I've spent the last three weeks taking six business-oriented Chromebooks through their paces. I started out as a skeptical Windows-rules-them-all kind of guy: I've been using Windows since the early days, and I've rarely strayed from the ghosts of my Windows masters. By the end of my Chromebook experiment, however, my old biases were shaken.
There's a definite siren call to a light, fast, portable computer with a solid keyboard that isn't subject to the patching and malware malaise that has become part and parcel of Windows-dom. Every Chromebook runs precisely the same version of Chrome OS. It's updated constantly — no Patch Tuesday (or Second, Third, or Fourth Tuesday, with occasional out-of-band fixes). There are no independent drivers to juggle. I, for one, find the absence of device drivers to be a godsend.
Malware, viruses, and the like are a concern with Chromebooks, but they aren't in the same cesspool as the multi-billion-dollar malware industry that slimes Windows. To be sure, crapware Chrome extensions exist, and as Ron Amadeo at Ars Technica described early this year, they can cause problems. But as far as I know, nothing resembling a Windows virus has ever hit a Chromebook — yet. As far as I've heard, there haven't been any Chromebooks bricked by bad patches, no blue-screen blues.
Of course there are trade-offs. Many people prefer Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides over Microsoft Office, but many feel as strongly the other way. Many users are comfortable working with browser-based apps, and others prefer working closer to the metal. I can't presume your personal preferences, but I can say that Docs, Sheets, and Slides are very capable apps.
A Chromebook offers no support for connecting to network shares. The road to sharing leads to Google Drive. If you want to print from a Chromebook, you have to go through Google Cloud Print (still officially in beta), which means you can only print to a properly set-up Google Cloud Print-compatible printer. The Chrome PDF viewer, at this point, doesn't let you annotate PDF files or view annotations.
In exchange for storing your documents in Google's cloud, and doing all — or at least most — of your work online, the Chromebook makes caring for a computer dead simple. If that idea reverberates with you, then a Chromebook may be a good alternative to a traditional laptop.
To see what the leading Chromebook hardware manufacturers have to offer, I rounded up business-grade Chromebooks from Acer, Dell, Google, HP, Samsung, and Toshiba and took them for a three-week test-drive. Here's what I found.
Common Chromebook traits
As I noted above, Chromebooks run Chrome OS, which is, to a first approximation, the Chrome browser you've used before. To a second approximation, Chrome OS can support overlapping resizable windows (each resembling a Chrome window on Windows or OS X), as well as apps built to Google's Chrome Packaged Apps specifications. That's what gives specific apps (such as Gmail, Docs, Sheets, and so on) the ability to run even when the OS is offline. Chrome OS also includes a built-in media player and a file manager.
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