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Best Student Chromebooks for back to school 2020

Best Student Chromebooks for back to school
(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Regardless of whether this fall’s classes will be in person, online, or a hybrid of the two, you’ll need a good computer to keep up with the ever-increasing amounts of digital curriculum. Chances are that the system you choose will be a Chromebook.

The mainstay of online and in-person education, Chromebooks may have started as basic, uncomplicated systems, but they have evolved into full-fledged computers capable of a variety of tasks at home and school. They aren’t equivalent to a Windows or Mac notebook for video editing or gaming (yet) but they’re just as good at handling a digital curriculum, such as watching an animation sequence on how magnetism works, taking notes in a classroom or working on a big report.

Chromebooks are not only less expensive, but are often more durable and secure than the typical Windows 10 notebook or iPad. The current market share of Chromebooks is a minuscule 1.4%, but the platform dominates with a 60%market share in K-12 classrooms in America. As an indication of its appeal in the classroom, Chromebook sales could rise from last year’s 17 million to 20 million units this year, according to Statista. 

A jack of all trades

It adds up to a platform that is an educational jack of all trades, able to help a curious first grader learning basic math, a high schooler exploring American history, or a graduate student juggling classes, research and teaching. Chromebooks are not only powerful enough for writing, checking email and interacting with a variety of online educational apps, but can play online videos and handle remote Zoom classrooms. 

One place they excel is battery life with most Chromebooks yielding a full day of schoolwork with juice left over for homework, meme hunting or videoing the family cat. Although the software currently available for Chromebooks can’t match the variety that Windows delivers, it continues to grow and now includes most recent Android apps as well as school-friendly Google docs and Microsoft’s Office apps. 

A big bonus is that there are millions of free apps for tasks that range from image editing and notetaking to list-making and gaming. There are even several dozen free apps devoted to astronomy.

Freedom of (Chromebook) choice

We’re here to help you pick the right Chromebook, regardless of whether this fall’s term will be in a classroom or the dining room. We brought together a group of the newest, coolest and most learning-friendly Chromebooks available, ranging from the inexpensive Acer Chromebook C933T and Asus Chromebook C423NA to the convertible HP Chromebook x360 14C and Samsung Chromebook Plus to the tiny, but surprisingly expensive, Google Pixelbook Go. Together they represent the breadth of systems available today and provide freedom of Chromebook choice.

The bottom line for teachers, students and parents is that Chromebooks offer enough performance and battery life for schoolwork at a price that won’t bust an already fragile budget. The biggest problem this fall might just be finding the system you crave because just like paper towels and disinfectant wipes, many Chromebooks are the hottest items in physical and online stores and many have sold out during the summer. 

Better hurry, the first period bell is ringing. 

Which Chromebooks are best for students?

With Chromebooks of all shapes and sizes, which one is best for learning or instruction? It depends on what you’re looking for and your budget, but there’s a Chromebook for every student and teacher.

If your budget is tight but you don’t want to compromise on battery life, check out the Asus Chromebook C423NA. It lacks top-flight performance and the 14-inch screen cuts corners on resolution, brightness and interactivity. But the C423NA can run for nearly 11 hours on a charge and is a genuine bargain at $270.

A step up is Acer’s Chromebook C933T-P8SM, which raises the performance profile and adds a very bright 14-inch 1920 x 1080 touchscreen. The best part is that at $390, it is still very affordable and is our value choice for back-to-school Chromebooks.

At the other end of the price spectrum is the Google Pixelbook Go, which, at $850, is a dream machine but has the potential to bust a budget. Still, it pays dividends by being small, lightweight and has the ability to run for over 13 hours on a charge. It, however, skimps on ports.

Of the five systems we evaluated, the Samsung $450 Chromebook Plus is the oddball of the group. That’s because it has a fold-over convertible design, includes a stylus and two webcams but comes up short on battery life and performance. 

Our top choice for the back-to-school crowd is HP’s Chromebook x360 14C, a Chromebook capable of helping in the classroom or the den. It serves up  an excellent configuration, convertible design and the extra security of a fingerprint scanner with a privacy switch that turns off its webcam. It is, however, among the heaviest Chromebook in its class, at 3.4 pounds, and costs $530. Still, it’s these are minor inconveniences because the Chromebook x360 14C is one of the most powerful Chromebooks on the market.

