Should I Buy a Chromebook? Buying Guide and Advice
A Chromebook is a laptop of a different breed. Instead of Windows 10 or macOS, Chromebooks run Google's Chrome OS. These machines are designed to be used primarily while connected to the Internet, with most applications and documents living in the cloud. These machines have done quite well in the education market, but their appeal has broadened.
Low prices, long battery life and ease of use are just a few reasons why Chromebooks are attractive. Chromebooks outsold Macs for the first time in 2016, and Gartner is predicting that Chromebook sales will grow by 16.3 percent in 2017.
But is a Chromebook right for you? Our Chromebook buying guide has the answers to these and other questions.
Should I Buy a Chromebook?
Chromebooks run Chrome OS, Google's operating system, so they heavily feature Google's suite of applications and often times rely on a working Internet connection. Although you can log in to Chrome OS as a guest, we recommend you log in to the system with a Google account to have the best experience.
Chromebooks are optimized for Google's apps, such as Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Drive. This deep integration can be either positive or negative, depending on how you use a PC. Chromebooks will be easy to set up if you already use those apps.
Unfortunately, popular software applications, such as Adobe Photoshop and the Microsoft Office suite, aren't available on Chromebooks. However, Microsoft Office Online, the free cloud version of Office, is available as a webpage in the Chrome browser, and you can always use the native Google Drive to open and edit documents and spreadsheets.
It may be best to stick with Microsoft Office Online if you already have a lot of Office files that you're bringing over to your Chromebook. There are often formatting issues when importing third-party documents into Drive. Fortunately, Google Drive allows you to save documents to Microsoft formats, so you'll still be able to share files with non-Chromebook users.
On the other hand, there are a handful of photo editors available for Chrome OS, including Pixlr (free), which looks a lot like Photoshop. But those with existing files are out of luck — there is no Chromebook app that can edit Adobe's .PSD files.
If those limitations concern you, Android apps are now coming to Chromebooks. However, only a select few systems can access the Google Play store at this time. The idea is to give Chromebooks access to more games, productivity options and other apps to make these machines more versatile.
Right now, Android-capable Chromebooks include the Samsung Chromebook Plus, Asus Chromebook Flip, Acer Chromebook R11 and Google’s own Chromebook Pixel. If you’re looking to take a Chromebook to school with you, make it one of those.
Chromebooks are designed to rely heavily on the Internet, which means that many apps simply won't work if you're out of Wi-Fi range. There are more than 200 offline Chrome apps that can work without Internet connectivity, including Gmail, Pocket and Google Drive, and tons of the Android apps coming soon will also work offline.
You'll still be able to play games on the Chromebook, but your options are sparse. The Chrome Web Store offers casual titles such as Bejeweled and Cut the Rope, but you won't have the same selection as you would on a Windows machine or a Mac. Of course, Chromebooks with Android support get more modern titles such as Fallout Shelter, Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes and Minecraft.
Chromebooks generally have limited graphics processing power, so you'll want to stick to less demanding titles.
Chrome OS has voice controls, so you can say, "OK, Google" with the launcher open, or a Chrome tab open, and the voice assistant will pop up, ready to serve you. The launcher is also integrated with Google Now, giving you info cards at the bottom of the window that show info like the current weather and local news stories.
Google redesigned the on-screen keyboard for touch-screen use, making it easier to use on 2-in-1s like the Asus Chromebook Flip. With a minimalist design, the on-screen keyboard recognizes your scribbles and gives you choices of text to input. When we tested that feature, it was almost always accurate in recognizing our writing. Also, soon, Android smartphone users will be able to get text and call-pop-up notifications on their desktop.
Chromebooks typically offer exceptional battery life, but not as much as they used to. Of the 10 Chromebooks we've reviewed in the past year, we've seen an average of 9 hours and 15 minutes of endurance on the Laptop Mag Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi. On the top end, you'll notice standouts like the Acer Chromebook R 13's runtime of 11:00, though the average is down from the 9:59 time we previously found.
