After a slow start Chromebooks seem to be catching on. There are now Chromebooks in all shapes and sizes, and in a range of prices, from Acer, Dell, HP, Samsung and Toshiba. There are desktop alternatives like the Asus Chromebox and LG Electronics Chromebase, and at the high-end Google has its own Chromebook Pixel with an ultra high-resolution display.
I’ve tried many of them, most recently the Acer C720, which starts at $200 with an 11-inch display, Intel Celeron processor, 2GB of memory and 16GB of storage (CNET recently reviewed a touchscreen version). It’s easy to see the attraction of these Chromebooks. They are inexpensive, easy to set up and maintain, and as long as you can get by without Microsoft Office or other local software, they have what you need.
There are plenty of reviews of Chromebooks out there. But there is still one big question mark: What happens when you’re not connected to the Internet? Since I spend a lot of time on trains and planes, I’ve been testing out the offline capabilities of Chromebooks. The results have been surprising. There are little gotchas in places I didn’t expect while other features, most notably the Google Drive apps, now work quite well.
The basics—mail, calendar and contacts
When you are online, Gmail is of course exactly the same on a Chromebook. But the offline version looks and works more like the Gmail mobile app with a scrollable list of message on the left and a preview pane on the right. The basics are all here—you can read messages, archive or delete them, compose new messages and work with labels. But it is missing some features. For example, it lacks the dropdown box that lets you switch among Gmail, Contacts and Tasks, and when you select a message, it is missing many of the options such as the ability to create a task or event or “Filter on messages like these.”
But in general e-mail works. That’s not the case, however, for the Calendar. You can view appointments offline and RSVP, but that’s pretty much it. There’s no way to create or edit calendar entries, or even view tasks. To be fair, if you look closely enough Google does note that the offline functionality is limited to a “read-only version of your Calendar,” but this doesn’t really qualify as an “offline app.” And there’s no way to access Google Contacts offline even in a read-only mode. (This week Google added a nice feature that lets you find a contact using the search button/box, but it only works online.) In practice most people rely more on a smartphone or tablet to keep track of appointments or look up contacts, especially when away from the office, but these are the sorts of features business users have become accustomed to with Microsoft Outlook and Exchange.
To use Gmail and Calendar offline, you first have to go into the Settings for each service and choose Enable offline. Although you can choose to download mail for the past two weeks or a month, for some reason it always reverted to one week on my system. I also found that the changes I made to Gmail offline didn’t immediately synchronize when I reconnected; instead I had to relaunch Gmail Offline to update my inbox.
Getting down to business
Google’s own suite of productivity apps are now part of its online storage service and known collectively as Google Drive apps. The basic ones are Docs, Sheets, Slides and Drawings. Google Keep, a basic alternative to Microsoft OneNote or Evernote, also works offline. And there are third-party Drive apps for tasks such as creating charts, editing photos and videos, and working with 3D drawings.
Many of these also work offline. To edit an existing file, you enable the offline capability in Google Drive and it automatically syncs all documents, spreadsheets, presentations and drawings, but not other files such as pictures. Google Drive has long supported offline editing in Docs, Slides and Drawing, and more recently it added offline support to Sheets—along with some other new features such as support for larger spreadsheets, faster operation and smoother scrolling, filtered views and more functions.
Over time Google Drive has evolved into a solid productivity suite and I’m surprised at how much you can do quickly and easily with the Drive apps—both online and off. You can also upload Office documents and PDFs, keep them in the original format or convert them to the corresponding Google Drive format to edit them, and then export them once again as Office files or PDFs to share. One neat trick scans the text in any images you upload and makes it searchable and editable.
If you are one of the many people who use macros, Excel is still the only choice. But Google just announced support for third-party add-ons in Docs and Sheets that expand the suite’s capabilities. For example, there are extensions for generating labels, creating a table of contents or bibliography, sending e-mail with MailChimp, or distributing documents to get legal approvals. Too bad the add-ons are not accessible when offline.
There are some other quirks with Google Drive. When you are offline, many of the file management features such as the ability to share, move, delete or preview files, are also disabled. The only option is to open them (assuming they are in a format that supports offline work). Chrome OS has a separate app, called Files, that lets you move files between Google Drive’s online storage, a local Downloads folder and external storage (most likely an SD card). Confusingly you can also save Documents or Presentations here to edit them offline, but it is really meant for managing other types of content such as pictures, music or videos. When you are offline, you can view and edit photos, and play music or videos, but keep in mind that these built-in media apps are very basic.
Fortunately there are a few other options. Google+ Photos has a few basic editing tools but is really designed for uploading and sharing images. Autodesk’s Pixlr Touch Up has more editing tools, and lets you add effects, overlays and text. Both work offline as well. When online, you of course have lots of choices for music including Chrome apps for Google Play Music and Spotify. The Kindle Cloud Reader, Google Play Books, The New York Times and Pocket all work offline along with a bunch of games including Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Solitaire.
Most Chrome apps are browser-based, but a few are so-called Desktop apps that can run offline and outside the browser, not only on Chromebooks but also on Windows PCs and Macs. Google announced these back in September along with a Chrome App Launcher for Windows, prompting lots of stories about how the company was trying to hijack the Windows desktop. But more than six months later there still aren’t very many of these new apps in the Chrome Web Store (they are listed under the “For Your Desktop” collection). Perhaps Google knows it needs to jumpstart things since it just announced changes that make it easier to publish apps, support free trials and provide more ways to charge for apps. Developers can now sell extensions and themes as well as apps in the store.
With LTE-Advanced networks starting to roll out and airlines testing faster broadband service, there will come a day when offline won’t be an issue. But for now it’s a consideration with Chromebooks. Still it’s surprising just how much you can accomplish without Internet access, and if Google could fix a few issues with Gmail, Calendars and Contacts, Chromebooks would provide enough offline capabilities to satisfy many users.