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

1. Acer Chromebook C933T

Very bright display
Rugged features

Acer is the top seller of Chromebooks worldwide, and with systems like the C933T-P8SM, it’s easy to see why. The C933T doesn’t skimp on performance, screen quality and battery life. In fact, at $390, it is the value leader in Chromebooks today. 

At 12.8 x 9.1 x 0.8-inches, the C933T is rather large for a 14-inch Chromebook. Still, the C933T easily slipped into a student’s backpack and only weighs 3 pounds, making it a few ounces heavier than the Asus Chromebook C423NA and significantly lighter than the HP Chromebook x360 14C.

The chassis is made from a fingerprint-resistant black plastic. Or you can get the  similar CB314 model in silver. The system has a bit of flex to the screen lid, but it has built-in rugged features that will help it survive the dangers of school and home. Its corners are reinforced, there are shock-absorbing bumpers, and the system’s keyboard and touchpad can stand up to small spills.  

The C933T’s 14-inch, 1080p display is very bright with the ability to pump out 255 nits. That’s 50% brighter than the C423NA’s display and better than systems that cost much more. It’s touch sensitive but doesn’t come with a stylus for sketching, doodling and handwriting notes; a generic dome stylus worked fine instead.

For Zoom classes, the C933T’s webcam is can capture 1280 x 720 images and video. It, however, lacks a cover or the video switch that’s included on the x360 14C. The system has a single microphone next to the webcam which is more than adequate for video learning. 

The keyboard’s keys are nice and comfortable. They have a comfortable 1.5mm of travel but lack the backlighting that can make typing by the dim light of a classroom projector or bedroom night table lamp more tolerable. Its 5.1-inch touchpad is dwarfed by the 5.4-inch pad on the x360 14C. 

The laptop supports both Bluetooth 5 and 802.11ac Wi-Fi, but there’s no optional module for connecting with the LTE 4G mobile data network. The system also has a Trusted Platform module (TPM) to help make it easier to log onto a school’s digital resources. There’s a good assortment of ports as well, including two USB Type-C ports, a pair of USB 3.1 Type-A ports and a headphone jack.  . The laptop also has a  micro SD card slot that can work with cards of up to 512GB to inexpensively turn the C423NA into a bottomless pit for data. The bottom-mounted speakers are better for spoken word programming, like audio books and lectures, than music or movies. 

The C933T-P8SM comes remarkably well equipped for its price tag with a 1.1-GHz Intel Pentium Silver N5030 processor with 8GB and 64GB of storage space.

That adds up to a moderately powerful Chromebook that never let me down over a week of daily use. It scored 528 and 1,517 on the Geekbench 5 array of single- and multi-processor tests. Those are roughly double the results of the Asus Chromebook C423NA, but well short of the Core i3-powered x360 14C. Add to that results of 65.8 and 113 on the online Jetstream 2 and WebXPRT 3 benchmarks that were middle of the pack.

Beyond the synthetic benchmarks, the laptop  easily handled work with a Zoom classroom, Desmos graphing calculator and the University of Colorado PhET science simulations. The notebook also quickly connected with a Chromecast receiver, allowing the system to pair with a classroom’s projector or the living room’s TV. In other words, it easily fit into a traditional classroom as a home learning environment.

With a 48-watt-hour battery pack, the C933T lasted for 10 hours and 10 minutes of continuously playing YouTube videos. That’s better than the 7:35 that the Chromebook Plus delivered but well behind the Pixelbook Go’s 13:05.

While it has a retail price of $430, you can find it at a more reasonable $390, making Acer’s Chromebook C933T-P8SM the Goldilocks Chromebook for the 2021 academic year. It’s right in the middle in terms of performance, connection possibilities and weight, and able to help any aspiring student. It is our choice for the best Chromebook value today.

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

2. Asus Chromebook C423NA

Great price
Assortment of ports
Dim screen
Low resolution, non-touch display
Lacks performance

Size matters and the Asus Chromebook 423NA is among the smallest, lightest and least expensive Chromebooks with a 14-inch screen you can get. However, it falls short of the mark with a dim screen, insufficient configuration and low performance potential.  

