Chromebooks vs. Windows 10 Laptops: What Should You Buy?
Chromebooks have quickly grown from a curiosity to a force to be reckoned with. Offering a simple and stripped-down experience, Google's Chrome OS is extremely easy to use (if you can use a browser, you're good), and it comes inside several affordable laptops that cost as little as $159. However, Microsoft isn't taking this threat lightly.
With the launch of Windows 10, users can take advantage of a much-improved Start menu, along with the helpful Cortana assistant. Existing Windows-machine owners can upgrade to Windows 10 for free. Despite the new OS, Windows-device prices remain the same — you'll find a number of Windows-powered laptops that cost less than $300, and many under $500 offer touch displays.
So, which computing platform is truly the best? To answer that question, we put both Windows and Chrome OS to the test and compared them in 12 rounds of head-to-head competition.
Compared to the two distinct environments of Windows 8.1, Windows 10 feels more integrated and seamless. Pressing the Start button reveals the new Start menu, filled with your most used programs and recently installed apps on the left (similar to on Windows 8). To the right is a wider panel, where you can pin tiles that are animated with updates. The taskbar has been updated to include a Cortana search bar next to the Start button and small icons that show which programs are open.
On the bottom right of the desktop, Windows 10 adds a notification icon that, when clicked, brings you to the new Action Center, where you can see alerts from apps that are both active and dormant. There are also quick settings in this notification menu in the form of tiles.
In the newest version of Chrome OS, the Start-like button sits on the bottom-left corner. When pressed, the Launcher pop-up features a Google search bar (and the most recent Google Doodle), with a list of your most recently opened apps. Scrolling down reveals Google Now info cards, which give you information like local weather, suggested articles based on your search activity, and calendar updates.
The taskbar in Chrome OS shows icons for currently active apps, as well as shortcuts to essential Google apps, such as Docs, Drive and YouTube. Basic settings, such as Wi-Fi and Time, are accessed on the bottom right. Chrome OS was built as a Web-first operating system, so apps usually run in a Chrome browser window. The same is true for apps that can run offline.
Both Windows 10 and Chrome are great for working in side-by-side windows. For each OS, all you need to do is drag a window to one side, where it snaps to half-screen mode. However, Windows lets you snap up to four windows, compared to two for Chrome OS.
Another thing to consider is touch-friendly devices. There are Windows 10 and Chrome OS laptops with touch screens, but Windows 10 makes the most out of those displays. The operating system has tablet mode, which removes your taskbar icons and puts all apps in full-screen mode, leaving you with a minimalist workspace that removes a lot of desktop distractions. And with the new universal apps in the Windows app store, you'll be able to run most of your favorite programs in both desktop and tablet modes.
Winner: Chrome OS. Though it's less versatile, Chrome OS offers a simpler and more straightforward interface than Windows 10.
Cortana vs. Google Now
In many ways, the new Cortana in Windows 10 is a lot like Google Now in Chrome. Clicking on the Cortana search bar brings up a window with useful information, including the weather, your next calendar appointment and local restaurants to check out. If you have "Hey, Cortana" enabled, you can say that phrase to bring up a window and ask any question you want. I asked, "How do you get from New York City to D.C.?" and Cortana brought up a Bing search-results page with a map of the route between the two cities.
On the flip side, Chrome OS has a similar feature you can enable in settings, called "OK, Google" that will let you ask Google Now questions when the Launcher is open or when a blank Chrome tab is open. When asked the same question ("How do you get from New York City to D.C.?"), Google Now brought up a similar search page in Google with a map of the route. In addition, the voice assistant spoke to me, saying it takes 4 hours and 9 minutes to get to Washington, D.C., from Manhattan with light traffic. Google Now tends to speak more than Cortana, audibly giving you related information about what you initially searched for.
However, Cortana does a lot more than Google Now: You can perform natural-language searches for files on your laptop, dictate emails, book appointments and, yes, tell jokes.
Winner: Windows 10. Cortana is more versatile than Google Now.
Apps and Software
For a laptop to be fully functional, you'll need a few basic programs, including ones for productivity, photo editing, video editing, video playback, music playback and a browser. For Windows laptops and Chromebooks, all of that's possible, but Google's OS is still a work in progress.
