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What is a Chromebook, and should you buy one?

Chromebooks are an innovative alternative to Windows-based laptops and MacBooks. If you’re in search of a laptop with a simple operating system that’s easy to use and even easier on your wallet, one of the best Chromebooks might be perfect for you.

There are a few things to consider before buying a Chromebook, however, like their limited hardware and overall capabilities. Read on to learn about how Chromebooks operate and perform compared to other options.

What is a Chromebook?

HP Chromebook x2 Review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

While MacBooks are laptops that run Apple’s MacOS, Chromebooks are laptops that run Google’s Chrome OS.

The big difference here is that Apple is the only MacBook manufacturer whereas multiple manufacturers, including Google, produce Chromebooks. MacBooks only ship in 13- and 16-inch sizes while you’ll find various Chromebook sizes and styles, including convertible 2-in-1 designs.

That wide range also means you’ll find Chromebooks at various prices although most are designed to be affordable alternatives to MacBooks and Windows PCs.

Software

Chrome OS is essentially the Chrome browser reworked to serve as an operating system. It includes OS-specific features like a file manager, an app launcher, a taskbar, and so on. It also focuses on Google’s services, like Gmail, YouTube, Maps, and Docs, similar to pure Android.

By default, Chrome OS heavily depends on web-based apps that open outside the browser rather than apps you download and install. This web-based dependency translates to low overhead, enabling a super-fast startup and snappy performance on even most low-end hardware.

For now, you can also install web-based Chrome Apps from the Chrome Web Store, which is essentially functional web-based code enclosed in a single package that installs, resembles, and functions like mobile apps. Many require an internet connection, while others can function offline.

However, Google discontinued Chrome Apps on MacOS, Linux, and Windows in June 2020 because they were rarely used. Google will pull the plug on Chrome Apps for Chromebooks in June 2022.

Replacing Chrome Apps is support for Android apps installed from the Google Play Store. Now you can get the best of both worlds: The speed of a lightweight OS and access to your library of Android apps. Unfortunately, this means you’ll consume more local storage than when using lighter web-based apps.

You also now have access to Linux. While it’s still considered a beta feature, you can install traditional Linux-based desktop software like Steam and GIMP. Again, you’ll consume more local storage than when using lighter web-based apps.

Storage and screens

Local storage is typically 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. Some Chromebooks come with much more expansive local storage, but that costs extra.

The benefit of saving almost anything on the web is that you have access to everything 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.

Finally, Chromebook screens are similar to their MacBook and Windows PC counterparts, ranging in size 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 3000 x 2000, and it looks incredible. There’s a 4K Chromebook made by Lenovo that we particularly like while Samsung’s original Galaxy Chromebook sports a 4K AMOLED screen.

Not all Chromebooks have high-resolution screens, but there is no reason to think a Chromebook’s screen can’t look as good as Windows laptops.

Chromebooks work offline

Most Chromebooks connect to the internet using Wi-Fi, though some higher-priced models offer cellular connectivity. If you can’t find a signal, there are workarounds for plenty of routine tasks — don’t let the heavy reliance on Chrome fool you.

For instance, you can still compose and read emails with Gmail Offline and work on documents offline with Google Drive. The offline apps will automatically save your work and sync back up with the online services when your Chromebook reconnects. Even more, you can download and play many Android games offline, too.

Chromebook performance

Chromebook specifications often seem weak compared to the competition, but that’s because they don’t need to be super powerful. Chrome OS was never intended to run desktop software — or Android apps, for that matter. Instead, Google wanted notebooks with highly affordable prices to undercut Microsoft and Apple — notebooks that were more secure because they relied on web-based apps.

Due to this focus, Chrome OS is lightweight enough that you don’t need the same processing heft as a Windows laptop. Even more, the lower-end components typically require less power to operate, helping extend Chromebook battery life significantly — another original big selling point.

There are some standouts, however. Google’s Pixelbook and Pixelbook Go paved the way for a new generation of premium Chromebooks with high-end hardware and even greater performance.

Many Chromebooks don’t have such impressive specifications, though. They typically offer entry-level processors that are designed to save energy more than number crunching or 3D rendering. There are some Core i5 and Core i7 configurations, but they can feel like overkill in Chrome OS.

Memory can be limited to 2GB or 4GB, which isn’t a lot by Windows laptop standards, even if it’s more than enough for most Chrome OS tasks.

Currently, there are no Chromebooks with dedicated graphics chips, though some offer more capable onboard graphics than others. For example, Acer sells Chromebook 315 configurations with an AMD APU packing Radeon onboard graphics, but it’s still designed for accelerating web services more than it is for gaming.

Gaming

Gaming is not really a Chromebook thing, partly due to the limited storage and relatively weak specs.

Some Android games (and non-gaming apps) don’t scale well on the larger Chromebook screens. In fact, many games only play in smartphone mode and will crash if you expand the view to fullscreen. Unless games support tablet-sized screens already, don’t expect them to play perfectly on a Chromebook.

