What is a Chromebook? (Or what is a computer, for that matter)
What is a Chromebook? I’ll give a few different answers:
A) My short answer: It’s the best computer for you. That’s really all you need to know. Need a computer? Get one that’s called a Chromebook.
B) Google’s answer. It says a lot about the state of Chromebooks that many people don’t know they exist, or what they are. Google addresses this on their Chromebooks page (which is pretty good, as of the writing of this article) and with a video:
C: My long answer. That’ll be the rest of this article, and it’s kind of going to be a lot, so find a comfortable place to read; if you’re reading this at work on a bathroom break, beware of the risk of aggravating hemorrhoids. On that note, here we go!
For starters, to be technical, a Chromebook is a computer that runs on Chrome OS. That’s a clear definition; but I think, for the purposes of this discussion, it’s going to be helpful to look a bit more into the key terms “computer” and “Chrome OS.”
First, what do we mean by computer? In this day and age, that’s actually a complicated question. See, if we’re doing this deep dive Chromebook manifesto, then we should be thorough. If we’re going to do this, let’s really do this. What. Is. A. Computer.
Broadly speaking, a computer is a device that computes. Everything that’s got a battery seems to have some sort of computer built into it. Your car, your phone, your watch, your microwave – the list could go on for quite a while. But here’s an opinion: For all practical purposes, I think, in the current nomenclature, when we talk about buying a “computer”, we are referring 99% of the time to a laptop. It has a keyboard. It has screen. It folds together. It computes.
Yes there are desktop computers. And yes, are tablets (such as an iPad), and smart phones, and while we’re at it, TI calculators that you had in high school, and smart toasters that have more processing power than your high school TI calculator. And yes, the line is blurring between all of the above. And really, aside from appearance, what is the functional difference between the latest iPhone and some of the laptops for sale out there? A new iPhone can be way more useful and powerful than a desktop computer you picked up a few years ago. The lines between the purposes of computers in all these different form factors get increasingly blurred.
This all turns into a deep, philosophical, galaxy-brain discussion, that can spin us out of control, and so for purposes of this conversation, we’re going to define “computer” as a laptop.
And really, there’s something intrinsically good about the basic laptop form factor. It’s practical and intuitively advantageous for productivity. It’s efficient and even endearing. I like to think of myself as a writer, and I have a sentimental preference for the laptop because it reminds me of a typewriter, and so when I type on it, I am sort of Ernest Hemingway.
A big screen attached to a nice, real, keyboard has a level of utility that I think most people today can use on enough of a regular basis that it’s worthwhile to purchase a laptop. It’s wise to have a laptop in the house, even if it has less raw computing power than one’s smartphone.
So, having taken this tangent down to this existential question of what it means to be a computer (it means “laptop”), we return to the next question: If a Chromebook is a computer that runs on Chrome OS, what is Chrome OS?
“OS” stands for Operating System. An OS serves as the interface between software and different parts of the computer and you. For a while, there were essentially two mainstream, computer operating systems out there: Mac and PC.
Some of you may be old enough to remember the commercial with the two guys representing PC and Mac. PC was a pudgy, square, insecure, error-prone man wearing a drab, ill-fitted suit (or maybe that was just 2000s fashion – possible as well). Mac was personified by an easy going, comfortable, fashionable younger man. It was a good visual, even though heavily biased toward Mac. Macs are always quick, comfortable, reliable, smooth, easy to use, and notably fashionable. The PC is, by comparison, slow, prone to problems, awkward to work with, drab, and relentlessly dorky.
The comparison was made by Apple though, and so naturally, while there’s a lot of truth in it, there are a couple of huge omissions. The big, missing, yet important pieces of information in this visual, is that the PC is often vastly more affordable, and far more flexible.
For all their respective qualities and flaws, Macs and PCs were the two options for mainstream consumers, for years. Enter Chromebooks. Relatively new to the world, only recently, in 2011, did Chromebooks quietly arrive on the scene, and it took a few years for them to develop into a viable alternative.
Whereas Macs run on macOS (again, OS for operating system) and PCs run on the infamous Windows OS, Chromebook laptops run on Chrome OS. Windows and macOS are notoriously ENORMOUS programs that hog hard drive space, and require update downloads and installations that take, literally hours.
