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Chromebooks 101

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First Things First -- What is a Chromebook?

If you're not familiar with a Chromebook, it's a relatively new type of PC (generally in laptop form) which Google introduced in the summer of 2011. Interaction with the PC is almost entirely in a familiar web browser type of interface. In fact, the Chromebook experience is very similar to the related Google Chrome browser you may be using on a Windows, Mac, or Linux PC.

The initial rationale was to provide a very low cost, network-centric PC to satisfy the needs of people who just browse the web and send email. The Chromebooks were to have minimal on-board storage since most files could be hosted on servers on the internet (the "cloud"). A side-benefit of this is almost instant startup and shutdown with little need for maintenance such as backup of files. And finally, because of the lessons already learned from Windows PC's, security from malware has been designed in from the ground up.

The reality is, however, a bit different. Users aren't always connected to the internet, and they want to do more than just browse web sites and read their email. So since the 2011 introduction, they have been gradually gaining more "disconnected" functionality -- Email as well as other common office documents can be created, edited, and saved without being connected to the internet, and files can be transferred to and from USB flash sticks or hard disk drives. Game playing, movie watching, and viewing photos from digital cameras are also possible without being actively connected to the internet.

What is often confusing is that Google also earlier introduced another operating system called Android. It similarly largely assumes that you are connected to the internet, but is oriented more towards touch-screen devices such as phones or tablets. Phones or tablets are adequate for reading email, but if you have much input to do in the form of typing, a Chromebook is much more practical.

Why Get a Chromebook?

The initially conceived design features of Chromebooks are main reasons for going with them -- light-weight, low-cost hardware (often cheaper than tablets), simplicity, and security. The last point is perhaps the most important one in light of the explosion of malware on the internet. If you can limit your internet exposure to the relatively secure environment of a Chromebook, you can reduce the exposure of your PC's to viruses and other malware. This is particularly important if you are still running Windows XP or other old systems. Those older systems are best left disconnected from the internet entirely.

Which Chromebook?

Happily, as of early 2014, we are starting to have the problem of making a decision as to which Chromebook to buy. Initially, Chromebooks were only available from a few manufacturers making very low-end laptops and one very high-end model (Google's Pixel Chromebook) available at high cost from Google itself.

Today, there are more manufacturers and model options available than at introduction some 18-months ago, And the gap between low-end and high-end models are starting to fill in. There is even a model intended for the desktop to be released shortly.

My personal choice for diving into the Chromebook sea of choices was the Acer C720-2848 with the following features:

Acer C720 Chromebook
Acer C720 Chromebook
... all this for $200* from Amazon, delivered on a Sunday less than 36 hours after placing the order! This actually represents the current bottom-of-the-line offered today, yet is perfectly adequate for many uses as described below.

* Prices seem to vary even as I write this. Popular demand for Chromebooks seem to be driving prices up!

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