At 12.6 x 8.9 x 0.7-inches and 2.7-pounds, the C423NA is a little smaller and lighter than the C933T system, but at least a half a pound lighter than the x360 14C. It’s a system that can travel easily from living room to den or home to school – and back. 

It’s not a rugged system as evidenced by the noticeable lid flexes. However,  the C423NA folds flat on a table for easy collaboration. Compared to its competitors, the  14-inch non-touch screen makes some compromises such as a  a 1366 x 720 resolution instead of full HD. However, you can upgrade the panel to 1080p for an additional $40 (we recommend you do so).

At full brightness, the C423NA’s display delivered a disappointing 205 nits. And when we measured for color reproduction capability; the notebook only notched 42.1% of the DCI P3 gamut. That’s why normally vibrant colors looked washed out on the panel. 

The system’s 1280 x 720 resolution webcam and microphone are adequate for Zoom learning, although the full HD cam on the Pixelbook Go provided more detailed video. The C423NA lacks a webcam cover which would have been nice for the sake of privacy.

Its  keys are responsive, but their 1.3mm of key travel make them feel shallow. Like the C933T, The lack of backlighting means that the system is less useful in a darkened classroom or bedroom. The system’s 4.9-inch touchpad feels small compared to the 5.4-inch touchpad on the x360 14C.

The system brings a good assortment of ports to school, with a pair of USB-C and  USB 3.0 Type-A connections for flash storage keys and plug-in printers. It’s much less restrictive than the Pixelbook Go’s two USB-C ports. There’s also a jack for headphones that might make Zoom lessons more understandable. 

For connectivity, there is 802.11ac Wi-Fi adapter with Bluetooth 4.0 but no LTE 4G option. The laptop  has a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) that can ease online connections with the school’s servers. The system lacks the fingerprint reader found on the x360 14C. 

As is the case with the C933T and Chromebook Plus, the C423NA’s speakers have bottom-mounted speakers that fail to deliver strong mid-range and high-end notes and sounds muffled at times. The C423NA’s sound system is better for listening to people talk, like in a recorded lecture or online classroom, than for music or movies.

Under its silver and black plastic skin, the C423NA has a Pentium N3350 processor 4GB of RAM. Off the shelf, the C423NA’s 32GB of storage space will only do if most of the accumulated notes, essays and homework assignments are stored in the cloud. You can expand its capacity with a micro SD card that can add up to 512GB of space. 

The C423NA’s performance left us wanting more and it might be better for an elementary school student than someone going off to college. Its Geekbench 5 scores of 272 and 527 on the single- and multi-processor suite of tests are less than one-third the performance of HP’s x360 14C. The system’s Jetstream 2 and WebXPRT scores of 39.7 and 59 reflected its online potential, although it struggled somewhat to handle Zoom calls and the Desmos graphing calculator; it took longer than the others to load the PhET science simulations. 

It may have the lowest-capacity battery of the group, but the C423NA’s 38 watt-hours are put to good use. Able to run for 10 hours and 55 minutes of playing YouTube videos, it flew by the Chromebook Plus ’s 7:35 but couldn’t match the Pixelbook Go’s 13:05. When we ran the Laptop Mag battery test (continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi at 150 nits of brightness), the C423NA lasted 7:58. 

Inexpensive to a fault, the $270 Asus C4232NA may be small and light enough for children to carry around the house or to and from school, but it skimps on too many things. It’s for buyers who are focused on price alone. 

(Image credit: Future)

3. Google Pixelbook Go

Small and lightweight
Rich audio
Exceptional battery life
Good performance
No micro SD card slot

Small and lightweight enough for a first-grader to use at school or on the dining room table, the Pixelbook Go has the power, battery life and display to satisfy a college student or teacher. In fact, the only thing standing in the way of it becoming the most popular Chromebook on the market is  its price tag that is double that of other competent systems.

At 12.2 x x 8 x 0.6 inches. it is among the thinnest and smallest Chromebooks with a 13.3-inch screen. Thanks to the use of a magnesium-aluminum alloy case, the Pixelbook Go is rock solid yet weighs only 2.3 pounds.

