Chrome OS is Google’s cloud-connected desktop operating system. This web-apps focused OS powers mostly inexpensive chromebooks, offering a low-cost desktop option for those of modest means or basic needs. That affordability, along with tie-ins to Google’s online productivity apps, has made the OS popular in the education market. The recent addition of the ability to run Android apps has given the OS new life and millions of new software choices, though the support for those apps is inconsistent. With that major integration still ongoing, Chrome OS feels like something of a work in progress, one that’s not suited to high-power computing needs. Still, for the right users, Chrome OS is a strong choice.
The OS has indeed come a long way. When Chrome OS first launched, it was little more than a version of Ubuntu that ran just one app: the Chrome web browser. Google’s desktop OS has added many capabilities since then, like resizable windows and good printing options, in addition to the Android app support. Using a chromebook while offline was problematic in the early days of the OS, but they now offer decent offline functionality thanks to OS updates.
Pricing and Hardware Options
Google does not make Chrome OS installation media available the way Ubuntu and Windows 10 do. It’s only officially available on Google-sanctioned devices, most of which fall into the chromebook and chromebox categories. Since the code of the operating system is open source as part of the Chromium OS project, other developers have produced installers, including (early on) Hexxen Flow and NeverwareCloudReady. You could, with a bit of gumption, try installing Chromium OS on standard PC hardware as well, since it’s freely available, but you might encounter hardware incompatibilities. The majority of users will be buying hardware with the OS preinstalled.
I tested Chrome OS on a 2017 Google Pixelbook, a much better piece of hardware than the majority of Chrome OS users (who are usually drawn in by the low cost of chromebooks) are likely to have. Most chromebooks cluster around the $300 price point. My testPixelbook—a premium piece of hardware with a high-resolution (2,400-by-1,600 pixel) touch screen with stylus input capability, a Core i7 CPU, and 512GB SSD—retails for a cool $1,649, though the lowest-specced Pixelbook starts at $999 list.
The Acer Chromebook Tab 10, the first Chrome OS tablet without a keyboard recently debuted, though it’s only available to the education market. Our hardware analyst Tom Brant thinks it’s a good thing, saying, “there are several areas in which Android, iOS, and Windows tablets are much more convenient for consumers.”
Since Chrome OS is primarily a cloud-connected OS, it’s strange that it’s nearly impossible to find a chromebook with LTE that’s in production. Google’s earlier Chromebook Pixel included this capability, but the current Pixelbooks don’t. I couldn’t find any LTE-equipped chromebooks for sale from other hardware vendors, either. Google representatives told me that the OS still supports LTE, however, and some hardware vendors have announced machines that haven’t yet appeared on the market.
A couple of final Chrome OS hardware options are chromebases and chromebits. The former are all-in-one PCs from LG and Acer, though they seem to be no longer in production. Chromebits are very small units similar to the Intel Compute Stick, designed to be plugged into an HDTV to give it computing capabilities.
When it comes to peripherals, Chrome OS works with USB keyboards, mice, and hubs, as well as with select Bluetooth peripherals. It also supports monitors connected by DisplayPort, DVI, HDMI, and VGA. The mouse and display support alone make Chrome OS a better choice for some business users than iOS on an iPad. Be aware, however, that you may not find Chrome OS hardware drivers for some peripherals.
Storage. When I plugged in a USB thumb drive (the Pixelbook only has the less common USB C port, but luckily I have one USB-C key storage key), the OS correctly identified the storage and opened a file-browsing window. Note that the OS mimics Apple’s macOS in that it annoyingly displays a notification whenever you unplug the USB key without first telling the OS you want to eject it. Windows just deals with the inevitable without scolding you.
A bigger issue is that Chrome OS doesn’t support network storage like that found in any of the popular Synology NAS devices, for example. This is especially important for people with large media needs like photo, video, and audio files that they want to store locally for fast access.
Monitors. Chrome OS has decent multi-monitor support. When I plugged the Pixelbook’s USB-C port into an HDMI adapter and a widescreen monitor in turn, the system instantly extended the display to the external monitor. It also lets you mirror or turn off the main screen.
