I am an unabashed lover of Chrome OS and Chromebooks in general. I think they are clean, fast, simple, and great for the average user.
However, I recently decided that it was not going to work for me anymore – mainly due to a problem with a particular book publishing app that I was using. It made sense for me to go buy a MacBook Air.
But in the process of using this MacBook Air, I realized there were a few problems with Chrome OS that, frankly, are rather cumbersome for a user like me. Some are very obvious, some are baffling, and some are unique to my usage and are irrelevant to the average user. I ignored them as a Pixelbook user and lived with them, but now that I have the experience of not dealing with them, I’m more aware than ever.
That said, let’s run through them, starting with the biggest realization I had this week.
OS X actually works with my Android phone better than my Pixelbook
Since I switched to my MacBook, I’ve been begrudging it.
I have a fierce loyalty to Chrome OS. I love the concept. I think it’s ready for the mainstream.
But this week was the moment I realized: I’m probably not going back to Chrome OS. You see, there’s a huge oversight in how Chrome OS works with phones, and it’s pretty much inexcusable at this point.
I own a Pixel 3a phone, also from Google. Because I have a Pixel phone and the Pixelbook, it would seem that the interaction between the two would be seamless, right? When they introduced Messages for Web, I was ecstatic. Finally, a way to text and message from my computer and send it through my phone!
But Messages had problems. It disconnected often. Very often. It wasn’t uncommon for, several times a week, the app to throw up an error when trying to connect to my phone, rendering it unusable.
Then, the system installed two different apps onto my Pixelbook: one called “Messages” and one called “Android Messages”. I don’t know how they were installed. I don’t know which one I’m supposed to use. I would uninstall one, and they would both come right back and show up on my dock. Sometimes I would open one and it would ask me to use the other.
Huh? Remember, I’m using all products purchased directly from Google. And they are advertised as working seamlessly together. This wasn’t happening.
That doesn’t even get into how many times my Pixelbook would give me a notification asking me to link my phone to the computer, even though I had done so repeatedly.
When I switched to Mac, I installed the Messages for Web app here too. And it dawned on me this week: I haven’t had a single error or problem with it since I installed it. It just works. Now why would it just work on a Mac even though it’s a Chrome app, but it doesn’t “just work” on a Chrome OS device?
The same has happened with file transfers.
Lying in bed one night a couple months ago, I decided I wanted to download a file. I grabbed my phone and downloaded it. I wanted it onto my computer, so I had to upload it to Google Drive and then go to my computer. When I got to my computer, Google Drive hadn’t synced yet, so I had to wait around for it to sync the file – a process that is not instantaneous on a Chrome OS device (and the file system does not provide a “Sync” button). It took several minutes before the drive system refreshed.
Again, Google’s products from start to finish.
If Google wants to compete with Apple on usability – and they absolutely could – then they need to nail this down. If their own phones can’t communicate properly with their own computers, this isn’t going to work.
Now, think about how iPhones work with Macs: iMessage just works. You can instantly AirDrop files to and from each device without even having to go through uploading to the cloud. And there are other features too.
Google can make the excuse that they can’t set up this sort of thing to support every Android device because there are so many, but why advertise that you can connect your Pixel phone to your Pixelbook if you can’t do these basic features?
File system confusion
This one is far more specific to me than the average user, but it’s something to think about.
One of the great advantages to my Pixelbook was its ability to support three different operating systems simultaneously. I could use Chrome OS, use Linux, and use Android all in one place. Great, right?
In practice, though, there were problems.
First, it was abundantly clear that you couldn’t figure out which apps were in which operating system when you tried to launch an app. This got to be a problem when trying to launch, say, Google Docs and you can’t quite tell if you’re launching the Chrome app or the Android app.
Second, each operating system has its own file system. That’s fine. But getting those file systems to interact with each other was unbelievably frustrating.
The “Downloads” folder on my Chrome OS could be shared with Linux. So that worked okay. But neither one could easily be shared with Android.
So, for example, if I open my sheet music Android app on my Pixelbook, the files that I need have to be in my Android file system. I can’t organize those music files anywhere else because the app won’t see it. And I don’t want to store all of my music on Android.
Even better, neither Linux nor Android apps could directly access my Google Drive folder. This was the biggest problem. Chrome OS is designed to convince you to keep all of your files in Drive. That’s great. But when you use any apps on Linux or Android, you have to copy the files over to that file system, because you can’t actually point these apps to a Google Drive folder.
There are other problems too, like the search button launcher intermittently forgetting how to do math without having to open a separate tab, and always pushing me to install apps when I search for something (for example, typing “Facebook” and hitting the enter key didn’t lead me to Facebook’s website, but it would open up the Play Store to install the Facebook app. Not cool.). My return to MacBook was accompanied by my return to Alfred, which is the mack-daddy of launchers and one of my favorite tools ever.
My problem with the future of Chrome OS
Even me, a Google fanboy, has a problem with the current state of Chrome OS devices.
The Pixelbook, for all its flaws, is a fantastic device. It is beautiful, works well, and is a wonderful user experience despite the software limitations.
But the Pixelbook came out in 2017. It’s old. And it is still retailing for full price (I bought mine lightly used for half price). Who’s paying $1,000 for a device with this many compromises? And when Google has released two “updated” devices since then?
When Google announced the next Pixelbook in 2019 – the Pixelbook Go – I expected some upgrades, new features, some new support, etc.
The Pixelbook Go, though, doesn’t fold into a tablet. It doesn’t have the ability to switch back and forth from tablet to laptop. This was a huge feature in the original Pixelbook. Why make people upgrade to get less functionality?
To me, it shows that Google is largely throwing stuff at the wall and trying to get it to stick. There doesn’t seem to be a cohesive, thought-out plan for its hardware. Instead of taking something that was universally praised (except for its price point) and building on it, Google took functionality away from it. Huh?
So am I an Apple guy now?
I don’t want to be.
But given all the trade-offs on functionality, I think I have to be. I do love my MacBook Air. I love what it does. And I am very interested in having devices that interact with my laptop and might run a little smoother.
I have zero interest in going back to Windows.
So if business goes the way I expect it, then in the coming months, I’ll likely get an iPhone. I might even switch to an iPad for my music software.
It’s a very frustrating thing. I want to support Google and what they are trying to do. The problem is, they don’t seem to be very clear on what it is they are trying to do. And that is going to continue to cause these hiccups.
Google lost a fanboy. It makes me sad, but I can’t deny the reality of what is going on. I don’t know what Google is doing, and at this point, I’m tired of spending money waiting to find out.