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09 Jun 12 Chrome OS offline: Can you really use a Chromebook without the cloud?

Google’s Chrome OS Chromebooks are great for cloud-based computing — but what happens when you have a Chromebook with no cloud? Can Chromebooks actually work offline, or do they turn into pretty paperweights when the Internet goes off?

These are important questions to consider. Chrome OS, after all, is a platform built around the Web. But whether it’s on a plane or while visiting Uncle Jed’s country cottage, we all encounter times when Internet access isn’t available.

I haven’t seen Uncle Jed lately, but as part of my two-week Chrome OS experiment, I wanted to see how Google’s newly refreshed cloud platform really performed offline. So I took a deep breath, hyperventilated a little, and shut off the Wi-Fi and 3G on my Chromebook for a few hours.

Here’s what I found.

Chrome OS offline: The Google app situation

The first thing that struck me in testing Chrome OS offline is just how far Google has come. When I started exploring Chrome OS a year and a half ago — using Google’s prerelease Cr-48 test notebook — offline functionality was practically nonexistent. Even with the launch of the first commercial Chromebook last summer, the picture was pretty bleak.

These days, using Chrome OS offline is almost a good experience. And most of the remaining gaps are set to be filled soon.

Right now, for example, you can get full offline access to Gmail; all you have to do is install the free Offline Google Mail app onto your Chromebook and complete a simple one-time setup. Then, anytime you’re offline, you just open the Offline Google Mail app and you’re good to go.

The offline Gmail interface looks a lot like the tablet Gmail interface. It allows you to read and search through your email, archive messages, and compose new messages or responses. Anything you do is synced to the cloud the next time you connect; the process is automatic and transparent.

Google Docs isn’t quite as good of a situation, but it’s getting there. Right now, Docs has partial offline access: You can view all of your saved documents and spreadsheets, but you can’t edit anything or create anything new. That’s obviously a problem, but it won’t be for long: Google says full offline Docs support for Chrome will be launched within the “next several weeks.”

Odds are, we’ll see full offline Docs support by the end of the month; remember, Google’s annual developers’ conference takes place June 27 through 29. That’d be a logical time for something like this to be unveiled. In the meantime, I’ve been using offline Gmail or the offline-ready Scratchpad note-taking app to fill the void (Scratchpad comes preinstalled on Chromebooks, and it even syncs to Docs when you’re online).

One minor annoyance I discovered is that Docs’ offline mode works only with files saved in the Google Docs format. I happen to have a lot of Microsoft Word and Excel files stored in my Docs account; while the regular online version of Docs allows me to view them, the offline version does not. Google Docs does make it easy to convert files into the Docs format when you’re online, at least — so if you’re planning to use Docs offline and have a lot of Word files floating around, that’s something worth thinking about in advance. (It’s also worth noting that offline Docs access requires a one-time initial setup; you can find the option in the gear dropdown menu at the top-right corner of the Docs app.)

Like Docs, Google Calendar currently has partial offline support. With Calendar, you can browse and view any calendars connected to your account and RSVP to existing invitations. (Like with Docs, too, you have to complete a one-time initial setup to enable offline access.) At the moment, however, you can’t create new events or invitations while working offline. A Google spokesperson tells me full offline Calendar support is in the works, but unfortunately, there’s no firm timeframe for that launch just yet.

Chrome OS offline: The other offline options

Beyond those Google-service basics, there are hundreds of third-party Chrome apps that work perfectly fine offline. Google has even created a section of its Chrome Web Store dedicated to apps with offline capabilities; I counted nearly 900 items in it this morning. (You can always tell if an app is offline-friendly by looking for the gray lightning bolt symbol anywhere in the Chrome Web Store.)

The offline apps include everything from games (Angry Birds, Solitaire, Pac-Man) to news and sports (NYTimes, 365Scores) and general utilities (a Gmail-synced to-do list, scientific calculator, audio transcription tool). You can even read e-books offline with Google’s own Play Books app.

Chrome OS offline: The real deal

Android Power TwitterAt this point, the notion of a Chromebook becoming a paperweight when offline is simply misconstrued. Once full offline Docs support arrives (which, again, is set to happen in a matter of weeks), the number of significant holes remaining will become very slim. Full calendar-editing functionality is still pending, and that’s a bummer — but it hardly constitutes paperweight status.

Chrome OS may be a cloud-based platform, but these days, Google’s Chromebooks remain perfectly capable when they’re away from the cloud.

For much more on Google’s newly revamped Chrome OS and Chromebook experience, check out the rest of my two-week Chrome OS experiment:

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