Network Adapter. Most people will set up a Chrome OS computer with a Wi-Fi connection, but it supports Ethernet adapters for those who need a wired connection.
Printers. I had less luck with printers and Chrome OS. My Pixelbook couldn’t automatically detect and install a local network printer as macOS and Windows can, but you can manually enter an IP address and download a driver. Unfortunately, a Chrome OS driver was not available for my Brother HL-4150CDN printer. Chrome OS supports five Internet Printing Protocols as well as Line Printer Daemon. It also supports Google Cloud Print-enabled printers. If you have one of the latter, setup is much simpler. You just choose “Add a nearby printer” in the Settings.
What About Multiboot? You can boot Windows on a Mac using Boot Camp and you can boot Ubuntu on a Windows PC (or even macOS if you’re very brave and savvy). Chrome OS doesn’t officially support any form of multibooting; CloudReady’s Chrome OS distro supported the capability for a while, but retired it in June 2018. It has, however, been reported that Google is working on a option for dual-booting Windows 10 option in Chrome OS.
Bluetooth and Miracast. In testing, my chromebook identified smartphones, PCs, TVs, speakers, headphones and more over Bluetooth. You can sync a smartphone, as mentioned above, to use for quick two-factor authentication. Displaying your chromebook or box’s screen onto a large TV is a cinch; just choose the Cast Devices Available option from the status tray menu at lower right.
Getting Started: Setting Up Chrome OS
To get going with a Chrome OS, you simply charge your chromebook and hit the power button. The first screen has you choose your language and accessibility options. The latter include ChromeVox (spoken feedback), large mouse cursor, high contrast mode, screen magnifier, and on-screen keyboard.
Connect to the Internet. As with most device setups these days, the first step is to connect to the internet. After you’re connected, you have to agree to the license terms and decide whether you want to send usage data back to Google. I opted out; Google knows plenty about me already. The setup wizard then checked for, found, and installed updates.
Google Is Watching. Next, you have to sign in to a Google account. Windows, Mac, and Ubuntu all let you use the computer without an account, but that’s just not an option with Chrome OS. So if you’re hesitant to have all your activity stored on Google’s servers, another OS is probably better for you.
After logging into a Gmail account, I saw a message that my settings would be synced and that my browsing history would be used to “personalize Search, ads, and other Google services.” You can change these settings on your Google Activity Controls page.
Get Ready for Android. Next comes an Android app feature and accepting Google Play’s terms of service. This involves agreeing to store app data on Google Drive. It also involves sharing your location with Google location services, and allowing apps to automatically download and update.
Once that’s done, the desktop finally appears! The Google voice setup pops up first, which involves a few more privacy permissions. One is to allow the tool to create a unique sonic model of your voice.
After allowing Assistant, Chrome OS takes you through a brief but enjoyable tour of all its charms, highlighting areas of interest along the way.
One feather in Chrome OS’s cap is the ease with which you can switch users, though macOS and Windows also make this pretty easy. Chrome OS also adds the ability to easily log in as a Guest account. At the bottom of the lock screen are choices for Browse as Guest and Add Person. Guests cannot install apps, either web or Android, but interestingly, they can download files.
Unlike Windows, Android, and iOS, you can’t log in with biometric devices like fingerprint readers or face scanners, as you can with Windows and Mac (as long as you have a MacBook with a Touch Bar). You can, happily, use a PIN to unlock the computer, and a beta feature lets you do the same with an Android phone. But you still have to sign in with a full password on startup. Surprisingly, the PIN and passwords you choose have no security requirements—I was able to set mine as 123456 and 111111. You’ll want to use more secure passwords.
Once you’re up and running (and even before that), a well-designed and thorough Get Help app can assist you in moving to, setting up, and using your Chrome OS machine.
Interface and Windowing: Getting Around the OS
Unlike most desktop operating systems, Chrome OS’s desktop doesn’t let you pin icons for apps and files. Instead, you use the Launcher or the Dock. The Launcher, a circular button at bottom left, is similar to the Windows Start button and macOS’s Launchpad.
