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What is a Chromebook, and should you buy one?

Chromebooks are an innovative alternative to most laptops available on the market. If you’re in search of a laptop with a simple operating system that’s easy to use and even easier on your wallet, a Chromebook might be perfect for you.

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

Chromebook 101

HP Chromebook x2 Review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Chromebooks are lightweight laptops that heavily depend on Google Chrome. While you have OS-specific features like a file manager, app launcher, taskbar, and so on, most of your work and play resides within a Chrome tab. This Chrome dependency translates to low overhead, enabling a super-fast startup and snappy performance on even most low-end hardware.

Like pure Android installs, Chrome OS focuses on Google’s services, like Gmail, YouTube, Maps, and Docs. For now, you can still 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 is discontinuing Chrome apps on MacOS, Linux, and Windows in June, given they are rarely used. Google will then pull the plug on Chrome Apps for Chromebooks in June 2022. Currently filling the software void on Chromebooks is support for Android apps installed from the Google Play Store.

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 will cost you 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 screen sizes tend to be more comparable to 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. There’s even a 4K Chromebook made by Lenovo that we particularly like, and Samsung has one that’s coming with a 4K AMOLED screen and the latest 10th-generation Intel Comet Lake processors.

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. However, 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 their Windows laptop counterparts, 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 of 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.

Most 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 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. The Acer Chromebook 315 offers 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.

Still, we have a list of the best games for Chromebooks if you’re interested in what is available and easily playable.

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. For instance, there doesn’t appear to be any means to install photo editing applications like Adobe’s Photoshop or GIMP.

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 than that from their laptop.

Getting desktop software on a Chromebook isn’t impossible, either. More experienced users can install Linux, the open-source alternative to Windows and MacOS. After that, you can install any Linux-based version of your favorite desktop software, including GIMP, Discord, LibreOffice, and more.

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.

Meanwhile, peripheral support isn’t ideal, 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.

Local storage still tends to be limited to between 16GB and 64GB, 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 10TB, costing up to $100 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 need a laptop to mostly watch Netflix, browse the web, and write emails, we can heartily recommend the best of them. They’re cheaper than their Windows counterparts and are 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 to buy a laptop for less than $500, you’ll probably end up with a better experience using a Chromebook. Windows laptops at that price are often bulky, have poor battery life, and don’t perform all that well.

If you want a notebook for high-res gaming, 4K video editing, or other high-performance multitasking scenarios, don’t get a Chromebook.

While you can install Linux-based alternatives, the underlying hardware in most Chromebooks is simply underwhelming. Android apps fill 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.

The limited storage space can be problematic, too, especially with the cheapest versions.

Chromebooks are great at what they can do, though. The low price is of particular note, making them perfect for certain audiences. Note-taking and media viewing are very student-centric tasks, and a limited budget is a hallmark of that audience base.

Ultimately, Chromebooks may not be as capable as a lot of Windows laptops or Apple MacBooks, but they are more than enough for some people. They certainly 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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