We recommend shooting for at least 9 hours of juice, which half of the Chromebooks we've reviewed offer. While some affordable Windows 10 notebooks, like the Lenovo Miix 310 (12:24) and the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 (13:39), offer amazing battery life, the ultraportable notebook average is a shorter 8 hours and 21 minutes.
Similar to business notebooks made to survive drops and other minor disasters, Chromebooks for Work are built to withstand falls, scrapes and similar punishment. In our testing, the Acer Chromebook 14 for Work proved durable, surviving unscratched and fully functional after our Dropbot 5000 test bench dropped it from a height of 48 inches onto a plywood plank.
Both the Acer Chromebook 14 for Work and the ThinkPad 13 Chromebook (another For Work model) are MIL-STD-810G certified, meaning they're capable of passing durability testing that U.S. Military equipment must pass. The Acer Chromebook 14 For Work can survive extreme temperatures (minus 20.2 degrees to 140 degrees Fahrenheit), humidity, vibration, rain, sand and dust.
Durable Chromebooks aren't just for adults. The kid-friendly Acer Chromebook 11 N7 C731T survived a full glass of water getting spilled onto its keyboard, as well as the 48-inch high drops from our Dropbot 5000. It may have gotten scuffed along the way, but it's a good option for clumsier users.
Manageability and Security
Chromebook for Work models also offer tools that IT administrators need to manage laptops in and out of the office. The Lenovo ThinkPad 13 Chromebook includes a Trusted Platform Module, a security chip that helps keep malicious attackers away from your passwords.
What Size Screen Do I Need?
Most Chromebooks fall between 11 and 13 inches. That means you won't have trouble choosing a smaller model, such as the 11-inch Acer Chromebook 11 N7 , the 12.5-inch Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA and the 13-inch ThinkPad 13 Chromebook.
These models often weigh less than 3 pounds, making them the most portable, and great options for kids. However, the screen size and keyboards may seem cramped for adults.
The Acer Chromebook 15 is the only 15-inch Chrome OS notebook available.
Those looking for more real estate for Web surfing, getting work done, watching movies and playing games can pick up the 14-inch Acer Chromebook 14 for Work, or the 15-inch Acer Chromebook 15, the only Chrome OS notebooks above 13 inches. Unfortunately, both are on the older end of the spectrum, as there hasn't been much demand for large Chromebooks. Don't even look for a 17-inch Chromebook; they're not out there.
What Specs Do I Need?
Because Chromebooks are meant primarily for online use, the specs aren't as important as they are for Windows laptops, but you'll still want to know how much power and storage you're getting for your money. Here's a quick guide.
When it comes to RAM, Chromebooks come with either 2GB or 4GB. While models with 4GB are more expensive, we've found that difference to be worth it for multi-tasking.
Both the HP Chromebook 14 (4GB RAM) and the Lenovo 100S Chromebook (2GB RAM) featured the same Celeron N2840 processors, but the HP notebook handled more than a dozen open tabs without a problem while the Lenovo stuttered with 10 open Chrome tabs and Spotify playing. Our tests of the Windows version of the Lenovo Ideapad 100S ($180) show that similarly spec'd PCs can handle a larger stack of tabs.
The processor in your Chrome OS machine helps determine how smoothly your Chromebook performs, especially when you have multiple tabs open and you're streaming video or playing games.
We find Intel Celeron chips in many Chromebooks, and they often provide acceptable speed. The $229 Acer Chromebook 11 N7 C731T (Celeron N3060, 4GB RAM) for example, could run 8 concurrent Chrome tabs, but stuttered after we opened another.
You can get a Windows 10 laptop with similar specs and price, such as the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 ($229), but it might not be as capable. That machine has the same processor and memory, but while it lasts more than 13 hours, its performance was less than that of the 11 N7.
If that doesn't sound like enough for you, certain Chromebooks pack Intel Core CPUs for even more speed. The biggest downside to these Core M Chromebooks, such as the Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA ($499) and Samsung Chromebook Pro ($549) is their heftier price. Don't worry about that powerful CPU affecting the battery life, as the Samsung Chromebook Pro (Core M3) provided more power and longer longevity (8:05) than its weaker Chromebook Plus (ARM MediaTek; 7:46) sibling.