The Launcher. This tool offers quick access to apps and search. But Chrome OS’s version of the launcher is less functional than Windows’ Start, which also gives access to settings, power, and larger tiles for your favorite apps, which is especially helpful with touch screens. The Launcher is more similar to macOS’ Launchpad.
The Shelf. The dock or taskbar along the bottom of the screen, which Google calls the shelf, only contains some Google apps by default. After you run an app, such as Google Photos, from the app panel that slides up when you drag on launcher button, no separate icon appears for it in the dock. Only apps you pin appear there. Windows and macOS, by contrast, always show your running apps’ icons in the dock/taskbar. Gmail and Google Drive, however, do get icons by default, and it’s not possible to remove the Chrome icon from the Shelf.
These shelf icons offer no functionality to speak of. For example, in Windows you can pause or skip back and forward from the Spotify app’s taskbar icon, or see the last several documents opened in a productivity app with Jump Lists. In Chrome OS, the only choices are pinning the app and autohiding the shelf. I do like that tapping a shelf icon a second time minimizes the app, a convenience not found in macOS but long present in Windows. Two-finger tapping an app icon in the shelf lets you see its info or uninstall it.
The Files Window. Chrome OS’s Files window is an odd duck. Unlike in other desktop operating systems, it’s primarily concerned with files stored on Google Drive. The only local folder is called Downloads, but fortunately you can add subfolders to that. There are also top-level folders for Images, Videos and Audio, but it’s not clear whether those are local or cloud-hosted. Two-finger tap gives options to open a file info panel.
The Status Tray Menu. This strip at the right of the Shelf shows the time, Wi-Fi status, and battery status. Clicking it lets you adjust volume, sign out of your account, and see VPN status (if you have one installed). Hardwired keyboard buttons, like those on Macs, make functions like adjusting volume and brightness easy. Windows 10’s Action Center offers configurable Quick action tiles for making on-the-fly setting changes, such as airplane mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and a dozen more options, which I prefer.
Keyboard Shortcuts. The operating system offers most of the standard keyboard shortcuts, like Ctrl-F for find, Ctrl-Z to undo, and Ctrl-V to paste. The hardwired search key opens Google Assistant, but it doesn’t show recent and often used apps as the Windows key does, let alone open a touch-friendly tile menu. Two excellent keys are the task switcher and the full screen; macOS has the former, but the latter is unique and a great idea. Taking screenshots is as easy as in the two leading desktop OSes; you simply press Ctrl-Task Switcher, and a thumbnail appears in the lower-right corner, letting you open, annotate, or copy the resulting image to the clipboard.
Also helpful is an option in a Chrome OS apps’ Settings panel that lets you open it as a window rather than a browser tab, but this sometimes shows the address bar at the top, destroying the illusion of it being a true app. Sometimes clicking an option in such an app goes back to opening the browser.
There’s no right-click functionality at all, but a lot of what you’d do with a right click can instead be accomplished with a quick two-finger tap on the touchpad. Hardwired keyboard buttons perform some tasks accessed with keyboard combos on other OSes.
Window Manipulation. Window behavior and manipulation works differently depending on whether you’re running a Chrome or Android app. For the former, you usually see browser tabs, though you can full-screen the view so the app looks like its own entity, without the browser tabs and menu. Compatible Android apps can run full-screen, but sometimes you need to restart the app to do so. When you resize them, these apps often revert to a smartphone-size window. Some Android apps let you resize to taste, but many are all or nothing—full-screen or phone size.
Chrome app windows can be dragged against the edge of the screen to fill half of it exactly, but not so with most Android apps. And there’s no quarter screen view like you get with Windows by dragging a window header to any corner. You can’t drag a full-screen app down from its header, either. When using the app switcher (Alt-Tab) the app tiles don’t fan out as in Windows and macOS and instead scroll out of view.
As with all consumer OSes, you get to replace the desktop wallpaper with any image you like. There’s no night view like Apple’s Night Shift or Windows’ Night Light, to save your eyes from sleep-ruining blue light during late-night computing, but Google is working on this as evidenced by beta versions of the OS. There isn’t even a shortcut or control to show the desktop without the running apps, though that’s not as significant here, since you can’t pin icons for apps or documents to the desktop. Multiple virtual desktops like those offered by macOS and Windows don’t exist in Chrome OS; you just get the one.
