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    AKB5000001: Is the Chromebook right for you?

    by JR Raphael

    Published: February 29, 2020 | Rev. 1.0

    Part I: Is the Chromebook right for you?
    Part II: Which Chromebook should you buy?
    Part III: You’ve got a Chromebook. Now what?
    Comments on AKB5000001 Is a Chromebook right for you?

    Chrome OS FAQ, Part I: Is a Chromebook right for you?

    JR RaphaelBy JR Raphael

    AskWoody Plus readers will recall that, from time to time, we’ve recommended Google’s Chromebooks as a viable alternative for many Windows users.

    Whether you’re looking to move away from Windows entirely or to complement your primary computer with a low-maintenance secondary system, a Chrome OS–based Chromebook can be a nice addition to your digital life.

    To give AskWoody Plus readers an introduction to the Chrome experience, we’ve put together a three-part question-and-answer series. We’ll cover the ins and outs of Chrome OS, starting with the basics of how the operating system works — information you’ll need in order to decide whether a Chromebook will fit your specific needs.

    Chrome OS has come a long way since its inauspicious debut a decade ago. It may not be your typical operating system, but it surely is a polished and comprehensive computing platform. Let’s get into it, shall we?

    What’s it like to use a Chromebook?

    It’s a lot like using Windows! But it also has a definite Google spin. You’ll see a familiar desktop with wallpaper and a taskbar, aka the shelf. Click the icon at the left end of the shelf (or press the matching keyboard-based Launcher key) to see all available apps or search through your system and the Web simultaneously (see Figure 1). As with Windows, you can even pin frequently used apps and websites to the shelf.

    Chrome OS Launcher

    Figure 1. The Chrome OS Launcher is a sort of Google-connected app drawer for the desktop.

    The right end of the shelf should look familiar, too. It displays the current time, Internet-connection status, battery level, and the number of pending notifications. Clicking that information area pops up the Quick Settings panel (Figure 2), where you can check active notifications. You can also make fast system adjustments such as screen brightness, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections, and Do Not Disturb status.

    System menu

    Figure 2. The Chromebook system Quick Settings panel displays notifications and provides an easy way to adjust basic settings.

    You can even press Alt + Tab to move through your open apps — or press the Overview key to see all your open apps in a grid-like arrangement (see Figure 3).

    Overview mode

    Figure 3. Chrome OS’s Overview screen shows, in one place, everything you have open.

    Again: With Chrome OS, you’ll find a basic set of features and controls that the average Windows user should easily grasp.

    So a Chromebook keyboard has special keys?

    Yes, sirree! Instead of a row of generic function keys (F1 through F12), Chromebook keyboards come with a series of special-function keys (see Figure 4). Use them for tasks such as moving back one step, refreshing a page, toggling in and out of a full-screen view, and opening that aforementioned Overview mode. The Launcher key sits where you’d expect to find the Caps Lock. And on devices that are actually made by Google — the Pixelbook, Pixel Slate, and Pixelbook Go — you get a dedicated Assistant key, located where the “Windows” key would normally reside.

    Chromebook keyboard

    Figure 4. The Chromebook keyboard, as seen on the Google-made Pixelbook Go

    If you’ve just gotta have Caps Lock or F1 in your life, don’t fret; you can quickly remap the Chrome OS–specific keys via the system settings (more info).

    But you can’t run Windows apps, right?

    Righto! No Windows apps here. And that’s an issue you’ll have to seriously contemplate: are there specific Windows applications you really, truly need? Or can most of the things you do on a PC be accomplished just as effectively with Web-centric equivalents — along with some Android and/or Linux apps (which are now supported on most current Chromebooks) to fill in the gaps?

    In truth, many Windows users might be surprised by what they can now do online — with no need for a traditional, local-only app. Consider this: Your local email client can be easily replaced with a Web-based equivalent such as Gmail or Outlook.com. Or, heck, grab a Linux or Android email app (including Microsoft’s official Outlook version that works quite well on a Chromebook). Bottom line: You have lots of options.

