How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Chromebook

Chromebooks have always interested me. The idea, novel. Are they the future? At the time of their peak, they slammed down pretty hard on the novelty factor.

What went wrong? Was it the lack of power? The lack of Windows / Windows-esque applications? The fact that is was marketed as an “all your work in the cloud” machine? I’m sure everyone you ask will give you a different answer.

At the start of the Chromebook revolution, I was an early adopter. The idea of them was too intriguing not to and like many, I ran to my local computer store to pick up a cheap, sleek and light Chromebook.

Chromebooks. Thin, light, cheap and essentially useless without an Internet connection?

My first impressions were positive but the limitations of what a Chromebook can do quickly surfaced their ugly head. Turns out that the world (and the various factors that the world entails, such as internet connectivity) wasn’t quite ready for Chromebooks and for those of us who took the dive, we quickly found our Chromebooks collecting dust in the back of our wardrobes.

With the announcement of the Pixelbook, Chromebook hype is rearing its head once again. Not enough for a second wind but enough that a few of us, I’m sure, have begun thinking about them once more. Heck — if you’re reading this I’m sure you are most likely on the same thought pattern. “Oh, Chromebooks. I remember them, I wonder if they’ve gotten any better?”.

There was one minor change since those “Nice idea, failed concept” days of a good few years ago. No, technology hasn’t advanced in the Chromebook field all that much and Internet connectivity/speeds have not gotten any better (as far as I can tell).

Various vendors have created Chromebooks over the years. The most notable being Acer and Samsung.

No, what changed was the fact that Google introduced Chromebooks into their most prized ecosystem — the Android ecosystem.

Many Chromebooks on the market today have pretty much-unfiltered access to the Google Play Store. At first, this might not sound like too much of a deal but in terms of Chromebooks, their purpose and everything in between, it turns a cute gimmick into a workflow changer.

In the days of old, the most you could do on a Chromebook is browse the Internet, access Google Drive (which at the time was simply the Google Docs suite) and visit the Chrome Store. That part is important.

Google Drive suite has an impressive but limited amount of tools to help bring your documents to life.

The Chrome Store was a collection of web applications that you could attach to Chrome to extend functionality in various ways — usually crappy, basic games such as Solitaire. Think of a heavily gimped Android Store with applications that wouldn’t feel out of place on the original iPhone and you’re imagining it correctly.

So you had a range of budget device that you could write documents or play solitaire on. Not bad by any standards but in a world where smartphones were hitting a new fever peak, justifying spending half the price of a smartphone or tablet (where you’d get access to the iOS / Android store which was filled with thousands if not millions of applications) on something that was so limited felt like a wasted effort.

Smartphones and tablets have a crux that will always haunt them. Even with this crux though, they still managed to fight off the original run of Chromebooks like they were children’s toys. If I said to you “Snapdragon” — most of you would tell me that it is a CPU or GPU for mobile devices, which is close enough. If I said the Nvidia Tegra, you’d probably say the same thing which again, is pretty much correct.

Qualcomm is the easily the most widely known and respected mobile GPUs on the market to date.

But what if I turned to you and mentioned Intel? Does your mind jump to desktop and laptop machines? Intel has held a monopoly on CPU and integrated graphics systems for longer than most people remember. For good reason too, they’re good at what they are made to do.

Integrated graphics for dedicated enthusiasts, 3D workstations, and gamers across the globe is like asking for a side salad with your burger supreme. Whilst it’s nice to have around, you’re not really going to have a use for it — these people who need extensive graphical horsepower tend to rely on a dedicated graphics card.

Under these people’s noses, however, integrated graphics has always been evolving and mutating to fit general consumer needs. For example, did you know that Intel CPU’s that rock an Intel HD Graphics 620 can run Overwatch at medium settings at 30–60fps (it can even run at sub-30fps on the High graphics preset)?

A graph provided by Intel at a summit a number of years ago explaining in very basic fashion the top-level of the trends behind Integrated Graphics improvements.

Intel’s Integrated Graphics solutions are slowly making impressive gains in the GPU field. Whilst they might not topple a Nvidia 10 series graphics card anytime soon, the power they have been accumulating over the years can absolutely smash Android applications and games.

Android games and applications, in general, are aggressively optimized for a wide variety of devices. When you throw a CPU-GPU combo at it that can run recent releases at a respectable framerate into that mix? What you get is an impressive machine that feels like the top of the class.

Can you see where I’m going with this? Chromebooks, at least a good chunk of them, have always rocked Intel CPUs and more importantly Intel Integrated Graphics. Even the Intel Celeron CPUs (which some of the earlier Chromebooks used) have Integrated Graphics, which could absolutely smash Android gaming.

From Grand Theft Auto to Flappy Bird and back to Animal Crossing, Android gaming has exciting possibilities.

So when you unlock the Play Store for these Chromebooks, you’re turning them from low powered Laptops into some of the best Android devices on the market (in terms of sheer performance).

Recently, when taking my second look at Chromebooks, I purchased an Acer R11. A fun Laptop that can flip 360 to be a tent or a tablet, depending on your mood or whatever awkward position you’re sat in.

If I had purchased this a couple years ago, the most I could do is write documents and watch Youtube. Now, thanks to the Play Store integration, I can play the new Animal Crossing game, I can learn Japanese with Duolingo and I can even flex my piano playing chops with Synthesia.

Animal Crossing Pocket Camp recently released on Android and iOS devices. Luckily, a lot of Chromebooks now count as Android devices.

In fact, I’m writing this on the neat little Medium app from the Play Store, which in my opinion is a lot more of a comfortable experience when compared to the web experience, whilst listening to my music and idling in Adventure Capitalist, all whilst sitting at a bar drinking an ice-cold Coca-Cola wondering if this is the future I had always hoped would happen.

All in all, I’m beyond happy and even though this can’t be a complete replacement due to my need to use Windows Applications for my game development adventures, the Chromebook has finally become my daily driver. It only took 5 years.

Oh and before I go, for those interested. At first, before learning Chromebooks have now gained Android store support, I was looking for a big Android tablet with a nice keyboard. Naturally, this is possibly one of the biggest “Android Tablets” you can buy at almost 12 inches and having a fully fledged Laptop keyboard at your disposal apposed to some strange cloth or rubber variant? The experience can’t be beaten. Not today anyway.

With the 360 hinges of recent Chromebooks, there is no need for a detachable keyboard.

As always, thanks for reading and I hope you’ve found some use in my words!