Can Chrome (and a Chromebook) fill in for my usual computing tasks?

Lately, I’ve been reading (and writing) about Chromebooks, the simplified laptops backed by Google’s Chrome OS that basically use the Chrome browser (and Linux) as the operating system. Besides the allure of a new gadget, I’m also interested in a laptop that’d be less heavy to carry around than my two-year-old Linux Mint-running HP laptop, which weighs in at a hefty 5.3 lbs./2.4 kg (per its specs). While I’d like a MacBook of some sort, I currently don’t have the money or means to buy one. A Chromebook, however, would be affordable (the cheapest ones start at $200), would weigh half of the HP laptop’s weight, and would suffice until the day I could afford a MacBook. It’d also let me give my laptop to my family, who could use a newer computer; they’re using the now-seven-year-old Dell tower I gave them running Xubuntu 12.04.

Of course, Chromebooks have some compromises, being heavily browser-based, which led me to wonder how much of my usual computer activities could be done on such a platform. While I still have my Mac Mini as my main computer (and the Mini’s not going anywhere), I do run Chrome on my computer. Thus, I tried out various browser-based apps, websites, and Google Docs/Google Drive to see what running a Chromebook might be like. So, here’s a list of my computer uses, and how well Chrome/the web in general filled in:

  • Blogging/managing my website: I already write most of my blog posts in WordPress’ visual editor itself, as well as sometimes using TextEdit on my Mac. Google Docs would thus work nicely for writing purposes.
  • Article writing: I use LibreOffice on my Mac for more substantial writing. Google Docs can convert to/from LibreOffice’s format, plus I can also access Docs from my Mac.
  • Graphics/photos: I already upload photos to Google+ Photos, so photo management is resolved. (On the Mac, I also store them in iPhoto.) I normally create what few graphics I need, like the header image for this site, in GIMP. The website Pixlr does offer some basic graphics creation and editing (resizing photos, etc.), and seems to be the recommended choice for Chromebook users. I tried Pixlr, and it seems like it’d do if I really needed to manipulate graphics on the Chromebook (i.e., I didn’t have access to my Mac).
  • Email: I already have Gmail, of course, so I’d have access to that. Ditto via webmail a few other email addresses I use.
  • Social media: Google+, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are all accessible through the browser, or through a few browser add-ons like TweetDeck.
  • Web surfing: Of course.
  • Videos: YouTube works normally. One advantage over my Linux Mint laptop is that there’s support on Chromebooks for Netflix. As for my own videos, while Chromebooks obviously wouldn’t have capacity for my entire video collection, it does support playing common formats (MP4, MKV, AVI) via Google Drive or an external thumb drive.
  • Music: I’ve already uploaded my music collection to Google Play Music, which allows it to be played back on any Android device or through a browser; thus, it’s supported normally in Chrome. Of course, it’s just MP3s; my lossless files would have to stay on my external hard drives/Mac. Streaming services like Pandora also work normally.
  • Podcasts: Google Play Music for some reason doesn’t directly support podcasts. While the proposed integration of Android into Chrome OS would help the podcast situation (per the various podcast Android apps), for now, Feedly’s podcast support or just downloading them directly from their websites would be the way to go.
  • Finances: A place where Chromebooks—or rather, the Web—comes up short. I use a stand-alone program (Jumsoft’s Money for OS X) to keep track of my checking and savings accounts, as a glorified electronic checkbook. For a budget, I use a LibreOffice spreadsheet. The spreadsheet was easy to import into Google Sheets (the spreadsheet component of Docs), but I didn’t see any web-based service that could really replace the stand-alone program I use. Mint.com and the like are popular, but those won’t let me manually enter new purchases, which doesn’t work for me. (I can already access my bank account online!) Thus, I’d have to wait until I got back to my Mac to enter purchase information.
  • Evernote: Evernote has web based access and various apps, so I could easily access it from Chrome.
  • KeePass: There’s a few Chrome plugins that’ll let me read my KeePass database.
  • Comic reader: Another “fail” spot for the Chromebook/Chrome. The few Chrome plugins I tried that let one read CBR/CBZ formatted comics failed to work for CBZ files (CBR ones worked OK). I suspect it’s due to the clunky way ZIP files are handled by Chrome (CBZs are just renamed ZIP files). Fortunately, I can read such comics on my Mac, tablet or phone.
  • ZIP files: From what I read, Chrome OS will support ZIP files, though it sounds a bit lackluster (mounting it like an external drive and moving files from there?).
  • eBooks: There’s some support via Chrome plugins, etc., for eBooks, though I’d rather use my tablet for those.
  • Connecting my Nexus 4/Nexus 7: I’d have to use the “cloud” via Drive to transfer files between a Chromebook and the Nexus devices, which is what I do now anyway. However, support for MTP (the transfer protocol switched to by Google recently) is supposedly coming for Chrome OS, so I’d be able to plug them in directly.
  • External hard drives: Like other Linux distributions, Chrome OS supports Windows- and Linux-formatted external drives, but doesn’t really support OS X-formatted ones that well. Still, I have Google Drive and an external thumb drive for moving around data.
  • External keyboard/mouse: From what I read, they’re supported by Chrome OS.

 

So overall, while I wouldn’t want to make it my sole computing device, it looks like a Chromebook could replace my Linux Mint laptop. The only downsides would be the areas of spending tracking and reading comics files, but neither’s a showstopper, however. A Chromebook would also be worth the tradeoff of gaining Netflix access, as well as a much more lightweight laptop to take with me on trips.

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