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The Chromebook Grows Up | Linux Journal

Android apps meet the desktop in the Chromebook.

What started out as a project to provide a cheap, functional, secure
and fast laptop experience has become so much more. Chromebooks in general
have suffered from a lack of street-cred acceptance. Yes, they did a
great job of doing the everyday basics—web browsing and…well, that
was about it. Today, with the integration of Android apps, all new and
recently built Chrome OS devices do much more offline—nearly as much
as a conventional laptop or desktop, be it video editing, photo editing
or a way to switch to a Linux desktop for developers or those who just
like to do that sort of thing.

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Figure 1. Pixelbook in the Dark

Before I go further, let me briefly describe the Linux road I’ve
traveled, driven by my curiosity to learn and see for myself how much
could be done in an Open Source world. I’ve used Linux and have been
a Linux enthusiast ever since I first loaded SUSE in 2003. About three
years later, I switched to Ubuntu, then Xubuntu, then Lubuntu, then
back to Ubuntu (I actually liked Unity, even though I was fine with
GNOME too). I have dual-booted Linux on several Gateway desktops and
Dell laptops, with Windows on the other partition. I also have owned a
Zareason laptop and most recently, a System 76 laptop—both exclusively
Ubuntu, and both very sound, well-built laptops.

Then, since I was due
for a new laptop, I decided to try a Chromebook, now that Android apps
would greatly increase the chances of having a good experience, and I was
right. Chrome OS is wicked fast, and it’s never crashed in my first six
months of using it. I mention this only to provide some background as
to why I think Chrome OS is, in my opinion, the Linux desktop for the
masses that’s been predicted for as long as I’ve used Linux. Granted,
it has a huge corporate behemoth in the form of Google behind it, but
that’s also why it has advanced in public acceptance as far as it
has. This article’s main purpose is to report on how far it has come
along and what to expect in the future—it’s a bright one!

Chromebooks now have access to Microsoft Office tools, which is a must for those
whose employers run only MS Office products. Although Google Docs does a
good job with basic document creation and conversion, and although you can
create a slide presentation with it, it won’t do things like watch
or create a PowerPoint presentation. That’s where the Microsoft
PowerPoint Android app comes in handy. If you need to watch one, simply
download the PowerPoint file and open it with PowerPoint (you can do this
without paying for Microsoft office). However, if you want to create
or edit one, you’ll have to pay for a yearly subscription or use
your company’s subscription.

It’s also now possible to do 4k Ultra HD video editing, albeit consumer-grade
video editing, not professional (think I-Movie), which addressed a reason for my
own avoidance of a Chromebook in the past.

Although Android apps don’t
work on some older Chromebooks, there is a way to see if your older
Chromebook is compatible. Go to your login picture in the lower-right corner and
click on it, then go to the settings wheel in the window. In settings, if
you see an option to enable the Google Play Store, your older Chromebook
can run Android apps if you enable it. If you don’t see this option,
it can’t.

What does Chrome OS still not do? High-end photo editing (aka a
full Adobe Photoshop app). There is the Adobe Lightroom Android app,
which is different photo-editing software that does many of the same things
Photoshop does for most people. The only functions it can’t do well
are major retouching and graphics editing other than photos. One thing it
does better than Photoshop, however, is not writing over raw images. That’s
the only shortcoming I can find in today’s Chromebook.

Some might
consider the lack of high-end gaming to be a shortcoming as well, but that’s
about to be addressed in the form of some very serious games coded for
Android mobile that actually could be a better experience on a Chromebook
(or a Chromebox for a desktop gaming experience). At the time of this writing, Epic’s Fortnite Battle
Royale
is coming soon to Android, marking the beginning of what
finally could bring great, well known games to Chromebooks. PUBG also
is developing games for Android. Of course, keyboard and mouse/touchpad
support is vital to make this truly work, and I do believe it will arrive
sooner rather than later, perhaps during this year.

Some Favorite
Android Apps on the Chromebook

Power Director is the first Android video-editing app I’ve ever used
that did everything I needed, with no hiccups, and it now works on
Chromebooks. Best of all, it edits and exports to your Chromebook’s
internal hard drive, offline. It’s also full-featured with 3D effects,
titling, audio mixing and up to 4K ultra HD video exporting. Granted,
to store any normal amount of video editing you’ll need one that has
at least 64GB, preferably 128GB or more. That means a high-end Chromebook
in the range of $500–$1,000, but the point here is just that it even can be
done. Getting the 4k exporting and slow-motion effects means paying for a $6
add-on pack; otherwise, Power Director is free. So, it isn’t the always-free
software environment to which some Linux users have grown accustomed, but $6
for Power Director’s extra features is still a great value.

