Should I buy a Chromebook in 2019

Chromebook instead of Windows: How to switch without (major) loss of comfort

If you want to switch from Windows to a Chromebook, that brings changes of course. Although some prejudices are no longer true, which still persist. Let's straighten them first, hopefully once and for all:

  • Chrome OS has a file system, you can save pictures, documents, videos and audio files in the local memory and with a few simple steps you can also access the system. The days when you could only store files in the Google cloud are long gone.
  • Chromebooks have long been working too offline. The notebook synchronizes files from Google Drive, for example, so that you can access and edit documents and spreadsheets even without internet access. Images via third-party apps or the built-in image viewer, too, of course.
  • The system supports most external hardware such as USB sticks, hard drives or USB microphones out of the box without any further installation. You can also print via Chrome OS.
  • Since the integration of Google Play there has been thousands upon thousands of appsthat run on more modern Chromebooks and of course can also access the system's hardware. Gone are the days when Chrome OS apps were little more than better websites.
  • Chromebooks are no longer limited to weak hardware, even if many models still address the low-cost market. There has long been Mid-range or even high-end notebooks like the Google Pixelbook Go, Acer 714 and Asus Chromebook Flip C434 and Flip C436 presented or tested by us. These are also available with Intel Core processors, up to 16 GB RAM and with several hundred GB hard drives.

The question that remains is whether a Chromebook can offer the same level of convenience as Windows or macOS. You have to make a few compromises under Chrome OS, but otherwise nothing stands in the way of an experience like under one of the well-known desktop systems. Sometimes, however, a little tinkering is necessary. 5 exemplary examples of what we have done to adapt an Asus Chromebook Flip C436 to our needs.

Use Firefox as the main browser on Chrome OS

Maybe your favorite browser is not Google Chrome, but Firefox. You can also install alternative browsers on Chrome OS via the Google Play Store. However, these are stripped-down mobile browsers that do not offer the same level of convenience.

And so we grabbed the Linux version of Firefox for Chrome OS. Chrome OS has supported Linux since the beginning of 2019 (version 69). The so-called Project Crostini runs a Debian-based Linux in a virtual machine under Chrome OS. On newer Chromebooks (sometimes only after activation) you will find the folder “Linux Apps” in the apps with the only application “Terminal”, into which you have to type in commands by hand. There is currently no graphical user interface, but there are good introductions on the web, which you can install via the terminal apps.

We install Flatpak, a kind of app store for Linux, with two commands from the terminal. You can't see anything of it, but it works in the background and lets you install apps by hand:

As soon as this is done and the Chromebook has restarted, you can also install Firefox using Flatpak with a command:

Firefox then appears in the "Linux Apps" directory and after opening it also in the Chrome OS app storage, where you can pin it and start it quickly from there later. On stronger hardware, you as a user will in the best case not even notice that Chrome OS treats the app differently than others. It opens and closes the same way.

The virtualized Firefox does not look much different than known from other desktop systems. The app accesses the WLAN without any problems, Firefox Sync is activated quickly, tabs open, close and load without noticeable delays. A few "mirages" only appear when scrolling. The context menu is blackened until we hover over it with the mouse. Sound appears as usual and can also be streamed via Bluetooth. However, the virtualized Firefox cannot access a microphone, the webcam or files from the main directory - the only small loss of comfort in our solution.

You can also install other apps such as Spotify via Flatpak. Or browsers like Opera and Vivaldi. The description of each app also tells you which commands you can type into the terminal for installation or simply copy and paste.

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Use Steam on Chrome OS

The Steam game library is also available for Linux, albeit with a limited range of functions compared to Windows, and not infrequently with problems. Nevertheless, we now want to bring Steam to the Chromebook via Linux for our test. This can also be done via Flatpak with the simple command:

You then start Steam from the terminal, whereupon the app installs some things and possibly requires a restart. Our registration succeeds, but Steam crashes the first time we try to enlarge the window (which luckily does not happen again afterwards). Games from your library, provided they are compatible with Linux, can then be downloaded with one click.

It is almost a bit surprising that our first test game "Don’t Starve" opens reliably without grumbling, the music plays, control via the mouse is no problem and there is no noticeable delay in the gameplay. The game can be played on our test device Asus Chromebook Flip C436 with an Intel Core i5 of the 10th generation as well as under Linux or macOS and is stable.

Even our second test game, "This War of Mine", which actually crashed after a few seconds on Linux, flickers a little in our test on the Chromebook, but otherwise can be played without any problems. Passed the test. Steam on our Chromebook works the same as it does on Linux.

Adobe programs on Chrome OS

In relevant forums there is a mundane "nope" from Adobe when asked whether Adobe Creative Suite also runs on Linux or Chrome OS. You need Windows or macOS for this. So under Chrome OS you have two options:

1. Adobe apps for Google Play and thus also for Chrome OS. There are some Adobe apps optimized for mobile systems available here, such as Illustrator Draw, Photoshop Mobile, Photoshop Sketch, Photoshop Mix, Spark Post, Comp or Lightroom. After you register, they are free of charge and for the most part belong to the better rated apps in the Google Play Store. Of course, they do not offer the same range of functions as the well-known desktop apps.

