Laptop Buying Tips for Students: Windows or Chromebook?

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As the school year begins, parents everywhere are asking the same question: Should I get my kid a Chromebook or a Windows PC? While Chromebooks once offered better battery life and cheaper prices, Windows machines have caught up on those features, but other key differentiators remain.

asus-chromebook-flip-C302CACredit: Laptop Mag

Currently, IDC forecasts that consumer Chromebook shipments will reach 3.9 million units this year, which is a 29.4 percent year-over-year increase. That's a massive amount of growth, especially while the PC market overall is expected to shrink by 3.7 percent. So what's attracting consumers to Chromebooks, and should you consider one rather than a Windows laptop?

What grade is your kid in?

The simplicity of Chromebooks makes them most suited to students from kindergarten through high school.

Older high schoolers, though, may require specialized apps that aren't available on Chromebooks, especially if they're working in music composition or coding.

What's at school?

One important factor in deciding what laptop to get your kid is knowing what their school is giving them to use. Linn Huang, research director at IDC, told me (in a telephone interview) that plenty of "K to 12 schools are wheeling in carts of Chromebooks" and "students grab one and sign in," which is leading kids to feel incredibly comfortable on Chrome OS.

samsung_chromebook_3Credit: Laptop Mag

That means they're also logged into their Google Drive folder, complete with all of their Google Docs and other schoolwork. Sure, you can get those on a PC, but if your kids are using Chromebooks at school, they're probably going to have the easiest time if they get one for home use.

Chromebooks also enable greater collaboration in the classroom using the Google Classroom software. This suite of tools streamlines the process of assignment distribution and feedback, and organizes all of the data in one place.

MORE: Best Chromebooks Available Now

Google Classroom also allows teachers an easy way to create web pages to distribute their syllabi and attach readings. These tools are also available to teachers on the go as Google Play and iOS apps.

Chromebook Benefits: Simple, Safe, Secure and Shareable

In addition to giving kids the same interface they use at schools, using a Chromebook at home helps them hold onto all of their work. Over the phone, Cyrus Mistry, senior product manager at Google, explained that when students go home, they can "get every single thing that they had in school."

Laptop Buying Tips for StudentsCredit: Google

Mistry continued, saying that's because "when [kids] go home and use a completely different Chromebook, if that student signs in with their school address, not only does their entire world come back, with all of their bookmarks, all of their Google content, but all of their non-Google content, all of their Android applications and paid applications, show up and install immediately as soon they sign in."

While Windows PCs allow for multiple users, Mistry called the Chromebook the "most sharable device in the world," speaking of how family members can hand it off without any issues. "Mom [or dad] can sign in and they get their entire world," he said, "and when they sign out, nothing that they did affects [other users'] partitions." 

On the flip side, Windows 10 can get pretty complicated. The operating system not only peppers your screen with notifications, asking if you're likely to recommend Windows 10 to a friend, but it also really wants you to use Cortana, and learning how to use a digital assistant may be low on your list of priorities for your kid.

On top of that, Windows' system updates have a bad history of arriving and forcing restarts at inopportune times (though Microsoft is trying to fix that). And if you're trying to get your kid a laptop for their schoolwork, all of the free games in the Start menu, — including Minecraft and Candy Crush Soda Saga — may distract and hinder their productivity.  

Chromebooks run on Chrome OS, which provides a much smoother and easier way of life. The operating system's security and updates protocols are dead simple; updates download to a secondary version of the operating system in the background. 

How does that work? Mistry told us that "while you're connected to partition A, updates are downloading to partition B in the background. Then, "when you reboot, [Chrome OS] tests the new version" and applies it to partition A if the revision checks out.

MORE: Best Laptops for College Students

Another plus for parents: Chrome OS doesn't have the ability to just install apps off the internet. Your child would need to pull those titles from the Google Play Store, and you can use Android's parental controls to stop that. 

Word docs or Google Docs?

Ask your kids or their teachers how homework is accepted. Do they live in Google Docs, or do they send Microsoft Office files? 

Laptop Buying Tips for StudentsCredit: Google

If your kids use Microsoft Word, Excel and other programs, Chromebooks are nonstarters. Sure, those apps are available as Android apps on those Chromebooks that support the Google Play store, but they're not good enough to replace the original.

You can export files between Word and Excel and Google Docs and Sheets, but those conversions are rarely ever 100 percent perfect. And I'm sure the last thing you want is to hear your kid yelling that Microsoft Word messed with the formatting of their assignment, making them spend more time to fix it. 