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Figure 2. Power Director brings 4k Ultra HD offline video editing to
Chromebooks.

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Figure 3. Export to 4k Ultra HD or lower res settings if you prefer.

Now, let’s talk network file management.

As is the case with all Android apps, there are many to choose from—some great, some mediocre and some just plain horrible. I tried nearly
a dozen different network file manager apps, and all were either terrible,
didn’t work or both, except one. I was very surprised that my favorite
network file manager for my phone, ES File Explorer, simply would not
function when installed on my Chromebook. This might be because
my Chromebook is the Google Pixelbook and uses an Intel processor,
and ES might work only on ARM processors, but I digress.

The one app I discovered
that did everything right is called Smart File Manager. It finds all of
my network drives and moves files easily back and forth from all of
them. So you no longer have to depend on Google Drive to store and move
your files from a Chromebook.
Figure 4 is a screenshot of my network view
on Smart File Manager.

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Figure 4. Smart File Manager makes it easy to move files to and from
your Chromebook, via your home network.

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Figure 5. A user-friendly view of your network and Chromebook sources for
moving files.

What about email alternatives? After trying several apps, the Blue Mail
app was an unexpected surprise, as I’d never heard of it before. It was
the first email app I’ve ever installed that detected
the correct incoming and outgoing IMAP email settings automatically. All I had to do
was type in my email address from my ISP (not my Gmail account). If you
need to access your messages offline, this is the best Android email
app I could find for a Chromebook.

Personally, I like using many of the native Chrome apps that come baked
in to all Chromebooks, be it the Chrome browser, Gmail, Google Docs,
Google Hangouts and so on. It is nice, however, to know that many
more options outside the Google ecosystem now exist should you desire to find
them. However, the Google Play Store makes it easy to find Android apps, and many of
them are free.

When you first launch an Android app, it most likely
will appear in a mobile-device-size screen. When you click the resize
square in the upper-right corner, it always will come with a warning
that it might not function correctly in full-screen mode. I have yet
to find an app I liked that had this problem, so go ahead and resize,
and things probably will work as they should.

Once you open an app in full-screen mode
for a Chromebook, it will default to full screen each time you open an
Android app thereafter. As time goes by, this should stop being an issue,
as more Android developers make screen-size detection automatic.

Tablets

Although interest in Android tablets has declined in recent years, Chrome
OS is moving into that form factor with the Chrome OS experience.
Acer recently introduced the first Chromebook tablet: the
Acer Chromebook Tab 10. And the first detachable
laptop/tablet Chromebook, the HP X2, also is now available. These are just a
few examples of the inevitable
broadening of the marketing scope for Chrome OS on both ends of the
economic spectrum. On the other end of this spectrum is the Google
Pixelbook, which was released in November 2017. High-end specs include up to an Intel I7
Kaby Lake processor with 512GB NVMe SSD of storage, 16GB of RAM and a
backlit keyboard standard. I have the Intel I5, 128GB version of this,
and it’s joy to use everyday. For those who prefer a traditional
desktop experience, there are Chromeboxes from many manufacturers in
all varieties of specs and prices as well.

Distributions

If you like your Linux distro, you can keep your Linux distro.
Chrome OS is more like a Linux distro than a true OS, in that it is
running on the Linux operating system. This makes sense, given Chrome’s roots in the
open-source Chromium project. It’s also why you can run Chrome OS
and Xubuntu side by side in a chroot environment. Xubuntu’s Xfce desktop is
the default. You can run Ubuntu instead, but Unity isn’t
as smooth an experience as Xfce on most Chromebooks.

Crouton

If you want, you
also can go without a GUI and do everything in the terminal. It does
involve switching the Chromebook to developer mode, then installing
Crouton from GitHub. Once done, you can hotkey between the two, with no need
to dual-boot. If this interests you, you should know that some Ubuntu
software hasn’t been compiled to work on ARM processors, so this
option is more likely to work consistently on a Chromebook with Intel
x86 or AMD64 processors. And, if you wish to return to the original Chrome OS
state, it’s as easy as getting out of developer mode and letting Chrome OS
overwrite all of the changes you made. For more information on Crouton,
see the project’s GitHub
page
.

