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Google Chrome OS review

Should you consider Google's cloud-based computers for your business?

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Chrome's focus on simplicity means that it isn't as flexible as a Windows or Mac laptop. It doesn't care about local networking – there's no native support for Samba or NFS for connection to network shares – and it doesn't include printer drivers, so you'll need a printer that supports Google's Cloud Print service or access to a PC or Mac running the Chrome browser and connected to a non-Cloud Print printer.

The built-in PDF viewer can't cope with annotating or annotated PDF files, some key media formats (FLV, AC3, DTS audio) don't work, and we've encountered odd behaviour after software updates.

A clearly rattled Microsoft has been running a campaign highlighting Chrome's shortcomings, noting that Chromebooks can't run PC games, Microsoft Office or key programs such as Photoshop or Skype. That's true, and while the lack of PC gaming is hardly a deal-breaker for business or education customers the other omissions may matter to your organisation.

Chrome Office
You can run the Office Online apps in Chrome OS

Alternative apps

There are alternatives, of course – Google's own Docs app is a decent Word rival, and the free Office Online apps run fine. Web-based image editors such as Adobe's basic Photoshop editor work too. However, in many cases you'll need to substitute a web-based or Google-powered service for a familiar package, so for example instead of Skype you could use Google's own Hangouts.

Chrome OS apps come via the Chrome Web Store, where you'll find a range of business apps from invoicing and CRM tools to big hitters such as Salesforce.com. There's a strong US bias to the selection, though, and as with Google Play there are lots of apps of dubious quality. As you might expect the most impressive apps are Google's own.

Later this year key Android apps will also come to the platform, but for now apps have to be written specifically for Chrome. If you need to create your own bespoke apps, any standards-compliant web app that works in recent web browsers should work just fine in Chrome.

Chrome tiled
Chrome allows you to multi-task effectively

Tablet comparisons

There are several reasons to consider a Chromebook over a tablet. Not everybody wants to type on glass, and unlike Apple's current iOS you can properly multi-task on Chrome OS. In addition to multiple browser tabs you can open multiple browser windows, and there's a nice snapping feature that enables you to sit two windows side-by-side – so you might edit a document in one window while researching in the other. There's also a small but growing selection of "For your Desktop" apps that run in their own separate windows, delivering a more PC-like experience.

There are two other reasons to consider a Chromebook over a tablet. The first is malware – Chrome doesn't suffer from any of the malware currently targeted at Android users. Secondly, there's the issue of price. With the exception of the overpriced Chromebook Pixel, you can buy a good quality Chromebook for less than you'd pay for a good 7-inch tablet and around half the cost of an iPad.

Chrome fullscreen
It's an ideal operating system for light tasks like writing

Total cost of ownership

Like most tech firms Google promises that its product will make your balance sheet better, and the big promise here is massively reduced total cost of ownership (TCO). Having an OS that's little more than a web browser means training requirements are minimal, security problems should be few and far between and the combined cost of hardware and software should be significantly lower than traditional Windows laptops, let alone more expensive Macs.

That's true enough – Chromebooks cost as little as £191 (around $315, AU$340) – but Microsoft is planning to fight back with equally inexpensive Windows laptops that we'll see later this year, and Apple is pushing into the enterprise in partnership with IBM. For now, though, Chromebooks offer unbeatable value for money if you can live with their limitations.