Google Chrome OS vs. Ubuntu

Monday Mar 4th 2013 by Matt Hartley
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See how the two operating systems compare for installation, look and feel, and peripheral support.

At the time of this article's creation, the Samsung Chromebook is the number one top seller on Amazon.com. Chrome OS is attacking other operating systems head on.

In this article, I'll explore how Chrome OS stacks up against Ubuntu and whether the two operating systems are likely to appeal to the same user base.

Installation

One of the first considerations when comparing Chrome OS and Ubuntu is whether you will install the operating system yourself or select a PC with the OS already installed. Ubuntu is easy to install on any desktop PC and will run well on most notebooks. Or you can go with a pre-installed system, which promises compatibility out of the box, as that computer was built for Ubuntu.

With Chrome OS, you are limited to a few basic computer models. The most popular are the Chromebooks offered by Samsung and Acer. Samsung also offers a desktop model called the Chromebox for those who want to attach their own monitor. Outside of those two options, you won't find many other choices for PCs with Chrome pre-installed.

Ubuntu advantages and disadvantages: You can install Ubuntu on practically any computer or purchase it pre-installed through Linux-centric vendors found on the Web.

Unless you've purchased Ubuntu pre-installed, you're in charge of setting up wireless networking and selecting the proprietary video driver in software updates, among other related challenges. For experienced Linux users, this is a matter of investing a few minutes to run updates and install proprietary drivers/codecs if desired. But to a casual user who has no concept of software licensing and Linux, it's a heavy-handed learning experience.

Chrome OS advantages and disadvantages: If you buy a Chromebook, you won't be prompted to install proprietary drivers or have to decide which resolution is best. Chrome OS will simply make this choice for you. For some casual users, this is an attractive feature.

However, one person's feature could be another person's hassle. Speaking for myself, I'd want to choose which video driver I use. I also wish to select the resolution that's best for my eyes, not what's best for some random Google engineer. And I dislike the limited number of Chrome OS models available at this time.

Initial Impressions and Layout

Both operating systems present the end user with a clean-looking desktop. Default applications are comparable as well, as both offer a browser, office suite applications and other apps. Both operating systems require you to setup a username and password to login, and both allow you to remain offline if you'd like.

Where the two desktop experiences begin to differ is with Google passing off websites as applications. On the other hand, Ubuntu offers actual software, but it lacks consistency and uniformity. Neither option is a bad thing per se, but individuals users may have their own expectations as to how things should run.

Both options allows you to select your choice of wallpapers, set mouse tracking speed and configure your keyboard. However, only Ubuntu allows you to also adjust your power settings and choose a screensaver (without adding extra software).

Ubuntu advantages and disadvantages: The Ubuntu desktop offers locally installed software applications that don't require an Internet connection to run. Additional software can be installed with a USB key and added via software like APTOnCd. Ubuntu also offers power management and greater control over desktop themes and icons.

For geeks, Ubuntu updates are not a bad thing, but they confuse casual users. This isn't to say that the process of running the updates is difficult — rather that a newbie reading the update list would likely find themselves confused about the benefit.

Chrome OS advantages and disadvantages: Chrome OS offers seamless behind-the-scenes updates that require no action on the part of the end user. Because Chrome OS is targeting the average PC user, this is a good thing.

Also, since everything in Chrome OS takes place within the browser, the end user has a sense of continuity. It also means the software you enjoy in Chrome OS is also available on other operating systems through the Chrome browser.

On the other hand, none of Chrome's software is truly available offline. Yes, thanks to various caching technologies you can access docs and Gmail offline. However, installing software isn't possible unless you're connected to the Internet. Also, if you lose your user name and/or password, you may find it difficult to recover them despite Google's default login recovery methods.

Printing and Other Peripherals

Generally speaking, devices such as headsets, keyboards, mice and external media devices all work fine on both operating systems. Since both Ubuntu and Chrome OS use the Linux kernel, this makes sense. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean that what works on one platform is going to work the same way on another.

For example, Bluetooth devices, USB headsets and webcams have the same level of compatibility across the board and generally work easily without any configuration. Printing and scanning, however, tend to be spotty on Chrome OS while working easily on Ubuntu.

Ubuntu advantages and disadvantages: There are very few USB devices that won't work out of the box on Ubuntu. Brand name webcams, storage devices, printers and other miscellaneous peripherals work flawlessly on the Ubuntu desktop. Ubuntu detects most printers with zero setup and scanners can be used with SimpleScan software.

However, sometimes wireless devices can be problematic on Ubuntu. Usually it's the USB 802.11n devices that give users the most trouble. The worst offenders are those purchased from big box stores on a whim, without doing any research first to check for compatibility. End users who wisely purchase their notebook computer from an Ubuntu pre-installed vendor instead of taking the DIY approach experience fewer of these hassles.

Chrome OS advantages and disadvantages: Chrome OS offers the same great USB device support as Ubuntu. Webcams, USB headsets, and other related peripherals all work just fine right out of the box. As for wireless devices, Chrome OS is installed on "built for Chrome" hardware which ensures that wireless also works.

On the downside, cloud printing and scanning are horrid on Chrome OS. If you want to scan something under Chrome OS, you need a Web-based scanning interface or an app like CloudScan. As for printing, you'll need a new CloudPrint-compatible printer. If you want to use a legacy printer, you'll have to print from another PC.

And the Winner Is...

I've given it a lot of thought and after much deliberation, I've come to this final conclusion: Ubuntu destroys Chrome OS.

Now, I'm not saying that the Chromebooks running Chrome OS aren't interesting. They do offer great functionality for the basic browser-based tasks. But if you ever plan to print or scan anything, you will need to make sure your peripherals are compatible.

In my honest opinion, unless you've never used a computer before or want a "kid's toy," you'll want to use Ubuntu over Chrome OS.

Think I'm wrong? Do a Web search for "Install Ubuntu on Chromebook." You'll notice a plethora of articles catering to Chrome OS users installing Ubuntu onto their Chromebooks. There's a reason for this. Chrome OS is painfully limited despite the added functionality made available in the Chrome Web Store.

Ubuntu mirrors Chrome OS by offering a software repository from which to download new titles. The difference is, you can run Ubuntu software without being connected to the Internet.

Am I being too harsh? Perhaps I am to a degree. I think Chrome OS is a great portable OS option, but it's hardly a replacement for a full operating system experience.

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