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Hands-on: Offline Google Docs makes a better Chromebook

Google's finally introducing more offline capabilities in Chrome OS, starting with Google Docs. It works as promised in Samsung's latest Chromebook, but Chrome needs a lot more offline apps to succeed.

Working offline on the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook got a little easier. Sarah Tew/CNET

OK, I'll admit it. I was a little harsh when I reviewed the newest Google Chromebook from Samsung. Why? Because no matter how snappy or quick-booting the Chromebook feels, it's a computer that needs an online connection for most apps. Or, it was.

Now that version 20 of the Chrome browser has been released and Chrome OS 20 is also available, a key app update to Google Drive enables offline Google Docs editing and writing, a feature I sorely missed when I reviewed the system. Now it's here, bearing promises of finally taking Chromebooks where they've never easily gone before: offline.

So, how does the Chromebook work when offline using Chrome OS? Well, consider this: I wrote this entire post offline on a Samsung Series 5 500 Chromebook with Google Drive offline, then reconnected afterward. So, mission accomplished. Yes, I could end up losing this post, but I didn't (I hope).

Enabling offline Google Docs via the Chrome browser. Screenshot by Scott Stein

The newest version of Chrome OS is automatically updated on the Chromebook, no installations needed. It also works on any Chrome browser on a computer. Discovering how to go offline is a little trickier: you need to click the gear icon in Google Drive and click "enable offline."

Google Docs Offline is currently listed as being "in beta," but Google always keeps perfectly good services (like Gmail) in beta forever despite them feeling good to go for many. Google Docs doesn't support spreadsheets, but for basic text editing it's working quite well.

Clicking the gear settings icon reveals the "Activate offline (beta)" setting, after which all your Google Docs documents (I had 100) sync for offline use. And, that's it. I was able to load and edit any of these docs offline, and even create new ones. I tried closing all windows, shutting down, and signing on again offline, and new edits and text remained. Going back online triggers a message box, and you have to click to reconnect and sync with your online documents. The result was seamless.

Documents are resynced automatically the next time you're online, so any changes are incorporated. This paragraph was written online; the previous ones were written offline. I was able to work on this blog post without the Internet.

I want to use the Chromebook offline. Sarah Tew/CNET

Does this change the use case of the Chromebook? Yes, it begins to. My biggest complaint about the Chromebook is its general lack of offline functionality, for which I feel there's no excuse. iPads, laptops, phones, and plenty of other devices work perfectly well offline. Google Drive offline in version 20 of Chrome OS is a start. It turns the Chromebook, at long last, into a true word processor...albeit one with limitations and bugs.

Working offline shouldn't be a revelation, but in an always-online device like the Chromebook, solving this simple problem will enable this laptop to suddenly vault into becoming a very real Netbook alternative for many. (The next challenge, of course, is price -- no one's going to want to spend $500 for one of these.) I'm holding back on reviewing the Chromebook again until Chrome OS goes through a few more updates, but suffice it to say that experiencing Offline Google Docs is the most promising Chromebook moment I've had. It doesn't make the Chromebook a must-buy gadget by any stretch (especially not at a price in the $500 range), but it's beginning to make the Chromebook far more versatile.