Living with Chromebook: Can you use it to actually get work done?

The Chromebook challenge continues with productivity and workplace tests in Part 2 of our series.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
9 min read

In the first part of our Living with Chromebook series, I outlined the initial hardware and account setup required to use a laptop running Google's Chrome OS. In this second installment, the focus is on productivity.

For my long-form Chromebook test-drive, I'm spending most of my computing time with the HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook. Like the smaller 11- and 12-inch Chromebooks we've reviewed, it operates almost entirely within the Chrome Web browser, which looks and feels the same as the Chrome Web browser you may be using right now on your Windows or Mac OS computer.

That makes for a familiar experience in some ways, as many of us have already moved large swaths of our lives online, into Web-based tools such as Gmail, Facebook, and Netflix. More than most, I've embraced cloud services for as many things as possible, primarily because reviewing laptops means moving into a brand-new, fresh-from-the-box PC at least once or twice a week.

Working in the cloud
If you're anywhere near as invested in cloud services as I am, then the transition to a Chromebook should hypothetically be fairly painless. Most of the things you want to do -- send e-mail, share via social-networking services, stream online video -- are available on a Chrome OS device, and largely work the same way as on a traditional OS.

That said, there's still a natural resistance to this type of Web-only setup. Maybe the idea that in a traditional PC there's a desktop lying underneath it all is a comforting one. Perhaps traditional folders-and-file systems are a security blanket, because despite having used Chromebooks before this, I found being locked into a browser-only world still felt confining, especially for office work -- documents, spreadsheets, and folders of files nestled within each other.

That's no doubt why the Chrome OS now has a more pronounced (if still rudimentary) file system than the very first Chromebooks did, making it possible to save and easily access files. This Hewlett-Packard model only includes 16GB of solid-state drive (SSD) storage, but Acer's C7 Chromebook includes a standard 320GB platter hard drive. In either case, photo, music, and video files can all be stored and sorted there, by downloading online or sideloading from a USB drive or SD card. Consider it all to be backups for the versions "in the cloud," for those times when you can't get online.

Image and video files on the Chrome OS hard drive.

Do you need always-on Internet?
While the original pitch for the Chromebook was that this would be an always-on device, connected to either Wi-Fi or mobile broadband, that idea seems to have fallen by the wayside. The HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook, for example, does not include a 3G antenna, something found in the original Google Chromebook, as well as the Samsung Chromebook Series 5 550. Google's high-end Pixel model even offers a 4G LTE version. But the bundled wireless service always comes with an asterisk; in the case of the 4G Pixel -- which is $250 more than the Wi-Fi-only version -- it's this: 100MB per month for two years of mobile broadband from Verizon Wireless. In other words, it's way too paltry to do anything substantive.

Perhaps sensing that always-on broadband isn't going to always work for sub-$400 laptops, Google now emphasizes the offline capabilities of Chrome, which are largely tied in to the offline modes that have been built into Google's various tools, such as Google Docs, over the years.

The offline-ready apps in the Chrome Web Store.

A few other Chrome-compatible Web tools also work offline, and Google has set aside a section of its Chrome Web Store (really just a dressed-up set of links to Chrome OS versions of web sites) to make them easier to find.

Google Drive as office suite
I'll let you in on a little secret. I've been using Google Drive (nee "Google Docs") as my main word processor for a few years now, and it's such a useful, well-maintained online tool that the benefits far outweigh a few significant shortcomings. For that reason, using Google Drive on a Chromebook was a natural transition for me, and one of the elements of Chromebook use that felt the most comparable to using a non-Chrome OS laptop.

Like nearly all writers, I spent years using Microsoft Word on both Windows and OS X systems. It's still the default for word processing, and DOC and DOCX are still universal file formats (fortunately, Google Drive allows you to open and export these formats).

But, reviewing new laptops all the time, I was setting up a new system once or twice a week at least, which often made using these new laptops for writing a pain. Microsoft now has an ad-supported "free" version of Word that comes preinstalled on some (but not all) laptops, but previously, if you were lucky you had a trial version, or else nothing at all. Very often, I ended up either installing OpenOffice (a free, if clunky, office suite), or digging up an old install disc for Office 2003. Even under the best of circumstances, I had to remember to e-mail myself the latest version of my Word doc, or sneakernet it around on a USB stick. (Nowadays, I'd store the documents on Dropbox, Amazon Cloud Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive, or the like, but I'd still be stuck installing the word processing software itself.)

So many of the work tools we use now are online and collaborative that it's hard to remember when that wasn't the norm, but when I started using Google Drive in earnest in 2009 it was a major change to my workflow. Even now, on the HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook, I can open any document I've been working on from another laptop, add some text, and then seamlessly switch back to the first laptop at any point. It's also easy to share docs with anyone else via a few button clicks -- and multiple authorized users can access and edit a document in real time (which is something you may or may not want).

Working on a document in Google Docs.

Google Drive works best for simple text-based documents with minimal formatting. You can add images, tables, and other design elements, but these are not as full-featured as in Microsoft Office, and don't always translate as one might expect when exporting to a DOC file.

