When Chromebooks first hit the market they were pretty much nothing more than glorified web browsers. You would rely on web applications and extensions to get things done. You also didn’t get a choice of which web browser you would be using to accomplish these tasks. It was Google Chrome or nothing. Now fast forward to today there have been a few changes in the Chrome OS sphere that make it feel a bit closer to a fully fledged desktop operating system. It’s not quite there yet but it has certainly seen improvements.
Desktop & Multitasking
The overall setup of Chrome OS at first glance is simple but elegant. You have a panel at the bottom of your screen or as it’s referred to in Chrome OS a shelf. The shelf contains your access to your applications launcher to the left and it places your pinned and running applications in the middle. At the right of your shelf is where you’ll find your system tray which feels a bit like the notification tray you’ll find on Android. Here you will be able to view notifications, change brightness and volume, toggle network connections, access the settings etc.
Functionally this shelf works brilliantly and is easy to use. My only complaint here is that you can’t set the position of the shelf at the top of the screen but you can move it to the left or the right sides of the screen. Which drives me a little bit crazy as I’m quite partial to a top panel on most desktop operating systems that I use!
Chrome OS now has virtual workspaces or desktops which let you move applications around into their own workspace. You can view these by going into the overview mode. Moving between them is easy using either touchpad gestures of the keyboard shortcuts. Moving applications between them can also be easily done with a keyboard shortcut or by dragging and dropping a window into a different desktop while in the overview mode. I find this an easy to use workflow and it keeps you from getting a cluttered desktop with too many applications open in one workspace.
Built in Tools & Applications
By default when you first fire up Chrome OS you’ll find that most of the applications are web based applications or browser extensions. It does have a file manager application that while not the most fully featured is a lot more useful than when Chromebooks first launched. You can store files locally on the machine and organise your files with folders. It also has inbuilt Google Drive support which keeps any data saved in this folder backed up to the cloud. For the most part the Files application will get the job done but it doesn’t compare to some of the more fully featured file managers i’m used to on Linux.
As Chrome OS is based on Gentoo Linux you also get an albeit slightly restricted Linux terminal! With this you do things like connect to another computer over SSH or even use DD to flash an image to USB which is super handy and has helped me a lot in the past. There is more that you can do in the built in terminal but those are two things that I’ve personally made use of quite a bit.
While these built in tools are great if you’re used to fully blown desktop class applications you’ll find them lacking in features. Fortunately you’re no longer restricted to Web based applications and can extend the type of applications available in a couple of ways.
In 2014 Crostini was introduced to Chromebooks which allowed users to run Linux applications in a virtual machine over the top of Chrome OS. This I find more useful than relying on Android applications to fill the void. With Crostini you get a Debian virtual machine which allows you to install most of the applications available on Debian and use them on Chrome OS. It also has support for Flatpak applications which are what I use on Chrome OS as they will tend to feature more up to date versions of applications. There is even a section of Flathub’s website which includes a quick start guide to get you up and running. This means you can use desktop applications such as LibreOffice, Steam, Firefox and a whole lot more. As these applications aren’t running natively you will take a slight performance hit compared to native applications but for the most part they behave how you would expect them to on a Linux distribution. Very cool!
Google introduced Android application support in Chrome OS in 2016 which gave you access to everything the Google Play Store has to offer. This means you could install Netflix which gives you the ability to download movies and shows for offline viewing. While this is a very handy and useful feature to have most of the applications on the Google Play store weren’t built with laptops and desktop computers in mind. This means a lot of the applications won’t look quite as you’d expect an application to look on your laptop as they were designed for smaller devices.
Chrome OS in 2020 has come an extremely long way. It’s no longer just a glorified web browser that limits you from getting much done. The addition of Linux and Android support has expanded what’s possible for a user on Chrome OS. I’d still like to see some tighter integration of Linux applications with the Chrome OS interface moving forward. Everything still feels a bit frankensteined together but it’s fun to tinker with! Would I be willing to trade in my Linux desktop for Chrome OS? No, not even a little bit. I feel Chrome OS is best placed on lower powered Chromebooks where most of the work you do is web based or as a secondary device for general web browsing and consuming media. How do you feel about Chrome OS and Chromebooks as they currently stand? Let me know in the comments below!