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New Offline Gmail, Docs won't save Chromebooks

Google may have restored offline access to e-mail, docs, and calendars, but limitations abound.

Offline, Google Docs are view only.
Screenshot by Joshua Goldman/CNET

To say Chromebooks--laptops running on Google's browser-based Chrome OS--become less useful without an Internet connection is an understatement. Even just a flaky wireless connection makes using one frustrating, never mind having no connection at all.

To correct some of that, Google's been working on offline Gmail and Docs access and, after months of delay, it finally made it a reality. Sort of.

To get access to your Gmail, you'll have to install an Offline Gmail app from the Chrome Web Store. Once installed you'll need to allow your mail to sync with the Chrome browser's storage on the Chromebook. This makes your e-mail potentially accessible to other users; that's not good if you bought or planned to buy a Chromebook as a public or shared computer.

This wouldn't be so bad if Google hadn't hyped the platform's flexibility for shared computing, but it did, so it is. Still, it probably won't be a deal breaker for most users. What might be, though, is that you don't get all of your e-mail. Instead, it's synched by date, downloading approximately 500 messages or about three days to a week's worth.

There are several other limitations, but on a positive note, the app will allow you to read and write messages, respond to others' messages, apply labels and stars, and archive messages. Once you have a connection, offline actions will sync. Sadly, the offline features for Calendar and Docs are not as, um, robust.

With Calendar you can view events from your calendars and RSVP to appointments, but you can't enter new appointments. Docs is even worse: everything is view only, so you can forget about creating new documents or editing existing ones. This is particularly unpleasant if you're in the middle of working and lose your Internet connection, suddenly finding yourself unable to continue working or save what you've got.

And this is just for documents and spreadsheets; things like presentations remain inaccessible.

So, in the end, even with its new offline abilities, a Chromebook is still incredibly crippled without a Web connection. Until Google can offer up full, seamless offline productivity apps, they aren't worth the trouble and you'd be better off with a comparably priced Windows Netbook or laptop--even if you just want something for couch use.