If you want a Chromebook without an Intel Chip, there's always 2014's Acer Chromebook 13, the only Chrome OS machine with an Nvidia chip (the Tegra K1). While it offers excellent graphics performance, it doesn't offer a touch screen.
Since Chrome OS is so lightweight, Chromebooks often don't need much storage. Most pack just 16GB of onboard storage, and that's likely all you'll need at this stage. Once Android support lands on the platform, users will find ways to make use of the SD card reader in notebooks such as the Acer Chromebook 14, where you can expand the storage up to 64GB.
Spring for a 32GB model now if you're buying with Android apps in mind. Similarly-priced Windows laptops often include 32GB by default, but that operating system takes up so much space that you're left with a similar amount of free storage as a 16GB Chromebook.
Google gives you 100GB of free Google Drive storage with every Chromebook purchase, though that only lasts for two years, after which you'll only have the standard 15GB of free space.
The size of the screen isn't the only thing that matters. Lower-end Chromebooks such as the $229 Lenovo N22 Touch sport 1366 x 768-pixel displays, which are fine for writing and reading. But if you want sharper images, video and graphics, spring for one with a full-HD display (1920 x 1080 pixels), such as the $359 Acer Chromebook R 13.
Windows 10 has been built for touch screens, but you can get the same functionality in Chrome OS. You just have to know which one to get — and expect to pay about a $100 premium. The $280 Acer Chromebook R 11 can bend into a tablet, making use of its IPS touch-screen display.
The Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA is our overall favorite Chromebook. Image: Jeremy Lips/LaptopMag.
The $449 Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA also has a touch screen, and it's one of the few to currently support Android apps, though others will gain that support later this year. If the prospect of using What's App, Super Mario Run and other apps on a Chromebook sounds like an option for you, make sure your next Chromebook includes a touch screen.
Who Are You Buying It For?
Overall, the best way to tell if someone will enjoy owning a Chromebook is if you know they already spend most of their time in the Chrome browser. Those users will take to the notebook naturally.
If you're buying this Chromebook for someone else, you should take a few moments to consider how they're going to use the device. Chromebooks are especially good for younger students, as they are ease to use and are fairly secure.
Children who are still learning how to use computers may be more receptive to learning how a new operating system works, and while there's no official Minecraft title for Chrome OS, the Android-based Minecraft: Pocket Edition will become available on certain Chromebooks later this year.
Some elder relatives may have never truly understood Windows enough to use their PC frequently, but others who have learned just enough to make do may become frustrated that they need to relearn where downloads go, or that their favorite app is not available for Chrome.
How Much Should I Spend?
There's a pretty narrow price range for Chromebooks. At the low end, you can pick up the affordable and light $169 Acer Chromebook R11, which has an 11.6-inch HD display, an Intel Celeron N3150 CPU and 2GB of RAM. On the other end of the spectrum is the $549 Samsung Chromebook Pro, a stylus-equipped 12.3-inch notebook with a 2400 x 1600-pixel display, an Intel Core M3 processor and 4GB of RAM.
You can even wind up spending as much as $749 on the 14-inch Acer Chromebook 14 for Work, but that's after it's upgraded to a Core i5 processor that Chromebooks don't really need. The most you should spend on that notebook is $600, which gets you a Core i3 CPU, a 1920 x 1080-pixel display, 32GB of storage and 8GB of RAM.
You'll probably wind up paying more for a Windows 10 notebook, as the average selling price for a PC is $448, according to NPD. There are more affordable options, as we've detailed here, but the PC laptop market has a much higher cap than the Chromebook market.
Chromebooks are affordable and offer decent performance, and the introduction of Android apps is increasing their capabilities. Microsoft is fighting back with low-cost Windows 10 S laptops, but if you're looking for a simple way to get online and you prefer Google's services, you'll be happy with a Chromebook.