Google Chromebooks are they worth it
Learn how to get started with chromebooks and what you can do to get the very most out of them.
Techies have had a new question put to them lately alongside the usual requests for free IT support, and it's along these lines: Are these cheap Google Chromebooks any good?' It's an impossible question to answer, of course, but it's also more important that it might appear. After all, the days of the Windows monopoly are coming to an end. The IT world is shifting on its axis.

Google Chromebooks from various manufacturers topped the laptop best-seller list last Christmas at Amazon, and they did the same during Christmas 2012 too. Let's take a moment to digest that startling fact. More people bought Chromebooks than they did Windows laptops. Or for that matter, Apple laptops. As you read this, Chromebooks are out in the wild, being used in homes, cafes and workplaces (although we should be careful not to get too carried away recent figures suggest Chrome OS accounts for only 0.2 % of web traffic, beaten in the count even by lowly desktop Linux, which gets 1.9%. Chromebooks might be selling well, but there are still a lot of PCs and Macs out there).

Chromebooks are getting, so popular that here at AdminsPoint we figured it's time we gave them a good look over with a thorough introductory guide. Read below to learn what you're in for if you get one, how to get started and what you can do to get the very most out of them.

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Chromebook what is It?
A Chromebook is simply Google's suggestion for one way of accessing its services. It's as if McDonalds has started making a car designed specifically for its drive through. You can use any car to access the drive-through or McDonald's own car, and it doesn't really care. All it cares about is people using the drive-through.

There's a real operating system underneath everything. It's called Chrome OS, and it's mostly Linux. But you don't see any Linuxy stuff, and Chrome OS works and looks totally unlike Ubuntu or any other distro. A more accurate description would be to call Chrome OS an operating platform, because all it runs is the Google Chrome browser. There are a few additional bits and pieces such as an apps menu, taskbar (called the 'shelf') and a very rudimentary file manager, but these too are coded in web programming languages like HTML and JavaScript. Even the desktop, whose purpose is simply to display wallpaper, runs as a special kind of browser window.

Despite this, there is actually a separate Chrome browser app, and it's almost exactly the same as the desktop version. However, in Chrome OS it's central to the Chromebook experience. It makes available Google's services, such as Gmail or Google Docs or Picasa, and also everyday browsing. Users even alter hardware settings via a web page in the browser. The start menu/apps menu system is merely a token gesture for familiarity, and clicking the Google Drive link on the apps menu, for example, does nothing more than open Google Drive in a new Chrome tab. (And it's worth noting that desktop versions of the Chrome browser for PC and Mac comes with their own apps menu nowadays, added to the taskbar in Windows when you install new apps, and it works in an almost identical way; run Chrome in Windows 8's Metro mode and it's virtually indistinguishable from Chrome OS.)
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Some apps run in their own windows rather than a Chrome tab, but these are really just browser windows in disguise, stripped of their tool bar, tabs and status bar. There are two types of computer that run Chrome OS: Chromebook laptops, and Chromebook desktops. The latter are small PCs around the same dimensions as five stacked CD cases, and they're sold without a keyboard, mouse or monitor. They're broadly the same as Chromebook laptops internally but tend to be slightly more powerful.

And it’s with hardware specifications that Chromebooks get a little crazy for anybody used to traditional computing (which is surely all of us). Purchasers of Chromebooks have to choose between models containing an ARM CPU, just like those found in tablet computers and mobile phones or models containing a traditional Intel x86 chip ARM was chosen because of its lower power requirements and, combined with the use of solid-state storage rather than rotational disks, this means Chromebooks typically have a battery life of nine to ten hours.

It used to be the case that Intel-based Chromebooks lagged behind this, but that gap is closing. Indeed, we used a Hewlett Packard Chromebook 14 to write this piece, which relies on a Haswell Celeron chip, and its battery life was simply stunning for an Intel machine - 9.5 hours is quoted, and it was very strange to watch the battery life indicator barely change across hours of use.

Modest Specifications

Chromebooks are modest elsewhere within the typical specification list: two or four gigabytes of RAM are average, and 8GB or 16GB solid-state disks. The BIOS is non-standard and built to run Chrome OS, as well as recover the system in the event of a disaster.

But you're not supposed to be looking at specification lists. That's old-world thinking. If you worry that the hard disk is too small, then you've missed the point. No software installations there, and the intention is that you'll store your stuff in the 100GB of Google Drive space that comes free with all Chromebooks (although only for two years). If you want music or movies, you're supposed to stream them via the Google Play Music or Movies & TV stores.
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And that leads us directly to the biggest shock Chromebooks present for the unwary PC user. Chromebooks expect to be online all the time. Some apps will just about work without an internet connection, such as Google Drive and Gmail, but only if you install the offline access browser extensions, just as you would in ordinary Chrome. Additionally, rudimentary offline viewing software is built into Chrome OS so you can view pictures and movies stored on the disk and listen to music. You can even view/edit docs when offline in a very basic way via the built-in Quick Office plug-in. But most apps simply aren't designed to work if you don't have an internet connection.