    When it comes to productivity tasks, you can, for example, get most (if not all) of your word-processing needs covered with an online suite such as Google Docs or Microsoft Office Online — or with one of the many Android- or Linux-based alternatives. The same goes for spreadsheets, presentations, and so forth.

    And the list goes on. Practically every chat app has a Web, Android, and possibly even Linux option. Most accounting software has both an online and a mobile-app equivalent. And Web-based apps such as Pixlr and the Android-based Snapseed should fill the bill for basic image-editing needs.

    On the other hand, Chrome OS isn’t gonna cut it if you have specific Windows tools you absolutely require — e.g., custom corporate apps, advanced audio or video editors, heavy-duty local games, and so forth. But these days, those instances are more the exception than the rule.

    Do Chromebooks work offline?

    They do! This is perhaps the biggest misconception about Chromebooks — the belief that they can’t do anything without an active Internet connection. Honestly, in this cloud-focused era, working offline on a typical PC might not be much different from using a Chromebook offline.

    With either platform, for instance, you can’t retrieve new emails, look at live versions of webpages, or sync files to the cloud while disconnected from the Net.

    That said, a Chromebook will let you open and work with local editions of formerly Web-only apps. That includes Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs. You can also use local system apps such as a file manager, calculator, and text editor.

    Need some entertainment? You can play downloaded movies and music and even look at webpages saved while the Chromebook was online.

    Most Linux and Android apps work perfectly well offline, too. That opens the door to some interesting possibilities that aren’t present on traditional computers, such as using the Android-based YouTube app to save videos for offline viewing — a perk that’s come in handy for me on countless travel adventures.

    Okay … what do I gain going to a Chromebook?

    Simplicity! A Chromebook starts up in seconds, gets updates seamlessly and automatically in the background every few weeks, and — with the exception of Linux apps — never requires any annoying installation procedures, manual app updates, driver searches, or other migraine-inducing PC (and Apple Mac) configuration/maintenance tasks.

    Malware is also less of a concern. Chrome OS’s Linux-based nature and lack of traditional “local” applications makes it less of an exploit target — which explains why there’s no antivirus software to speak of. Moreover, every process exists in its own sandboxed compartment. If the system detects anything unusual when it’s booting up, it’ll automatically reinstall a clean version of the operating system.

    To crib a phrase, everything on a Chromebook “just works.” For example, if you’ve used one Chromebook and you sign in to any other Chrome OS device, all your stuff will, within seconds, show up on the new unit — set up just the way you like it. Data, settings, extensions, and applications are continuously and automatically synched, so the physical device you’re using is essentially irrelevant. Any Chromebook you sign in to becomes your computer almost instantly.

    And if you use the various Google services, things feel even more connected and familiar. Google Drive is integrated into the system file manager, for instance, and the same Google Assistant present on phones and smart speakers is now available on most current Chromebooks — which means you can do things such as set reminders on your computer and then have them pop up on your phone (or anywhere else that’s appropriate) when they’re due.

    In short, Chrome OS takes most of the hassle out of computing and leaves you with only the elements you actually want. It can be a refreshing change from the classic Windows setup — if it fits your needs.

    You now have the ammo needed to make that decision. Next week, we’ll tackle Part II of this Chrome FAQ. We’ll discuss the Chromebook hardware and provide pointers on which specific device you ought to buy. You now have the basics, but our Chrome exploration is just getting started.

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    • #2173136
      The Chrome OS FAQ, Part II: Which Chromebook should you buy?

      JR RaphaelBy JR Raphael

      In Part I of this three-part series on Google’s Chrome OS, we covered the ins and outs of Google’s Chrome OS software and the Chromebook laptops that rely on it (see AskWoody Plus issue 16.44.0, 2019-12-02).

      In this week’s Part II, we’ll go into greater detail on the hardware side of things — specifically, what you need to know to buy the best Chromebook for your needs.

