Anirudh RegidiJul 19, 2021 5:14:06 PM IST
I’ve always thought ChromeOS is a platform from a bygone era. An operating system designed for the dreadful days of Intel Atom-powered netbooks, back when budget laptops didn’t have the grunt to do anything but exist. But that was 2011-12, when Chrome was good but not great, when Windows Phone was a thing, and when broadband meant 1Mbps speeds.
Almost a decade later, in a world bathed in 4G, I now have the chance to experience a faster and more modern ChromeOS. We now have apps to play with, faster and more efficient processors to run, and a much more refined and user-friendly user interface. There’s even support for some Linux apps. A lot has changed, but surprisingly, a lot hasn’t changed.
What is a Chromebook?
A Chromebook is a laptop computer that runs ChromeOS. ChromeOS is an operating system, like Windows or macOS, but designed by Google and focused almost exclusively on the Chrome browser. You’re expected to work in the cloud and, primarily, use Google’s suite of admittedly powerful web apps. In 2011, with slow internet speeds and no cellular data to speak of, that was a problem. In 2021, this is not the case.
Discover ChromeOS in 2021
As an overall experience, ChromeOS isn’t too bad. The Chromebook I use is the Asus Flip C214. It is a budget-friendly, student-focused device powered by a Celeron N4020 processor and 4GB of RAM. There’s 64GB of internal eMMC storage expandable via microSD, two 5Gbps USB-C ports that support charging and DisplayPort, one USB-A port, dual-band Wi-Fi support and Bluetooth 5.0 , and an 11.6-inch HD+ flip-out display with touch input and pen support.
For a Windows PC, these specs would be laughable. For ChromeOS, they’re a decent baseline.
Internet connectivity wasn’t an issue and most of my work had long since moved to the cloud, so working in ChromeOS wasn’t an issue. Web apps like Gmail, Docs, and Sheets open quickly and respond well, and with powerful web-only image-editing apps like PhotoPea and Adobe Spark taking care of my editing needs, one of my complaints a long time with web operating systems has been addressed.
File manager is quite powerful and better than horrible Files app in iPadOS. It even recognizes the NTFS file system and most files open without issue. Although not all video formats are supported by default, you can easily use a player like VLC.
Let’s talk performance
Performance on the C214 is a bit mixed.
While the UI is snappy and you can quickly switch between apps and tabs, there’s a system sluggishness that’s… weird. It’s as if the operating system wants to do your bidding as fast as possible, but hesitates for a moment every time it has to. This is particularly visible on Youtube.
Double-tap a YouTube window to view it full screen and you’ll see the window expand instantly. At the same time, it will remain black while audio is playing in the background. Half a second later, the video comes into place. Fast-forward a video by double-tapping the side and you’ll instantly see the fast-forward UI animation, but the video won’t catch up until half a second later.
Essentially, it feels like the UI responds instantly, but everything else needs time to catch up. When multitasking, it sometimes feels like you’re queuing commands rather than enjoying a real-time computing experience.
Like I said, it’s kind of weirdly sluggish and I suspect a wimpy GPU to be the culprit here. Perhaps more powerful hardware than the C214 provides will provide a smoother experience.
And then there are some quirks. When using an Android app like Word, typing is fast and smooth, but make the text bold and you won’t see the effect until you move to the next line. The window does not follow the cursor, which also tends to disappear sometimes, the text is crossed by strange lines, etc. Google Docs works fine though.
Could I live with ChromeOS? Absoutely. Would I want to? No.
Here’s the problem: I don’t mind ChromeOS, but I don’t think it has evolved at the same rate as PC hardware, Windows 10 and macOS. It’s an operating system that still feels like it was created ten years ago. There’s an obvious lack of refinement, a quirkiness that’s more irritating than charming, and a lack of flexibility that feels like a hindrance.
As for the hardware itself, with the Asus C214 Chromebook, I’m once again in two minds about the device. It is designed for young students and the emphasis is on sturdiness, repairability and ease of use. To that end, Asus succeeded. The Chromebook is very sturdy, and it’s one of the few laptops I’d be comfortable throwing on a bed from 5 feet away. The hinge is very sturdy, there’s no flex on the chassis, and the cheap plastic certainly doesn’t scratch easily.
The display, while lacking in the color department, scores on contrast, allowing text to stand out. Battery life is rated at 11 hours and I found the device easily got me through two days of heavy work. The keyboard isn’t backlit, but the keys have a rough, grippy texture, are well indexed, and are pleasant enough to type on. My only real complaint is the speakers, which are only useful in quiet rooms, and for some TV shows even that won’t be enough.
Overall, the C214 is a decent device and it seems like a great option for younger students and for school use. But there’s also the price and limitations of ChromeOS as a learning platform.
Verdict: Make the right compromises
In my mind, I see two issues, with Chromebooks in general and the C214 in particular.
First, there’s the most obvious: ChromeOS. ChromeOS is great if you live on the web, but as a learning platform I think it falls short. I don’t believe ChromeOS can grow and evolve as your child’s computing needs grow and evolve. If your child is interested in computers, they’ll outgrow the Chromebook in no time, and the C214, unlike an iPad, can’t serve as an entertainment center when useful because a glorified browser has expired.
Second, there is the price. The C214’s price (Rs 24k) puts it a striking distance from Apple’s entry-level iPad (27k). The iPad, while lacking a keyboard, essentially does everything the C214 can do, and does it better, and in a better-built, better-looking package. If you want web apps, you have Safari and Chrome, and at the same time you get a superior app ecosystem to explore, a better display, a better designed and more responsive user interface, a powerful speaker, storage faster, and more. However, getting a sturdy case and keyboard will bump the price above the 30,000 mark.
You can also spend just over $30,000 and get the power and flexibility of a true desktop operating system like Windows 10 in a laptop powered by a mighty 10and Generation or 3 Intel Core processorrd Generation AMD Ryzen APUs.
On a budget, and as a student-only device, there’s certainly an argument to be made for the C214, but I think it’s worth digging a little deeper and spending a little more on an iPad or a laptop if you’re looking for long-term value.