Its 13.3-inch, 1080p display is covered in reinforced Corning Gorilla glass, something that few Chromebooks have. It’s touch sensitive and feels good on the fingertips but lacks a dedicated stylus; it worked fine with a generic rubber dome pen. 

Oddly, for a system with a touchscreen, the Pixelbook Go doesn’t fold flat for use on a tabletop and you can’t convert it into a tablet. By contrast, the Chromebook Plus and HP x360 14C can transform into tablets.

The screen put out 307 nits, which was ahead of the crowd. Its 1080p webcam above the screen lacks a cover or the privacy switch that the x360 14C has. The system’s dual microphones can filter out background noise and the Pixelbook Go sounded the best of the five on Zoom calls.

The Pixelbook Go has a functional keyboard but with only 1.2mm of travel. The keys are backlit with five levels of illumination but the 5.1-inch touchpad can’t compare to the 5.4-inch pad on the x360 14C.

While its 802.11ac Wi-Fi networking and Bluetooth 4.2 will handle most of the connection chores, the Pixelbook Go lacks an optional LTE 4G connection to the mobile data network. Its pair of USB-C ports and a headphone jack making the Pixelbook Go the least able to connect with accessories, like a printer, mouse or flash drive.

The Pixelbook’s top-mounted speakers set the standard for Chromebook sound systems but only at low volume, where its output was rich, crisp and mellow. Raise the volume to full and the audio quality falls apart with annoyingly harsh and noisy sound.

Available in pink or black, the $850 Pixelbook Go is among the best-equipped Chromebooks you can buy. Its Intel Core i5-8200Y processor runs at 1.3GHz and includes 8GB of RAM and a generous 128GB of storage. 

If that’s too much Chromebook for you, Google has a less powerful (and cheaper) m3-powered system with 8GB of RAM and 64GB of storage for $650. The premium model costs $1,400 and ups the specs to a Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, 256GB of space and a beautiful4K screen.

The Core i5 system is middle of the pack in terms of performance with Geekbench 5 scores of 758 and 1,319 for single- and multiprocessing operations and Jetstream 2 and WebXPRT 3 scores of 85.9 and 139, respectively. That’s far ahead of the C423NA but well short of the Core i3-powered HP x360 14C. 

The Pixelbook GO worked well with our Zoom class calls, using the Desmos graphing calculator and interacting with the PhET science simulations. The system had no problems with our Wi-Fi network and connecting to a Chromecast receiver and large display.

The long distance battery leader, Google’s Pixelbook Go 47 watt-hour battery lasted 11 hours and 29 minutes on our battery test. The system also lasted 13 hours and 5 minutes of YouTube playbackIt lasted nearly twice as long as the Chromebook Plus’ 7:35. 

Top shelf all the way, the Pixelbook Go is almost too good, leading to its only major flaw: at $850 it’s just too expensive for most students to afford. On the other hand, it will reward those who can get their hands on it with a small and lightweight system that is a good performer at school or home.

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

4. HP Chromebook x360 14C

Webcam switch and fingerprint scanner
Top performer
Includes stylus
Wi-Fi 6

Sleek and well-equipped, the HP Chromebook x360 14C stands as the luxury Chromebook with everything from the latest Wi-Fi 6 to a fingerprint scanner and a webcam kill switch. Its only fault is that it’s on the heavy side.

It may be one of the smallest Chromebooks with a 14-inch screen, at 12.6 x 8.0 x 0.8 inches, but the system weighs in at a ponderous 3.4-pounds. In fact, the x360 14C weighs more than many Chromebooks when you add the weight of their AC adapters. In other words, the next version could stand to go on a diet.

The x360 14C doesn’t come with a pressure-sensitive stylus, instead you’ll have to pony up an extra $70. The pen feels good on the system’s screen and is magnetic so it sticks to the side of the laptop, making it harder to lose. The stylus needs to be charged by sliding open a small door along the laptop’s sideand plugging in a USB-C cable for a few minutes. When it’s ready, LEDs at the pen’s end turn from red to blue.

As is the case with the Chromebook Plus, the x360 14C includes tools for making the stylus more useful for education. Tap on the pen logo and you can outline an area to snap a screenshot, create a note or zoom in with extra magnification.

