This article looks at the pros and cons of Chromebooks - primarily for businesses, but if you're thinking about getting one for home use, you may find the post of interest too.
Because of the nature of the work I do, and the nature of the times we live in, I seem to have devices coming out of my ears. Depending on where I'm working, I switch between an iMac, a Windows laptop, an iPhone and an iPad, but one thing I've noticed about all these devices is that a hell of a lot of what I'm doing on them is now being done in Chrome (particularly as far as the iMac and laptop are concerned). Increasingly I seem to be neglecting Word, Outlook, Excel and so on (all installed Microsoft products) in favour of online, cloud-based equivalents (mostly Google products) that run via a browser. This observation, coupled with some adverts featuring shiny computers on Facebook (after all, Facebook knows I like shiny computers), got me wondering about Chromebooks and whether you could run a business on one. This in turn naturally led to me buying a Chromebook and writing a blog post about the whole bloody thing. On a Chromebook.
But before we get to all that, let's discuss what a Chromebook actually is.
What is a Chromebook?
A Chromebook is essentially a laptop that you use primarily when you are online, and one that you don't really save files onto. Nearly everything - word processing, spreadsheet-eyeballing, note-taking and no doubt other dubious activities - is done online via Google's Chrome browser and pretty much everything you produce is saved onto the 'cloud'. This means that Chromebooks generally don't come with much storage and don't require a particularly fast processor...which in turn makes them very cheap compared to 'normal' computers.
Chromebooks run Chrome OS, a stripped-back, Linux-based operating system which revolves mainly around the Chrome browser. Although an increasing number of apps which also work offline are now available for it, the idea is that most of what you do on a device running Chrome OS is done via the Chrome browser while you're hooked up to the internet.
But what does all that mean when it comes to running a business with these new-fangled machines?
The pros of using Chromebooks for business
Chromebooks can lower your IT costs
Chromebooks have the potential to lower IT costs in a few ways. Firstly, and for the reasons discussed above, they are much cheaper to buy than 'normal' computers. I'm typing this on a machine that cost me just £129 (albeit in a sale, but you can definitely pick a decent enough machine up for less than £200). My mid-range Windows laptop cost four times as much as this without - when it comes to using Chrome and cloud-based software at least - being four times as good. If you apply these sort of cost differentials across a large team's computing requirements, you're talking about saving a lot of money.
Secondly, because Chromebooks do not rely on installed software, there is less of a need for an IT department to, well, install software. Or update it. Or support it. Any updates to your Chromebook and the cloud-based software you use (Google Docs etc.) are carried out regularly and automatically by Google, and if you're a Google Apps customer, you have a 24/7 Google helpdesk at your disposal too.
Thirdly, because there are no moving parts in them, Chromebooks are arguably less prone to developing mechanical faults, meaning greater reliability and longevity - and a lack of repair bills.
And finally, because your team is working in the cloud, you don't need to spend as much money on physical storage to handle networking or backups.
Chromebooks can lower your software costs
For many businesses, Google Apps for Work, Google's suite of productivity apps, is now capable of handling core computing needs - word processing, spreadsheets, email and diary management - perfectly well, and very cheaply (Google Apps for Work costs £3.30 per user per month). And if you don't want to work with Google Apps, there are cheap or even free browser-based alternatives available to you - not least a free browser-based version of Microsoft Office or the entry-level Office 365 plan, which provides you with an email account and cloud storage for £3.70 in addition to the online versions of Word, Excel, Powerpoint etc. (note: no Microsoft Access though).
On top of this, there is a saving to be made when it comes to virus protection software: it's extraordinarily hard for users to get a virus on a Chromebook (note: you can still get 'phished', which is something different). Chromebooks are generally viewed as one of the most robust systems going from a virus protection point of view - and this means that if you are running a Chromebook-based office, you can generally forget the costs associated with virus and malware protection software - or paying an IT team to clear up the mess you made on the network after you opened that attachment from that nice lady from Russia.
They can encourage collaboration and improve productivity
Because Chromebooks aren't really about installing standalone pieces of software on your computer, those using them are effectively nudged in the direction of using web apps that allow multiple users to access and edit files together in real time. This opens up a lot of collaborative possibilities and new ways of working.
Additionally, with a Chromebook, less seems to get in the way of actually doing work. Chrome OS is clutter-free, stable, and free of the 'bloat' or 'lag' that you often get with other operating systems. Chromebooks also boot up incredibly quickly (in about 5-10 seconds) and are 'instant-on' from sleep. Any system that comes with lack of distractions, delays and crashes has good implications for productivity.
If your business is cloud-based, it's hard to think of a more robust platform to work on
Whether we're talking about CRM tools like Salesforce, email clients like Gmail, accounting solutions such as Xero, e-newsletter apps such as Mailchimp or helpdesks such as Zendesk, they all have two things in common: they are examples of software titles used by millions of businesses all over the world, and they are all applications that run in a web browser. If your team access all their key tools in a web browser, then why not provide them with system that is designed explicitly for doing that? Even modest Chromebooks provide an astonishingly fast and stable environment for working with browser-based applications.
