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Chromebook: Great for Privacy, Work, Play

Screenshot of Google Chrome OS on Google Cloud...
Screenshot of Google Chrome OS on Google Cloudbook (CR-48) pilot program (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Basics

I've owned the Samsung $249 Chromebook for about a month now.  I agree with former reviews, the device is "$1000.00 of design using $99 worth of hardware."  It's plastic, but it's light.  It's cheap but has the dimensions of a Macbook, a built in webcam and microphone that WORK, a matte screen great for dark rooms and strong sunlight alike, and a chiclet keyboard that is high contrast and easier to keep clean than others.  It's plastic, it feels a little cheap, but it's light, really light and easy to carry around.  I forget its in the bag sometimes.  The charger is a little annoying, nothing wrong with it, I'm just afraid someone will walk into the cord and damage the device because it sticks out.

ChromeOS

ChromeOS is great.  They've really worked out the kinks.  I barely use local storage, though I really want to get a low-profile 64gb USB 3.0 thumb drive to keep in the USB port just in case.  I use a 16gb camera SD card for music storage.  ChromeOS is an OS in progress: the PC is set to use the "stable" final release updates automatically.  There are 2 other "channels": "Beta" and "Dev Unstable."  I've been on "Dev Unstable" for a few weeks and I see new features added literally on a weekly basis, something you never see on Windows or Mac.

ChromeOS Stability

My Chromebook never crashed when set to the "stable" channel.  It crashes periodically now that it's set to "Dev Unstable," usually because I have 25 tabs open in the browser.  Every single time it has crashed, I've been able to restore my former browsing session (all my tabs) without issue.

On the issue of tabs, now that I've logged into Chrome Browser on all my devices with my Google Account (if you have Gmail, you have one), I can use a drop down menu to view my browsing sessions on other PCs and grab tabs from there, even if I have failed to bookmark them.

Chromebook Hardware

There's not much to review for a Chromebook, you either bought the expensive hardware or the cheap hardware.  I bought the cheap.  Should I tell you it doesn't have a DVD drive?  You could read that on the box.  No, the best reviews of Chromebooks are really reviews of ChromeOS.  I can tell you it's usable, it's usable OFFLINE (despite what other reviewers have said), and it has a really bright future.

Virtual Assistants Coming to ChromeOS?

Like SIRI?  You can click the microphone icon next to the Google Search Box on your Chromebook and say, "directions to Wayne New Jersey" and it will pop-up a map on seconds showing your current town and how to get to that destination.  This is something it has been hinted will be improved upon in the next 12 month.  ChromeOS is set to become your new personal assistant, starting with the recent updates to the "Notification Center" in the bottom right hand corner of your screen.

Microsoft Windows vs. ChromeOS

My sister is 16, she struggles with using Microsoft Docx files on our aging home PC because we have not spent the $120 to put Office 2012 on our aged Windows Vista laptop.  Her teachers don't seem to understand how file formats work, so there is no respite from this epidemic of Microsoft-forced-upgrades.  On the Chromebook, Docx are converted and opened in Google Docs by default, without a high level of user-knowledge or expensive software.

On the subject of software, the free applications through the ChromeOS web store fill the gap in all the applications you'll miss from Windows and Mac.  If you must use Microsoft Office, you can now do so online for a price.  Otherwise, Google Docs has never been more compatible with Microsoft's ever-changing file formats.  If you have to go third-party, there are many Microsoft Office and Google Docs alternatives you can try: Sumopaint provides an excellent alternative to Photoshop, Adobe PDF works on Google Chrome, and ChromeOS built in "Scratchpad" provides offline document editing that syncs to Google Docs.

What About Games?

Plants vs. Zombies, Need for Speed World, Lord of Ultima, Command & Conquer Tiberium Alliances, Minecraft, Battlestar Galactica Online, and many, many more...  There are a lot of terrible flash games out there for ChromeOS, but there are also a few solid MMORPGs, real time strategy, retro-classics, and more.  Your Chromebook will not play Crysis, but it will play Counter Strike Online, Forge of Empires, Canabalt, and more.  Make no mistake, browser based interfaces for your favorite massive games will come, they're just 12 to 18 months out as of this writing.  In the meantime, you can play Golden Eye, Perfect Dark, and all your other N64 favorites from any browser Window: http://www.techspot.com/news/49822-play-nintendo-64-games-in-your-browser-using-this-new-emulator.html


Is There a Catch?

...but you pay for all of this in advertisements and in user data, right?  Your privacy is shot using a Chromebook, right?  I don't have any inside information on Google's servers and what they may or may not be monitoring, but I can honestly say that they have a massive number of settings that you can configure to limit the data that is stored about your usage.  It is possible to even configure the Chromebook to operate in guest mode (equivalent to Chrome Browser's Incognito Mode).  My privacy settings are a balance: I compromise in some places for the services I want to work (personalization and such), but try to keep the data stored on the PC and on Google's servers to a minimum, disabling things like instant search and search history.

If you are a privacy advocate, you are probably looking at a traditional PC or a Mac.  However, it is possible to configure ChromeOS to block all ads, cookies, and other tracking devices, and to set third-party privacy centric search solutions and such to further protect your privacy.  Long story short, in the author's opinion, ChromeOS is more secure than MacOS, Windows, and Linux, simply because it is so lightweight that there is less software for hackers to compromise.  The risk for privacy breach is far greater on an Amazon Kindle, a smartphone, or especially a Windows PC.  ChromeOS collects by default much of the same information that these devices collect, but it is the only Operating System I've seen that gives you an interface to easily disable that data collection in a single place.

A final note, my cheap Samsung's wireless card has been amazing, picking up far off networks at all of my local haunts that my year old Kindle Fire tablet could never find, even with just WiFi and no 3G.  Also, buy a wireless mouse pretty much the same day you get the Chromebook, you'll want it.

Left Out

I completely left our ChromeOS' "Chrome Remote" features in this review.  Suffice to say, those who wish to use their Chromebook to access applications and data on a "real" computer have plenty of options and computing power to do so.




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