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A Chromebook is a laptop of a different breed. Instead of Windows 10 or Mac OS X, Chromebooks run Google’s Chrome OS. These machines are designed to be used primarily while connected to the Internet, with most applications and documents living in the cloud. As a result, these clamshells don’t have a ton of onboard storage, but they don’t have very large price tags, either.
Low prices, long battery life and Windows 10 confusion have many people considering a Chromebook. In fact, according to the NPD research firm, Chromebook sales topped Windows notebook sales during the early summer of 2015. But is a Chromebook right for you? As PC manufacturers release Windows 10 notebooks priced to compete with Chromebooks, are there any that stack up? And how do you pick the best model for your needs and budget?
Our Chromebook buying guide has the answers to these and other questions.
Should I Buy a Chromebook?
Because Chromebooks run Chrome OS, Google’s operating system, they rely heavily on Google’s suite of applications and a working Internet connection. Although you can log in to Chrome OS as a guest, to have the best experience, users should log in to the system with Google credentials.
Chromebooks are optimized for Google’s apps, such as Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Drive. This deep integration can be either positive or negative, depending on how you use a PC. Getting set up on a Chromebook will be easy if you already use Google’s services for your email, calendar and documents. However, if you use other popular services — such as Microsoft Outlook, AIM or Yahoo Mail — it might take some time to get adjusted to Google’s OS.
MORE: Best Chromebooks Available Now
Unfortunately, popular software applications, such as Adobe Photoshop and the Microsoft Office suite, aren’t available on Chromebooks. However, you can still get work done on these machines: Microsoft Office Online, the free cloud version of Office, is available as a series of apps for Chromebooks, and you can always use the native Google Drive to open and edit documents and spreadsheets.
With Google Drive, users can create everything from text documents to spreadsheets and presentations. Plus, all of your old Microsoft Word documents and PowerPoint presentations can be imported directly into Drive, allowing you to work on your files.
On the other hand, there are many photo editors available for Chrome OS, including the open-source GIMP image editor. But Photoshop users are out of luck — there is no Chrome OS app that can edit Adobe’s .PSD files.
It may be best to stick with Microsoft Office Online if you already have a lot of Office files that you’re bringing over to your Chromebook. There are often formatting issues when importing third-party documents into Drive. Fortunately, Google Drive allows you to save documents to Microsoft formats, so you’ll still be able to share files with non-Chromebook users.
Chromebooks are designed to rely heavily on the Internet, which means that many apps simply won’t work if you’re out of Wi-Fi range. There are more than 200 offline Chrome apps that can work without Internet connectivity, including Gmail, Pocket and Google Drive.
You’ll still be able to play games on the Chromebook, but you’ll be limited to the titles available in the Chrome Web Store. Classic casual games like Bejeweled and Cut the Rope are there, but you won’t have the same title selection as you would on a Windows machine or a Mac. Chromebooks generally have limited graphics processing power, so even if a game such as Metro: Last Light were available, it would not play smoothly on a Chromebook.
Chrome OS has voice controls, so you can say, “OK, Google” with the launcher open, or a Chrome tab open, and the voice assistant will pop up, ready to serve you. The launcher is also integrated with Google Now, giving you info cards at the bottom of the window that show info like the current weather and local news stories.
Google redesigned the on-screen keyboard for touch-screen use, making it easier to use on 2-in-1s like the Flip. With a minimalist design, the on-screen keyboard recognizes your scribbles and gives you choices of text to input. When we tested that feature, it was almost always accurate in recognizing our writing. Also, soon, Android smartphone users will be able to get text and call-pop-up notifications on their desktop.
Almost all Chromebooks have exceptional battery life. Of the seven Chromebooks we’ve reviewed in the past year, we’ve seen an average of 9 hours and 59 minutes of endurance on the Laptop Mag Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi. On the top end, you’ll notice standouts like the Dell Chromebook 13’s runtime of 13:25.
We recommend shooting for at least 9 hours of juice, which six of the seven Chromebooks we’ve reviewed offer. While some affordable Windows 10 notebooks, like the Lenovo Ideapad 100S (9:48) and the Acer Aspire One Cloudbook 11 (8:04), can stand toe-to-toe with Chromebooks, the average 13-inch Windows notebook lasts only 6 hours and 35 minutes.
What Size Screen Do I Need?
The 11.6-inch Chromebooks, such as the Lenovo 100S Chromebook and the HP Chromebook 11 G4, are on the smaller side. These models are generally less than 3 pounds, making them the most portable — and great options for kids. However, the screen size and keyboards may seem cramped for adults.
Those looking for more real estate for Web surfing, getting work done, watching movies and playing games can pick up a 13.3-inch Chromebook such as the Dell Chromebook 13 or the Toshiba Chromebook 2 CB35. If you need a large screen, consider the 15-inch Acer Chromebook 15, the biggest Chromebook so far. But you won’t find a 17-inch Chromebook yet.
What Specs Do I Need?