They're ideal for a workforce that moves around a lot
If your team travels a lot, then Chromebooks are an excellent option. They are generally much lighter and thinner than traditional laptops (due to the lack of moving parts). The only thing to watch out for is the lack of an internet connection: less of an issue these days, with tethering and ever improving wifi, but it is possible to hit a black spot.
The integration with Google Apps is great
Over 5 million companies use Google Apps now - if yours is one of them, then you will be hard pressed to find a nicer, more reliable way to work with this suite of products than on a Chrome OS device.
The downsides of using a Chromebook
That all sounded great didn't it? But before you rush out and by a Chromebook, there are a couple of significant downsides to consider.
You can't use Skype on them (yet)
This for me is potentially the most annoying thing about Chromebooks - far more annoying than not being able to install MS Office applications on them (we'll come to that in a minute). Sure, you can use Google Hangouts to make and receive video calls - and very good it is too - but the fact of the matter is that Skype was around a long time before Hangouts, has a huge user base and invariably, somebody in your business will need to Skype somebody at some point! It's probably worth noting that you can use Skype on Chromebook for instant messaging, but this is not going to be adequate for any business that uses Skype regularly.
You can't install Microsoft Office on Chromebooks
Whether or not this is a 'pro' or a 'con' depends on how you view the desktop MS Office products. Personally I'm starting to go off them as they feel clunky and are, in my experience at least, prone to crashes (particularly Outlook) - but nonetheless a generation has been brought up using them, which means that 1) your team will face a learning curve if you insist on them using other products and 2) you will probably need to supply content in Microsoft Office format to other organisations that you deal with.
The good news is that Google Apps is perfectly capable of creating, editing and saving MS Office files; but you should note that when it comes to editing complicated MS Office documents, you may have to watch out for formatting problems when you save your files.
Alternatively, you can always use the online version of MS Office (free or paid) on a Chromebook: whilst not providing as comprehensive a set of tools as the desktop version, it nonetheless enables you to edit most Word, Excel and Powerpoint files in a browser and without some of the formatting headaches you might occasionally run into with Google Apps. It's important to note that 'power-users' of MS Office products may still need to use the desktop versions (as certain features such as mail merges and macros are not currently available in the online versions of MS Office apps) and MS Access currently won't run in a browser. But all in all, not being able to install the desktop version of MS Office on your Chromebook shouldn't hold you back too much when it comes to document editing.
They are not ideal for working on multimedia projects
If your business is one which deals with a lot of audio or video related projects, then you are probably better off working on a traditional desktop. It's not that there aren't powerful Chromebooks available that could handle this kind of work (the i7 Chromebook Pixel, for example); it's more that the software typically used for multimedia projects - Pro Tools, Final Cut Pro etc. - is not currently browser-based.
Interestingly however, a version of Photoshop is on the way for Chromebook - a 'streamed' edition which runs on a remote server and is accessed via the Chrome browser. It's currently a beta version limited to North America-based Adobe education customers with a paid Creative Cloud membership, but should be rolled out more widely soon, along with other Adobe Creative Cloud apps. This points to the fact that Chromebooks in time, may actually end up becoming a good (or at least better) option for working on multimedia projects; it'll be interesting to see how that all pans out.
(For the record, it should be pointed out that basic image editing on a Chromebook won't pose any problems - there are plenty of simple editors available, both cloud-based and offline.)
They are (obviously) not as functional offline
Chromebooks are for obvious reasons less useful offline than online - but you still use them to access and edit Google Drive files when you're not connected to the internet, and you can use an offline version of Gmail too. An increasing number of other apps which work offline are being made available for Chrome OS too; so long as you plan things in advance, and make sure you save the right files onto your Chromebook before you go offline, you should still be able to get a decent amount of work done when you are not connected to the internet.
What about Chromeboxes, Chromebases and Chromebits?
Chromeboxes are essentially the desktop version of Chromebooks: tiny little boxes that run Chrome OS and are reminiscent of a Mac Mini or an Apple TV box. You generally have to sort yourself out with a keyboard, mouse, and monitor when you buy one, but they are still much cheaper than traditional desktop machines.
Chromebases are 'all in one' computers that run Chrome OS; they look something like of the current generation of iMacs.
And finally, there's soon going to be the Chromebit to consider - a dongle that just plugs into the HDMI port on a television and turns your telly into a computer. Remarkably funky stuff.
The pros and cons of doing business on a Chromebook generally apply to using any of the above Chrome OS devices - assuming Chrome OS works for your business, you just have to make a call on the appropriate form factor.
Summary: pros and cons of using Chromebooks in your business
- Chromebooks are very cheap by comparison to traditional laptops
- Chrome OS is fast and stable
- Machines are typically light, compact and great for those who work on the move
- Viruses and malware pose less of a risk
- They can reduce reliance on an IT support team and lower software costs
- The integration with Google Apps is excellent.
- You can't Skype on Chromebooks
- Whilst you can use Microsoft Office on them (the online version), some features will not be available (mail merge functionality being perhaps a key one)
- They are not ideal for multimedia applications
- Working offline on a Chromebook arguably requires a bit more advance planning than using a traditional laptop
- If your business is very dependent on a piece of software that does not run in a browser or on Chrome OS, Chromebooks are not for you.