10 things Google should fix on the Chromebook
1st Aug 2014 | 07:30
Chromebooks might be fast, but Google seems slow to fix their problems
Introduction and fixes 1 - 3
There's a lot to like about Chromebooks: they're lightweight, start in seconds, have amazing battery life and of course are dirt cheap.
But the platform has problems, too. There's a shortage of quality apps, limited video and audio playback support, various PDF issues, no direct access to network shares, outdated documentation and more.
Fans might claim that the Chromebook's advantages outweigh all of these, but current web access stats suggest that's not how others feel. StatCounter's recent 2014 figures show that while Chrome OS market share has climbed dramatically in the past year, even now though it's only 0.44% of US web traffic.
Chromebooks may have sold in reasonable numbers, but it doesn't seem that they're being used very much. Why not? We came up with a list of 10 things Google needs to address to make Chromebooks more appealing. Because until they're fixed, it doesn't matter how fast Chromebooks are - they're not going to take off.
1. Weak PDF support
Chromebooks have a built-in PDF viewer, and accessing a simple document is no problem at all: just click the link and browse it as normal.
What if you need to view an annotated PDF, though? Or annotate one yourself? This is an absolutely essential task for many business and student users, convenient for many others, and no problem for PCs or Macs. But Chromebooks can't handle it at all.
Fillable PDF forms are another area which needs work. We could enter values in our test form, but they weren't validated (the form included logic to warn us if we made a mistake, but this wasn't used), and it wasn't possible to save a completed form.
Addons like PDFzen were supposed to fix the problem, but they're poor (check PDFzen's reviews). And why should a new user have to go searching for extensions to do something so basic, anyway? This kind of task needs to be supported natively.
Reliable native media playback is a must-have for any computer, but the Chromebook still needs work. In our tests, FLV video, AC3 and DTS audio couldn't be played. CR2 RAW files are apparently supported, but we couldn't view ours. MOV and AVI playback was inconsistent, too: some files worked, some didn't.
When we did have problems, there was no message to explain why, nothing that offered any help, just a vague mention of an "error" and a link we could click to try again. Which, of course, didn't help at all. This is mostly due to codec issues, although these are difficult to pin down.
3. No MTP support
MTP (Media Transfer Protocol) began life as a Windows Media Player technology, but now it's a common means of transferring files to and from cameras, phones, and Android devices in general.
But not the Chromebook, though. And so, as we write, you'll need to transfer the files onto a memory card, or some other roundabout route. Not difficult, but not exactly convenient, either.
Still, maybe there's hope. As we were finishing this piece, some Chromium code was checked in to "Mount MTP devices in Chrome OS Files.app", perhaps allowing you to use your phone as an external drive. Sounds promising, but there's still work to do, so we're leaving this as a "must fix" issue.
Fixes 4 - 6
4. Feeble apps
Chromebooks might not have too many native capabilities, but that doesn't really matter, we're told, because it offers thousands of apps to help extend your system.
While this is sort-of true - there are some genuinely useful offline applications available now - the Chrome Web Store is also packed with feeble apps which are little more than links, or just don't work properly on Chromebooks.
We've heard plenty of reasons (excuses?) for this, but with the platform almost three years old, they're beginning to wear thin. Chromebooks need more apps with substance, and they need them soon.
5. Update hassles
One of the selling points of Chromebooks is that they're automatically updated, adding new features, without interrupting you. That's fine, in theory, but in practice there can be problems.
You can't easily pause or disable these updates, for instance, which you might want to do if you're tethering, or away from home and using sluggish local WiFi.
Finding out what an update does is another issue. There's no local Windows Update-like list of patches. The Chromium Blog is very developer-oriented, so you might have to visit a few third-party sites before you find out about any new features.
But reliability is the real concern. There's no way something as basic as dragging a mouse to select text could be affected by a Chromebook update, right? Wrong: that's what happened to some people with version 34, and similar oddball issues crop up regularly. These usually have limited scope - just people with certain Chromebook models, say - but that's not much consolation when it happens to you.
6. Inconsistent SD Card support
USB devices are key to most Chromebook users, and as a result any USB issues are noticed and tackled right away. SD card problems? Maybe not.
We tried creating a recovery image on an SD card, which in theory should be supported, and can be more convenient - but with no luck. Our Chromebook didn't seem to recognise the card at all.
We're not alone, either. While this works for some people, plenty of others have been reporting significant problems, and there are other issues, too.
Chromebooks don't exactly have a lot of hardware, so it's not unreasonable to expect that what you get will actually work with all of the system, as documented. If it doesn't, users will just get disillusioned and move elsewhere.
Fixes 7 - 10
7. Limited zip handling
Select a zip file on a Chromebook and it's mounted as a drive, allowing you to browse and access the contents. Nothing wrong with that - it's the same default behaviour as Windows.
What Chromebooks can't do, bizarrely, is just unzip the archive into a folder, which you may prefer if you're looking to do some heavy-duty rearrangement of its contents.
As usual, there are some web app "solutions", but having to upload the file and download its expanded contents is just a little inconvenient. Chromebooks need better offline archive support.
8. Bookmark access
Spend time on a PC and you'll become very used to accessing files, folders or websites from shortcuts placed on the desktop, taskbar or Start menu (depending on your browser and Windows version, anyway).
Move to a Chromebook, however, and it's a very different story. Websites may be bookmarked, of course, but you can't drag and drop these to the shelf, desktop or app launcher, or easily pin folders.
Some people get very annoyed at the thought of messing up their clean and tidy desktop, of course, but this wouldn't be compulsory: if you think it's a bad idea, then don't do it. But having greater freedom to organise your workspace would make Chromebooks more comfortable to many Windows users, and could save time for others, too.
9. Network shares
In the shiny new Chromebook world, just about all your files live in the cloud, where they're easily accessible from all your devices.
Back in the real world, though, plenty of people share files over their own network, and that's something the Chromebook can't handle. There's no Samba support, no NFS, no access to network shares at all. (Yes, you can install Crouton, but that's not going to appeal to most users.)
It could be argued that networks are "legacy thinking" and the cloud is the way forward, that Google is actually doing us a favour by ignoring network shares and pushing people in the right direction.
There's a degree of truth in that, too, but many others do need local network access. And will do, for the foreseeable future. If the Chromebook ignores them, they'll look elsewhere.
10. Dubious documentation
If you do come across a problem with your Chromebook, then you'd hope that Google has a helpful support page or two which can point you in the right direction. And often you're right, but there are still plenty of issues.
The "Supported file types" page is a good example, all on its own. This doesn't list RAW images or FLAC audio files, even though they should mostly work. It doesn't mention the exFAT file system, although we could access exFAT drives without issue. And it simply marks AVI and MP4 as supported, although that doesn't tell the whole story (they'll only play with some codecs).
Life gets even more complicated as you dig deeper. We found a reference to a "p2p_update" command which, in theory, allows local Chromebooks to share updates across the network, rather than downloading them all at once. Does it work? We've no idea: it's listed in the Command Prompt help_advanced, but we couldn't find any other details.