ChromeOS has come a long way since Google launched it in 2011, over 10 years ago now. It has support for Android apps, Linux programs, better integration with Android phones, and lots of UI improvements. I hadn’t touched the OS in years, so I decided to give it a try while I temporarily moved to another workstation and then went on vacation.
This experience did not thrill me. For my workflow, ChromeOS was good, but not as good as macOS or Linux. And for personal use on the road, I didn’t find Google’s desktop OS enough. Again, I would much rather use macOS or Linux, or even Windows, for my mobile needs.
I spent most of a fortnight with ChromeOS as my exclusive desktop OS. Here is what I found.
ChromeOS: the good one
ChromeOS has many strengths, obviously. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be the education juggernaut that it is. To be Chrome-centric, it’s an incredibly efficient operating system, boots up in seconds and runs well even on underpowered machines.
I installed ChromeOS Flex on two devices, a low-power Celeron mini PC (Geekom MiniAir 11) and a 2012 MacBook Pro. In terms of performance, I enjoyed the simplistic experience. Web pages loaded fairly quickly and I barely noticed any lag.
The strength of ChromeOS lies in this simplicity that I just mentioned. It excels at providing the basic computing experience that most people need. Since so much of our lives are online these days, ChromeOS offers most of what you could ask for if you just want access to email, social media, online educational content, and more.
But those pros for ChromeOS didn’t outweigh the cons for me.
ChromeOS: the bad one
My biggest issue comes down to this: app compatibility, especially in ChromeOS Flex. This has long been a problem with ChromeOS, a common complaint many have had since 2011, so I won’t retread the old ground, but even with Linux compatibility I’ve struggled with my work and personal workflows .
The first was actually the least offensive. I had access to Chrome so I could get all my work bookmarks, history, etc. Linux allowed me to do some things I needed, like GIMP, but other things struggled, like Slack. In fact, with Slack and Discord, the apps wouldn’t work. Every time I logged in they opened a browser tab and redirected me to the web version. While I could live without Discord on my MacBook, Slack on the web was much more difficult than the native program.
ChromeOS Flex does not support the Play Store. Google has touted Android app support as one of the ChromeOS usability issues mitigation tools. In my previous experience, I found it useful as a patchwork solution. But its moderate benefits don’t honor Flex, meaning my homebrew Chromebox and Chromebook were crippled.
The Linux compatibility layer is nice, I will say. The fact that it uses Debian and apt made things smoother for me, having learned most of what I know about Linux on Debian-based distros. I was able to install some software, like VS Code, Obsidian and Synology Drive thanks to DEB and Flatpak files. But getting Wine to work properly proved difficult – I never got Scrivener to work properly, despite following the same steps I followed on Manjaro and Fedora.
I respect ChromeOS for most people, but if you need native software that doesn’t have a web version, your success will be hit or miss. I was fine until I encountered things not launching (I had a lot of issues with AppImages, for example), or slow performance on some Flatpaks, even on the modern Celeron-based mini PC.
All in all, I happily went back to my Fedora workstation when I had the chance, and managed to install macOS Monterey on my 2012 MacBook Pro, despite it not being supported. (Yes, I technically have a Hackintosh now – maybe I’ll tell you about that experience someday too.)
Chrome OS: Outlook
From this experience, I learned that ChromeOS is not for me. So who is it for? It is intended for people who need a simpler computing experience. There’s a reason it’s so strong in educational settings. I also recommend ChromeOS to less tech-savvy people who just want to browse the internet, but still want a PC instead of relying on a phone or tablet.
But for me? That’s not it, boss. And it’s good. So if you’re like me and use a lot of native software that doesn’t have a web option, I’d stay away from ChromeOS as my primary OS. It certainly let me down when I wish it weren’t.