Chromebooks: Low-Cost Windows Alternatives
Plenty of laptops, from budget to deluxe, are available in all sorts of shapes and sizes. But what do you buy when pretty much everything you do is online, you don’t need much in the way of software support, and you want to spend in the low hundreds, never mind the thousands? A Chromebook could be your answer.
These inexpensive laptops don’t offer a full Windows experience. (If you know the Chrome browser, get used to it: Most Chromebook activity happens within that world.) But Chromebooks’ web-centric operation and ultralow prices make them perfect for light-usage social media and web-based productivity. If you spend more than 90 percent of your computer time in a web browser, you should have little trouble using a Chromebook as your primary PC.
Most Chromebooks don’t pack impressive hardware, but they also rarely require it. Because you’ll be visiting websites and running programs all from Chrome OS, which is basically a souped-up version of the lean-running Chrome web browser, the technical barrier to entry is low. This also means you don’t have to deal with downloading and installing traditional software; if you can’t do something on or within a standard webpage, chances are you will be able to from one of the thousands of apps and extensions available to Chrome OS users.
With just a few clicks, your Chromebook can have almost as much functionality as a budget Windows laptop, and you even can install any app designed for the Android mobile OS on many newer Chromebooks. (If you’re scouting older or discounted Chromebooks, be aware of this key distinction; Android-app support is a relatively recent development.) This means Microsoft Office is now available on many Chromebooks via the Google Play store for Chrome, a revolution in functionality that removes one of the last barriers preventing productivity devotees from switching to Chrome. If the Chromebook you’re eyeing is on Google’s list of Chromebooks that can run Android apps, it can run Office apps, according to Microsoft.
One primary benefit of running exclusively web-based software is security. For all intents and purposes, you’re immune to the viruses and other malware that so often plague vulnerable Windows systems. Chrome OS updates also take just seconds to complete, rather than the minutes or hours you may have to wait on macOS and Windows to do their update thing. And although easy access to an always-on internet connection is a must for Chromebooks, you’re able to perform most standard tasks offline and sync up later on, so you don’t have to slow or stop your work if there’s an internet-connectivity hiccup.
Five Key Things to Look For
When shopping for a Chromebook, you’ll note less hardware variety than with Windows machines. These are the most important specs and factors to be aware of.
SCREEN RESOLUTION. The usual native display resolution on a Chromebook will be 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, otherwise known as 1080p, but a few cheaper Chromebooks may be lower-resolution, and the very highest-end models may be higher-resolution. For most midsize Chromebooks with screens from 13 to 15 inches, 1080p is just fine.
PROCESSOR. A low-end CPU like a Celeron or a Pentium will serve you just fine if all you do is browse with a tab or two open. Chromebooks based on Intel Core CPUs like the Core i3 and the Core i5 will allow for more able multitasking. They will also be more expensive, all else being equal.
A $300 Windows laptop with an Intel Celeron processor and 4GB of memory might be unpleasantly sluggish in everyday use under Windows 10, but a Chromebook with those same specs should offer a fine user experience. If you tend to be a multitasker, though, consider a Core chip.
STORAGE CONSIDERATIONS. Most of your files on a Chromebook will be stored in the cloud, so Chromebooks include only a small serving of eMMC-based storage, usually 32GB or 64GB, on which to save your local creations. Look for an SD card slot if you think you’ll want to save more files on the device.
CONNECTIVITY. Most Chromebook connections are wireless, as you’ll use the machine almost exclusively attached to Wi-Fi. Ethernet ports are not common. If you’ll need to give presentations, look for a video output port, such as HDMI, that matches what displays you will have at your disposal. Also look for a USB port or two if you’ll want to attach a mouse or other peripheral by wire.
How Chromebooks Are Evolving
The newest Chromebooks have stepped up from being basic systems running Chrome OS to being elegant computers that offer surprisingly rich capabilities. A few sport carbon-fiber chassis or use a lightweight magnesium-alloy frame with a glossy white plastic exterior. Others add a bright in-plane switching (IPS) display, which offers sharp images and wide viewing angles, and a few elite models swap out the standard eMMC-based storage for a speedier, roomier 128GB solid-state drive (SSD). The top models have premium styling that even owners of high-end laptops would envy.
Over the last few years, the Chromebook category has matured beyond basic functionality, and the real competition is now based on features. We’re seeing more options that previously were available only on Windows laptops. For one thing, some Chromebooks now have touch displays, and starting with version 71 of the Chrome operating system, it was optimized for touch input. That’s handy when you’re tapping away at Android apps, which are designed from the outset for touch.
Various screen sizes are available, too, from 10 inches to 15 inches. Other models sport convertible designs that let you fold the Chromebook into modes for laptop, tablet, or presentation use, along the lines of 360-degree-rotating models like Lenovo’s Yoga or HP’s x360 families. Some models now even let you detach their keyboards to use them as true tablets, just as you can with Windows tablets.