MORE: How to Use Windows 10

But if your kids say their classrooms revolve around Google Docs and the other G Suite apps, such as Sheets, you're best off with a Chromebook.

Windows 10 still makes a compelling case for families and students

But while Chromebooks have begun to take off, Windows laptops still have something to offer. First of all, you'll often find the most complete versions of apps on Windows, such as Adobe Photoshop, while competitors may be missing options.

Laptop Buying Tips for StudentsCredit: Microsoft

Another example of that comes with Microsoft's own Office suite, which is a must-have for many, but best on Windows. Aaron Woodman, general manager of Windows marketing, emphasized this, telling me via email that "Windows 10 runs desktop Office apps, while competitors like Chrome and iPad only offer web apps."

So, yes, while there are iOS versions of Office for iPads and the Android versions of Office apps on Chromebooks — and office365.com allows you to access these programs via a browser — none of the above are feature-complete when compared with their Windows equivalents. 

Next, he emphasized how Windows wins on accessibility features, "such as narrator, word prediction and eye control," making computing easier for a wide range of users.

Windows 10 also has a leg up when it comes to pen computing. For example, OneNote's Ink Math Assistant feature "allows students to hand write math problems and equations and instantly receive a step-by-step proof to help them identify how to correctly solve the problem," Woodman said.

Yes, iOS and Chrome OS all support styli, but Woodman boasted that Windows 10 does it best, with "the most robust and intelligent digital inking capabilities across Microsoft’s Office applications (OneNote, Word, PowerPoint)."

MORE: Kids Tablets to Buy (or Avoid)

Woodman also stated that "the most complete set of learning experiences are on Windows." He highlighted the newly released Minecraft: Education Edition, which allows Minecraft owners to learn basic chemistry by playing with the  Chemistry Resource Pack.

Bottom Line

If your kid's already living a Google life — which schools are promoting — Chromebooks are a fantastic option. These notebooks also allow for more seamless sharing around the house, so you can use that Chromebook after junior's gone to sleep. 

But, if your kid's more advanced — or needs more help — you might be better off buying them a PC. Windows 10 provides more complete versions of Office apps, a ton of accessibility options and superior styli usage. 

So, at the end of the day, it's time to talk to your kids and see what they use and what they need. Leave a comment below if you have any questions for us to answer!

Author Bio
Henry T. Casey
Henry T. Casey,
Henry is a senior writer at Laptop Mag, covering security, Apple and operating systems. Prior to joining Laptop Mag — where he's the self-described Rare Oreo Expert — he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. You can find him at your local pro wrestling events, and wondering why Apple decided to ditch its MagSafe power adapters.
Henry T. Casey, on
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32 comments
  • Olivia Says:

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  • Suvarna vaman patil Says:

    I want to buy laptop with best features. How?

  • rajesh Says:

    Sir I want to be purchased a new laptop which company laptops is suitable for all work nd which have included all featured of laptop like as os. Front camera quality good hd screen etc. Can you reply in my email account please as soon as

  • NAPOLEON BRAVE Says:

    thank you for teaching and advising IT class over exploitation and fake gadgets by business world

  • sanjeev kumar Says:

    I also want to buy a laptop but the best .how I can get this

  • PayLessDeal Says:

    Well I wonder a normal laptop can give you 8 hours of battery life, even if it does then how can you sit in a shop for 8 hours to check either the battery lives for 8 hours or not? Rests of the things mentioned above are perfect. Check all the properties to confirm that all the specs are as same as mentioned back of the laptop machine.

  • Reena Says:

    Hi. Looking for a laptop to take to university. Will be using lots of software for presentations and work. Don't know if I should go with MAC or Windows. Need a good battery life and average to light weight since I will be carrying it around often.

  • Benna Says:

    I am going into 9th grade next year and I need a now laptop, however I have started getting into gaming as well, and I want to have a laptop that can run steam and battle.net with ease while also being capable of accessing the internet and word easily. PLEASE HELP! I have been looking everywhere and I cannot find anywhere that has a modern computer that fits my needs.

  • Krishna Says:

    How would be lenovo s510p core i5 fourth gen laptop for a freshman at college

  • Lucia Says:

    Want to buy laptop for the first time.
    Which one is good and more reliable for me as I am going to the varsity next year?
    Approx price range:4000


    Thanks in advance.

  • Atanu Basu Says:

    I want to buy a laptop for my daughter( college student) approx price range ₹ 25000/=.

