Chromebooks don’t run Skype, Photoshop, Minecraft and some surprisingly common video CODECs are not supported. But from a mainstream perspective at least they do almost everything else better than PCs. There is a fundamental reason for this – Chromebooks are designed to run as cloud computers not simply computers that sometimes use bits of the cloud.

This often makes them harder to use as legacy devices (opening those video files for instance) but arms them with important advantages for the sort of computing world consumer computing and perhaps even business could be moving towards. In future, this model might also be able to support application streaming of the sort suggested by Adobe. If that comes to pass, Chromebooks will offer a mostly online idea of computing with an offline mode. Today's PC's sell themselves on the opposite notion.  

Images: Google, iStock
Images: Google, iStock

Seven ways Chromebooks beat Windows PCs - Zero migration

Because the data, apps, and settings are held in the cloud, users can log into any Chromebook in the world and see the same ‘desktop’.  If they lose their Chromebook or leave it at home, or buy a new machine, migration is as simple as logging into their Google account - voila.

On a PC, all but a few settings are held locally. If a user wants to access their desktop they must have physical access to that PC or log into it remotely while it is turned on. Moving to a new PC requires a tedious migration process in which files, settings and applications are reinstated from scratch. Not surprisingly, cloud applications have become popular with PC users because they because they lighten the load a bit.

Next: future compatibility with Android

Seven ways Chromebooks beat Windows PCs - Future compatibility with Android

Long-rumoured since Google’s former Chrome OS head Sundar Pichai ascended to CEO, the company confirmed in October 2015 that the software running Chromebooks and Android will merge in some form by 2017. Details of how two quite different platforms will dovetail have yet to be confirmed – clearly the Android brand will dominate - but an obvious win for Chromebook users in such an Android-like cloud computing world will be full compatibility with the latter’s large population of apps. Limited compatibility is already possible for some apps.

Presumably what will emerge from this will look like Android more than today's Chrome OS but the Chromebook cloud and software security model will still have a huge influence on the merged OS going forward.

Next: low maintenance

Seven ways Chromebooks beat Windows PCs - Low maintenance

Day to day, Chromebooks require no maintenance, disk defragging, ‘optimisation’, and don’t slow down over time. A ‘powerwash’ will return the machine to factory state in a matter of seconds and if a problem does occur the system can be reinstated from a USB stick very quickly. Chromebooks all come with SSDs that mean the machine boots up and turns off in seconds.

PCs, by contrast, have a habit of aging as applications are installed and de-installed, and software clutter builds up. Inevitably, Windows machines slow down after a year or two. If the user decides to re-install the OS from scratch to get back to a factory-fresh state this could either be difficult if they have no media or time-consuming even if they do. Windows PCs always require numerous updates to get to a secure and up-to-date state.  

Next: backup solved

Seven ways Chromebooks beat Windows PCs - Backup solved

Backup is one of the biggest weaknesses of PCs which depend on local data storage. It’s true that cloud services can be used (including Google’s), but the mixture of online and local often leads to fragmentation, with users losing track of data saved in different places. Studies show that many users fail to back up all or even some of their data. Many others simply have no idea where it is.

On a Chromebook, data is saved on Google drive - or another service - and synchronised to the local machine if required. The user is not required to do much to make this system work. If disaster strikes, the data is easy to reinstate.  

Next: no malware

Seven ways Chromebooks beat Windows PCs - No malware

Chromebooks are updated from time to time to add features but don’t require constant security updates for vulnerable applications. Updating takes seconds. As to malware, beyond the odd highly complex lab hack there isn’t any because conventional executable applications can’t install locally. Rogue extensions are possible but and should be easy to spot and remove – hiding in Chrome is difficult.

As for the overall security design, Chrome OS was designed in 2011 to cope with the age of malware whereas decades-old Windows has required more and more complex defence layers to even stay one step behind the attackers. A Chrome OS install is simpler and needs far less software which means fewer software vulnerabilities over time. All Chromebook extensions are 'sandboxed’, local data encrypted and verified boot checks the computer’s state compared to the previous boot. Tinkering will halt the boot process.

Windows PCs can approximate this (browser sandboxing for example) but the sheer complexity of the operating system and its applications and the constant requirement for the end user to agree to application behaviours makes it a sitting duck. Windows PCs are patched monthly by Microsoft and inbetween times by numerous applications, principally Adobe Flash and Reader and Java. Sometimes this requires a reboot, a time-consuming chore for the majority not using fast-booting SSDs. Anti-virus, what anti-virus?

Chromebooks, of course require the user to log into Google’s services which not everyone wants to do. Many PCs users face the same issue too but it is optional rather than essential. To counter this, Chromebooks have a guest mode.  

Next: Chrome OS doesn't need powerful or expensive hardware

Seven ways Chromebooks beat Windows PCs - Chrome OS doesn’t need powerful or expensive hardware

Chromebooks have pioneered the idea that a simple cheap laptop can last all day on a single charge, working perfectly happily from low-power dual-core processor and 2GB of RAM. Windows with Bing has attempted to match this but most experts agree that Windows 8 still requires more memory and local storage to function acceptably, not least to store and run applications, the platform's raison d'être.

An interesting comparison of performance can be found in a recent article from Chromebook World which thoroughly compared Acer’s E11 and C3 laptops which run the two operating systems atop identical hardware. The Chromebook's simplicity scored well.

Microsoft has already reacted to Chromebooks (i.e. their cheapness) in a number of ways, including abandoning upgrade licensing fees for Windows 7 and 8 users who migrate to Windows 10. It is worth reminding ourselves, however, that anyone buying a new PC who doesn’t buy a Windows with Bing system will still be paying for a Windows 10 license as part of the system cost. Chromebooks meanwhile impose no license costs.

Next: Simple software updating

Seven ways Chromebooks beat Windows PCs - Simple software updating

Chromebooks update quietly in the background roughly once every six weeks or so, a process that can be completed with a reboot in about 10 seconds. This covers both new features, stability fixes and security. Windows, meanwhile, has had to contort itself to make updates mandatory and continuous. Although much improved on Windows 10 for consumers, the sheer complexity of updating still adds cycles.