      Chromebooks are no longer the generally panned, limited-utility “browsers in a box” they once were. Nowadays, a decade in, they’re versatile platform-defying systems that offer their own unique set of computing advantages.

      To wit: Chromebooks can run Android apps and even Linux apps alongside Chrome OS’s ever-expanding array of Web-centric utilities. They also update themselves every few weeks, seamlessly and automatically in the background. Unlike Windows and MacOS, they require virtually no maintenance — and no complicated configuration. You won’t waste energy worrying about pesky PC headaches such as driver conflicts, manual app updates, and a reliance on bloated security software just to feel safe.

      Chromebooks aren’t the best choice for everyone, but for a growing number of computer users, they can serve as perfectly viable and refreshingly hassle-free alternatives — or even just supplements — to Windows.

      Even though using a Chromebook is hassle-free, figuring out which model to buy isn’t so simple. You’ll find Chromebooks ranging from under U.S. $200 to over $1,200. Chromebook vendors include the likes of Acer, ASUS, Dell, Samsung, and even Google itself. Some devices are straightforward laptops, while others feature screens that swivel back into a “tablet” configuration — or detach entirely. Heck, you can even buy a Chromebox that’s basically a desktop computer designed to be used with the mouse, monitor, and keyboard you already own.

      It’s a lot to sort out. But not to worry — I’m here to help. In this FAQ, we’ll walk through all the important Chromebook considerations, and I’ll offer some specific device recommendations.


      How much should I pay for a Chromebook?

      That’s the few-hundred-dollar question, so to speak. As is usually the case, the answer is “It depends!” Just as with purchasing a Windows system, how much you pay will hinge on widely ranging processing power, storage, screen size, external niceties, and other features. You’ll also find a fair amount of variation in form, with some devices offering touchscreens and others acting as full-fledged convertibles.

      I suggest considering two key questions to start:

      • What do you intend to do on your device? If you tend to use your computer mostly for basic Web browsing — keeping just a few tabs open at a time and not performing much in the way of intensive multitasking — you’d probably be fine with a device equipped with a lower-end processor and as little as 4GB of RAM. On the other hand, if you tend to keep lots of browser tabs open at once, and you think you might run Android and/or Linux apps as well, a more mid-range system would be appropriate.
      • How much do you care about secondary factors such as display and build quality? These are the areas where you see the most noticeable differences between low-end Chromebooks and higher-end devices.For some laptop users, having a higher-resolution display is worth a premium price. And for some users, having a sleeker and thinner laptop, or one with a quiet and comfortable keyboard, is critical. Only you can decide how much those features matter to you — and how much you’re willing to pay to have ’em.

      For most people, the lowest price I’d recommend is in the mid-$200 range. Sure, you can find less-expensive Chromebooks, but the compromises you’ll be forced to live with won’t square with any cost savings.

      On the high end, it ultimately comes down to what you’re willing to spend. But for most power users, there’s really no reason to go much above $1,000.

      I just want something cheap. Which Chromebook should I get?

      There are, of course, many options. But at this time, I’d look at the Lenovo Chromebook C340 (see Figure 1) — specifically the model with an Intel Celeron N4000, 11.6-inch screen, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of local storage space. As we were finalizing this article, it was selling for around $260 on Lenovo’s website. (Especially during the holiday season, product prices can change often.)

      Lenovo C340 ChromeBook

      Figure 1. The Lenovo C340 is compact, light — and really inexpensive for what you get. Source: Lenovo

      The C340 doesn’t have the most sleek and elegant design, nor does it have an especially impressive display or the snappiest performance. But for the price, it’s a decent little system — perfectly suitable for basic Web-centric activity or running one or two tasks at a time. A convertible, it has a touch-enabled display that swivels fully back into a typical tablet format, which lets it take full advantage of Android apps in a natural-feeling way.

      What’s more, Lenovo states that the system will get ongoing software updates all the way through June of 2026, adding to its overall value. (Assuming that you’ll stop using the laptop when it’s no longer supported, you’ll basically be paying less than four bucks per month for the life of the machine.)