Sturdy and solid, the magnesium-aluminum case hides fingerprints. The x360 14C’s 14-inch, 1080p display is touch sensitive. The best part is that, like the Chromebook Plus, the x360 14C’s screen can be folded over its keyboard to transform it into a thick tablet. 

The x360 14C’s display delivered 208 nits. This puts it between the much dimmer Asus C423NA and the brighter Pixelbook Go. 

Above the panel is a 1280 x 800-resolution webcam with an innovative switch on the side that locks the camera, providing an  extra level of security and privacy. The system’s dual microphone array can filter out background noise, making your Zoom calls sound great. 

The system’s keyboard is backlit with five levels of brightness and the keys themselves are responsive and have a comfortable 1.6mm of travel. The system’s 5.4-inch touchpad is among the largest in the Chromebook world and has a luxurious touch: a shiny ribbon around the inner rim is usually reserved for more expensive laptops.   

HP puts communications front and center with the x360 14C,one of the first Chromebooks with an 802.11ax Wi-Fi radio. Known as Wi-Fi 6, it can move more data than Wi-Fi 5 (aka 802.11ac). It also has a Bluetooth 5 system for accessories like speakers or earphones but there’s no model that can connect with an LTE 4G mobile data network.

It has two USB-C ports, a USB 3.0 port and a headphone jack. Its fingerprint scanner can unlock the machine with a touch of a fingertip and the x360 14C’s TPM ensures any data you send is encrypted.

Like the Pixelbook Go, the x360 14C’s speakers are on either side of the keyboard. They sound decent, but are airy and lacking in mid-range tones. 

Our HP is powered by a 2.1-GHz Intel Core i3-10110U CPU, but the company sells models as powerful as ones with Core i5 processors. Our review unit  has 8GB of RAM and 64GB of storage space. There’s a microSD card slot to add up to another 512GB of capacity. 

This 10th generation Core i3 processor pushed performance to the limit with a 991 and 1,753 in the Geekbench 5 single- and multiprocessing tests. This is three times the performance of the Asus C423NA, making the x360 14C one of the most powerful Chromebooks around. It scored 108.3 and 168 on the Jetstream 2 and WebXPRT online benchmarks – about double the Asus C423NA. The HP Chromebook performed well in Zoom classes, using the Desmos graphing calculator and interacting with the PhET science simulations. 

The 10 hours and 40 minutes we got out of the x360 14C’s battery during the YouTube was suitable but a bit disappointing considering the huge 60.9 watt-hour battery inside. The laptop fared even worse on our battery test, lasting 8:59, which is still respectable. However, it’s short of the Pixelbook Go’s times (13:05 YouTube, 11:29 LTP).

With a 14-inch touchscreen, stylus, fingerprint reader, webcam kill switch and top-flight performance, the HP x360 14C is our choice for what should be in your backpack this fall. At $530, it’s pricey, but worth every penny for the student and parent looking for the most secure and powerful Chromebook available.

Best Chromebooks for back to school

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

5. Samsung Chromebook Plus

Convertible design
Bright screen
Comes with Stylus
Dual webcams
Insufficient configuration
Short battery life

Samsung’s Chromebook Plus has a bright screen, a pair of webcams, and a bendback convertible design with an included stylus. On the other hand, it is big, has a short battery life and cuts corners on its specs.

At 11.3 x 8.2 x 0.8 inches, the system is a lot to carry considering that it has a 12.2-inch display. By contrast, the Pixelbook Go is smaller yet carries a larger 13.3-inch screen. And while the Chromebook Plus weighs 2.9-pounds, the Pixelbook Go is lighter at 2.3 pounds. With its AC adapter, the 3.2-pound Chromebook Plus can easily travel to school.

Made of plastic, its case has a substantial feel and the dull silver surface doesn’t pick up fingerprints. The Chromebook Plus’ 12.2-inch, 1920 x 1200-pixel screen is the smallest of the group. It was bright enough for schoolwork at 261 nits. That’s midway between the brighter Pixelbook Go (307 nits) and the dimmer Asus C423NA (193 nits).

The display is not only touch sensitive, but comes with an integrated stylus that you don’t have to recharge. It’s thin and feels good when writing or drawing on the screen and the pen proved to be especially helpful at class or homework time for scribbling notes and cutting a section out of the screen. The best part is that, when you’re done, you can slide the pen into its slot on the side of the system and press it to pop it out when needed.

