Can a Chromebook really replace your Windows machine?
3rd Jan 2014 | 14:00
Google's laptops may be ready to challenge Microsoft's dominance
Many view Chromebooks as Google's attempt to pass off a glorified web browsing machine as a workable replacement for a Windows PC.
But with the steady maturation of ChromeOS and Google cloud services, Chromebooks look like they may be finally ready to take a chunk out of Microsoft's share.
Perhaps you haven't taken notice of Google's other mobile OS, but a host of top PC manufacturers have. They're not just re-purposed notebooks either: the HP Chromebook 11.
Samsung Chromebook and Acer C7 Chromebook are the tip of an incoming Chromebook armada, with Google's own Google Chromebook Pixel leading the charge with gorgeous design and better specs than the rest, but at a MacBook-esque price.
Sales are still modest, with the IDC (International Data Corporation) recently suggesting Chromebooks only make up 1% of the combined PC and tablet market. But the pace is finally starting to pick up, eating into the lower crust of the laptop market, where netbooks once reigned supreme. Thanks in part to the onward march of tablets, the netbook sector has been somewhat hijacked by Chromebooks to become that device with 'just enough' functionality to keep lightweight users happy, with an enticing price to boot.
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It all seems like unfortunate timing for Microsoft, who are now undergoing a three-pronged attack from strong competition in tablets, drowning in an armada of Android, with Chromebooks now arriving to deal further blows as they ride a revolt against the costly licensing fee that Windows ownership incurs.
Despite budget pricing, are Chromebooks ready to replace Windows for those looking to produce as well as consume? Here's a roundup of apps that will fill the gaps in Chromebook's functionality to make it a viable Windows alternative…
For a whole raft of users, being productive on their Windows machines boils down to one piece of software - Microsoft Office. Pulling yourself away from Microsoft's renowned productivity software can seem almost impossible, but if you're not making use of some of the more complex capabilities that Excel, Powerpoint and Word can provide, then Google Apps is a perfectly safe alternative.
With almost every piece of the Microsoft Office puzzle, there's a Google alternative, though some such as Keep (for note taking) is nowhere near as comprehensive as Microsoft's OneNote, while Google's plethora of apps and services still can't offer anything resembling the power of MS Access. However, how many people still actively use Access is debatable, and they're certainly not likely to be the kind of audience Google is aiming the Chromebook at.
There are loads of other features and categories in Google Apps that are similar to Office 365 - mobile apps and connectivity, document sharing, instant messenger tie-ins, and dozens of other topics. As long as you can survive being tied to services that only offer full functionality with a network connection, Google Docs and its siblings are surprisingly powerful.
Beyond Google's office offerings, there's plenty more to keep you productive at home or even in business. Evernote's Chrome extension and app allow you to easily keep together ideas, research projects and inspirations as well as entire web pages for future use. Other apps worth checking out for presentations and spreadsheets include SlideRocket and Zoho Shee respectively.
One of the big ties to a desktop for creative types is Adobe's Creative Suite - king of which is still Photoshop. It's long been heralded as the de facto image editor and moving away from it just doesn't seem to be a pill some are prepared to swallow.
Enter web-based alternatives, the most popular being Pixlr Editor. This powerful editor borrows an awful lot from Photoshop and in some cases does it with less fuss. Due to its Flash underpinnings, processing isn't quite as snappy as Photoshop and things can get a little sluggish on the ARM-based processors that adorn most Chromebooks.
Handily, Pixlr Editor is integrated directly into Google Drive, making it easily accessible from Drive's web interface or the Chrome OS file explorer.
It doesn't just stop at Pixlr though - there's plenty of apps to get creative with. Audiotool is a fantastically straightforward music production studio that allows you to make melodies, play with drum machines or synthesisers and much more.
For video, Stupeflix Video Maker is a simple editing suite that costs absolutely nothing if your videos are less than 60 seconds and can produce some reasonably professional results with the right footage.
Chromebooks aren't necessarily targeted at media addicts. The limited built-in storage means you're unlikely to want to load it up with gigabytes of music or video. Fortunately Google provides an obvious alternative to a local media player in the form of Google Music. Not only is big G rather generous with the free storage capacity of up to 20,000 songs, but the entire service makes listening to and purchasing music incredibly easy. Google Music also syncs with Android phones to give you plenty of opportunities to keep some music stored locally.
The search giant hasn't quite got the market cornered in music services for Chrome - there's plenty of streaming services out there such as Grooveshark and Soundtracker, which can fulfil the needs of less picky music tastes.
Video falls into the same kind of streaming groove as music. You're unlikely to have the capacity to store everything locally. Luckily there are now apps available from all the big providers including Netflix, Lovefilm, Blinkbox, YouTube/Google Play and Vdio, all of which offer ways to get your movie or TV fix. And let's not forget the likes of BBC iPlayer, ITV Player and 4oD which work from their own respective websites.
Unless you're buying a Chromebook for a child, gaming is unlikely to be at the forefront of your mind when pondering this OS for your next laptop. The lack of high-power machines means that gaming is purely limited to time-killing apps and will likely only keep kids or young teens content. There's no Steam, no big-budget games, and there's unlikely to be any support in the near future for anything other than ports of Android or basic Linux games.
Should you ditch Windows?
Whether you can sling that aging Windows machine in favour of a sleek new Chromebook entirely depends on whether you're prepared to move from potentially pricey software you're already comfortable with, and on to pastures new that rely more on internet connectivity.
Then there's the issue of versatility when multitasking with multiple windows. Microsoft built Windows around being able to quickly switch between program windows, offering a sensible file structure that scales from beginner to pro quite comfortably. ChromeOS is still limited to its browser-based underpinnings, so managing multiple tasks or programs at the same time is more restrictive, limiting you to whatever tasks you can fit in to the browser's tabs.
Chromebooks are clearly marketed towards a different audience than Windows OS users. If anything, the direct competition would have come from the ARM-powered Windows RT. However with the general failure of the Surface RT, the dumbed-down OS has been swept under the rug in favour of fully fledged x86 machines. Meanwhile manufacturers who did dabble in RT have since reverted to full-fat Windows, or else looked to Chrome to fill the entry-level market segment instead.
Chromebooks for business presents an interesting proposition. If you're managing a team collaborating on work, want everything backed up without a thought and kept secure, then the combination of ChromeOS and Google's Apps can be a relatively powerful, if slightly more limited combination.
One of Google's biggest hurdles in convincing people to switch concerns the very subject Microsoft is currently mocking in their latest marketing campaign - privacy. Google has had a bad image when it comes to privacy. After all, its business is in personalising your internet experience and targeted advertising based on your browsing habits.
The more of your life and work you give to Google, the less private you may feel. But you'd be wrong if you think everything you use a Chromebook for will be pored over by Google. The company wants to make money from advertising, not stealing your work.
- Now why not read Who's who at Microsoft (and what they're doing next)