All of this may be unimportant to students or new users of the operating system, but if you’re used to macOS or Windows, much of it feels limiting and inconvenient.
Touch Screen and Pen Support
I love to be able to tap a button on my Windows 10 touch screen now and then, saving me from the carpal-tunnel stress of moving the mouse to just the right spot and executing yet another click of the mouse button. That’s not an option on macOS, but Chrome OS offers that convenience, as do iPads.
I would, however, like to see more useful gesture,s such as swiping in from the sides of the screen. When you do that on Windows 10, the left side shows your task switcher, any additional desktops, and the Timeline view. When you swipe in from the right, you see the Action Center. The same gestures in Chrome just go forward and back in browser history, which you can also do by swiping within the browser window in both OSes.
I appreciate that the on-screen keyboard for tablet touch input supports swipe text entry. But I wish there were a split keyboard layout option, which is easier to use when holding the computer as a tablet with two hands.
I tested the OS’s stylus capability with the $99 Pixelbook Pen. The system’s handwriting recognition is excellent and on par with Windows 10’s, but you can only use it on apps that support it. In Windows, handwriting is an on-screen keyboard mode, so it works with any text input field. You can also use the pen to circle on-screen objects and get info from Google Assistant about them after clicking the button on the pen. You can start a Google Keep note with the pen even from the lock screen.
As for more artistic pen work, the Infinite Painter Android app shows Chrome OS is up to the latest standards of computer drawing, for me, at least, matching the Surface Pro and iPad Pros pens, though I’m no artist. The app offers a wide variety of brush types.
Search and Voice Assistant
Like Windows’ Cortana and Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant lets you use your voice to play music and podcasts, ask general knowledge questions, and check the weather, calendar, stock quotes, or sports scores. You can open apps as either their web or Android versions—the Assistant’s sidebar lets you choose. When I first tried to use the Assistant to send an email, it didn’t work with the preinstalled web Gmail app—I had to install the Android app. After that, composing and sending worked flawlessly.
You can control all your smart home devices—turn on Philips Hue lights, set smart thermostat temperatures—as you can with other digital assistants such as Alexa, Cortana, and Siri. Google Assistant also lets you set reminders and timers. I couldn’t send texts or make calls as you can with Apple’s ecosystem and with Skype. As with Cortana, you’re stuck with one voice; Siri gives you a nice choice of genders and nationalities.
Another difference between Assistant and the other OS’s versions is that there’s no button or keyboard shortcut to launch it in Listening mode. Once the Assistant pops up, you have to click on the mic icon. With Cortana and Siri, you can start the services’ listening mode with a keypress. Google Assistant does not let you log out or shut down the computer using your voice as you can with Cortana. Conversely, Google Assistant can take a screenshot, whereas Cortana cannot.
Chrome OS now has two types of apps and two app stores, which sometimes leads to weird behaviors. For instance, installing a web and Android version of the same app results in two identical icons for two sometimes very different apps. Of course, just about any web app works on a chromebook, but sometimes web apps aren’t as full-featured as installed applications. For example, though Microsoft offers a near-parity version of Word for the web with Word Online, there are a few details that make the installed version preferable. Chrome web apps in the store are dwindling in number, and few are of AAA quality.
Of course, the browser is the centerpiece of Chrome OS, and while Chrome is a top choice among browsers, there are occasions when you might want an alternative. You can get Firefox in the Android store, but it’s not as functional as the desktop version on Macs and PCs. Edge, Firefox, and Safari also offer distraction-free reading modes for cluttered webpages. Edge and Safari also feature convenient share icons for quickly sending a page to Twitter, email, Messenger, WhatsApp, or any other communication app.
Firefox’s super-useful Containers feature that lets you run different instances of different sites as distinct users isn’t available in the Android version. For example, with containers, you can keep different Gmail accounts open in different tabs and get notifications for both. I’m also addicted to Edge’s right-click option to look up selected text in a sidebar, saving you from opening a new browser tab.
