February 05, 2020Chrome OS

Chrome OS Is Insanely Powerful

I’m a big fan of Linux and I use it whenever I can. Unfortunately, most of the Linux distros I tried on my laptop didn’t run that well. I had issues with graphical glitches, wouldn’t shut down, wouldn’t sleep or wake up and most of them just didn’t “feel” right.

One night I figured I’d try Chrome OS just to see how that felt, and to my surprise, it’s fantastic. I love it. Even as a power user it’s a perfectly capable OS, and I am extremely impressed with its performance. I think you will be too.

Unfortunately, there isn’t that much online content about Chrome OS, so I thought I’d try to fill that hole with a couple of blog posts, and this is the first one. This post is about the OS and what makes it so good.

Chrome OS is a operating system created by Google to run on Chromebooks. It is based on the open source project Chromium OS, where Chrome OS is the Google version, just like Chrome is the Google version of Chromium. The difference being that Chrome OS can run Android apps, where Chroimum cannot.

The main idea is that so many people live most of their online lives in the browser, so their computer may as well just be a browser. Chrome OS essentially cuts away everything but the browser. By doing this, you’re also saving battery and allowing the OS to run on much cheaper hardware, paving the way for a range of computers costing as little as $100, that are actually pretty damn good.

Because Chrome OS is designed to be able to run on very cheap hardware, it is heavily optimised to use whatever resources it has to always feel smooth, snappy and fast. When you run Chrome OS on powerful and capable hardware like the Pixelbook Go, it feels like the entire UI has been blessed with a thin layer of butter.

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In recent years, Chrome OS has transformed from a browser-only OS to a browser-first OS. You see, it used to be that you opened your Chromebook and there was the internet and that was sort of it. Fortunately, the internet is quite large and there are so many powerful web apps and resources out there.

Unfortunately, some things just don’t work that well on the internet. This includes games which often don’t run in a browser because the graphical performance is rarely that impressive. Or programming tools because when working with large projects, even excellent cloud IDEs such as Cloud9 can feel limiting. And lastly, highly specialised applications such as MATLAB for Advanced Mathematics, Machine Learning and Data Science or Blender for animation and 3D modelling just don’t run in the browser.

On modern Chrome OS you can install a Debian-like Linux inside Chrome OS that functions similarly to WSL 2. From this terminal you can install Linux apps that will run and work on Chrome OS. From the file manager you can access a section called ‘Linux files’ which is a folder available from the Linux terminal. There is also a window server included, so you can run GUI applications from Linux which appear to be running natively on the computer, but they are actually virtualised.

This is also a main reason why running Steam this way is a bad idea. It works and the games can install and open, but the performance is terrible and not enjoyable at all. Where it shines is for use with development. You can run Docker containers in it, compile code run Node applications, because it really is just a small, little Linux baby running on your machine. If you have ever used WSL 2, it is for all intents and purposed exactly the same. Please note the strong emphasis on WSL 2, as it’s completely different from WSL which was good but actually trash.

What is very impressive and brings Chrome OS to the next level is its ability to run Android apps natively. Chrome OS has the Google Play Store! Not all Chromebooks can run Android apps but if you install Chrome OS yourself on your laptop, you can. You can find a list of official Chromebooks that can run Android apps here.

Being able to run Android apps on Chrome OS is a huge deal and it can fill many of the holes left by having only a browser. There’s thousands of games on the Play Store, and because of the way Android handles screen sizes and UI scaling, most of them will look great on even a larger laptop screen. One of my favorite mobile games, Clash of Clans, runs natively at 3000x2000 on my Matebook X Pro. Now that is an pro gamer move.

You can also run apps like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram in portait windowed mode, and it’s just brilliant. You can even install Word, Excel and Powerpoint from the office suite. Though the mobile version is not as advanced as their desktop counterparts, it’s something. Another good choice for an Office suite on Chrome OS is the Google Docs Suite which also works offline.

The great part about this, is that I’m not even done yet. You also get Google Assistant with ‘OK Google’ hotword detection. I love that. I don’t use it much, but I like it.

The UI is clean and very smooth. It’s fantastically optimised for touch screens. The mouse cursor is smooth and scrolling is just fantastic. When scrolling with two fingers it sort of feels like you’ve physically grabbed the page. A two finger swipe from the left or the right will bring you backward and forward in your navigation history and it always works. It’s little things like these that makes everything feel snappy and fast.

Boot times are also extremely fast. It takes about 10 seconds to boot from completely turned off. And waking up from sleep is nearly instant. With an NVMe drive, that is. With a SATA SSD, it’ll obviously be slower. And I’m not even commenting on HDDs.

I think it’s safe to say that on Chrome OS you will have the absolute best browsing experience on the planet. Chrome OS is so much more than just a browser you boot, and I highly encourage you to try it out. Which you can without installing it. I will post as many resources as I can about running and installing Chrome OS.

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