Because Chromebooks are meant primarily for online use, the specs aren’t as important as they are for Windows laptops, but you’ll still want to know how much power and storage you’re getting for your money. Here’s a quick guide.
When it comes to RAM, 2GB is fairly standard for a Chromebook, but you’ll find some models with 4GB on board. Opt for 4GB if you’re a heavy multitasker, but expect to pay $250 or more. Both the HP Chromebook 14 and the Lenovo 100S Chromebook have Celeron N2840 processors, but the HP notebook, which had 4GB of RAM, handled more than a dozen open tabs without a problem. The Lenovo, strapped with 2GB of RAM, stuttered with 10 tabs open. Our tests of the Lenovo Ideapad 100S Windows version ($180) show that a Windows machine can handle a large stack of tabs with only 2GB of memory.
The processor and amount of RAM will determine how smoothly your Chromebook performs, especially when you have multiple tabs open and you’re streaming video or playing games.
Intel Celeron chips provide a decent amount of pep, but if you want even more speed, opt for a model with a Core i3 CPU. Machines such as the latest Dell Chromebook 11 offer longer battery life and more responsive behavior. The average Windows notebook with a Core i3 processor isn’t as compelling, lasting only 7 hours and 50 minutes on the Laptop Mag Battery Test.
The Toshiba Chromebook 2 CB35 ($300) has a 1.7-GHz Intel Celeron 3215U CPU with 4GB of RAM under the hood, as well as a 16GB solid-state drive. All that power placed the Toshiba above its competitors in our benchmark tests, and it even clocked in more than 10 hours of battery life.
You have to spend a little more to get a Windows 10 laptop with similar specs, such as the Lenovo Ideapad 100 ($350). That machine has a Celeron processor, 4GB of memory and similar multitasking performance, but it lasted only 4 hours and 45 minutes on our battery test.
Nvidia has its own chip — the Tegra K1 — which offers excellent graphics performance, though it currently powers only the Acer Chromebook 13.
All Chromebooks come with at least 16GB of onboard storage, and that’s likely all you’ll need, because these systems aren’t designed to download large applications or store tons of media. Some Chromebooks, like the Toshiba Chromebook 2 CB35, come with an SD card reader, meaning you can expand the storage up to 64GB.
With every Chromebook purchase, Google gives you 100GB of free Google Drive storage for two years. Spring for 32GB only if you plan to download and use many offline apps. Acer’s Aspire One Cloudbook 11 (32GB, $190) and Aspire One Cloudbook 14 (64GB, $230) — Windows 10 laptops built to compete with Google’s Chromebooks — show that you can get similar storage at comparable prices.
The size of the screen isn’t the only thing that matters. Lower-end Chromebooks sport 1366 x 768-pixel displays, which are fine for most tasks. But if you want sharper images, video and graphics, spring for a full-HD display (1920 x 1080 pixels). You’ll pay anywhere from $50 to $100 more, although you can find some full-HD models for less.
Windows 10 has been built for touch screens, but you can get the same functionality in Chrome OS. You just have to know which one to get — and expect to pay about a $100 premium. The $280 Acer Chromebook R 11 can bend into a tablet, making use of its IPS touch-screen display. The $249 Asus Chromebook Flip also has a touch screen. However, there aren’t many Chrome OS apps that take full advantage of the touch capabilities.
Who Are You Buying It For?
If you’re buying this Chromebook for someone else, you should take a few moments to consider that person’s pre-existing relationship with technology. Children who are still learning how to use computers may be more receptive to learning how a new operating system works, but there’s no official Minecraft title for Chrome OS, so some kids may not like these notebooks.
Some elder relatives may have never truly understood Windows enough to use their PC frequently, but others who have learned just enough to make do may become frustrated that they need to relearn where downloads go, or that their favorite app is not available for Chrome.
Overall, the best way to tell if someone will enjoy owning a Chromebook is if you know they already spend most of their time in the Chrome browser. Those users will take to the notebook naturally.
How Much Should I Spend?
There’s a pretty narrow price range for Chromebooks. At the low end, you can pick up the affordable and light $199 Lenovo 100S Chromebook, which has an 11.6-inch HD display and 2GB of RAM.
On the other end of the spectrum is the well-designed, long-lasting $429 Dell Chromebook 13, which sports a larger, 13-inch, full-HD display with 4GB of RAM. Both earned 4-star reviews from the Laptop Mag staff, as well as Editors’ Choice awards.
You’ll probably wind up paying more for a Windows 10 notebook, as the average selling price for a PC is $448, according to NPD. There are more affordable options, as we’ve detailed here, but the PC laptop market has a much higher cap than the Chromebook market.
The bottom line is that Chromebooks are incredibly affordable and capable, and there’s more variety now in screen sizes and specs. Microsoft is fighting back with low-cost Windows 10 laptops, but if you’re looking for a simple way to get online and you prefer Google’s services, you’ll be happy with a Chromebook.