  • Ashish kumar Says:

    I'll soon be joining CS B.Tech. Should i go for an SSD laptop or a laptop with a dedicated graphic card. ( most laptops except macbook don't have both SSD and dedicated graphics

  • Saikat Ghosh Says:

    I'm a student in High School, and will soon be going to College..
    I was looking for a laptop for my studies, and found one the suits this article.. The Micromax Canvas Laptab 2(LT777).. Do you thing I should go for this one??..

  • John Davison Says:

    With the touch screens windows 8 is ought to have to more fun and immersive, but if laptop is not hybrid with a bendable or rotatable screen, you can probably live without it. The difference in price is similarly configured systems with and without touch.

  • UConnRon Says:

    Chromebooks are an excellent choice. Most students use their computers for word processing and email. Avoid paying a lot of money for power you do not need. I would recommend a 13" to 15" Chromebook. All the apps (software) are included as is virus protection. Battery life is 7 to 9 hours. My preference is the Toshiba Chromebook 2.

  • Grammar Man Says:

    In the second paragraph, you say there are 8 tips, but there are only 7 on the list. Outstanding editing.

  • kabi nonia Says:

    I m college student and buy a laptop.

  • kabi nonia Says:

    I m a college student and buy a laptop.

  • chetankumar Says:

    i want a mini laptop which runs on windows 7. my price range is maximum 16000rs. plz help me which is better for me

  • Kasper Says:

    I was also seriously confounded on his remarks on battery life. Today, a good laptop should have at least seven hours of idle battery life.

    However, your remarks on processing power (including graphics) are ridiculous. If you play games then yes, but as far as office tasks, music, watching video, you don't need serious processing power, most processors will be adequate. Considering the pace of processor development, you can always buy a better machine WHEN you actually need one, and at that time price/performance/battery life will be much better. Only if you play games or do anything that really challenge your system, should you consider the present performance options. But a lot of people don't, and Pentium as well as AMD A- and E-series, will perfectly satisfactory for their needs.

    Lastly 7200 rpm over 5400 rpm is a terrible recommendation. As a student you want a quiet pc, and the potential performance increase is simply not worth the noise and increased energy consumption. The only serious improvement a student should consider is a Solid State Drive (SSD). Save all that video and maybe music on external drives, and save money by installing the drive by yourself, there are plenty of (video) guides out there.

  • Legan Gray Says:

    on the windows vs OS debate, throw in that some schools have software that only runs in one or the other only.
    In my engineering school some programs ran in both systems but there were a couple of classes where the software only had windows version.

  • Janice Says:

    I am looking for a very light weight laptop to take between home and office each work day, and use for travel too. Haven't had a laptop since the days of Texas Instruments (my first) in '96, so I'm out of touch. I want a comfortable keypad as I will no a lot of reports, and plenty of memory for software and apps. The Gateway Atom looks fair -- not too crazy about the keypad, but I like the price! Any other suggestions?

  • Dass Says:

    Well I want to game too at school so I picked this HP one with a pretty good Nvidia graphics card http://goo.gl/XT3Oj

  • AUDITOR SEKAR Says:

    lenovo think pad, hp, dell, Toshiba, ASUS and APPLE are just mixed in this brochure!!!!!

  • altern Says:

    Who says mac is more secure than windows?!!!

  • Mark Spoonauer, LAPTOP Editor in Chief Says:

    Here's a link to our Best Back to School Laptops for 2012. This includes a ThinkPad. http://blog.laptopmag.com/top-10-back-to-school-laptops-for-2012

  • Ezekiel Carsella Says:

    meowzer is right. second the lenovo ideapad U310 is the best laptop for back to school kids. good keyboard and trackpad combo, with ultrabook specs mean perfection.

  • Meowzer Says:

    So you talk about bad buying guides and then offer a bad buying guide yourself? LOL!

    Please...anyone buying your kid a computer, DO NOT buy an Apple. Apple is a patent troll killing innovation. That will have a serious negative effect on your child's future. Lenovo, Asus and others Windows laptop manufacturers offer cutting edge technology compared to Apple.

  • Art Says:

    My God, have you actually ever used a laptop?

    You are so disconnected that your article seems like a copy /paste or plain dump from any laptop manufacturer brochure. Next time saves yourself some time and just post the link to the brochure.

  • dan Says:

    Interesting, you're using images of Lenovo Thinkpad but never mention this excellent machine in your biased article!

  • dominik Says:

    so which one is the ideal student laptop ?

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