Like the x360 14C, the Chromebook Plus is a convertible with a screen that folds back to transform into a tablet. Unlike the x360 14C, however, the Chromebook Plus has a pair of webcams: one for notebook mode that captures 1280 x 720-pixel images and video and another  that creates detailed 4096 x 3072-pixel images and video in slate mode. They worked well in Zoom sessions, but the Chromebook Plus lacks the x360 14C’s webcam privacy switch.

Below the display is a comfortable keyboard with a substantial 1.6mm of travel. The keys, however, are not backlit and the 4.9-inch touchpad looks tiny compared to the x360 14C’s 5.4-inch pad. 

The Chromebook Plus has a TPM for making quick and secure online connections with the school’s servers. It lacks the x360 14C’s security-minded fingerprint scanner, though. 

On its sides, the system has one USB 3.0 port, two USB-C connections and an audio jack for wired headphones. It combines Wi-Fi (802.11ac) wireless communications with Bluetooth 4.0 for wireless speakers and headsets. There’s an updated Chromebook Plus V2 that can tap into the LTE 4G mobile data network but it costs $150 more. 

Unfortunately, like so many other Chromebook designs, the Chromebook Plus’s speakers point downward, making audio sound muffled. It worked better for lectures than for music or movies, but the tablet has the bonus of volume control keys on the side.

Inside, the Chromebook Plus has a pedestrian configuration of an 1.5-GHz Intel Celeron 3965 CPU, 4GB of RAM and only 32GB of storage. This can be augmented with a microSD card for up to an extra 512GB of capacity.

Its middle of the road performance results reflect the Chromebook Plus’s underwhelming hardware with scores of 370 and 716 on the Geekbench 5.0 single- and multi-processor tests as well as scores of 39.2 and 74 on the online Jetstream 2 and WebXPRT 3 series of tests. Less than half the performance potential of the x360 14C, it might leave students short, but it OK on our Zoom classroom, pHET science simulations and interacting with the Desmos graphing calculator. The system connected with a Chromecast receiver and large screen display on the first try.

With 39 watt-hours of battery capacity at its disposal, the Chromebook was good for only 7 hours and 35 minutes during our YouTube test, which is the shortest time in this cohort. 

At first glance, the Samsung Chromebook Plus seems to have it all: a bright screen, a stylus, a pair of cameras, and a useful fold over convertible design. It, however, is large and comes up short on   performance and battery life. 

How we test Chromebooks

Chromebooks offer a full computing experience, often for a fraction the cost of a Windows or Mac. To separate the top performers from the also-rans, we gave each a thorough examination and exploration of its key features and abilities as well as made sure it would fit into a typical school backpack. 

When we put the calipers and scales down, each Chromebook was put through an extensive workout to gauge its performance potential. To start, we used Primate Labs’ Geekbench 5 benchmark software, which measures a system’s performance potential with an array of single- and multiprocessor tests. We also ran the JetStream and WebXPRT 3 tests to show its online abilities.

Next up, we set each system to 65% screen brightness and started up a sequence of YouTube videos. When we unplugged the machine and timed how long it took to run the battery down. We also used the Laptop Mag battery test, which consists of continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi at 150 nits of brightness. 

After that, we bumped the screen to 100% brightness and measured the display illumination with a Minolta LM-1 light meter. In addition to raw brightness we judged the image quality and richness. We also used a top-of-the-line Klein K10-A colorimeter. After setting the laptop to display a field of absolute white, we use Klein’s ChromaSurf software to measure the screen’s brightness in all four corners and the center, then average the results to get the final number. 

For color testing, we conduct our color tests with DisplayCal, using an automated calibration procedure that returns the screen’s Delta-E value, along with percentages representing how well it covers the older sRGB and newer DCI-P3 color gamuts.

Since these systems will be used in the classroom, cafeteria and at home, we added in a few ed-tech tests. In addition to setting up a Zoom classroom, we connected each system wirelessly to a Chromecast receiver and used the Desmos graphing calculator. We finished up by interacting with several of the University of Colorado’s PhET graphics and computationally heavy science simulations.