’s no problem to simply install some Linux apps and have all the local stuff you need. But then you experience the performance issues of running those apps in a virtual machine.
But then it crashes. That’s disappointing. But okay, so it’s like using Windows. And things come back up and you get back to work. Not really a Chrome OS problem.
And then what if your file system or config get corrupted and you have recurring strange behavior and you can’t figure it out? Every resource online will give you the same canned response for fixing a Chrome OS problem: Powerwash — essentially a factory reset. Seriously? How is this a solution? It’s a last resort! No way to go through your config and fix the issue?
Well, that comes down the the main premise of Chrome OS. You are, of course, using Google for everything, right? All your files are in Google Drive, right? All your apps are in your browser. Right? Right?
Goodbye local files. Goodbye Linux and Android apps. Start over. Sure, you can back up your stuff and restore, but that’s not as straightforward as it is on other operating systems. And it’s a significant time sink.
And that’s where it died for me. My nifty tablet/laptop that I thought might fill both roles has really only filled the tablet role. On the bright side, I got it for $250 (usually $375). So adding a used laptop for another $200 still leaves me with a nice setup for under $500. As a side note, used laptops are so much cheaper and can be just as reliable as new ones.
But that’s another post.
So yes, Chrome OS has its place. No, it’s not some terrible thing that’s not capable of much. It’s solid, secure and efficient. With a growing selection of PWAs, it looks and feels like any other operating system. For the right kind of user, it’s quite usable.
But if your needs are more complex (or more demanding), Chrome OS probably won’t meet your needs. You’ll find a frustrating browser-based OS that can almost do what you want it to do. And that’s infinitely more frustrating than an OS that never claimed to meet your needs in the first place.