      If the C340 is too rich for you, consider the Lenovo Chromebook C330 — it’s last year’s version of the same device. Prices appear to be changing daily, but a model with 32GB of storage is currently $220; doubling the storage adds only $10 more.

      Just note that the system’s software support ends in June 2025. Yes, you can save a few bucks, but in the long run the newer and slightly more expensive C340 is a better value.

      Lenovo C340 ChromeBook

      Figure 2. If you really want to save a few dollars, consider last year’s Lenovo C330. Source: Lenovo

      What if I’m looking for something in the mid-range?

      If you’re comfortable spending more for a truly capable and pleasant-to-use laptop, I’d suggest ASUS’s Chromebook Flip C434-TA — ideally, the model with 8GB of RAM. It’s currently selling for about $550 on Amazon. The Flip offers a sensible combination of form and function, with a high-quality aluminum body and plenty of power under the hood. It also steps you up to a 13-inch, 1080p display that’ll look noticeably better than what’s available on lower-end systems.

      ASUS Chromebook Flip C434-TA

      Figure 3. The ASUS Chromebook Flip C434-TA is slim and light — but also quite capable for most computing tasks. Source: ASUS

      The touch-enabled screen swivels back for a tablet-like experience. And this model should receive ongoing software updates for six and a half years — through June 2026. (That breaks down to just over seven bucks a month over its advisable lifespan.)

      All in all, it’s a spectacular buy, falling in the sweet spot for price versus value.

      I want the nicest Chromebook imaginable. What should I get?

      You can’t do any better than Google’s top-of-the-line Pixelbook, which typically sells for $999 from Google but is frequently available for less from third-party retailers such as Amazon ($900, as of this writing).

      Google Pixelbook

      Figure 4. The Google Pixelbook is pricey but delivers an unbeatable Chromebook experience. Source: Google

      The Pixelbook has enough power to handle practically anything you throw at it — dozens of tabs, loads of Linux apps, heavy multitasking, you name it — without suffering a single stutter or slowdown. It’s also a pure delight to use, with a shockingly crisp high-resolution display, an eye-catching minimalist design, a thin and light body, and a premium keyboard that’ll spoil you for typing on anything else.

      Do you absolutely need a laptop with that level of luxury? Of course not. But if you want to ride around in the Lamborghini of the Chromebook world, well … this is it. And unlike that obscenely priced supercar, you really do get what you pay for.

      The most significant downside to the Pixelbook is that it’s now two years old, and that means its window for ongoing software support is shorter than that of any 2019-released Chromebook. (The device will receive updates through June of 2024.) That makes its price tag a touch tougher to swallow.

      If you’re of a more practical mind, consider dropping back down a bit to the ASUS Flip. It won’t match the Pixelbook for pure pleasure, but it’ll still give you a great experience.

      What about a Chromebox? Should I consider one of those?

      Will your Chrome OS system spend its life on your desk (i.e., you don’t care about portability), attached to the monitor, keyboard, and mouse you likely already own? Then sure, consider a Chromebox. Mobility and touchscreen convenience aside, you’ll get the same basic Chrome OS experience as with a Chromebook. (That said, there’s a reason notebooks now outnumber desktop machines.)

      The two most commendable Chromebox choices at this point are the Acer Chromebox CX13 and the ASUS Chromebox 3. Both are small boxes that will quickly and easily connect to your current peripherals. So the most meaningful variables are processors, RAM, and storage.

      Acer Chromebox CX13.

      Figure 5. The Acer Chromebox CX13 measures a mere 5.8 by 5.9 by 1.6 inches. Source: Acer

      Right now, the Acer CX13 Core i3 system is the better value; it comes with 8GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage for about $500 (Amazon page). You’ll get a zippy desktop computer that’ll never feel like it’s struggling — no matter what you use it for.

      The comparable ASUS Chromebox 3 has an Amazon price of $470, with 8GB of RAM but only a 32GB drive. For an extra 30 bucks, it’s worth bumping up to the Acer.