Crostini

There is a program called Crostini that
will bring a natively running Linux
terminal in a container to Chromebooks. Linux apps and/or a distro
can run securely in the terminal as well.
Imagine all of the developer tools you need, accessed via
a terminal inside the lightweight Chrome OS? No need for Crouton to
get your work done as a developer. Containers in general could be the
final step in getting Chromebooks on a level playing field with Windows
and Mac. For example, any time you use an Android app on a Chromebook,
you’re running it in a container that isolates them to not affect the
Chrome OS running on your Chromebook. Crostini does the same thing for
developers, isolating what you’re developing from the Chrome OS to
maintain its stability. Crostini would make using Crouton unnecessary
and would be much more secure, in that you would not need to enter into
developer mode and chroot, like you do with Crouton. Once enabled, you
would see the option to download Crostini in the settings menu on any non-managed
Chrome OS device. Crostini is currently available in both the dev and beta channels of Chrome OS version 68 and is expected to arrive in the stable channel by version 69 in mid-September.

Chromebooks and Education

Another Chromebook foothold is devices for education. Apple recently made a
publicity splash with the introduction of a $299 iPad for students to use at
school and home. There was one problem with this scheme.
Chromebooks—that is,
functional laptops with keyboards—start at $149 and have for quite a while. A
$150 price difference may not seem like much to some people, but for school
districts buying many of these in bulk on the taxpayer’s dime, Chromebooks are
a sensible option.

Last year, Chromebooks made up 58% of computing devices shipped
to schools, while Apple devices dropped 19%, down an embarrassing
50% from 2014, according to data from the market research firm
Futuresource. Another fact to consider is that keyboards are a necessity for
any classroom above the second grade, and the Chromebook’s keyboards
have stood up to that abuse for years now.

With everything being stored in the cloud,
what the student does at school is easily retrieved and worked
on at home as homework. Let’s not forget the baked-in Google Docs,
Gmail and Classroom that students likely already are familiar with and have
been since 2012. They also are all cross-platform and free, which is something
Apple’s walled garden of expensive software has never delivered.

My
son was the first to buy a Chromebook in my family, which was his choice, but he
did ask for my advice before he bought it. That was in 2013, and he still
uses it every day, long after he got his bachelor’s degree in 2014.
He loves it and wants to buy another one soon. He’s also a millennial
who previously owned a MacBook, and I’m sure he’s not alone in this
transition of preferences. Once he discovered he could manage his iTunes
playlist on a Chromebook using Spotify Premium, he was completely sold on a
Chromebook! My son’s experience with a Chromebook is multiplied by the
thousands, maybe millions, worldwide who have had similar good experiences
with a Chromebook. This, more than any other explanation, is why the
Chromebook has flourished and will continue to do so well into the future.

Conclusion

So is a Chromebook right for you? As with most purchases, it has to
provide the right combination of features for the price, and it also should be an
improvement over what you have been using. Admittedly, it’s not for
everyone, but it’s a good choice for a growing number of those who simply
want an easy-to-use, safe and quick laptop experience. Did I mention that
it boots up in five seconds to your login? And finally, for me, the introduction of
Android apps was all the push I needed to buy one.

This leads to my view on the future of Chromebooks.
The low-end budget-minded versions are more up to date, useful and visually
attractive. However, the more enticing news is the production of higher-end,
more useful and, dare I say, elegant-looking Chromebooks. Yes, they
cost more, but they also do more. In the case of the newest-edition Google
Pixelbook I own, they are beautiful pieces of technology anybody would be
proud to bring into any boardroom of a major corporation. I know that
doesn’t matter to some people (myself included), but it’s good to
see this push in great laptop design for Chromebooks.

The focus of this article has been on what the Chromebook can now do
that they previously couldn’t do. Wrap your brain around how this extremely
light operating system is doing nearly as much as much more heavy,
memory-intensive operating systems that tend to process slower and, in the case
of Windows, need anti-virus and anti-malware software constantly running
in the background to keep your experience safe, using resources that
otherwise would go to whatever you’re doing at the moment. This is what
is called progress, and in the case of personal computing, Chromebooks
are what progress looks like. The mission is far from complete, but
it’s already proving itself as a viable computer choice for many people.

There’s also some speculation on the future of the Chrome and
Android. Google is in the early stages of testing a new OS called Fuchsia
that is not built on Linux. It’s built on a new open-source microkernel
called Zircon, and the focus is on one unified OS for mobile devices and
laptops/desktops—or in Google’s world, pulling Chrome OS and Android
OS functions into one new OS that would replace both.

That is one gigantic undertaking, but if any company has the cash
and patience to pull it off, it’s Google. If it can do it, the new
Fuchsiabook or Fuchsiaphone (my creation, but who knows) could be simply
amazing! This is what progress looks like.

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