The requirement to be always online is fine if you're at your home or (perhaps) workplace, but you'll have to make sure the cafe you're in has Wi-Fi, and working on a train will require tethering to a mobile phone for the whole journey (good luck keeping a consistent strong signal !).

It's worth reiterating that when you click to install most apps, you're not installing anything other than a link to the app website, where it runs as a web service. A good example is the Plants vs Zombie game. Once installed, clicking the app on the apps menu bounces you to the website where the game runs via the Adobe Flash plug-in. That same site is accessible from any computer, anywhere.

Some apps depend on installing a few bits of code or materials in the storage area. One game I installed added around 300MB of data, for example, and some apps rely on browser extensions that must be installed. But it's no longer supposed to matter what's stored where. Who cares where the apps run? All that matters in the world of Chromebooks is being able to do stuff.


Getting Started with Chrome OS
First boot of a Chromebook will prompt you for your Wi-Fi password. You've no choice here; either you configure a connection or you've just bought an expensive digital picture frame that only ever shows a single wallpaper image.

Next, you'll be prompted for your Google username and password, and offered the chance to set up an account if shock horror! You don't have one. If you have a basic Gmail or Picasa account, then the same login details can be used (and a notable aspect of using a Chromebook is that there's no requirement to 'upgrade' to Google+). This stage is skippable by selecting the guest browsing option, but this merely turns the Chromebook temporarily into an internet kiosk. You can browse, but all data is wiped when the machine is rebooted. You won't be able to install apps either. (Usefully the same guest account is available at boot time even after an account has been configured.)

Once the Chromebook is up and running, 'apps' are started by tapping the menu button at the bottom left of the screen or on buttons pinned to the 'shelf (i.e. taskbar). These either spawn a new tab in Chrome or spawn an independent window sans any window decorations.

The touch pad uses gestures for scrolling - bunch two fingers together and drag up and down or left and right. Right-clicking is achieved by tapping two fingers on the touchpad, while dragging an item is achieved by clicking a file with a single tap, then dragging a second finger on the touchpad so that the item moves to where you want it to go. You can move back and forth within the browser history by quickly swiping left and right with two fingers.

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Wi-Fi and Bluetooth settings can be tweaked by clicking the clock at the bottom right of the Chrome OS desktop, where you can also alter the main volume, log out and view the estimated time left for the battery charge. Clicking the Settings option here opens the main settings menu in Chrome - something that can also be done by clicking the menu icon in the Chrome browser (to the right of the URL field) and selecting the Settings option.

Changing the wallpaper can be done in the usual way by right-clicking the desktop and selecting the Set Wallpaper option. New wallpaper images are stored online, however, so this is another task that simply can't be done offline. Right clicking the desktop also lets you move the taskbar/shelf to the left or right of the screen, and activate auto hiding, so that it only appears when the mouse cursor is at the bottom of the screen.

Adding Apps in Chromebook’s Chrome OS
There's no CD/DVD drive on any Chromebook, and although there are usually USB sockets for attaching removable storage devices, the only approved way to install software is via the Chrome web store. Chromebooks take a leaf out of the book of tablets and phones in this sense, but pay attention to the nomenclature there - you're booted off to the Chrome web store and not the Google Play store.

This is the same web store you'll see when installing extensions or apps in the standard Chrome browser running on Windows. There's no getting away from the fact the Chrome web store falls into a distant fourth place behind the iOS, Android and even Windows app stores.

Removing apps is simply a matter of finding the icon on the apps menu, then right-clicking it and selecting Uninstall. Updates are handled automatically. For apps this simply isn't a concern, because you're visiting an online service that's centrally updated by its developers, so there's unlikely to be anything to update on your machine. System updates and updates to extensions are handled automatically and invisibly in the background.

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Unsurprisingly, Google's apps are the best jumping-off point to explore the world of apps, and if you find using them annoying or obtuse, then you might be incompatible with the whole Chromebook approach.

Peripherals
Printing introduces a curious Chromebook limitation. Attach a printer to a Chromebook and it won't be installed. In fact, no Chromebook can use a directly attached printer. Instead, you must use Google Cloud Print, a method of sharing network attached printers.