Another difference: You can’t zoom in on documents with the mouse wheel. Instead, the whole interface zooms. The same holds for Google Docs. I also found that my document’s paragraph spacing didn’t appear correctly in the online version. I do like how maximizing the browser in the Chrome OS version does make the web app feel like a standard app, since it removes the browser’s title bar and menu along the top.
Mail. An important built-in app in a desktop operating system is email. Windows, Mac, and iOS all include polished apps that let you manage and view multiple mail accounts, but Chrome OS points you to the browser by default. Of course, a wealth of android mail clients stand ready to augment this.
Photo Editing. I was surprised not to find the impressive Google Photos app installed on my test Chromebook Pixel by default. Instead, the default photo editor/viewer is the extremely limited Gallery app, which only offers brightness, contrast, rotation, and slideshow capabilities. Both macOS’ and Windows’ included Photos editing apps are vastly more capable, as is Google’s online-only Photos app.
Google Photos isn’t even included as a Chrome app in the Chrome Web Store, though you can install it as a website link. And the reasonably powerful Befunky, Polarr, and Fotor are in the store. The Google Play Store offers additional options. If you just want to snap a photo or video from your Chrome OS computer, the included Camera app, though more basic that what you get with macOS or Windows, can do the job.
Music and Video. The operating system comes with a basic music player, which started playing my MP3s from a USB drive without any fuss. You can also use Google Play Music to stream cloud-stored music. To play a downloaded .M4A file, I had to install a separate Music Player for Google Drive web app. You can, of course, watch Netflix and Hulu and listen to Pandora and Spotify, all through their webpage interfaces.
Chrome OS preloads stores for entertainment media. These include Play Movies & TV, Play Music, and Play Books. They are all well stocked, and comparable with what’s available on macOS and Windows, though the latter discontinued its music store. I appreciate that Google’s bookstore offers audiobooks in addition to books you have to read yourself.
Chromebooks simply aren’t great for video editing. A search of the Chrome Web Store for “video editor” apps did not turn up anything useful, but the store’s landing page highlights WeVideo. This app lets you do some basic trimming and joining, as well as add background music and transitions. The OS itself offers absolutely nothing in the way of video editing, unlike Apple and Microsoft’s simple but powerful built-in tools.
The Android app store offers more potential for would-be Chrome OS video editors. There, you find lightweight versions of PowerDirector, Filmora, and NCH VideoPad. But still, it’s a far cry from Adobe Premiere Pro CC or even Premiere Elements, which both run on Macs and PCs. To add insult to injury, Adobe’s one Android video app, Premiere Clip, doesn’t run on Chrome OS.
Video Calling. Windows has Skype, macOS has FaceTime, and Google Chrome OS, of course, uses Google’s Hangouts for video calling—with up to 25 people at a time. The service also connects voice calls to standard phones and mobiles, just like Skype. Unfortunately, you can’t start a call using the voice-responding Assistant.
Notes. Google Keep is your included note-taking app. It not only lets you type, but you can include colorful drawing, set reminders, and grab text from images—perfect for use with the Pixelbook Pen.
Maps. Windows and macOS both include excellent map apps, but Chrome OS sports the most dominant map service in the world, even if it’s not an app as such and isn’t installed by default. You can install the Android version of Google Maps, as well as Here, MapQuest, and more.
Offline Usage. Originally Chrome OS’s huge Achilles heel was its lack of offline functionality. In the past, Chrome OS devices were little more than a paperweight if you had no internet connection. The addition of Android apps and better offline support for Chrome Web apps address that issue.
Google’s apps in particular have been updated for offline use; Drive, Gmail, and other of the search company’s apps now work offline. You can also play locally downloaded or USB-connected media. In the Chrome Web app store, you can filter results by Runs Offline, though the only recognizable names I saw there were Pocket, useful for reading webpages offline, and Polarr, a fairly capable photo editor.
The emergence of progressive web apps, or PWAs, supported by most modern browsers, should be a boon to Chrome OS. These standard web apps take advantage of offline support, notifications, and custom window interfaces. Support for PWAs has appeared in Chrome pre-beta builds.
