Chrome OS versus Linux: Which should you choose? | Tech Guru Blog

Chrome OS vs Linux.  Linux vs Chrome OS.  Many folks are asking these days which platform is the best alternative to running Windows or Mac OS.  Currently I use the Lubuntu Linux distribution, which is a lighter version of the popular Ubuntu.  I have it installed on an early edition Lenovo S10 netbook.  I also have Google CR-48 Chrome Laptop from the Google Test Pilot program.  In my experience, each platform has its own advantages and disadvantages.  In this article, I will discuss the pros and cons of using each platform.

My Background

I have been involved in personal computers since back in the mid-1980s as a part of my employment with the US Government. I have had a chance to see a good bit of the evolution of personal computers and their operating systems. The personal computer has become my main tool for communications, offering a fixed address for a “mobile guy”. It has been the most cost-effective way to stay in contact with people. In other roles, the personal computer has also served as a gadget to be played with, as an entertainment center, and as a source of excruciating aggravation. ;) Computers have also served as a painfully expense hobby as well.

In recent time, my mobile computing needs have been fulfilled by two devices, my Lubuntu based netbook and my Chrome OS based CR-48 Laptop.  I will now take a look at the pluses and minuses of using each system.

Chrome OS Advantages

Chrome OS offers a “one stop” solution for the user who simply wants to access and utilize the Internet. The user need not understand operating systems, viruses or how to defrag a hard drive. All of this is accomplished for you, seamlessly and transparently.  Simply turn on the computer, access the Internet and go. You only need to know that the battery has to be charged or that the device has to be plugged into an AC connection.  Beyond that, you are free to go about your Internet-based life.  As a middle-aged guy, I like that!  No more endless hassles with operating system problems such as required patches, installation of virus and malware software, or tracking down configuration issues. And those are just a few of the hassles experienced on PCs!  With Chrome OS devices such as the Google Chromebook, you just find an Internet connection and go!

Oh yeah. Chrome OS devices do not require maintenance costs like other platforms. You need not buy another thing! No software costs, no upgrade costs, no extra hardware costs.  You get free updates and plenty of free apps, including Gmail and Google Docs.  OK, so maybe you’ll have to buy a case for your Chromebook :-) . You may also be inclined to spend money on accessories such as external keyboards, mice and removable media.  These items are often nice to have but they are all optional.

Video: Introducing Google Chromebook

As CR-48 Test Pilot, I have really come to appreciate Chrome OS and have seen how the future may unfold.  I think th industry is heading in the direction of low maintenance devices, cloud storage, free apps, and hassle free ownership.  Regarding the promises of Chrome OS, I’m in, but I’m not completely in… yet.  Chrome OS is still a work in progress and requires some changes before it can reach its potential.

Chrome OS Disadvantages

While Chrome OS has a lot going for it, there are a few issues that need to be addressed.  First, Chrome OS machines are largely useless as computers when not connected to the Internet.  There aren’t a lot of Chrome OS applications that work offline.  Offline versions of Gmail, Calendar, and Google Docs are being developed but are not yet available. Perhaps this will improve over time, but for now: No internet connection = Not very useful.

Second, there are some significant limitations in managing data on a Chrome OS device. I find moving files to the cloud with your Chromebook is not as easy as it is when using a Linux OS computer. The Chrome OS file manager is very primitive and lacks many typical features found in other operating systems.  Many common file types such as zip files, Microsoft Office files, and some media files must be uploaded to the internet before they can be accessed.  While I think it’s ok for data to live in the cloud, Chrome OS needs better support for accessing and managing files locally.

My third big gripe with Chrome OS is that it’s largely incompatible with many types of peripherals and upgrades.  CD/DVD drives and external hard drives are not supported.  Currently, Bluetooth is not supported.  Support for many types of cameras and camcorders is questionable.  As of right now, you cannot simply connect a standard printer to a Chromebook.  Instead, you need to share a printer connected to a PC or Mac, or you must buy a printer that supports cloud printing.

Linux Advantages

First, the Lubuntu Linux distribution I use allows me to do much of what Chrome OS does.  In fact, Lubuntu Linux mimics Chrome OS by including the non-branded Chromium version of the Chrome browser.  Unlike the Chrome OS device however, Lubuntu leaves me with a computer that’s usable off-line.

Second, all of my “offline” data is right there on my computer, easily transferable to removable media.  I can access this data as long as my computer turns on, even when it isn’t connected to the Internet.  On a Chromebook, if I don’t use an internet connection, I may not be able to access my data.

Video: Why Linux is BETTER!

Third, I can install Linux on hardware I already own and be able to do most of what I can with Chrome OS.  Economy of operation: using equipment I already have.  While the dedicated Chromebook hardware looks awesome, spending anywhere from $350 to $500 for a new Chromebook is not necessary if I already have an old netbook that can run Linux.  I can use those savings to buy other gadgets!

Linux Disadvantages

One big disadvantage of Linux is that it may not support your hardware.  While the Google Chromebook is designed to fully support Chrome OS, Linux may not support all of the components in the device you plan to use.  This includes web cams, touch pads, network or wifi cards, Bluetooth modules, or proprietary hardware buttons such as volume controls or functional keys.  This issue can often be resolved by sticking with fully compatible hardware or by locating appropriate drivers.  Working around compatibility issues may not be a big challenge for the technically inclined. However, unsophisticated users may find troubleshooting Linux compatibility issues too much of a hassle.  Where your Chrome OS Chromebook is simply a “turn on and go” proposition, Linux installations may require some effort.

Linux devices require more maintenance than Chromebooks.  The Chromebook is updated automatically and transparently.  The Chromebook utilizes data stored in the cloud which is backed up automatically.  Thus there is no extra software to install and no user intervention required.  On the other hand, Linux requires a bit more hands-on maintenance.  The user is required to keep their Linux installation up to date with OS and security patches.  If an upgrade causes a problem, the Linux user will have to troubleshoot the problem.  The Linux user must also ensure that their data is backed up.  This includes installing and configuring backup software and managing backup storage space.

Finally, the Chromebook is likely to be easier to use than a device running Linux.  The Chrome OS user experience lies mainly in the Chrome browser.  Since most computer users are already familiar with web browsers, the learning curve for the Chromebook is likely to be very small.  While browsing the web on a Linux device should be the same experience as with a Chromebook, navigating the operating system may require users to learn something new.  Also, the usability of Linux is impacted by the higher maintenance requirement mentioned above.

So where does that leave us?

Chrome OS is by far an easier way to access and use the Internet.  In addition, I believe the Chromebook is a ground-breaking evolution in personal computing.  The world needs low cost, low maintenance computers and the Chromebook is destined to fulfill this need.  The current limitations are being addressed on a daily basis and I believe cloud computing and Chrome OS will continue to evolve.  However, I can understand why some people may want to wait for the platform to become a bit more mature.

Linux can provide a Chrome OS-like operating environment while still retaining your conventional computer-like environment.  Linux gives you a virus-free (currently) operating system with many useful, free programs, just like with Chrome OS.  Unlike Chrome OS, there are many good applications that work offline.  Plus you have offline access to most if not all of your data.  On the downside, Linux isn’t as easy to use or maintain as a Chromebook.  Some will find setting up and maintaining a Linux device too much of a hassle.

So what do you think?  Do you favor the low maintenance, easy to use Chrome OS based Chromebook?  Or do you favor the greater flexibility offered by the Linux platform? I invite you to add your thoughts in the comments section below, or in Chromebook Forum.  I see this discussion as a collaborative effort among computer users to find solutions they need today for a better tomorrow.  Let us know what you think.  Happy Computing!

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