After a long time of ignoring this platform and only ever having tried CloudReady (which this is based on), I tried to install ChromeOS on some of my older machines. While the older ones like Thinkpad X200 performed poorly as expected, newer machines performed well. I’ll elaborate on a few different points in which I see the value of this OS.
There aren’t many options to choose from and when installing this OS, you are going to wipe your existing OS. If you just want to try it out, boot up the USB, log in, play around, reboot and you’re back to your original system. Now the installation could use a bit more options, like what harddrive (or partition) I want to install it to. At least the harddrive part would be nice.
One thing that I noticed compared to most Linux distros (if this can even be considered a Linux distro) is that the graphics aren’t glitchy, there’s no screen tearing typical for Linux out of the box, all features of the given laptop work, including WiFi, bluetooth, special keys, brightness controls – mostly thanks to the Linux kernel, but normally there could still be some tweaking left to do in other distros.
What surprised me was that even compared to some lightweight desktop (like XFCE) with Chrome (or Chromium), this felt very smooth out of the box. No weird lag, no tearing, no random malfunctions. The perfect Linux “distro” for everyone perhaps?
Further comparisons to Linux desktops
Take Gnome for example. To me, it is the most professionally-looking Linux desktop. But I still think ChromeOS looks better and is more practical in every way. It feels more “finished”. As in, nothing is missing, it serves its purpose and I don’t need to mess with the system anymore. It’s an OS that one would give to their grandparents and expect no complaints. It’s a bit more tedious to set up Ubuntu/Mint/Fedora in such way that would require this little technical intervention.
Automation these days is big. And while I am not exactly a fan of automatic updates on work machines, something used for browsing the web (and this is what most people do anyway) should not require a single thought from the user about updating or configuring anything but the most basic things.
Similarities with Android
Throughout using ChromeOS, I found it very similar to Android. Android also tries to manage everything for you – ChromeOS does this too. For example, the weird way they both partition the drive for the sake of security, immutability and easier updates. Auto-updates are common on both. And of course, the visual language almost matches that on Google Pixel devices.
A very important thing which most OS vendors aren’t all doing yet is encryption by default. There is no reason to not have the underlying storage encrypted. And there is no excuse in the world to not have user data encrypted. ChromeOS utilizes TPM for encryption (although not sure how it works without TPM as I didn’t have such machine on hand). This should be done by default on every OS these days. Mobile OSes got this right half a decade ago.
Crostini aka Linux on ChromeOS
I didn’t get to try this a you need a relatively new machine to get this to work. I find the architecture of Crostini very promising in the way it containerizes the running OS. You can even run Windows from this through virtualization. You can run Android apps too. So it’s not like you are limiting yourself too much if your device is relatively new – but then, why not just go Windows 11 route?
The limited practicality
I’ll try to get this point across as best I can. While I am a big fan of Linux and opensource technologies, from practical point of view I do not see much advantage in using ChromeOS over alternatives.
On older devices, everything will run like crap and ChromeOS may not be the best experience either – there are maybe some very specific models of laptops that could benefit from ChromeOS – but due to Crostini’s unavailability on older hardware, you lose the option to run Linux apps when not using Linux. Of course, using Windows on such old hardware is not advisable at all, but Linux is the way to go. Just be sure that all you need is web browsing and even then you’ll run into slowdowns and glitches on 10+ year old hardware. On anything between 5-10 years old you most likely aren’t getting Crostini and Linux would get more value out of such old hardware. Make sure to turn off vulnerability mitigations as those can impact performance rather perceivably on this era of hardware.
On newer devices, say from 2016 onward, it is better to use Windows. If the device is compatible with Windows 11, then just go for it. There’s nothing ChromeOS does better. Of course you’ll need an SSD upgrade if you don’t have one already, but you shouldn’t be using harddrives as your only drive in 2020s. Especially when SSDs are available for as low as 20 euros or probably even lower from the used market. Windows license itself is included with most laptops of this era so you just install Windows downloaded from Microsoft’s website and it’s activated.
Who is ChromeOS for?
From my experience, it is suitable for older devices that cannot run Windows very well, and if you want to avoid the management overhead that Linux brings – ideal for the less technically literate people, or I’d say, for those who simply do not want to spend a single second thinking about what an OS even is. Even I personally would use it over Linux distros, or Windows on older hardware in many cases.
On newer devices, which would support Crostini and Android apps, I sadly do not see any reason to use it over Windows 11. Windows has it all, including android app support through many different emulators, plus a lot more native and professional apps available. And in some cases, due to hardware support, it can work better than ChromeOS with things like sleep mode, fingerprint readers, various hardware peripherals. Even if you are just browsing the web, Windows with Edge/Chrome can actually give you more battery life than ChromeOS. And more usefulness out of your device.