Running Android Apps
The Google Play store is far more robust than the Web Store. Installing Android apps from the Google Play store on Chrome OS is a cinch, and thankfully, the store that appears on the desktop OS is customized for it. So, for example, you see groups of apps titled Create & Organize on Chromebook and Games on Chromebook. As we saw with Adobe’s mobile video editing app, not all Android apps run on Chrome OS.
Another well-thought-out convenience when dealing with the two app types is that when you run an app that has both types, such as Word, you see a message asking which to run.
But not all is well in Chrome OS–land for Android. Some apps only appear in the small phone-size screen layout, some have draggable handles for resizing, while others still only work in full-screen mode. Many require a restart just to switch between full screen and windowed modes.
A minor quibble is that the back arrow at top left in most app windows closes the app—not good if you expect it to work like every other such arrow and take you back. Another is that Android apps usually assume they’re running on a phone, so you likely need to use touch input rather than the keyboard. The list of minor irritations goes on. The short story is that, yes, you can run Android apps, some successfully and others not, but the experience is overwhelmingly inconsistent. A serious problem with several Android apps I tried was that they couldn’t connect to the internet, even though the laptop was connected to a fast Ethernet connection.
The biggest problem for Chrome OS users is the existence of two very disparate app systems. How do you know which app store to search in the first place when you’re looking for a new app, let alone how to distinguish between two identical app icons? It also means remembering two different places to manage the settings, two ways to update them, and so on.
Integration with Mobile Phone
When it comes to integration between mobile and desktop, Apple is the act to beat. Its Continuity features let you move work and play seamlessly between iOS and macOS, and you can even text and launch FaceTime calls from multiple devices using the same account. Even though Windows no longer has a thriving mobile version, the OS offers a good deal of continuity between its Android and iOS apps and its desktop version. These features include Continue on PC, Pick Up Where I left off, and Device Lock. Edge, Cortana, Skype, and Bing mobile apps enable this.
As I mentioned above, you can use an Android phone to log in to your Chrome OS computer. You can also sync browser favorites, history; pretty much everything in your Google account—mail, docs, and YouTube videos—will carry over between your Android phone and Chrome OS computer. Rumor has it that integrated Android text messaging is coming to a future version of the operating system (something you can already do with Windows). For now, you can use Android Messages on the web, WhatsApp, or Facebook Messenger, to do messaging on your Chrome OS computer.
One nice feature: If you plug an Android phone into a chromebook’s USB port, you can browse, open, or copy any files on the phone, but that’s also possible on Windows and macOS, since it’s more a feature of Android than of Chrome OS.
Privacy and Security
Google states that Chrome OS boasts several levels of security, starting with verified boot, automatic updates, and sandboxing (running apps in a container that doesn’t have access to the rest of the system). That last applies to both web and Android apps. Web apps take advantage of encryption and simply having an app store like the Android one means that apps are vetted for security. Though OS updated take place automatically, you can check the Settings > About panel to check if your version is the latest.
Simply the fact that Chrome OS devices aren’t a very large attack surface, with less than 1 percent of the desktop computer market (according to both StatCounter and NetMarketShare), offers a degree of safety. But no platform is 100 percent secure, and the addition of Android capability adds threats, since Google occasionally purges rogue Android apps from the store. Those and Chrome extensions are the most likely malware vectors. There’s no third-party security software specifically for Chrome OS, but I successfully installed and scanned with Android Malware protection from AVG, which offers Android app install protection and phishing protection.
What happens if your computer is lost or stolen? Chrome OS features a decent set of recovery tools. If you lose your machine, you can find all of your cloud-synced files and apps by simply signing into your Google account. Of course, that doesn’t include any locally downloaded files, however. You can wipe the device remotely and remove it from your Google account, but you can’t pinpoint its exact location, as you can with Android phones, Apple Macs, and Microsoft Surface computers.
There’s no equivalent to Windows 10’s Refresh option, which clears out unnecessary muck in the system accrued over a period of computing—something also lacking in macOS. There are, however, Reset and Powerwash options in Settings. The first just resets browser options, and the second is a factory reset that removes all account and personalization info.