      Both devices are scheduled to get software updates through June 2025.

      Do I need any accessories — or anything else?

      Not really — nothing more than you’d need with other types of computers.

      Any Chromebook will work with your current Wi-Fi router and headphones. (Yes, astonishingly, the 3.5mm jack still lives on in this realm — hallelujah!) And any reasonably recent, Wi-Fi–connected printer should connect to your Chromebook with little to no effort (more info).

      Most late-model Chromebooks rely on USB-C ports for connectivity. So to use something like an Ethernet or HDMI cable, you’ll need an inexpensive adapter. I’ve had good luck with Anker’s USB C-to-Ethernet and –HDMI adapters.

      Chromebox devices include more-traditional USB ports, so most modern monitors, keyboards, and mice will do the trick. Both the aforementioned Acer and ASUS Chromebox models rely on HDMI video. (Note: If you use a keyboard designed for Windows, some of the specialty keys won’t have the right labels.)

      That pretty much covers it. You’re now ready to purchase a Chrome OS device suitable for your computing needs. So what should you do once you have your new Chromebook in hand? How do you organize your system, optimize your settings, and track down different types of apps? That’s the topic in next week’s final Chrome OS FAQ installment.


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    • #2173137
      The Chrome OS FAQ, Part III: You’ve got a Chromebook. Now what?

      JR RaphaelBy JR Raphael

      So now that you’ve read Parts I and II of our Chrome OS FAQ, you’ve worked out what Google’s operating system is all about — and possibly picked out the Chromebook that’s right for you.

      Whew! It’s been a busy couple of weeks. (If you missed the first two parts of this series, no worries: just head over to issues 16.44.0 (2019-12-02) and 16.45.0 (2019-12-09) to get all caught up.)

      Now we’re ready for the really fun part: taking your first steps into the world of your shiny new Chromebook. Getting around Chrome OS is mostly self-evident — especially if you’re an experienced Windows user — but there are some initial steps you’ll want to take to get everything set up and configured the way you like it.

      Without further ado, let the questions begin!

      How do I get Android apps onto my Chromebook?

      Installing Android apps on a Chromebook is essentially no different from installing Android apps on a phone: you start by clicking the Google Play Store icon, which should be present within your Chromebook’s app drawer (accessible by clicking the circular Launcher icon in the lower-left corner of the screen or by tapping the matching key on your keyboard).

      Next, enter an app title in the search bar or browse the list of apps to find whatever strikes your fancy (see Figure 1).

      Google Play App

      Figure 1. The Google Play Store on a Chromebook.

      And if you’re signed in to your Google account, you can even open up the Play Store website on another computer and send an app to your Chromebook from there. As long as both devices are using the same Google account, the Chromebook should show up as an available option.

      What about regular Web apps? How do I find those?

      Just open up the Apps section of the Chrome Web Store. (Note that the Apps section is available only on Chrome OS devices. If you try to access it from any other type of system, you’ll see only Extensions and Themes for the Chrome browser.)

      Do I need to install an app for everything I might do on the Chromebook?

      Nope! Not at all. You can run Web-based services such Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Drive, and so on — just as you do in Windows — entirely within your Web browser. For frequently used webapps, click the three-dot menu icon to the right of the address bar and select More tools followed by Create shortcut (see Figure 2).


      Figure 2. Shortcuts aren’t limited to webapps; you can turn any site into an app-like shortcut.

      Shortcut webapps and sites can have any name you like. You can also have shortcuts open in separate windows — in other words, each will exist in its own box instead of looking like a browser tab. Once you finish the process, the shortcut will appear on the Chromebook’s shelf (the taskbar-like interface at the bottom of the screen).

      So how do I customize the shelf?

      Excellent question. For shortcuts that are already on the shelf, you can click their icons and then drag-and-drop them in either direction to change their placement. If you want to remove an item from the shelf completely, right-click it (or two-finger click it, on a trackpad) and then select “Unpin” from the menu that appears. (This should all sound familiar to Windows users.)

