Google’s ChromeOS operating system and the laptops that it powers celebrate their 10th 'birthday' this year.
The company is marking the occasion by introducing some great new features (see below) which, along with various refinements to existing tools, make ChromeOS a powerful operating system that's focused on simplicity and ease of use. And this, along with the more affordable prices of some Chromebooks, is one of the main reasons people buy them.
It’s been a long journey though, which hasn’t always run smooth. So to accompany the birthday wishes, here’s my ten-year story of growing up with ChromeOS.
2011: Hello Chromebooks, goodbye netbooks
I first encountered ChromeOS around 2011 when I reviewed the Samsung Chromebook Series 5, one of the first devices of its type to be released. This was a time when netbooks were a dominant feature of the budget PC market and the iPad had only just arrived the year before.
Into this changing landscape came the strange idea of a laptop that required a permanent internet connection to do anything at all.
I liked the hardware of the Samsung Series 5, with its slim, lightweight design, full-size keyboard and 12.1in display. This feature alone was a blessed relief from the cramped confines of netbooks which typically had 9in screens.
But, with its 16GB of storage and under-powered Intel Atom processor, the device felt more like a proof of concept than a viable alternative to Windows laptops for anyone who wanted to be able to work on the go.
And it was Google’s new ChromeOS that provided that alternative to Windows 7 (and, subsequently Windows 8 and Windows 10).
Taking much inspiration from the hugely popular Chrome, ChromeOS felt a lot like a web browser with a few extra features. In some ways this was hugely refreshing, with startup times being seconds rather than a couple of minutes with Windows. Plus, there was no bloatware to deal with or need for antivirus software. You just logged in with your Google account and you were good to go.
And that was revolutionary in 2011.
Of course, this lightweight freedom came with some serious caveats. Most of the software you used on Windows didn't work on ChromeOS. Microsoft Office? No. Photoshop? No. Apple iTunes? No.
Instead, you used online alternatives - the new-fangled 'web apps' such as Google Docs, Sheets and Drive. And if you could stomach the change, Google's apps were capable alternatives for basic stuff, but power users quickly found their limitations.
And since everything you did in ChromeOS was online, your Chromebook needed an internet connection. At the time, most mobile operators took a dim view of tethering, and many banned it entirely. So you couldn't simply enable a Wi-Fi hotspot on your phone and connect your Chromebook to it.
Don't forget, too, that data allowances were pretty stingy a decade ago. What was the point of a computer that was practically kneecapped unless it had access to the internet? The whole venture seemed a brave attempt, but one that was surely doomed to fail.
2013: Offline access
My next encounter with ChromeOS came in the form of the Samsung Chromebook Series 3 a couple of years later. Again, I was faced with a lightweight device with a very comfortable keyboard and touchpad, plus battery life that put most Windows laptops to shame.
But this time something was different. Some apps now worked offline, syncing any changes to the cloud as soon as an internet connection became available, and ChromeOS had added a basic desktop in addition to the web browser interface.
These were small details, but ones that made ChromeOS a more workable option for general computing duties, many of which had begun to migrate online anyway.
I still couldn’t edit the audio of my podcast or do more than just the most basic of photo editing, but I was able to write articles, browse the web, keep in contact via social media, stream content online, and also roam to the lands where Wi-Fi feared to tread, knowing that I could still get some work done. I was hooked.
The internet changed rapidly too, with public Wi-Fi access more readily available and services preferring to host content on their servers for streaming rather than letting you download it. And this meant Chromebooks started to become the kind of computer that was enough for most people most of the time.
It’s telling then that the Samsung Chromebook Series 3 remained in constant use by my entire family over the next few years, all of whom enjoyed the simplicity and ease offered by ChromeOS. That little featherweight device got some miles under its belt and remains one of my favourite computers to this day.
2013: Pixel power
Another laptop that I fell in love with the same year was the Chromebook Pixel, Google’s own flagship device that seemed to exist only to prove a point. Up until then, Chromebooks had made their name by being very affordable alternatives to PCs and Macs, but the Chromebook Pixel was premium in every department. The angular design was beautiful, and the aluminium frame made it look like it came from the same stable as Apple’s MacBook Pros.
The key difference though was the 3:2 aspect ratio display, which was more suited to the taller nature of webpages, plus the addition of a touchscreen. What’s the need for that? Well, as we’ve seen with smartphones and tablets, the internet is touch-focused, and the Chromebook Pixel was the first hardware to really take advantage of this, utilising the touch-capabilities built-into ChromeOS.
To this day, I can’t think of a laptop that I’ve found more desirable than the Chromebook Pixel, but it did have one drawback and that, sadly, was ChromeOS itself. While the software shone on cheap hardware, it was hard to overlook the fact you couldn't run the sorts of powerful apps that you could on, say, a MacBook Air, when you were spending around £1,000/US$1,000.
The hardware may have arrived, but ChromeOS was still a work in progress.