Chrome OS, by contrast, is special. I’m not quite the level of nerd to describe this with total accuracy, but my crude, layman, paraphrasing explanation is that Chrome OS does not reside on your computer. The bulk of it resides in the proverbial “cloud”. So when Chrome OS updates, it doesn’t happen on your computer and it doesn’t affect you. Your Chromebook simply is told to restart, at your convenience, and upon restart, rather than installing a massive .exe program, it just points to the new OS on the cloud.
So the OS has a huge advantage. Another advantage of Chromebooks is the flexibility that it has, especially compared to a Mac. Macs are all built by Apple, and they hold a high standard of quality. Apple is very rigid in that respect, and they charge a pretty penny for that standard of quality you get. PCs on the other hand, can be built by basically whoever wants to build one. This means PCs can be less expensive but can also be poorer quality (or better quality, or any level of quality, as opposed to the one standard level of Mac excellence). You really need to know what you’re doing when you shop for a PC, but there’s a possibility you can get a very good deal, relative to a Mac.
Chromebooks are like PCs, in that they can be built by just about anybody interested in making one. But due to the cloud-based nature of the OS, even a rather sloppily constructed Chromebook is going to work pretty well. And it’s even more affordable than PCs.
In some cases, Chromebooks are so affordable that it’s almost seen as a disposable laptop . Schools in the US buy them in bulk and hand them out to little kids. You can usually pick up a decent (acceptable – not great) Chromebook today at Best Buy for $99.
So that is how Chromebooks have the smoothness, ease of use, and intuitive likableness of a Mac, with the ability to customize to your financial needs and technical whims. Basically, it’s peace of mind, ease of use, affordability, and flexibility, all in one machine.
For the last 10 or so years, we’ve been getting more and more Chromebooks, as more manufacturers become willing to invest in building them. Chromebooks started very primitive. Originally, Chrome OS was almost exclusively a program that ran the Chrome Browser — absolutely nothing else. It was nearly so simple as that you opened up the lid, and there was the Chrome Browser. You could go to websites and interact with the websites, and that’s about it. You couldn’t play a Blu-Ray on it (like other computers back then), or install programs from CD-ROMs, or even download a program. Printing was a hassle, and there was almost no file storage either. It was a screen, a keyboard, and a browser.
Over the 10 or so years they’ve been around, they’ve evolved. You still can’t install huge programs like graphics intensive games, or Adobe editing software, but that’s becoming less and less relevant, as games and editing software become better and better as strictly cloud-hosted programs.
And now it is easy to run “Android” apps on a Chromebook. Although many Android apps are not optimized for Chromebooks, (many apps appear in Chromebook with the screen size of a phone — huge black bars on either side — that’s what I mean be not optimized for Chromebooks), the theoretical ability for a Chromebook to download, install, and run an outside, executable program has now arrived. As clunky as the Android app experience currently can be, it remains an avenue by which a Chromebook could do literally anything, if somebody builds it.
Chromebooks also have other features now. There’s a file manager. More in-house memory available and plenty of ways to attach external memory. You can work on Google docs and sheets offline. There’s printing ability, and even something called Linux which is meaningful for nerds even greater than I.
Chromebooks keep improving, while so far maintaining their cloud-based speedy smoothness, efficiency, and low low prices.
So there you have it. I hope that gives you an comprehensive answer to “what is a Chomebook?” I think I hit all the high points. Except one. I’ve left out a big one. Chromebooks have some haters. There are critics. When you are shopping for a Chromebook, asking around and doing internet research, you’ll see.
In my next installment, I’m going to keep it positive, and go a little more in depth as to what makes Chromebooks the best. Later in this series, I will circle back and address the criticisms. I assure you, none of the leading criticisms are valid. It’s pure fear and stupidity, and stubborn resistance to change. See you next time!
ONE OTHER NOTE: I’m trying out Substack. Check it out here: https://georgeg.substack.com/p/the-good-news-about-chromebooks
I like the interface at Substack better, and it seems like it might be a better value than WordPress. I’m no longer paying for the Premium version of WordPress, so there are weird ads, and I don’t like that. I may continue to post the series here on WordPress first, for a while. I like having it here where I can proofread it and polish it, but then I’ll post if over on Substack, for the world to see. Ok, that’s the note! Bye.