WITH SO many of us using our phones for day-to-day computing, the market for larger devices - tablets, let alone laptops - has begun to decline. The absence of a new tablet in Google’s recently-announced Pixel range of devices speaks volumes.
Yet for heavyweight duty, there are times when only a “proper” computer will do. Homework and home office work are cases in point. However, what actually constitutes a proper PC in today’s market - and in particular, whether it needs to run Windows - is deeply debatable.
As recently as five years ago, this was a question not worth pondering. A slew of then-popular netbooks came with their manufacturers’ own operating systems, saving the cost of a licence from Microsoft, but sacrificing the ability to run any but the most basic applications.
Today, those models have given way to Chromebooks, which are stripped-down laptops running Google’s Chrome operating system, instead of Windows. They now have sufficient traction and large enough user communities to represent a credible alternative.
It’s not only Windows that is absent from Chromebooks: many don’t have hard disks, either. That’s because your apps, data and documents live in a cloud instead of on the machine itself.
Whether a Chromebook is right for you depends on what you plan to use it for. Desktop-bound programs like Photohsop or pretty much any video editor are non-starters, and you may have compatibility issues if you try to to connect to your company’s system through a private network. Specialist programs like computer-aided design, music production and desktop publishing are also no-go areas. But for word processing, number crunching, and working on web-based projects, they’re ideal. You can’t lose your work because it’s stored remotely, and the stripped-down hardware is lighter and cheaper than a comparable Windows alternative.
Chromebooks start at around £200, and for that you can expect an eleven or thirteen-inch screen - bigger than any tablet - plus at least 2GB of memory and a modest but adequate dual-core Celeron processor. Further up the price range, you can expect four times the memory and a relatively huge 18-inch screen. Battery life is much better than a traditional laptop, with at least eight hours on a single charge from most models.
The Chrome system is predicated on Google’s own suite of office apps, which make your documents editable anywhere - and because they are fast becoming the industry standard, you need have no concerns about the absence of the bloated and redundant Microsoft Office.
The caveat is that you need an active internet connection for pretty much the whole time. Although a Chromebook can save changes locally for short periods, it needs to synchronize them to its server to make them “stick”.
There are Chrome apps for most tasks, including photo editing. These are not in the same class as Photoshop, but they’ll do for casual work. On the other hand, universal apps like Facebook, Spotify and a hundred others will work happily irrespective of operating system.
If you want to get a feel for a Chromebook before buying one, look no further than your Android phone; strip out the dialing and text apps and it’s more or less a smaller version of the same thing. And that brings us back to the central dilemma facing manufacturers and users alike: given so much similarity, why have a second device at all?