Sunday, May 19, 2013

In Depth: Ditch your PC for a Chromebook: can you live entirely in the cloud?

In Depth: Ditch your PC for a Chromebook: can you live entirely in the cloud?

In Depth: Ditch your PC for a Chromebook: can you live entirely in the cloud?

Google isn't giving up on its Chrome OS-powered vision of a life spent completely in the browser, but how easy is it to ditch your trusty laptop for a Chromebook?

We've taken a look at some of the key apps and services you'll need to switch to for a cloud-only life, and assessed some of the obstacles you'll come across along the w ay. In each area, you'll see a 'switchability' rating, summing up just how simple (or otherwise) it is for the average user to make the leap as the technology stands today.

Files and storage

Can you live entirely in the cloud?

First of all you'll need to move all of your files into the cloud: Google Drive, Dropbox, SkyDrive and Box are some of the services you can pick from, and all have desktop syncing apps to upload your gigabytes of data to the web. Each one offers a certain amount of space for free, then charges for anything substantial.

To compare the options, Box offers 5GB for free, then its che apest package includes 25GB of storage for US$ 9.99/£6.42 a month or it's most expensive option is 50GB for US$ 19.99/£12.85 a month.

Dropbox gives you 2GB of storage for free, then offers 100GB for US$ 9.99/£6.42 a month, or 500GB for US$ 49.99/£32.12 a month.

Google Drive lends you 5GB for free, and sells you 25GB for US$ 2.49/£1.60 a month or a huge 16TB for a similarly huge US$ 799.99/£513.94 a month.

Finally, SkyDrive gives everyone 7GB of free space, then offers 25GB for US$ 0.78/£0.50 a month and 100GB for US$ 4.16/£2.67 a month.

If you have more than a few gigabytes' worth of digital possessions, you'll either have to pay up or find alternatives (Netflix to replace your video files, Spotify to replace your MP3s, and so on).

Switchability: 7/10

Simply moving files to the cloud is easy enough, though you'll need to pay for more than a few gigabytes' worth of room.

Office apps

Can you live entirely in the cloud?

There's plenty of choice for those after an online office suite - Google Drive, Zoho and Microsoft's Office web apps are all reliable and fast - but the apps you'll find online are invariably less powerful and more limited than their desktop equivalents.

They're fine for a few bar charts then, but not capable of serious number crunching. Take a look at PowerPoint on the desktop and PowerPoint on the web to see something of the gap in quality - the available templates, animations, formatting options and features are all stripped down when you go online.

While the majority of us can get our work done easily enough through a browser, the functionality for small businesses and power users isn't there yet - and while O ffice On Demand can stream the apps straight to you, it requires a Windows computer.

Switchability: 7/10

Today's online apps offer plenty of features and polish, but power users will be disappointed.


Can you live entirely in the cloud?

There are a multitude of services ready and waiting to store your photos online (from Facebook to Flickr) and in terms of apps to actually manage and edit your pictures, tools such as Pixlr, PicMonkey and Adobe Photoshop Express Editor are closing the gap between the web and the desktop.

Photoshop-in-a-browser isn't yet a reality, but it's coming down the line (note Adobe's recently rebranded Creative Cloud), and unless you want the best editing tools available then the online apps will be more than sufficient for your needs.

Switchability: 8/10

Online photo apps are becoming more and more powerful, and there are plenty of ways to share your pictures.


Can you live entirely in the cloud?

Services such as Rdio, Deezer and Spotify can give you all the music you need over the web, for a flat monthly fee.

If you prefer to actually own your tunes, Google Music offers space for 20,000 tracks for free, and provides a tool to help you sync your existing iTunes library up to the cloud.

Amazon Cloud Player is another alternative, so unless you absolutely can't live without iTunes, there are some decent options available.

Alternatively, you can pay £21.99/AU$ 34.99/US$ 24.99 a year for iTunes Match to store your existing library online - you won't be able to access it through a browser, but you can still get your music on your portable Apple devices and Apple TV.

Switchability: 8/10

Online music services are in good health, and you can even take your existing MP3 collection with you if you wish.


Can you live entirely in the cloud?

Netflix, Lovefilm Instant, Blinkbox, YouTube/Google Play and the new Vdio all offer ways for you to get your movie or TV fix, and then there's the likes of BBC iPlayer, ITV Player and 4oD on the web.

If you've purchased a lot of movies and shows from iTunes, you can re-download these to an Apple device at any time, but you can't watch them in a web browser. If they are free of DRM protection, you can upload local video files to a service such as Dropbox or Google Drive and stream them from there, but you'll need to shell out a substantial amount for the storage space.

For home movies, one option would be to upload them to YouTube free of charge (and set them as private or public accordingly), but anything copyrighted (like the Downton Abbey box set) is likely to land you in hot water.

Switchability: 7/10

Another area where there are plenty of services to choose from, but many will prefer their own local library.


Can you live entirely in the cloud?

One of the biggest issues with living in the cloud is that losing your internet connection means losing just about everything else. If your internet breaks, or you need to leave the house, you can find yourself severely restricted.

While any laptop is crippled to some extent without web access, at least you can still work on documents and play music and video stored locally. We're not yet at the stage where you can guarantee a connection wherever you go, and that has to be a concern for regular travellers, even with Google Drive's improving offline support.

A 3G/4G-enabled Chromebook can help, but adds to the cost of your hardware.

Switchability: 6/10

Until Wi-Fi becomes more ubiquitous and easy to access outside the home, this will always be a worry for people weighing up cloud-based computing.

Verdict: can you live in the cloud?

Living in the cloud is becoming easier with each passing day - note the recent upgrade to Google Drive's offline capabilities, and the launch of Spotify's web player, for example.

For anyone coming fresh to the world of computing, without any connection to existing apps or gigabytes ' worth of data, a web-only life has a lot going for it.

For the rest of us, switching is now possible and in many areas quite easy to do; but if you're dependent on desktop apps such as Photoshop, iTunes and Excel, or you can't afford to shift the contents of your hard drive up into the cloud, then you'll have reservations. Unfortunately for Google and ChromeOS, that's a lot of users.


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//PART 2