What is a Chromebook and should you buy one?

Chromebooks are laptops, but they do things a little differently

Google Pixelbook running Adobe Lightroom CC

Chromebooks might have taken their time to become part of the public lexicon, but after several years of demanding respect, they’ve finally gotten it. Over the past few years Chromebooks have carved out their own niche in the laptop market with their mix of snappy performance and relatively low price tags compared to their Windows counterparts.

But it’s not always clear what makes a Chromebook a Chromebook. What is a Chromebook? It’s not so unlike a Windows laptop these days. The difference is that it runs on a different kind of operating system called Chrome OS. It’s built on Google’s Chrome browser and is designed to be primarily used with an internet connection. Most of Chromebook’s documents and apps exist in the cloud and Google automatically provides 100 GB of Google Drive cloud storage for all Chromebooks.

Should you buy a Chromebook for your next upgrade? That depends, but there are some very good reasons why you should at least consider it.

Chromebook 101

You can think of a Chromebook as a mostly Internet-dependent laptop that starts up super fast and performs snappily thanks to the low-overhead of its operating system. Its applications are focused on Google’s own services and applications, like Chrome, Maps, and YouTube, but there is a growing list of third-party apps that work with Chrome OS natively, and many others that work with it through the Google Play Store.

Some apps can run offline, but the majority of them are web apps or apps that run while you’re connected to a network. Local storage is limited, but with 100GB of space online already and the option to expand that significantly if you choose, there’s enough for most tasks and laptop use styles.

HP Chromebook x2 Review
HP Chromebook x2 Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

The benefits of almost everything being saved on the Web is that you’ll have access to it from any computer. Plus, if your Chromebook ever bites the dust, you won’t have to worry about losing all your apps, documents, and settings.

Chromebook Offline

Most Chromebooks can connect to the Internet with both Wi-Fi and cellular data connections, but there are times when you simply can’t find a signal. Fortunately, there are workarounds for plenty of routine tasks. You can still compose and read emails with Gmail Offline and work on documents with Google Drive Offline. The offline apps will automatically save what you’ve been doing and sync back up with the online services when your computer has an Internet connection.

Gaming, however, is not really Chromebook’s thing, partly due to Chromebooks’ small storage and relatively weak specs (more on that below). However, thanks to the introduction of Android App support through the Google Play store, if you have previously downloaded certain games from there, you should be able to play most of them offline.

Do note, however, that some Android apps don’t scale well with the larger Chromebook screens, so don’t expect every game to play perfectly on a Chromebook.

What about performance?

Chromebook specifications often seem weak compared to their Windows laptop counterparts, but there are good reasons for that. Chrome OS is lightweight enough that you don’t need the same processing heft of a Windows laptop and the lower-end components typically require less power to operate, helping extend Chromebook battery life significantly.

There are some standouts, though. Google’s Pixelbook paved the way for a new-generation of premium Chromebooks with high-end hardware and even greater performance. Most Chromebooks don’t have such impressive specifications, however. They typically offer entry-level processors that are designed to save energy more than much number crunching, and memory can be limited to 2-4GB. That isn’t a lot by Windows laptop standards, but it’s more than enough for most Chrome OS tasks.

Local storage tends to be limited to between 16 and 64GB and it’s almost exclusively eMMC Flash storage. That means it’s relatively fast, but the space is restrictive. The idea is that any large files and folders will be kept in the cloud instead, though 64GB is enough space to store some games and movies if that’s of interest to you. And hey, you could always expand it with an external hard drive if you really want more local storage space.

There are no Chromebooks with dedicated graphics chips, although there are some with more capable onboard graphics than others. The recently announced Acer Chromebook 315 has an AMD APU with Radeon graphics, but it’s still designed for accelerating web services more than it is gaming.

Chromebook screen sizes tend to be more analogous for their Windows counterparts, with everything from miniature 12-inch Chromebooks like the Pixel Slate to 15-inch models like the Lenovo Yoga Chromebook C630. There aren’t any larger than that, but Chromebooks work well with external monitors for those who need more screen space.

Resolutions can be high, however. The Pixel Slate’s screen has a resolution of 3,000 x 2,000, and it looks incredible for it. Not all Chromebooks are like that, but there is no reason to think a Chromebook’s screen can’t look as good as Windows laptops. There’s even a 4K Chromebook made by Lenovo that we particularly like.

Limitations

Acer Chromebook 15 Spin Review
Acer Chromebook 15 Spin Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Chromebooks have their strengths, but they also have their weaknesses. There is no denying that the Windows and MacOS operating systems have much more robust libraries of applications to draw from. There are plenty of great Android and Chrome OS apps that can fill the niches typically taken by Windows or MacOS apps (these are the best Chromebook games), but they aren’t always as good as the more common apps used on other platforms.

Examples include photo editing applications like Adobe’s Photoshop, or alternative browsers like the Mozilla Foundation’s Firefox. While there are workarounds that can get some of those pieces of software working on Chromebooks, it’s not easy and Chrome OS or Android counterparts aren’t always a perfect alternative.

None of this is particularly problematic if you’re a prolific Google product user, as all of those services and apps are wrapped around Chrome OS and work well with it. The problem lies with those who want and need more than that from their laptop. That’s where Chrome OS shows its weaknesses most keenly.

Peripheral support isn’t ideal either, with new accessories sometimes lacking the necessary drivers to work correctly on a Chromebook. While support may arrive down the line, it may not, sometimes leaving Chromebook users limited by choice of accessories compared to those on Windows laptops.

Should you buy a Chromebook?

google pixelbook review stylus on keyboard
Google Pixelbook and Pen. Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Chromebooks may not be as capable as a lot of Windows laptops or Apple’s MacBooks, but they are more than enough for some people. If you use your laptop mostly for watching Netflix, browsing the web, and writing emails, we can heartily recommend the best of them. They’re cheaper than their Windows counterparts, fast, and responsive. They work particularly well with Google’s software and services, so if you use Gmail, Google Drive, and Google Docs regularly, a Chromebook could be a great fit for you. Most importantly, if you’re looking at buying a laptop for less than $500 or so, you’ll probably end up with a better experience with Chromebook. Windows laptops at that price are often bulky, get poor battery life, and don’t perform all that well.

They’re not for mainstream gaming though. Nor are they particularly good at running the iconic applications that you’re used to using on Windows. Android apps have filled many of the holes that Chrome OS native apps can’t, but the Windows and MacOS software environments are simply more expansive and fleshed out. Chromebooks’ lack of storage space can be problematic too, especially with the cheapest versions.

But they are great at what they do. The low price tags are of particular note too, making them perfect for certain audiences. Note-taking and media viewing are very student-centric tasks and limited budget is a hallmark of that period of many people’s lives. Chromebooks aren’t for everyone, but if it sounds like it might be a good fit for you, give one a try, you might be surprised by how much you like it.

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