Moreover, you may not even see your favorite Android games listed on Google Play when using a Chromebook. That’s likely due to the PC’s processor. Why? Most smartphones and tablets rely on a different processor design (ARM) than what’s used in laptops and desktops (x86). Your favorite game simply may not be written for an Intel processor even though it runs well on your Qualcomm Snapdragon-based phone.

An alternative to playing Android games is to install Linux — if you have the room, that is. With this platform, you can install Steam and any game in your library that offers a Linux alternative, no additional purchase required.

Even then, the underlying hardware of Chromebooks is typically chosen to accelerate web-based tasks and keep the overall price low. Limited storage capacities prevent large and/or multiple game installs, and the performance isn’t going to give you great frame rates in your favorite AAA games.

That said, Chromebooks and MacBooks just aren’t meant for serious gaming. If that’s the only reason why you need a laptop — to play Cyberpunk 2077 or something similar on the go — the best investment would be a Windows laptop with a decent discrete GPU, hands down. Still, we have a list of the best games for Chromebooks if you’re interested in what is available and easily playable.

Finally, you can bypass the hardware and software limitations by playing Google Stadia in the Chrome browser. These games stream directly to your Chromebook, meaning performance is mostly based on your Wi-Fi connection, not the CPU (or integrated GPU). You can purchase games outright and stream them in 1080p at 60 fps, or subscribe to Stadia Pro and not only stream games in 4K (paid ones too), but play Google’s free game library.

Chromebook limitations

Acer Chromebook 15 Spin Review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Chromebooks have their strengths, but they also have their weaknesses.

At first glance, their biggest flaw is the inability to install traditional desktop software designed specifically for Chrome OS. For instance, there is no means to install photo-editing applications like Adobe’s Photoshop or GIMP that run natively on Google’s platform like they do in Windows and MacOS.

To compensate, there are plenty of Android and Chrome OS apps that can fill the niches typically taken by Windows or MacOS desktop apps. Unfortunately, Chrome OS and Android counterparts aren’t always a perfect alternative — or even that good.

None of this is particularly problematic if you’re a prolific Google product user, as all of those services and apps are entwined with Chrome OS and work well with it. The problem lies with those who want and need more from their laptop.

Getting desktop software on a Chromebook isn’t impossible, however. More experienced users can enable Linux, the open-source alternative to Windows and MacOS (and the core of Chrome OS). After that, they can install any Linux-based version of their favorite desktop software — including GIMP, Discord, LibreOffice, and more — but only by using console commands.

Unfortunately, you won’t find a Linux version of every desktop application that’s available on Windows and MacOS. At times, you’ll be forced to rely on Android versions or web-based alternatives.

The peripheral support and storage isn’t ideal

New accessories sometimes lack 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 and Macbooks.

Local storage still tends to be limited to between 16GB and 64GB on most Chromebooks, and it’s almost exclusively eMMC Flash storage. That means it’s relatively fast, but space is restrictive.

Why so little? Again, Chrome OS was originally designed to be an affordable, lightweight solution that relies on web-based apps. Now that the platform supports Android apps and Linux desktop software, storage needs have skyrocketed, but the storage capacities remain restricted.

That’s where Google Cloud comes in. You get 100GB of free cloud storage for 12 months, but after that, you’re charged $20 annually, which isn’t bad. Other Google One plans range from 200GB to 30TB, costing up to $150 per month. Ouch.

The Chromebook’s low storage pushes you to rely on subscription-based cloud services. However, one alternative solution is to install an SD card if the Chromebook includes a slot. Currently, you can’t offload Android apps to an SD card. Supported SD card capacities vary between models.

You could also use an external hard drive if you want more local storage space.

Should you buy a Chromebook?

google pixelbook review stylus on keyboard
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

First, ask yourself this question: Why do I need a notebook? Dig deep and consider what you require from a mobile PC.

If you’re looking for a laptop that can handle high-level gaming, crystal-clear 4K video editing, or even professional digital art programs, then a Chromebook probably isn’t the right pick for you.

While you can install Linux-based alternatives to upgrade your system, the underlying hardware in most Chromebooks is simply underwhelming compared to alternatives. Android apps do a decent job of filling in 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 suffer from limited storage space, which is another concession users will need to consider. Most Chromebooks only offer 32GB to 64GB of storage space, about half that of their Windows and Macbook counterparts (which start at 128GB). To get around the low storage issue, you’ll need to purchase a premium model like the Galaxy Chromebook with 256GB of storage.

Overall, Chromebooks are excellent for everyday use, especially for email, social media, and word processing. They’re an affordable alternative to higher-priced machines, but the typical web-based configurations seen across most Chromebooks aren’t meant to drive heavy desktop applications, making them perfect for basic projects. They just aren’t as capable as many Windows laptops and Apple MacBooks because they focus on a different market.

The low price, then, is the top reason why Chromebooks are a popular choice, particularly for students who don’t need a high-performing laptop.

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