It’s now possible to do everything on a computer using nothing but the web. Google alone offers a web-based office suite, storage and email, and there are a host of other services for almost every imaginable application that you can access with a web browser.
This is all because of the ‘cloud’ — the idea that it’s easier and safer to use someone else’s software and data storage, via an internet connection, rather than installing applications and storing data on your own computer's hard disk drive. The catch, of course, is that you still need a computer that’s powerful enough to run Windows, OS X or Linux to connect to the cloud — and be prepared to deal with all the associated complications.
The Chromebook advantage
A web browser is hardly a demanding application, however, so a computer that’s expressly designed just for web use doesn’t need to be particularly powerful. And that’s just what a Chromebook is. Although they’re made by a number of different manufacturers, all Chromebooks run the Chrome OS from Google that does little more than run the Chrome browser.
This simplicity brings with it several advantages. The first is that since they don’t need powerful processors, lots of memory and much in the way of storage (it’s all online, remember), Chromebooks aren’t that expensive — models start from around £150.
Second, since they don’t do that much compared to, say, a Windows PC, Chromebooks are also very secure. As they can’t download and run applications as such, there’s no easy way to install malware — although you can unwittingly give personal data away to a web site, of course.
Better still, if a discrepancy is detected in the operating system during a routine automatic check, Chrome OS can be erased and reinstalled in a matter of minutes. And with all applications and data are stored online, nothing is lost in the process.
This latter online-only feature of all Chromebooks also means that if yours is lost, stolen or damaged, only the hardware is gone. The software can be restored automatically to a replacement as soon as you sign into your Google account.
Finally, the lightweight nature of Chrome OS also makes it very fast to start and most Chromebooks are ready to use within just a few seconds of switching them on. Many models are also very compact and weigh very little, and last for several hours on battery power.
What can Chromebooks do?
So what can you do with a Chromebook if all you have is a web browser? Any software that needs to be installed is obviously out of the question and that rules out Microsoft Office, web browsers other than Google Chrome and most games, but that still leaves plenty of options.
Any web page will obviously still work normally and you can still install your favourite Chrome extensions — as well as synchronise Chrome with versions on any other computers you use. Adobe Flash is also built-in (which means many online games will work), but you can’t use Microsoft Silverlight, since it isn’t available for Chrome OS.
Google also has a Chrome Web Store that’s full of applications for Chrome OS. These don’t do anything more than add a web shortcut to the Chrome OS launcher (a bit like the Windows Start menu), but they offer a more convenient way to use your favourite web sites.
Since everything they do is web-based, Chromebooks are obviously heavily reliant on an internet connection, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use them when you’re out of reach of wi-fi or mobile data. All models have some solid-state storage and many applications can be used in offline mode. So while you won’t be able to check your email or browse the web without internet access, you can still use a word processor or spreadsheet, for example.
What can I connect to it?
Chromebooks can also use many peripherals that plug into a USB port, including mice, keyboards, monitors (as long as there’s a suitable connection) and USB flash drives. They can play audio and video files from external or online storage, too, so you won’t miss out on any entertainment.
One area you may struggle with is printing. You can’t connect a printer to a Chromebook directly, but you can use Google Cloud Print to print to one that’s connected to a Windows, Mac or Linux computer. Or you can buy a printer with ‘Cloud Print’ support so that it connects to the internet itself, without the need for a second computer.
Which model is best for me?
Buying a Chromebook isn’t much different to buying a standard laptop. The best way to start is to read some reviews, decide which features are most important to you and set yourself a budget. Prices generally start from around £200 and the selection on offer is ever expanding.
There are also new models coming in 2017, including the Chromebook Flip C213 from Asus, which features a rotating keyboard to give you a tablet-like experience.
Are you a contented Chromebook user, or have you tried one and found it wanting? Let us know in the Comments section below.
Updated by Jamie Harris on 25/01/2017