A Chromebook is a laptop of a different breed. Instead of Windows or Mac OS, 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 memory, but they don’t have very large price tags, either.
Low prices and Windows 8 confusion have many people considering a Chromebook. In fact, according to ABI Research, Chromebook shipments doubled in 2014. But is a Chromebook right for you? And how do you pick the best model for your needs and budget?
What Chromebooks Can and Can’t Do
Because Chromebooks run Chrome OS, Google’s operating system, they rely heavily on Google’s suite of applications. Although you can log in to Chrome OS as a guest, users should log in to the system with Google credentials in order to have the best experience.
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.
Unfortunately, the Microsoft Office suite isn’t available on Chromebooks, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to work on your files. Microsoft Web Apps, the free cloud version of Office, is compatible with Chromebooks, and you can always use the native Google Drive to open and edit documents and spreadsheets. With 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.
But it may be best to stick with Microsoft Web Apps 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, so the first few minutes of work may involve fixing anything that’s broken. Fortunately, Google Drive allows you to save documents to Microsoft formats, so you’ll still be able to share files with non-Chromebook users.
Another issue that could influence your Chromebook buying decision is the availability of Internet connectivity. 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 a growing number of “offline” Chrome apps that can work without Internet connectivity, including Gmail and Google Drive.
You’ll still be able to play games on the Chromebook, but you’ll be limited to the games available in the Chrome Web store. Classics such as Angry Birds and Cut the Rope are there, but you won’t have the same title selection as you would on a Windows machine or a MacBook. Chromebooks generally have limited graphics processing power, so even if a game such as “BioShock Infinite” were available, it would not play smoothly on these notebooks.
Choose the Right Size
The 11.6-inch Chromebooks, such as the Acer C720 and Samsung Chromebook 2, are on the smaller side. These models are generally less than 3 pounds, making them the most portable — and great options for kids. However, to some people, the screen size and keyboards will seem cramped.
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 like the Acer Chromebook 13 or the Toshiba Chromebook 2. The biggest Chromebook so far is the 14-inch HP Chromebook 14, but you won’t find a 15- or 17-inch model yet.
Know Your Specs
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.
CPU and RAM
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, you can find models with a Core i3 CPU.11. Such machines offer long battery life and responsive behavior.
The Samsung Chromebook 2 13.3-inch has the company’s own Exynos 5 CPU with 4GB of RAM under the hood. It provided solid performance but trailed Intel’s Celeron chip in Web page load time and graphics performance.
Nvidia also has its own chip — the Tegra K1 — which currently only powers the Acer Chromebook 13. This processor offers excellent graphics performance.
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.
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. Plus, 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.
The size of the screen isn’t the only thing that matters. Lower-end Chromebooks sport 1366 x 768-pixel displays, which is 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 8 laptops have popularized touch screens in laptops, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get the same functionality in a Chromebook. You just have to know which one to get — and expect to pay about a $100 premium. The $299 Lenovo IdeaPad N20P features a reversible screen like the ones you’ll find on some of the company’s Window’s Yoga machines. The $299 Acer Chromebook C720p also features a touch screen. However, there aren’t many apps that take full advantage of the touch capabilities.
One trait almost all Chromebooks have in common is exceptional battery life. Some last longer than others, but of the 13 Chromebooks we’ve reviewed in the last couple of years, we’ve seen an average of 8 hours and 13 minutes of endurance on the Laptop Mag Battery Test, which involves continuous surfing over Wi-Fi. On the top end, you’ll notice standouts like the Dell Chromebook 11’s runtime of 14:37. We recommend shooting for at least 7 hours of juice; check out our full reviews for battery test results.
Price: How Much Should You Spend?
There’s a pretty narrow price range for Chromebooks. At the low end, you can pick up the $199 Acer Chromebook C720P, which has an 11-inch HD display and 2GB of RAM. On the other end of the spectrum is the $329 Samsung Chromebook 2, which sports a larger 13-inch full-HD display with 4GB of RAM.
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 laptops like the HP Stream 11 and Stream 13, but if you’re looking for a simple way to get online and prefer Google’s services, you’ll be happy with a Chromebook