2. Alternatives to Adobe programs. Krita, a painting program like Illustrator, was recently released as a beta for Android tablets and Chrome OS. Snapseed from Google works quite well as image processing under Chrome OS, other similar apps that you can find in the Play Store are AirBrush and VSCO. We brought gThumb to the Chromebook via Linux virtualization. There are numerous alternatives, you just have to do a little research for them.

Conference apps on Chrome OS

Conference apps like Zoom (available from the Play Store) and Microsoft Teams have been on everyone's lips since the Corona crisis. There is an Android app for teams. When we want to dial into a conference call among colleagues on Teams, the system switches to a Chrome browser tab. So it doesn't work entirely without Chrome ...

For our audio setup, we connect Apple AirPods to the Chromebook as a headset via Bluetooth. At the same time, we use a table microphone via an external USB sound card, which we in turn connect to the Chromebook Flip C436 with a USB-A to USB-C adapter. Chrome OS recognizes both devices and lets you separate the audio source and output in the settings.

Further tests with Zoom and Google Meet also succeed without any problems. Even with a Chromebook, you are not excluded from conference calls with colleagues or family.

Split sound output

We are currently preparing the start of a podcast for the trend blog. The team meets virtually on Discord while everyone records their own audio track - that's the plan. However, the AudioRec app does not allow us to access the microphone on the first try, while Discord is using it at the same time. We didn't get the problem solved in the settings.

As is so often the case with Chrome OS, the solution is just another app away. When we repeated the same experiment with the WaveEditor app, the simultaneous recording of our own audio track succeeded without any problems. The system therefore allows several apps to access the microphone at the same time. It's just a matter of the app.

Microsoft 365 / Office for Chromebooks

If you want or have to use Microsoft 365 on a Chromebook, you are faced with a similar situation as with Adobe. The large software package is only available for Windows and Mac. Under Chrome OS you have to make do with single versions.

So you can get Word, Excel or Powerpoint from the Google Play Store. You only have the option to view documents free of charge. But if you already have a Microsoft 365 account, you can edit the files or create new ones. Almost as it would be possible on a Windows PC. The other app Microsoft Office is meanwhile a kind of hub for your documents. All Android apps that Microsoft provides are optimized for smartphones. They also work on your Chromebook (newer type), even if they don't offer the most beautiful display here.

An almost better solution is the Office extension for Chrome, which you can download from the Chrome Web Store. Here you can create and edit Office documents directly in a browser tab or access your OneDrive folder. The whole thing even works without registration.

The best alternative to Microsoft 365 on Chromebooks is of course Google Drive with access to Google Docs and Spreadsheets - an entire office package that Google hosts in the cloud. WPS Office, OfficeSuite and Polaris Office would be other office solutions that you can download from the Play Store.

Another, experimental way would be to bring LibreOffice to the Chromebook via Linux. In the test, we succeeded in installing it very easily using the terminal:

After that, LibreOffice is not particularly useful. Buttons are blackened, and the presentation program not only crashes, but also pulls the entire Linux virtualization into the abyss with it.

Proprietary software on Chrome OS

If you want or need to run a specific app on the Chromebook, try the following first:

  • First look at the Google Play Store to. It is now an integral part of Chrome OS. Almost every app from there also runs on Chromebooks. Often there are at least scaled-down versions of large software solutions for Android and thus Chrome OS.
  • If not, then maybe there is Linux version app, which you can install on Chrome OS. There are even Linux apps for proprietary software such as Spotify, Slack, Telegram, Microsoft Teams or Discord. As described above, installing them on a Chromebook is not that easy for laypeople. But there are good instructions on how to do this on the net.
  • Ask in your IT. Maybe you know your colleagues there Alternatives for the programs used, which you can also use under Chrome OS or at least virtualized over Linux.
  • Look for alternatives yourself. For example, you've always worked with Photoshop so far, but simple image editing options are enough for you? Then you could switch to Snapseed, Photoshop Express or Linux solutions such as Shotwell, Gimp or gThumb. You need a writing program and spreadsheet, but it doesn't have to be Office? Then take a look at Google Drive.

Conclusion: Almost like at home

Can a Chromebook be a permanent solution? Our experiment shows: everything still doesn't work and what works isn't always as stylish as on other systems. But it is always more possible, and you can almost feel at home with it.

The hardware “to blame” for the fact that our experiment worked so well: We tested the Asus Chromebook Flip C436 as the best Chromebook of all time. It offers high-end hardware with either an Intel Core i5 or Core i7 from the 10th 3rd generation, up to 512 GB of memory and up to 16 GB of RAM. With this dream configuration, the hardware is always strong enough for fast Linux virtualization.

Asus Chromebook Flip C436 in the test: The best Chromebook of all time

If you want to do the same, you have to show some flexibility in the app selection, ignore one or the other advertising banner in some apps and also not add to the system if there are sometimes only fluffy smartphone apps to choose from . If you don't mind any of that, then with Chrome OS you have a wonderfully minimalistic, powerful system.

If you have a certain app that you are wondering if it or a comparable solution is also available for Chrome OS, write it to us in the comments! We will then try to help you.

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