If there's a program you want to run, chances are, Windows supports it. And that goes for most games as well. Looking for a more tabletlike experience, or have a system with a touch screen? Currently, there are more than 205,000 apps in the Windows Store.
Some of our favorite Windows 10 apps include Facebook, Kindle and Flipboard. All three of those options offer interactive Live Tiles to keep you updated on what's happening in the world. The Dropbox app on Windows 10 is clean and simple to use, as is Adobe Photoshop Express.
Chrome OS is basically a big browser, so if you can run a program or play a game through a website, you can use it on Chrome. There isn't exactly software to download, but there is a decent array of apps. Keep in mind, however, that if a game requires Adobe Flash or a dedicated plugin, you won't be able to open it on Chrome.
The Chrome Web Store currently offers thousands of apps, though Google doesn't provide the exact number. A few dozen of those apps offer at least some offline functionality, such as Kindle Cloud Reader and Google Drive for reading and editing on the go. Also, you can change the settings in some programs, like Google Docs, to access them offline. In addition, Google has connected some Chrome and Android apps, such as Evernote and Spotify, for a seamless experience across devices.
The Duolingo app brings the smartphone language-learning app to the Chrome desktop with simplicity and a clean design. Windows 10 has yet to sport a Spotify or Pandora app, but both music-streaming offerings can be found on Chromebooks. However, you can download Spotify's desktop program and use it from your Windows 10 device. Pandora can be streamed simply from a Web browser tab.
There are plenty of programs that don't run on Chromebooks, such as CyberLink PowerDirector. Chrome OS does support popular options such as Microsoft Word, Photoshop Express, Spotify and Facebook. But in almost all cases, the "app" is simply a launcher for the accompanying website.
Winner: Windows 10. In this case, more is better.
Photo and Video Editing
Windows 10 offers a plethora of photo-editing programs, including support for Photoshop Elements. Adobe's creative suite and many other options simply don't exist on Chromebooks.
What you will find on the Web-based Chrome OS platform are some basic editing options, such as Photoshop Express and Pixlr Editor. Using the latter, we took a high-resolution photo of a tiger and quickly added effects, an overlay and text, and adjusted the color for brightness, contrast, focal blur and much more. It's an easy-to-navigate program with straightforward tools. For casual photo editors, these are likely to be what you need. You won't be able to access Photoshop Express offline, but Pixlr Editor works the same online as it does offline.
With Windows 10 came the introduction of Microsoft's new Photos app, which has basic photo-editing tools. When you open a photo in the app, you can choose the option to edit it from the top-right navigation bar, which opens up tools on the right and left sides of the photo. In basic fixes, you'll find options like auto-enhance, which bumps up the contrast and saturation and, in some cases, straightens out an image; rotate; crop; and retouch. For more controlled editing, you can manipulate light (brightness, contrast, highlights and shadows) and colors (temperature, tint and saturation), and there are filters and effects to give your photos more personality.
Anyone who has used mobile photo editors like Instagram and Afterlight will easily get the hang of the new Windows Photos app. More serious photographers will want to download programs like Adobe Photoshop to have full control over their images, which is not an option on Chrome OS.
Filmmakers will also find the Chrome Web Store a lonely place. You will find simple, no-frills options, such as Magisto and WeVideo, that offer auto-correction and editing with a few clicks. But you won't find CyberLink PowerDirector and its professional suite of tools. That falls to the Windows 10 crowd, exclusively.
Winner: Windows 10. Beginners and pros alike get the most options in a Windows 10 laptop.
Do you prefer a variety of browsers? Microsoft Windows wins hands down. You can download and install almost any browser you want on a PC, including Safari, Firefox or Chrome. Windows 10 also comes with the new Edge browser from Microsoft. On a Chromebook, you get only one option: Chrome. Considering how good Chrome is, that's not necessarily terrible, but we'd prefer a choice.
Edge took a few notes out of Chrome's book. Both browsers have personal-assistant integration — Edge with Cortana, and Chrome with Google Now — making it easier for you to search and browse the Web at the same time. Edge even has a window on the side of the browser for Cortana, so you don't have to leave your current tab to use it. Also, Microsoft said that, soon, developers will be able to create Edge-specific extensions, and those that already know how to make Chrome extensions will find it easier to do so.
Edge sets itself apart with a few other tricks, like Markups, which turn Web pages into notebook pages. You can draw and scribble on tabs to make notes and then export the image to share with others. It also has Read mode, which takes away extraneous links, graphics and menus on Web pages when you're trying to read articles.
