Chromebooks vs. laptops

Many people consider Chromebooks to be the sleeker, quicker, and even simpler cousin of the traditional laptop. Unlike a Mac or Windows system, a Chromebook relies heavily on the internet for everyday tasks. 

Since they’re also typically less expensive, you might be wondering how a Chromebook compares to a regular laptop. Here, the Digital Trends team tells you if they’re a waste of money or an affordable diamond in the rough.

What is a Chromebook?

Acer Chromebook 13 review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

When they first appeared in 2011, Chromebooks were lightweight, low-cost laptops running Google’s Chrome OS platform, and they mainly relied on cloud-based applications. The more affordable nature of these laptops has changed over the years, but the value is still at the heart of what a Chromebook offers.

Primarily offered by Acer, Asus, HP, Dell, and Samsung, Chromebooks tend to be around the size of ultrabooks, with similar slim design features (many are also 2-in-1 hybrids). However, Chromebooks are often far more budget-friendly than an ultrabook or even an average laptop. They are most often seen in schools or as a first-time personal laptop.

Yet higher-end Chromebooks are available, too, like Google’s own Pixelbook. They feature premium aluminum bodies, faster Intel Core processors, and, in some cases, 4K screens. Although you can’t buy a $2,000 Chromebook like you can a Windows 10 laptop or MacBook, there is now a wide range of options depending on your needs.

What can a Chromebook do?

As opposed to Windows 10 or MacOS, Chromebooks have their own operating system called Chrome OS. Although there are basic computing elements, such as a file manager and an app launcher, the focus of these devices is the Google Chrome web browser. Because you can’t download web-based apps, most of the action happens within Chrome’s tabs.

That might sound limiting at first, but many applications already offer web versions, such as Spotify, Netflix, Gmail, Slack, and Evernote. Due to the prevalence of web applications, many people spend the majority of their time in a web browser anyway. If your typical workflow resembles this scenario, transitioning to a Chromebook will be relatively smooth. Just connect to Wi-Fi and proceed with your browsing as normal.

However, with the addition of the Google Play Store, you can also download Android apps to fill in any software gaps. Their implementation in a laptop setting might be a little funky in some cases — some expand full-screen while others remain locked in smartphone screen mode — but Android apps are available if you really need them.

Finally, average Chromebooks have a better battery life than the typical laptop. Although nine or 10 hours is most common, newer models are more likely to have 12-hour battery life. Windows 10 laptops are slowly closing the gap, but on average, Chromebooks last longer.

What can’t a Chromebook do?

how to copy and paste on a Chromebook

The limitations of Chrome OS mean you can’t install some important software that you might otherwise need. Some notable examples include certain Adobe applications or any kind of proprietary software that’s restricted to Windows or MacOS. If you rely on similar applications, a Chromebook isn’t the right choice for you.

That also extends to performance in general. Chromebooks do tend to run fast, but in some cases, you’ll be limited by the components inside. Lower-end Chromebooks tend to use older processors that can’t compete with what you get in the Windows and Mac space, especially in terms of multitasking. Then again, if you’re looking at spending $200, a Chromebook is a far better option.

On the higher end, there are options like the HP Chromebook x2 or the Pixelbook, and you’ll find familiar processors like 8th-gen Core i5, which features four cores and plenty of power. Chromebooks tend to fly with these faster options. There are also newer Chromebooks on the way, with Intel’s latest 10th-generation processors, further closing the Chromebook, MacBook, and Windows 10 laptop gap.

One important note to make is that Chromebooks support Linux. If you absolutely need desktop applications, installing Linux is certainly an option. There are Linux versions of Audacity, Firefox, GIMP, OBS Studio, Steam, VirtualBox, and many more, but your favorite application may not offer a Linux-based variant. Check the developer’s website first before ruling out a Chromebook.

Who are Chromebooks for?

Chromebooks are designed with a few specific people in mind. At the forefront are students, as school administrations tend to favor Chromebooks due to their security benefits, sturdy build quality, and software limitations. That means you’ll find cheap Chromebooks in public schools all across the country.

Chromebooks go beyond just cheap, plastic laptops for kids. There are also higher-end options for professionals and college students. Because they tend to be lightweight with long battery life, they are great options for people who need to take their work on the go, whether that’s from class to class or on long flights. Some of these include the Google Pixelbook, Google Pixelbook Go, and the Lenovo Yoga Chromebook C630.

There are certainly those same options in the Windows 10 laptop world. However, in the cheaper price range, Chromebooks can sometimes provide a better value. For example, approximately $500 is where Chromebooks thrive, but Windows 10 laptops at this price tend to get bogged down with a thick chassis and clunky performance.

What Chromebook options are available?

Google Pixelbook running Adobe Lightroom CC

The most expensive Chromebook you can buy is Google’s Pixelbook, with a $1,000 starting price. It represents the high end not only in premium materials and build quality but also performance.

Overall, you’ll find Chromebooks ranging from 11-inch 2-in-1s up to 15-inch options for additional screen real estate. HD resolution is the standard, while touchscreen and 4K options are rare. Intel Celeron processors are a popular choice for today’s Chromebooks, typically dual-core versions that rarely rise above the 2.0GHz mark.

Most Chromebooks offer 2GB to 4GB of RAM, which is enough for average laptop tasks, but low compared to traditional laptop models that regularly offer 8GB or 16GB of RAM. As for storage, Chromebooks don’t have large disk drives, as they depend on the internet for most data purposes. Storage can usually be augmented with an SD card or USB drive if necessary.

For ports, most Chromebooks are largely comparable to laptops, though fewer in number. USB-A 3.0, USB-C, and headphone jacks are common connections.

The truly high-end part of the laptop range, however, doesn’t include Chromebooks. You won’t find six-core or eight-core processors like you get on a laptop like the MacBook Pro 15, Razer Blade, or Dell XPS 15. These content creation machines and gaming laptops will outclass any Chromebook in terms of performance.

Finally, Chrome OS tablets such as Google’s own Pixel Slate are available, but we wouldn’t recommend those without a keyboard.

Prices

Ultrabooks can easily surpass $1,000 even with a basic specification, and something like an upgraded Surface Book can break $3,000. But take a look at popular Chromebooks on the market, and you’ll quickly see just how affordable they are.

For example, HP’s flagship model is $600, while Acer’s Spin 15 is roughly $426. A popular 2017 Samsung model can even be found for $226. Such low prices are one of the strongest market differentiators for Chromebooks. Google’s ultra-premium $1,000 Pixelbook is the only exception.

Ultimately, when people are on a strict budget and can only afford a few hundred dollars for a new laptop, Chromebooks are their first — and often only — choice. No other laptops (and increasingly few tablets) are so affordable.

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