      If you want to add an item to the shelf, click the Launcher and then select the up-arrow icon to open your entire list of available apps. Find the item you want, right-click it, and select “Pin to the shelf.”

      Can I organize the app drawer as well?

      You sure can! Just drag-and-drop any icon to a new position — or drag-and-drop one icon onto another icon to form a folder. Once a folder’s been formed, select it and then click its name (probably “Unnamed,” by default) to rename it.

      The Chrome OS application drawer

      Figure 3. You can easily reshuffle app icons in the Chrome OS app drawer to fit your preferences.

      How do I uninstall apps entirely?

      Just right-click the app’s icon — either in the app drawer or on the shelf (if it’s there) — and select Uninstall or Remove from Chrome in the popup menu.

      What about Linux apps?

      Put bluntly, installing Linux apps is a complicated can of worms, best left to advanced Chromebook owners. You have to navigate through a somewhat dense command-line jungle.

      If you’re up for the challenge, I’ve posted a step-by-step guide to get you started.

      How do I adjust my Chromebook’s settings?

      For system-level settings, select the screen section that includes the clock (lower-right-hand corner of the screen) and then click the gear icon at the top of the window that comes up.

      Chrome OS settings screen

      Figure 4. The Chrome OS system settings can be a bit hard to find at first.

      For browser-level settings — the same options you’d see within Chrome on Windows or any other supported desktop platform — open a browser window, click the three-dot menu icon to the right of the address bar, and select Settings from the menu that appears.

      How do I make sure my Chromebook is ready for offline use?

      With or without an active Internet connection, you’ll always be able to sign in to your Chromebook and use basic system tools. Beyond that, it’s mostly a matter of making sure each app you’ll need offline is prepared ahead of time.

      With Gmail, for instance, you’ll want to head over to the regular Gmail website, click the gear icon in the upper-right corner, select Settings, and then select Offline from the menu at the top of the screen. Check the box next to Enable offline mail and follow the prompts to complete the process.

      Setting up a local version of Google Drive has similar steps, but the process covers both Drive and its associated productivity services: Docs, Sheets, Slides, and so forth. You’ll also need to install the companion Google Docs Offline browser extension to ensure full functionality.

      To create local copies of your Google-created files (Docs, Sheets, Slides, etc.) go to those respective services and right-click the files to select the “Available offline” toggle. (Only recently opened files are automatically stored on your Chromebook.)

      For any other My Drive files that you want to make available offline — i.e., those that don’t relate to Google apps — open your Chromebook’s Files app, click the Google Drive section in the left-hand panel, then right-click a folder and select Available offline.

      Other online services — for example, Google Keep and its offline-ready Chrome app — may have their own standalone, local apps . You can also browse through offline-capable apps on a Chrome Web Store page (again, it’s a link that’ll work only when opened from a Chromebook). And remember, too, that most Android apps are designed to work offline, without any extra effort.

      Are there keyboard shortcuts I can use?

      Of course! Lots of ’em, in fact. Press the key combination Ctrl + Alt + / to see a list of available commands.

      How do I get to Google Assistant?

      On most current Chromebooks, you can pull Assistant up by hitting the Launcher key and the a key together. The exceptions are Chromebooks made by Google, which have a dedicated Assistant key between Ctrl and Alt on the left side of the keyboard.

      You can also set up Assistant for hands-free access via the “OK Google” or “Hey Google” hotwords; look for the “Google Assistant” option within the Search and Assistant section of the system settings.

      I want to do more! Do you have tips and tricks for tapping into advanced features and options?

      Do I ever! Mosey on over to my sprawling list of Chromebook tips or explore my recent collection of worthwhile Google Assistant commands.

      I cover Chrome OS constantly in my newsletter. So if you want to get fresh Chrome OS info in your inbox every Friday, feel free to subscribe. It’s an excellent complement to everything you’re learning here in AskWoody Land — but with an exclusive focus on the Googled side of mobile computing.

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