Winner: Chrome. Despite Edge's special features, Chrome performs better and is easier to use.
Windows still provides a traditional and familiar folder of files, which appears in the simple File Explorer program. You can also save to your desktop, pin documents to the bar and create new folders in a jiffy. You can even access your Microsoft OneDrive files to see what you've stored in the cloud.
There's also a Files folder in the main menu for Chromebooks. But it's not in the Start menu by default, as it is on Windows 10. From here, you can access your Google Drive files or any files that have been downloaded and saved to the machine's storage drive.
The main drawback for Chromebook users is the smaller amount of space you're likely to have on your machine's hard drive. The HP Chromebook 14, for example, offers 16GB of local storage, and Google offers 15GB of cloud storage for free. For two years, you can access 100GB of Drive cloud storage for free, but then you'll have to pay $1.99 per month for 100GB of additional storage if you need it. Also, you can purchase up to 1TB of online space for $9.99 per month, if you need more.
In comparison, the Windows-powered Acer Aspire V3 comes with a 500GB hard drive, and 15GB of OneDrive storage is available for free through a Microsoft account. You can access files on your Windows 10 PC via the Start menu in File Explorer. Also, with Cortana integration, you can type in commands, such as "Show me photos from last week," and it will bring up files that fit those criteria.
Winner: Windows 10. Those who keep tons of photos, videos and other files will want the local storage space that Windows offers.
Being the go-to business-friendly operating system, Windows 10 is the standard when it comes to getting stuff done. As such, many businesses use software that is only compatible with Windows. For instance, you won't be using AutoCAD design software on a Chromebook.
Microsoft's own Office suite — which includes Word, Excel and PowerPoint — is also the standard bearer for productivity software. But that's not your only option on a Windows machine. You can use Google Drive, OpenOffice or any number of third-party software programs.
On Chromebooks, you can still access Word, Excel and PowerPoint, but they're Microsoft's Web-only versions of the apps available through OneDrive. These options require that you be online to use them. You can download files to your local storage and edit them there, but your system will open them as Google Drive files.
There are third-party productivity options for Chrome OS, including Zoho and Polaris, but most of those programs require a Web connection as well. Google Drive, however, works offline, and we really like the real-time collaborative editing and number of useful add-ons. Also, Microsoft has created Chrome apps for its office suite of tools — including Word, Excel and PowerPoint — so you can create and edit those documents on a Chrome OS. In typical fashion, they are Web apps you need to download and install to use, and they are available only for online use.
Winner: Windows 10. If you're not wedded to Google Drive for all your productivity needs, Windows is the way to go.
Most hard-core games require some serious specs, including discrete graphics chips, plenty of onboard storage and advanced processing power. That's totally doable on a high-end Windows 10 machine, such as the Asus ROG G751JY, but the lower-end machines won't be able to handle it. The same is true of Chromebooks, though most hard-core games aren't available for the Chrome OS platform.
As such, you will not be able to download or play World of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto V, Diablo III, League of Legends or Dota 2 on a Chromebook. The games simply aren't supported by Google's operating system. You will find some casual and popular games in the Chrome Web Store — including Despicable Me: Minion Rush, Need for Speed World and Plants vs. Zombies — so it's not a total bust. Of course, all those same casual games are available on Windows 10 as well.
Another perk Microsoft added is the ability to stream Xbox One games to a Windows 10 PC. With the Xbox One app installed on a Windows 10 device, you can hook up an Xbox One controller to the computer and play titles you'd normally play on your console. Just note that another person can't use your Xbox at the same time.
Winner: Windows 10. You simply cannot run many of the games you might want to play on a Chromebook.
Neither Windows 10 nor Chrome OS supports every file type ever made, but on Microsoft-powered machines, you have the option of downloading codecs to play those files on your laptop. QuickTime files, among several other types, cannot be played back on a Chromebook.
For media files, Chromebooks support .3gp, .avi, .mov, .mp4, m4v, .mp3, .mkv, .ogv, .ogm, .ogg, .oga. .webm and .wav. That means there's no .aac file support, and thus no iTunes. You also won't find .h264 files, which is the backdrop for some 60 percent of all Web videos and the default codec that many cameras record in. Chrome OS doesn't support .tiff files for images, either.