2016: Android apps
To counter this lack of dedicated software, Google announced in 2016 that it had adapted ChromeOS so that it could use Android apps. This immediately added many of the missing pieces when it came to messaging, games, productivity and other software gaps that existed on the platform. This also brought some fragmentation, as only newer Chromebooks could access the Google Play Store, and even then performance was spotty.
Android already had issues with apps not scaling very well on the larger screens of tablets, as most were simply stretched to fit the space rather than developers bothering to design them to use the space properly.
This was made more obvious by Apple not allowing this approach with iPhone and iPad apps, as both had to have specific versions which featured interfaces tailored to the device in question.
ChromeOS fell into the same trap as Android, with the apps appearing in pop-up windows that retained the dimensions they would have on a phone. The functionality was there, but a refined experience it was not.
Over time things improved and since many Chromebooks now have touchscreens, the addition of Android apps is certainly a positive part of the ChromeOS experience. A couple of years later, Google also updated ChromeOS so that it could work with Linux apps, and you can run some Windows apps via the Crossover app, making the platform even stronger.
2017: Windows 10 S
One of the strongest arguments for ChromeOS is that it's easy to use. But there's also the security aspect: you're less likely to get hit by any viruses or malware because apps can only be installed from the ChromeOS app store or Google Play store.
Seeing the growth in popularity of ChromeOS devices, especially in the education market where it has become the dominant player over the past five years, Microsoft decided to launch its own sandboxed version of Windows that would restrict the software you can use and put a major focus on security: enter Windows 10 S.
This made its debut on the Surface Laptop, and promised improvements to speed, setup times and security. You could only install software directly from the Windows Store and it was a clear shot across the bows of ChromeOS. Indeed, Windows 10 S was designed to work well on cheaper hardware.
Skip forward to today and ChromeOS celebrates its 10th anniversary while Windows 10 S was effectively retired within months of launching. It was quickly renamed 'Windows 10 in S mode' and exists as an optional mode for those that want it. And you can bet there aren't many.
So, how did Google’s software see off the might of Microsoft?
The main reason could well be that ChromeOS has slowly evolved from the basic browser it was back in 2011 to more of a fully-featured operating system that incorporates offline work, touch-enabled functions, Android and Linux apps and a familiar design thanks to the ever-popular Chrome browser.
And all the while it has retained its easy-to-understand and simple interface. In contrast, what most people see when they look at Windows 10 S is all the things it can’t do when compared to the full version.
For a more thorough look at the differences between them, read Windows 10 S vs ChromeOS.
ChromeOS still has plenty of room to grow, with offline photo editing, music production software and serious gaming all uncharted territory, but in its first ten years Google has built a platform that lets most people do what they need to do online, safely and without the need for constant updates or additional security software.
It isn't for everyone, but if what ChromeOS has to offer chimes with you then there’s a good chance you'll find it’s all that you really need from an operating system.
The first ten years may not have gone entirely smoothly - there have been a fair few missteps along the way, such as the ill-fated Pixel Slate - but the next ten years could see the emergence of something truly special. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what happens.
ChromeOS 10th anniversary new features
Ah yes, you thought I'd forgotten. But no: here are the new features coming to a Chromebook near you.
Phone Hub & improved Wi-Fi Sync
You can already unlock your Chromebook with an Android phone, but the introduction of the new Phone Hub means you’ll be able to control various elements of your smartphone all from your Chromebook.
You can reply to text messages, check the battery level and signal strength, look at web pages you were looking at in Chrome and locate your phone if it goes missing.
Wi-Fi sync is also getting a boost, meaning you’ll be able to connect to networks by using the login details already present on your Android phone or other devices using ChromeOS.
Google is also promising to bring Nearby Share to the platform in the next few months, so you can quickly and easily move files between ChromeOS and Android devices.
New desktop tools
Another area getting some attention is the desktop experience, with several tools being added. There’s a new Screen Capture feature, allowing you to take snapshots and screen recordings. You can already take screenshots on a Chromebook, but the new feature adds more precision and enhanced capabilities.
Tote is a new area where you can pin important files you want quick access to, as well as a place where ChromeOS will store recently downloaded files or ones created with the Screen Capture tool.
Media controls are being moved to Quick Settings, making it more convenient to adjust the volume, pause or skip tracks, but if you prefer you can pin the controls on the Shelf instead.
Desks now retains all the windows you had set up if you reboot your Chromebook, plus a new Clipboard will hold the last five things you copied, all of which are accessible through the Launcher key. There’s also a new Quick Answers feature that can give you definitions, translations or unit conversions of text just by right-clicking on the word or figure.
The last of the new additions is the ability for parents to create school accounts for their kids during the initial set up process, (see how to setup a Chromebook for more details) meaning children can access the various software their need for their classes, with the added convenience of replacing a password with a PIN code to make signing in less of a chore.
If you haven’t explored a Google-powered laptop yet, here’s our pick of the best Chromebooks you can buy today.