What can you do on a Chromebook? Chrome OS features explained

Windows? Word? Zoom? Minecraft? We break down exactly what you can and cannot do on a Chromebook

What can you do on a Chromebook?
(Image credit: Anna Auza on Unsplash)

Chromebooks are laptops that run Chrome OS. This is an operating system by Google, an alternative to the Windows and Mac OS software that you find in most other laptops. 

Back in the early days of Chromebooks, these computers were pretty limited. They were cheap laptops for people on a tight budget, and they worked wonders because Chrome OS doesn't need a super-powered processor to run well. 

Times have changed though. Today's best Chromebooks are versatile, inexpensive, and lightweight. You can buy extremely fancy Chromebooks that cost a small fortune. The cheaper models we originally fell for are still around, but now they can do more than ever. 

For our money, the best reason to buy a Chromebook is because you want an affordable, easy-to-use computer that can still handle all the essentials of work and play. What counts as an 'essential' varies from person to person, of course – so what exactly can a Chromebook do?

In this article, we'll look at exactly what you can and cannot do on a Chromebook, to help you decide if it's the right choice for your needs. Can you run the apps you use on your work PC? Will a Chromebook let you video chat with friends using a phone or Windows laptop? And will you be able to play Minecraft and Fortnite? We'll cover all those questions and more. 

What apps can Chromebooks run?

Chromebooks can run two types of app: there are apps made specifically for Chrome OS and – this is the biggie – Android apps. Google announced you'd be able to run Android apps on Chromebooks in 2016, and any new Chrome OS computer you buy today will have access to Google Play. That's where Android apps live. 

There are millions of the things too. And while some won't run quite as well as they do on a great Android phone or tablet, this means there's an incredible breadth of apps available for Chromebooks. This is also why we highly recommend buying a reasonably recent Chromebook, rather than an ancient refurbished one that may not have Google Play support. 

Can Chromebooks run Windows?

The short answer to the question 'can Chromebooks run Windows' is no, they can't. And even if you load up Windows onto a USB stick, as you can do when installing on a standard PC, that won't work.

However, there is a way to make it happen, if you're desperate. Parallels for Chromebook lets you run a version of Windows 10 inside Chrome OS. This is not a great solution for most, though, as it costs £50 a year, needs a beefy Chromebook to run well, and that cost doesn't include the Windows 10 license. 

Parallels for Chromebooks is also really intended for businesses, not us mere mortals who simply want a laptop to watch YouTube and write-up to-do lists. 

What can you do on a Chromebook?

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Can Chromebooks run Word and other Microsoft Office apps?

No Windows, no Microsoft Office? That is not the case. You can run the Google Play version of Microsoft Word on Chromebooks. This may not look and feel exactly like the Word you are accustomed to, but it has many of the same core features, and will let you load up documents you've stored online using other devices. There are plenty of alternative word processing apps for Chromebooks too, including WPS Office, OpenOffice and Google's own Docs app. We have written dozens of articles on Chromebooks. They do the job perfectly.

Can Chromebooks run Zoom or Microsoft Teams?

Chromebooks are great laptops for video chat apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. You simply download the service's app from the Google Play app store, login and you're away. These are cross-platform services, so there's no issue chatting with someone using a Windows laptop, a Mac or a phone. 

Can Chromebooks play Minecraft?

Chromebooks run Android apps and games. There's a Minecraft game for Android. No problem then? We're afraid not. You can't play the version of Minecraft you'd download on an Android phone or tablet. It does not support Chrome OS, and therefore does not show up in Google Play searches. For most, you might as well make peace with the idea you cannot play the game on your Chromebook. 

There is a version that runs on Chromebooks, called Minecraft: Education Edition. However, it's intended for educational environments like schools, and you'll need an education account login to play. Dang. 

What can you do on a Chromebook?

(Image credit: Acer / Minecraft)

Can Chromebooks play Fortnite?

We have more bad news. Epic Games's Fornite does not support Chromebooks either. If you disable one of the system's core security features you can actually install the app, but in our experience with numerous Chromebooks the game will refuse to run. 

There's good news, though. Take another approach and you can still play Fortnite, and most likely make it run better than it would using the normal route. Install GeForce Now, a game streaming app, and you can play Fortnite using your home internet to stream the action right to your Chromebook's screen. 

Do Chromebooks have Bluetooth?

Any Chromebook you should remotely consider buying in 2021 will have Bluetooth. These days a Chromebook without Bluetooth is like a phone without a screen. Some very early Chromebooks, like 2011's Samsung Series 5, didn't have it. But there's no way you should be buying one of those today unless you want to start a museum of old tech. 

Bluetooth in a Chromebook lets you connect a wireless keyboard or mouse, a pair of wireless headphones or Bluetooth speaker. It's an essential piece of the Chromebook puzzle. 

Do Chromebooks have cameras?

All current Chromebooks have a webcam. Video chat is a core duty of these computers, and even the cheapest models have one. Of course, not all webcams are made the same. You might find that the image on your Zoom call looks muddy and undersaturated through its eyes/eye. Only a few Chromebooks have very good webcams – the Google Pixelbook Go is a particular highlight. 

Does that Chromebook not fit your budget? You can get add-on webcams, and Logitech makes several of the most reliable, most popular, models. Check out the Logitech C920 and cheaper C720, which is only 720p but may well offer a better image than the cam built into your Chromebook. 

Do Chromebooks need antivirus software?

Chromebooks do not need really need antivirus software. Google updates its software regularly, and each update adds security tweaks to keep the system secure. Use it as Google intends and you're kept within a relatively safe walled garden. 

However, you can invite nasties in using Chrome browser extensions. And dodgy emails that get through your Gmail (or other provider) filters are just as dangerous as they are in any other computer. So, no, Chromebooks don't need an antivirus suite you might load up in a new PC. But that doesn't mean you can act like an idiot online and get away without issues.