In addition to all the file types supported by Google's OS, Microsoft's Windows Media Center natively supports .aac, .asf, .asx, .m2ts, .m3u, .mpg, .mpeg, .qt, .wmv, .vod and .wma files. You can also play optical discs on Windows 10 with the necessary hardware, but you won't be able to play DVDs or Blu-ray discs on a Chromebook.
Winner: Windows 10. You're unlikely to find a file you can't play on Windows 10.
Windows has long been a known target for hackers looking to infect PCs with viruses, malware, botnets and keyloggers. In fact, the very first thing anyone should do with a new Windows laptop is install an antivirus suite. However, Microsoft's Windows Defender does come built in, and that's better than nothing.
Windows Defender runs in the background and notifies you if you need to take actions, such as performing a virus removal. The SmartScreen feature also warns you when it doesn't recognize an app, to help prevent phishing attacks. Plus, the secure-boot feature means that every time you turn on your laptop, it will check itself for digital certificates of authenticity before it boots. That means it will not load infected software.
Cloud customers have access to a few extra security features. Device Guard protects Windows 10 machines from any unknown software that hasn't been approved by an official vendor or Microsoft itself. In an effort to expand on its biometric systems, Microsoft is enabling Windows Hello to unlock devices just by using fingerprint scanners. Also, if you have an Intel RealSense camera, you can use your face to access your device or Microsoft Passport without a PIN.
Chromebooks have not yet caught the eye of many hackers. But more than that, Google promotes the security of its operating system as a key selling point. A Chromebook automatically checks for and applies security updates, while including Web filters and sandboxing media. Also, Chrome OS doesn't support Flash, so any security issues surrounding it won't affect the system.
If something does get into your Chrome OS system, restoring it to its factory settings requires only a couple of clicks on the mouse pad. The only security problem Chromebook owners really face is thieves looking to hack the sites you use, where a lot of personal data is stored.
Winner: Chrome OS. Assuming you can keep your Google password to yourself, you're safer in Chrome.
Variety is the spice of life, and fewer types of technology offer as much variety as Windows PCs. The screens alone can range in size from 11 to 18 inches, both with and without touch capability. Eight major manufacturers create Windows laptops, offering Intel and AMD chips, onboard memory that varies wildly from 2GB to 16GB, and storage sizes that go up to the terabyte level.
Some Windows machines are plastic, and some are metal. Some come in nonstandard colors. Some are meant to be portable, while others are more deskbound. There truly is an option for everyone when it comes to Windows.
The Chromebook market is smaller. In fact, there are only 13 current models, made by six companies. The display size ranges from 11 to 15 inches, but most are smaller than 15 inches. Only a couple of models offer a touch screen. Chromebooks are incredibly portable, though, usually weighing between 2 and 4 pounds.
Winner: Windows 10. Microsoft's ecosystem gives you more options, which means you're more likely to find something you really like.
With variety comes a wide range of prices for Windows 10 laptops, topping out at a few thousand dollars for a gaming rig or high-powered workstation. At the opposite extreme, you'll find budget laptops that cost as little as $200. However, with those low-cost devices, you'll be giving up processing power, screen size and other amenities.
The Windows-powered HP Stream 11 costs just $199, and for that price, you get 6 hours and 34 minutes of battery life, a comfortable keyboard and a cute design. The 11.6-inch model with a 32GB flash drive and an Intel Celeron CPU handles everyday computing tasks fine, but it wouldn't be up for video editing or demanding games.
The price range for Chromebooks is much narrower, generally ranging between $200 and $400. Our favorite Chromebook is the Toshiba Chromebook 2 — for $329, you get nearly 8 hours of battery life, an attractive design and a brilliant 1080p display. You'll also enjoy an Intel CPU, but only a 16GB SSD.
Winner: Chrome OS. Chromebooks offer more bang for your buck.
Overall Winner: Windows 10
Microsoft's Windows came out on top in this battle, winning 8 out of 12 rounds. It simply offers shoppers more — more apps, more photo- and video-editing options, more productivity programs, more games, more file-type support and more hardware options. You can also do more offline.
If you're a budget-conscious shopper who is comfortable living in the cloud and you want to get stuff done in a secure yet simple environment, a Chromebook will suit you nicely. However, if you need power and versatility, Windows 10 reigns supreme.