Should I buy a Chromebook? Absolutely. It’s true that Chromebooks are great for some things and mediocre for others. But Chromebooks are dirt cheap, and great enough at some things that it’s worth buying one if only for security purposes. Online banking is the best example, but not the only one. To me, the question isn’t whether to buy one. It’s whether to buy two.
Disadvantages of Chromebooks
There are people who won’t read this far because they just don’t like Google. I won’t go into that rabbit hole, except to say every large company you do business with collects information on you in order to better sell you stuff. It’s an inescapable part of modern capitalism. If you want to apply this to a different technology stack other than Google’s Chrome OS, go ahead. You can do that, at the expense of some convenience, monetary cost, or both.
For at least one of the uses we’re going to discuss, there will be little or no data for Google to collect anyway.
The other disadvantage of Chromebooks is you give up a lot of control. You can only run a few apps on them and you don’t get to control when the updates come down. But that’s also a good formula for good security. They’re popular with schools precisely because they’re locked down.
Chromebooks aren’t exactly a general-purpose computer. They’re really designed to be just enough computer, which means for some part of the population, they’ll be not enough computer.
Advantages of Chromebooks
Chromebooks are cheap. I’ve seen used, beat-up Chromebooks sell for as little as $50 on Ebay. Even new ones aren’t terribly expensive, running between $150 and $200. Most people can afford to buy a $50 Chromebook to dedicate to online banking and bill paying. The caveat when buying one is to make sure it comes with the power adapter and, of course, that it still works. Don’t buy a parts-only one.
Since Chromebooks auto-update, they are very secure. And since they have very little built-in storage, nobody’s really trying to hack them. They’re a hostile environment for hackers and they offer any hacker willing to try very little in return for their effort.
Uses for a Chromebook
If you’re asking, “should I buy a Chromebook?” I can say there are at least four compelling uses for a Chromebook. I’ll run through each of them in order, from most compelling to least compelling, with tips on how to use one for each.
You should buy a Chromebook for online banking and paying your bills. Get a $50 beater for this; you’re only going to use it once a month so all that matters is that the keyboard and screen work.
Create a burner Gmail account so your Chromebook isn’t syncing its passwords with any other device. Change the passwords on all your banking and bill paying sites to something long and complex and obnoxious, then save the passwords in Chrome. Fire up this Chromebook every month when you pay your bills or move money around, then shut it down. Since you’ll only be visiting a select few sites with this machine, there’s little to nothing of value for Google to learn about you from using a Chromebook this way. There’s also next to no chance of your passwords being stolen, or malware getting in between you and your browser and siphoning your bank account while making everything look okay.
Using a dedicated Chromebook this way also protects you from web sites that trick your browser into giving them your banking password. If you remove your banking passwords from your main computer’s remembered passwords and only have them in the Chromebook, then nobody can steal them.
A dedicated Chromebook for banking does far more to protect your finances than products like Lifelock and inconveniences you a lot less, while also costing a lot less.
Social media sites like Facebook track you incessantly even when you’re not connected to them. You can dramatically improve your privacy by dedicating a second Chromebook to social media use like Facebook and Twitter. In theory it’s possible for companies to track you across devices, but it’s much more difficult. The goal of security is to make things too difficult to be worthwhile, since you probably can’t make things impossible.
You can also make it much harder for someone to steal your social media accounts by using a dedicated Chromebook.
The idea, again, is to create a burner Gmail account, then dedicate a Chromebook just to social media. Since you’ll probably use this more often, you’ll probably want a nicer-condition Chromebook, but a nice used one is still okay for this. It’s less imperative that you use this device only for social media, but the fewer sites you visit with it, the greater the security and privacy benefit.
Hotel wifi networks aren’t exactly the safest things in the world. There’s a lot of hostile activity going on over hotel wifi, and most hotels don’t do anything to protect you from it. But Chromebooks are immune to most of these attacks, and since they auto-update frequently, they’re also more resilient against attacks that would work against them.
Many security professionals don’t take their regular laptops with them on the road, especially to security conferences. Or if they take them, they use them as little as possible, and use the Chromebook whenever they can. This keeps your regular computer and its data safe while you’re on the road, connected to hostile networks.
Chromebooks as a daily driver
Truth be told, many people don’t use their computers for all that much. The joke about owning a device that can answer any question in seconds, but we use it to argue with strangers and look at pictures of cats isn’t too far off. A Chromebook provides a fully functional web browser and good-enough word processing and spreadsheet capability. The machine has limitations, but a sizable percentage of the population will never run up against them. If you were happy enough using Microsoft Works and the other program you had open all the time was your web browser, you’re a good candidate for a Chromebook as a daily driver.
The nice thing about Chromebooks as home computers is they don’t need antivirus, they update themselves without intervention, and they store all their documents in Google Drive so they’re automatically backed up. The downside to this is you don’t really know what kind of analysis Google is doing with the documents you store in Google Drive, and the amount of storage you get for free has limits.
A Chromebook isn’t a perfect home computer. But like the Commodore 64 in its heyday, many people never run up against its limits, so it may be just enough computer to meet your needs. If that’s the case, it can save you a lot of money and keep you out of a lot of trouble.
So, should I buy a Chromebook?
There’s a meme floating around out there in the form of a flowchart. It sums up the difference between Windows, Linux, Mac OS, and Chrome OS by asking a series of questions. If you don’t have any money and don’t like technology, it says to buy a Chromebook.
For banking, a Chromebook is a no-brainer. The disadvantages of a Chromebook don’t come into play when you’re only visiting a few web sites with it. It’s probably not what Google intended for people to do with Chromebooks, so if you think Google is evil, this gives you a chance to stick it to them. The other possibility is they assumed people would buy Chromebooks and use them for this, and they wouldn’t make any money off those people, and they did it anyway because the benefits outweighed whatever money they might lose.
You give up some convenience when you use a dedicated Chromebook for social media. Do I think it’s worth it? Yes. Do I expect very many people will do it? Not really.
Alternatives to Chromebooks
You can use any computer to do any of the things I discussed here. I don’t recommend using a Windows machine because avoiding banking malware that runs on Windows is the whole point of doing these things. You can certainly do all these things with Linux, and you have a better idea what Linux is or isn’t doing in the background. But you may give up auto updates and you run a higher risk of something weird happening. When it comes to paying the bills every month, you want something that just works.
You can use a Mac, but good luck finding an affordable one to dedicate to a single task. For the price of a decade-old used Mac, I can buy two or three brand-new Chromebooks, or more used Chromebooks than I would know what to do with. Some argue that using a Mac as a primary computer is protection enough on its own, but if you store your passwords in your browser, a malicious site can steal passwords from a browser running on a Mac just as easily as any other computer. And using a Mac doesn’t make you any harder to track online.