The result is that these days, a budget laptop and a similarly priced Chromebook can look more alike than you might expect.
Ready for Our Recommendations?
Whether you’re a Facebook addict or you just need a machine for checking email and working in Google apps, Chromebooks are easy to use, convenient to take on the go, and inexpensive. If you think a Chrome OS laptop is right for you, check out the reviews below for the top-rated Chromebooks we’ve tested. If you absolutely need Windows and don’t have an unlimited budget, our lists of the best cheap laptops and the best laptops for college students are worth a look, too. And for more general laptop buying advice, check out our comprehensive buying guide with today’s top laptop picks, regardless of price.
Pros: Convertible hinge design. Lots of storage and RAM. Full HD screen. Metal body construction. Two USB-C ports. Warranty includes damage protection. Bright and clear display. Backlit keyboard.
Cons: Legacy connections require adapters. Pricier than other chromebooks.
Bottom Line: The Asus Chromebook Flip (C302CA-DHM4) might be more expensive than the average chromebook, but its rich selection of features makes it well worth the extra money.
Pros: Sharp-looking aluminum design for a budget machine. Excellent battery life. Touch display (as tested) looks great. Comfortable backlit keyboard. Big touchpad.
Cons: Processor could use a pick-me-up. Ho-hum speakers.
Bottom Line: Aluminum-clad and ready for all day off the plug, the Acer Chromebook 514 is a reasonably-priced standout on the premium Chromebook stage that’s right-priced for students and budget buyers.
Pros: Bargain-basement price for a large-screen Chromebook. Sleek, part-aluminum design. 1080p panel looks crisp. Comfortable keyboard and touchpad.
Cons: Glossy screen coat is a glare magnet. Mediocre battery life. No keyboard lighting. Poor audio output.
Bottom Line: With its sleek design and big 1080p touch screen, the 15.6-inch Asus Chromebook C523 is a unusual bargain: a budget-friendly big-screen Chromebook.
Pros: Strong battery life. Rugged design. 360-degree hinge. Two USB-C ports. Google Play is on board.
Cons: Pricier than many Chromebooks. Lacks backlit keyboard.
Bottom Line: Students or parents looking for a laptop that will survive an intense day at school will like the Chromebook Flip C213SA’s all-day battery life, sturdy build, and multiple viewing modes.
Pros: More than 11 hours of battery life. Rugged, spill-proof exterior. 2-in-1 convertible form factor. Support for Google for Education administration and features.
Cons: Low-resolution screen. No USB-C ports.
Bottom Line: The Dell Chromebook 3189 is a durable convertible laptop, with a long-lasting battery, a multimode hinge, and enough processing juice to help power online and classroom learning.
Pros: Handsome aluminum design. Comfortable keyboard. Google Assistant onboard.
Cons: Too-brief battery life. Screen isn’t the brightest. Fingerprint reader not useful for cold startup.
Bottom Line: Sorrowfully short battery life is the only thing that keeps Acer’s 14-inch, Core i3-based Chromebook 714 from setting a new standard for business-ready Chrome OS laptops.
Pros: Strong performance on bench tests. Aluminum chassis. Roomy display. Comfortable keyboard. Stylus is included and cleverly housed.
Cons: Pricey. Average-at-best battery life. Heavy.
Bottom Line: Acer’s prime-cut Chromebook Spin 13 is a topped-out 2-in-1 convertible that delivers all-metal ruggedness and unrivaled performance, but at a gourmet price.
Pros: Premium construction and styling. Android apps for offline use. Instant Tethering with Pixel 2 phone. Contextual search with Pen and Google Assistant.
Cons: Very expensive for a chromebook. Only two USB-C ports. Pen is separate purchase.
Bottom Line: The Google Pixelbook is a powerful, upscale 2-in-1 convertible laptop that will serve well-heeled Android and chromebook fans well.
Pros: Cutting-edge design. Thin and light. Excellent screen quality. Robust speakers. Long battery life.
Cons: No headphone jack. Expensive as configured. Keyboard and stylus not included. Stylus-attachment scheme and screen palm rejection need work.
Bottom Line: The first Chrome OS-based tablet from Google, the Pixel Slate is superior hardware, but in practice, it falls short of topping the Apple iPad, Chromebooks, or Windows tablets.
Pros: Handy integrated stylus storage. USB Type-C and Type-A ports. Two webcams. Full HD touch screen. Built-in LTE modem.
Cons: So-so battery life. Heavy. Uncomfortable keyboard and touchpad.
Bottom Line: An intriguing option among premium Chrome OS convertibles, the Samsung Chromebook Plus V2 (LTE) offers unique features like a built-in stylus and two cameras.