Some printers have Cloud Print built in (check the spec list), but in most instances using Cloud Print means sharing a printer already attached to a PC, Mac or Linux. To do this, you have to use the Chrome browser running on that computer, which can be done by clicking the menu icon within Chrome on the PC, selecting Settings, then selecting the Advanced Settings option, subsequently clicking the Manage Print Settings button will show the option to add any printers attached to the computer automatically (tip: make sure the printer's turned on!). Printing from the Chromebook is then a matter of right clicking on the page and selecting the print option or selecting it by clicking the menu icon, and then selecting the printer attached to the PC by clicking the button alongside the Destination heading.

As with any shared printer, the computer with the printer attached must be switched on for printing to happen, of course, although jobs will be queued on a Google server and printed at the first opportunity if the computer is off. Printers are 'attached' to the Google account that the Chrome browser is logged into, but they can also be shared with other Google account holders, which lets one user in a home or office make a printer available to other Chromebook users just click the Manager Printers button in Settings, then select the Printer and click the Share button, before typing the Google account name of the individual.

The Chrome browser doesn't even have to be running on the PC, Mac or Linux box for printing to take place, because a background service is installed once a printer is added. The benefits of Cloud Print are that you can send a job to a printer in a home or office when you're not actually present even if you're on holiday in Australia. And, of course, the hassle of tracking down the right driver for a printer is entirely eradicated.

Connecting to an external display can be done by simply attaching it. The desktop is then extended automatically onto the screen. Clicking and dragging the displays on the configuration panel that appears lets you tell the Chromebook where the screens lie in physical relation to each other, so that the mouse 'hops' from one screen to the other correctly.
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External storage can be attached, including USB memory sticks, digital cameras and MP3 players that have accessible storage areas. Most disk formats are understood by Chrome OS including FAT,NTFS,HFS+(Mac) and Ext2/3/4 (Linux). Once attached, the drive appears as an option in the sidebar of the file manager, and clicking the eject symbol alongside each will unmount it, ready for physical removal (and unlike with Windows, this really is a necessity if you want to avoid the risk of data loss).

Keyboards and mice are recognized instantly. Bluetooth devices are added by clicking the clock icon and then putting the device into discover mode, where it should appear in the list. Bluetooth keyboard and mice are supported although not, it seems, Bluetooth headphones or mic sets _ at least not officially, although some people find they work fine.

Getting Technical
Perhaps surprisingly, Chrome OS has a Linux-style command line built in. It's called Chrome Shell (crosh), and it can be accessed by typing Ctrl+Alt+T. It has a strictly limited command set geared mostly around network diagnostics, including trace path and ping, which suggests it's there largely as a diagnostic tool for the Google tech support helpline. Similarly Network_diag performs an automated network check, outputting a text file with diagnostic information, although ssh is also available to make remove connections (use the format ssh username address, rather than the usual ssh username@address).The top command is also available and lets you see at an operating system level what processes are using up resources (hint: it's mostly Chrome).

Some Chromebook owners enable Developer Mode on their devices, known informally as rooting the device. On older devices, this is done via a physical switch hidden somewhere but, it seems, the cost of adding a switch to devices irked manufacturers, so now rooting is done via a key combination. You'll learn how for each of the Chromebook models at http://www.chromium.org/chromium-os/...rome-os-device . Beware that rooting a device also wipes your data, although this is less of an issue than with other computers because theoretically all your settings and data are stored online.

Rooting returns a little bit of Linux to the device _ typing shell when using Crosh will give you bash, although only a subset of the usual commands (you get 'more', but no 'less', for example). Ctrl+Alt+F2 will also open a virtual terminal, where you can log in and sudo as the user 'chromes' without the need for a password.

Using bash, you can access all areas of the file system, but be careful to avoid making changes even in the Home directories, because Chrome OS is tightly run by its own system processes. The main use for rooting a device is to install a different operating system image, such as Ubuntu (in the form of ChrUbuntu). However, the Chromebook's non-standard BIOS makes this more than a little difficult. A slightly easier option, although one that still requires significant Linux knowledge, is to use Crouton to install Ubuntu in a chroot configuration on top of Chrome OS so you can switch between the two.

For what it's worth (and to answer a question everybody asks), installing Microsoft Windows on ARM Chromebooks is currently impossible and likely to stay that way. Installing Windows on an x86 Chromebook is apparently possible but makes installing Linux look like child's play. If it's possible on your particular model, you'll probably have to flash the BIOS with Coreboot (http://www.coreboot.org/Chromebooks) and even assuming you can squeeze Windows into the limited disk space of a Chromebook, the chances of getting all hardware devices working are slim.

Google recently announced a solution, however, but it's a false dawn for anybody other than enterprise users. Install the VMware Horizon Viewer app and you can virtualize Windows apps stored in the cloud (http://googleenterprise.blogspot.com...indows_12.html ). However, this indicates that a virtualization solution might be possible on Chromebooks, which may one day allow access to locally stored Windows installations.