VPNs are a hot topic in security of late, and my esteemed colleague Max Eddy has explored how to use a VPN with Chrome OS. The story is somewhat complicated, but the upshot is that using an Android app for your VPN works best on Chrome OS.
Reliability is related to security, and I was surprised that at times during testing an app or the system shut down unexpectedly. For example, a few times when I had several browser tabs open and several apps running, the system stopped responding. Once, it even restarted without warning after installing an Android game and again when installing the Yelp Android app. Luckily, since I wrote this document on the Pixelbook, Chrome OS automatically saved my review before the restart and let me resume without missing a beat.
The addition of Android app support is a boon to Chrome OS gaming. While there is a selection of casual games on the Chrome Web Store, the Play store adds a vastly larger set of games. However, these are not the AAA titles you find on consoles and PCs. There’s no Steam for Chrome OS, but if you want to play Minecraft, Candy Crush, Roblox, or even Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes in the mobile version, you’re covered by Android versions.
I recommend sticking with apps designed for tablets (you can filter these in Play). Even better, only install those with Editors’ Choice designations. Some games simply don’t play nice on Chrome OS since they assume the end user’s device is a smartphone.
Managing Chrome OS Machines
Chrome OS is particularly popular in the education market and as such, you can easily manage multiple computers using the OS. The Admin Console lets managers set policies for all chromebooks in their domain, but this requires a G Suite license for the group. Admins can even force or restrict the installation of Android apps—a must, given the store’s huge selection of apps, not all of which are benign. Google has published a deployment document for managers who need these functionalities.
Of course, Windows has a long head start in machine management with granular control using Windows Domains and Active Directory, while Apple is light on these capabilities, requiring third-party software. It’s also worth noting that Windows is the only desktop OS with Mixed Reality capability, important for the education market. Google is working with device makers to include support for its ARCore augmented reality technology.
Another variety of management is that of parents managing their children’s computing activities. The cheap price of chromebooks makes them appealing for supplying kids with computers, so strong parental controls would seem a must. Parents can create child accounts in Google’s Family Link service, and then sign the whippersnapper into the Chrome OS computer using those accounts. This way, the child can’t install any apps from either app store, can’t use private browsing mode, and can’t view adult sites that Google is able to block. The parent can also use a whitelist to only allow the child to visit specific sites.
As for monitoring, only the child’s Chrome history is available. Android apps get short shrift with these parental controls,, and judging by their recent entry to Chrome OS and Google’s emphasis on usage limitation in Android Pie, we should see more Android parental controls in Chrome OS down the road. According to Google’s support pages, “Features like screen time limits, remote device locking, apps from Google Play, and location reporting are not available yet for your child’s chromebook.”
As for troubleshooting and recovery, Chrome OS does offer an app that lets you create recovery media, should the system become unusable. Even though Google’s official Help doesn’t acknowledge its existence, there is a Task Manager, accessible with Shift-Esc, that shows you memory, disk, and network usage for all running processes and lets you hard shut them down if you see something behaving badly.
Chrome OS is admirably equipped with accessibility features. Navigate to Settings > Advanced > Accessibility to get started. Here, you can enable text to speech with ChromeVox, which reads everything on the screen; ultra-high-contrast screen mode; screen zoom; sticky keys; and automatic clicking when the mouse cursor rests. You can add a few more accessibility features, such as caret browsing, from the Chrome Web store.
Is Chrome OS Shiny Enough?
Google’s desktop operating system’s support for hardware, applications, and interface niceties are hardly state-of-the art, but it’s actually possible to do most everyday business and personal computing with a Chrome OS device. Many essential apps are available as web apps—Asana, Slack, Spotify, Microsoft Word, Lightroom, some content management systems, and of course Google Docs. In fact, this review was written mostly on the test Pixelbook. It’s mostly a matter of making do without some windowing and interface conveniences. For those who just want to browse the web, use online productivity tools, compose email, and maybe play casual games, Chrome OS is a usable and affordable option.