Over the past few years I have been using all Microsoft-oriented products: a Windows 10 laptop and desktop, a Windows phone (Lumia 950) and a Surface 2 (Windows RT) tablet. One advantage is that they all log on to a single Windows account with an Outlook email address. I use Outlook (from Office 365) to manage my email, contacts and calendar.
Because of the poor app support for the phone and Surface 2, I’m wondering about getting an iPhone and a Chromebook to replace the tablet and laptop. My laptop needs are likely to diminish once I have finished my PhD, and will be mainly email, word processing and presentations.
I’m concerned that this is going to leave me with a mess of email addresses and accounts – an iCloud address for the phone, a Gmail address for the Chromebook, and the ongoing Windows account. Paul
When this column started, in a previous century, most users only had one PC. Home users did not have broadband, so email was collected via a dial-up modem. Some people had handheld “organisers” from Palm, Psion and other suppliers, but they synced with PCs. Life was simple.
Since then things have changed dramatically, with the arrival of smartphones, mass-market tablets, ultraportable laptops, always-on home broadband and widely available internet connections via wireless hotspots and 3G/4G cellular services. Most homes now have a plethora of connected devices, from media servers to light bulbs. Instead of syncing with a local PC, things sync via cloud-based services that make your data accessible from almost any smart device almost anywhere.
But whose cloud will you use? For many purposes, there are three major ecosystems, run by Apple, Google and Microsoft. Each company offers its own devices, browsers, operating systems, email service, online applications and cloud storage. Devices often push people to adopt one ecosystem rather than another, which is the heart of your problem. However, you can use all your devices with your current Outlook account.
The three major ecosystems are very similar, but some differences reflect the way each company makes money.
Apple makes most of its money by selling devices, mainly iPhones, iPads and Macs. Its cloud services are intended to make its devices more appealing, partly by helping them to work well together. It mostly avoids doing software for non-Apple devices, with iTunes for Windows and the Apple Music app for Android being notable exceptions.
Google makes most of its money from selling targeted advertising, which is based on analysing your data and behaviour. It doesn’t much care which devices you use, but it wants you to use its Chrome browser to access its online properties such as Gmail and YouTube. Basically, it wants everything done online.
Microsoft makes most of its money from selling software and services. It generally doesn’t care which devices you use, though it has a relatively small hardware business selling Xbox games consoles and Surface PCs. Like Google, Microsoft wants you to use its online services, such as Outlook and Office 365, but it still supports offline use. Organisations that need to control their data can run Microsoft server software and even Azure clouds on their own premises.
As a result, Microsoft offers the most complete ecosystem for supporting different devices and both online and offline use. Indeed, as a Windows Phone user, you may already know that Microsoft provides better support for iPhone and Android phone users than it does for you.
Google IDs and email addresses
If you buy an Android phone, tablet or Chromebook, you will inevitably end up with a Google account, but you don’t have to use the associated Gmail address, or you can click the option that says “I prefer to use my current email address” and avoid signing up for the associated Gmail address. Either way, if you don’t email people from Gmail, they won’t even know your address.
You can set Gmail to forward all incoming email to your Outlook account, and set up a rule to file it in a Gmail folder. However, accessing Gmail in a browser provides easy access to Google Drive, which provides 15GB of free online storage. Go to Drive and you can create documents in Google’s online applications, which include Docs, Sheets and Slides.
You already have Office 365 with 1TB of storage space, so these won’t be of much interest, but they can sometimes come in handy.
In passing, the potentially problematic Google Drive app for Windows PCs and Macs was killed off in March. It has been replaced by Backup and Sync for Google Photos and Google Drive.
My advice: use Google Takeout to do backups.
Apple IDs and email addresses
You will need an Apple ID to use an iPhone, and the setup procedure will prompt you to set up an Apple email address. However, millions of people have Apple IDs with non-Apple email addresses, thanks to the widespread use of Apple iTunes on Windows PCs. In fact, you can sign up for an Apple ID on the web, using any email address you like. Apple will send an email to the address you provide, and you must enter the code to verify your account.
If you buy an iPhone, you can also access your Apple ID account from your PC’s web browser. This lets you use online applications such as Pages, Numbers and Keynote, and provides 5GB of free iCloud storage. You can also download an iCloud app to your Windows PC.
Alternatively, the Files app in iOS lets you use different online storage services such as Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive, Amazon Drive and Dropbox. Just tap Locations in the top left and turn on the ones you need.
Microsoft provides dozens of apps for iPhones, iPads and Android devices. At the moment there are 86 for the iPhone and 93 for Android. The most useful include Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, OneDrive, Office Lens, Cortana and Microsoft Remote Desktop.
Install the Outlook app on your iPhone (or your Android phone or tablet) and you should have no problems using your current Outlook email address.
Microsoft Office apps also run on newer Chromebooks that host a full copy of the Android operating system, and they are free if the Chromebook has a 10.1in or smaller screen. Alternatively you can use the free online Office apps in the Chrome browser. These include Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Photos, OneNote and OneDrive.
If you buy a Chromebook with a larger screen, you can only use the apps if you have an Office 365 account, but you still won’t get access to the full programs. They only run on Windows PCs and Macs.
I recommend trying a recent touchscreen Chromebook before buying one. You will need a 360-degree hinge for it to work as a tablet, or a detachable keyboard like the new (coming soon!) HP Chromebook X2.
I think Chromebooks are still too limited to provide a real substitute for a Windows 10 convertible or a tablet. They are fine for email and browsing, but many models don’t handle touch well, if at all. Also, most Android apps have been designed for smartphones. Relatively few have been adapted for larger screens, or for Chromebooks.
The Android tablet market is struggling, and Google may be planning to replace Android with Chrome OS. The Acer Chromebook Tab 10 tablet is an example. One benefit is that you won’t have to rely on a tablet manufacturer to update the Android operating system.
Google is still developing Chrome OS to take on a dual role, but at the moment, Windows 10 convertibles are probably more useful. Just make sure you get at least 64GB of storage to handle Windows 10 updates.
Have you got a question? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com
- This article was amended on 13 July 2018 to highlight the option to sign up for a Google account using an existing email address.
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