Another thing that drives me crazy about Google Drive is the lack of a "show hidden characters" command in its word processor. That's not something everyone uses, but for writers, especially those who got their start in print publishing, being able to see every tab, paragraph break, and even the spaces between characters is important. I've learned to live without it, but it's still my least favorite part of the Google Drive experience.

The presentation and spreadsheet apps included with Google Drive are somewhat less successful. My needs for XLS files are limited, but even then I've run out of available columns and been forced to start a new tab in a spreadsheet. In fact, all the Google Drive apps have size and complexity limitations, and you can find more details about that here. Those are limitations to the actual Google Drive platform, not something specific to Chrome OS or the Chromebook.

Another option for Microsoft Office purists is Office 365, the cloud-based version of Office. It's a paid service, not all features work in Chrome OS, and it doesn't facilitate the easy sharing that Google Docs does with anyone who has a free Gmail account.

It may be something you'll need to use every day, but I've had good luck exporting Google Docs files into the PDF format (it's a setting built right in to Google Docs under File > Download as), and the file browser in Chrome OS can open PDF files for easy reading.

One handy thing to keep in mind is that most Google Drive files can be accessed even when your Chromebook (or other PC) is offline. But, you have to set up the offline mode for your account first by following the instructions here. Gmail also has an offline mode, and you can find more apps and features that work on an offline Chromebook in this special section of the Chrome Web Store (of course, you'll have to be online to see this list).

Using a mouse, printer, and other peripherals
One of the big problems I had with the less-expensive Chromebooks from Samsung and Acer has been the terrible touch pads built into those systems. I don't care if your laptop cost less than $200, if the touch pad is unusable, you're just not going to be productive on it.

The touch pad on the $329 HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook is a bit better, but still not even as good as the touch pads found on budget Windows laptops. It was passable for basic Web surfing, but if you plan on using your Chromebook for more than a couple of hours at a time, an external mouse is recommended.

Fortunately, despite not having any way to install drivers or dive into the deeper functions of pointing devices, I had good luck getting external devices to work. Both the wireless Microsoft mouse and the external Logitech touch pad I tried worked instantly, both via USB dongle (a second wireless mouse, from Targus, did not work).

Printing is a little more complicated. You'll need to use a service Google calls Cloud Print. That works one of two ways. The less likely scenario is that you already own one of a handful of Cloud-Print-ready printers, in which case you should be able to connect easily if you're on the same network. More likely, you have what Google generously refers to as a "classic printer," in which case, you have to run a Cloud Print app on a separate Windows or OS X machine, and from there, connect to your Chromebook.

This is about as far from the simple, stripped-down appeal of Chromebooks and the Chrome OS as one could imagine.

That said, when I followed the steps outlined in this support doc from Google, the Cloud Print feature worked the first time I tried it.

Workaround apps
If your job involves only e-mail, text documents, and simple spreadsheets, moving to a Chromebook may well be a very simple transition for you, especially if you already make use of Google's online tools.

If, however, you have occasional need for programs such as Photoshop, you're going to have to find a workaround. There actually are a few basic image-editing features built into Chrome OS, but if you need to do more than adjust the rotation or brightness and contrast of an image, you'll hit a wall very quickly.

I've always used a Web-based tool named Pixlr for emergency photo edits. It's a cloud-based image editor that looks and feels a lot like Photoshop. You upload an image, edit it, then download the resulting file. It works well enough in a pinch, although if you're a heavy Photoshop user, a Chromebook just isn't for you.

I found Pixlr listed in the Chrome Web Store, but "installing" the app really just takes you to the Pixlr Web site. Similar online tools, including some basic video editors, can be found in the Creative Tools section of the Chrome Web Store. One caveat, especially if you're working with big images: remember that you'll have to both upload and redownload the image file, so make sure you have the time and bandwidth to work that way before you count on an online app such as Pixlr.

You can be productive on a Chromebook, sometimes
As an on-the-go system for catching up on e-mail (especially if you use Gmail or Google's corporate e-mail services), and creating or editing basic office documents, a Chromebook works, and works well considering the less-than-$250 investment (for the Samsung Chromebook Series 3, the most affordable Chromebook CNET can recommend).

That said, it does not excel in any particular area, and even a budget Windows laptop offers more flexibility and the ability to run more software. Even if you only need a particular app once in a great while, unless there's an online version that works in the Chrome browser, you're out of luck.

Here's what worked:

  • Google Drive/Google Docs works the same as it does on non-Chrome PCs
  • Having cloud-based documents makes it easy to share and access documents on multiple PCs
  • Many mice and other accessories are plug-and-play
  • Offline access to some features helps the Chromebook be more universally useful

Here's what didn't:

  • You're stuck with second-rate online alternatives to programs such as Photoshop
  • Setting up a printer is a hassle
  • Google Docs lacks many of the bells and whistles of Microsoft Office

In the next Living with Chromebook installment, we'll look at entertainment options in Chrome OS, from streaming video to games.