I’ve been using Chromebooks since they first launched, starting with the CR-48 prototype back in 2010. Over, and even before, that time, I’ve used Linux, Mac, and PCs. I still do. But for the majority of my computing these days, I use a Chromebook. And when I report on some of the premium Chromebooks that cost as much as a decent Mac or PC, I routinely hear the question: “Why spend that much when you can get a Mac or PC for the same price and do so much more?” It’s a great question. Here’s my answer to why I use a Chromebook and ChromeOS.
ChromeOS is built on Linux and Linux is zippy
So we’ve been hearing “This will be the year of the Linux desktop” every year for at least a decade. Maybe two. But we keep saying it because Windows owns the lion’s share of desktop computing while MacOS has a smaller but passionate base. And then we have the many flavors, or distros, of Linux.
Yet there have been quarterly periods where Chromebooks have outsold Macs. And ChromeOS is arguably a Linux desktop platform.
Maybe not in the traditional sense. But it runs the Linux kernel and has a graphical user interface along with excellent support for various hardware. It’s possibly the simplest “Linux desktop” to use: Built with the browser as your main interface and a few native utilities such as Files, Gallery, and the Launcher.
Again, this point is arguable by the Linux purists and it’s a valid point.
What matters more to me is that Linux is generally one of the fastest, and most stable, operating systems around. It can be configured to be as lean as you need so it runs quickly on minimal hardware. Or you can go hog wild and install tons of apps, packages, and utilities on a computer that costs thousands of dollars due to high-end hardware.
Put another way: I’ve owned two laptops that were from the same brand and had the exact same hardware. Remember the HP Stream / HP Chromebook 11?
This was a laptop design repurposed to launch with one of two operating systems. One came with Windows and one came with ChromeOS. The overall experience was much snappier on the Chromebook version as compared to Windows.
I’ve often said that “ChromeOS is a lighter platform than Windows” and this is exactly what I mean. And I don’t think I’m wrong even though I get pushback from some. In fact, a recent video presentation about the Windows Subsystem for Linux by Microsoft’s Scott Hanselman effectively verifies my observation, saying
“Processes in Windows have historically been heavy… Linux processes don’t think about windowing… forking (splitting off a new process) is like 10X; it’s an order of magnitude slower [than on Linux.]”
I get that Microsoft has to keep thousands of apps, processes, and services in its software for backward compatibility reasons. But I don’t need those for what I do, nor do I want them. I want a speedy system so I use a Chromebook, which is based on Linux.
I don’t need to “do more” to use a Chromebook
This gets me to my second point. Yes, it’s a valid criticism of Chromebooks that they can’t do as much as a Mac or PC. I can’t install traditional desktop apps, although I can (and do) install Linux desktop apps. I can’t yet game natively, although that’s going to change in the near future. But, I wouldn’t game on a Mac either. PC gaming isn’t a core competency on the Mac platform.
I’ve owned many game consoles going back to 1982 and these days, I have a custom build Windows PC for an optimal gaming experience. And I have a Steam Deck reservation for playing my PC games on the go.
It doesn’t matter to me that I can’t play every single game on my Chromebook. I have streamed games with Nvidia’s GeForce Now every now and again but that’s mainly because I don’t feel like being bound to my home office where the gaming rig is. So I don’t “need” to game on my Chromebook.
What about video editing?
I got out of the YouTube game years ago, so I don’t need this functionality. For the rare personal use videos I create, I do what millions of people do: I use my phone. Yes, ChromeOS now has native video editing in the Google Photos app, which is also useful, if not a bit basic.
I can’t natively use Microsoft Word on my Chromebook, nor can I create iOS apps. Guess what: I don’t do those things. I use an iPhone so I can’t get my text or Messages on a Chromebook. But my phone is always with me so I’m covered.
I could list hundreds of other apps I can’t run on a Chromebook that I could on a Mac or a PC. It doesn’t matter to me. I don’t need those apps. On the off-chance there’s some modern app I need, I can always look for an Android version to see if it cuts the mustard.
Are there limitations on a Chromebook? Sure! Do those limitations apply to my workflow? Nope. They may apply to your personal workflow and for that reason, I never suggest that everyone can or should use a Chromebook full time.
But me? Simply put, I use a Chromebook because it can do what I need it to do. It’s the same reason I don’t own a truck or an SUV. I don’t need to haul things or go off-road, so I have a car. The car is limited compared to the truck but… so what if I’ll never use the unique features of the truck?
ChromeOS and Chromebooks have evolved relatively fast
Windows has been around in some shape or form since 1985 and I’ve used it since 1990 with Windows 3.0. Prior to that, I used DOS and Commodore BASIC 2.0.
MacOS is built around NeXTStep from 1985 and has evolved since then. I started using macOS when Apple shifted to Intel processors in 2006. I also ran Windows on that machine, using Apple’s BootCamp utility. Long story short, Macs and PCs have been evolving for nearly four decades. ChromeOS only turned 10 years old in 2019. It’s a relative toddler in terms of operating systems.
And yet, look how far ChromeOS and Chromebooks have come from that CR-48 prototype!
We went from low-cost, low-powered repurposed netbooks (the main reason people incorrectly assume Chromebooks are supposed to be inexpensive) to premium, high-end, cutting-edge hardware. And there are devices everywhere in between those two extremes. I can choose an inexpensive Chromebook for basic everyday use and not worry if the device is run over by a bus. Or I can soup up a new configuration with maximum internals for heavy-duty programming projects or Computer Science classes.
Thanks to the evolution of ChromeOS with new features every four weeks, combined with a march towards supporting the widest possible range of hardware, I can get a capable Chromebook at any price. The pace of software updates with additional features is another reason I use a Chromebook.
Have there been times over the last decade where I had to turn to a Mac or a PC over a Chromebook? Absolutely!
Without the addition of Linux on Chromebooks a few years back, I never could have effectively taken 8 CS classes at a local community college using a Chromebook. There were times when a current ChromeOS feature wasn’t available on a Chromebook. So it was a Windows Surface or a MacBook Air that better meet my needs at certain times. That’s much less the case now.
Figure out what you need to do and buy the best tool for those tasks
This gets me back to the thought that Chromebooks aren’t for everyone. That’s OK, and better yet, it doesn’t impact my choice of computer. I think long and hard about what tasks I need to accomplish on a computer. I then research what device and/or operating system will let me accomplish those tasks as quickly and simply as possible.
For me, today, that’s a Chromebook. For you, it could be a PC, a Mac, a Linux machine, or even a Raspberry Pi. And that’s OK! Buy the best computing tool for your tasks and be happy.
That’s what I did and it’s why I use a Chromebook.