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Chromebook buyer's guide: What is a Chromebook, what can and can't it do?
Chromebooks are taking the computer market by storm. They’ve managed to find their own position in the portable computing space, standing against the massive demand for traditional laptops, as well as good tablets like iPads.
The need for a traditional computer is no longer dire. Phones and tablets are often more than sufficient for casual users. Chrome OS computers provide bigger screens and a proper keyboard, while also keeping the experience portable and light. Not to mention they tend to be pretty affordable. We’re here to answer all your burning questions — what a Chromebook is exactly, how it differs from a traditional PC, and which one you should buy.
What is a Chromebook?
You may be used to choosing between Apple’s MacOS and Microsoft’s Windows when shopping for a new computer, but Chromebooks have offered a third option since 2011. What is a Chromebook? These computers don’t run the usual Windows or macOS operating systems. Instead, they run on Linux-based Chrome OS.
These are designed to run workflows that generally operate in a browser. They have plenty of app support, but are not primarily meant for heavy workloads. Usually, if the work resides mainly in a web browser, you can use a Chrome OS machine to get it done. In the case of complicated workflows that need specific desktop-level apps, a Chromebook may not be the best fit.
What’s the difference between a Chromebook and a laptop?
Chromebooks aren’t all that different from traditional laptops from a hardware perspective. In fact, most of them are technically laptops, unless they are Chromebook tablets.
They’re portable computing devices that are rather similar to laptops in terms of design and basic hardware. The primary difference comes down to the operating system on board, which is Chrome OS, compared to Windows on traditional laptops, and macOS on MacBooks.
One of the significant hardware differences is the built-in storage space. Given that Chrome OS is relatively light, and most of the apps are really web apps and Android applications, Chrome OS laptops tend to come with less internal storage. Chrome OS users don’t usually need a lot of storage, though, and there are always additional storage options like external HDDs/SSDs, if required. You also get an SD card slot with some of these Chromebooks. Not to mention Chrome OS relies heavily on cloud storage.
We have a dedicated Chromebook vs laptop comparison if you want to dig deeper into the differences.
What is Chrome OS?
In the most basic sense, Chrome OS is a Linux-based operating system backed mainly by the Chrome browser you probably already know and love. That means anything you can do in Chrome for Windows or Mac, you can also do in Chrome OS.
This may sound like a glorified browser, and it used to be, but things have changed in recent years. Chromebooks can now run Android apps, and some also support Linux applications. This makes Chrome OS laptops helpful for doing more than simply browsing the web. You won’t get the full desktop software portfolio Windows and macOS rock, but millions of Android apps and a wide variety of full Linux desktop apps are at your disposal.
We have a dedicated guide explaining what Chrome OS is and everything regarding the platform, if you would like to dig deeper into the subject.
Can you run Windows on a Chromebook?
As mentioned above, Chrome OS laptops generally have a lower storage capacity and overall less powerful specs. This makes them less ideal for running Windows. There are some exceptions now, though. High-end Chromebooks exist, as well as gaming Chromebooks. These machines can run Windows, if you really want them to. The process is quite complicated, and can potentially damage your device and/or void your warranty (depending on the method).
We recommend you don’t use Windows on a Chrome OS laptop. If you want Windows, it’s best to get a Windows computer. Here is a list of the best laptops; there are plenty of Windows options in there. And if you’re looking for affordability, there is a healthy market for budget Windows machines nowadays.
There are Android and Linux apps you can run on a Chrome OS device that will do a better job of getting your work done than installing Windows on a Chrome OS laptop. Additionally, there are also ways of running Windows apps on these Chrome OS laptops. We’ll detail all the possibilities in our dedicated guide, including how to install Windows on a Chromebook.
Chrome OS advantages and disadvantages
Chromebooks are perfect for some use cases, and not so ideal for others. Let’s get into the major advantages and disadvantages of these computers.
Here are some scenarios where Chromebooks make the perfect computing devices:
- They’re great for students and light office use. Chromebooks do well with work that must mostly be done in a browser. From the typical work-from-home workflows, including online classes and meetings, to word processing and spreadsheets, Chromebooks do it all. They’re the ideal machines for such work, especially as more and more work in these use cases has moved online with services like Google Docs Editors suite and Office 365, among others.
- They generally have a better battery life than similarly-priced laptops. Chrome OS is relatively light compared to Windows, which shows when you’re using a Chrome OS laptop for its intended usage. Most of these machines, especially the cheaper ones, will give you a pretty decent battery life.
- They’re often cheaper. Chromebooks are often relatively more affordable than Windows laptops with the same processor and similar specifications. This has been a significant reason why the education community has adopted them. It’s also led to their growing popularity in the low-end segment of the portable computer market. Premium options can cost quite a lot, but those aren’t for everyone.
- They’re faster! You need a Windows PC with a lot of power to match Chromebook performance. These lightweight Chrome OS computers can operate very efficiently. The operating system is straightforward, and mobile hardware is getting very capable.
Basically, Chrome OS is excellent unless you’re using it for certain types of tasks. Here are some particular situations where they aren’t the best option:
- They aren’t great for gaming. Sure, Chrome OS laptops have Android app support, so mobile gaming is an option. There are also browser games. But if you’re looking to play high-profile PC games, you should look elsewhere, unless you can live with cloud gaming from services like Xbox Game Pass and GeForce Now. In fact, some newer Chromebooks are built with cloud gaming in mind, and these even have gamer aesthetics. Cloud gaming services require an excellent internet connection, though. Our own Andrew Grush has expressed his thoughts on gaming Chromebooks, and actually managed to play games locally using Steam Beta. Still, the experience, while pretty good, isn’t as polished as in Windows machines. And if you’re spending top dollar on a high-end Chromebook that can run games, you might as well get yourself a Windows machine.
- These computers aren’t always an excellent option for creative professionals. That’s unless you’re a writer, in which case they work wonderfully. Google Drive is baked in, and there are ways to get Microsoft Office and Skype working. Unfortunately, most of these devices aren’t powerful enough for 3D editing. Even if you pay big bucks for one of the powerful machines, the most popular creative software isn’t available for Chrome OS. Photographers could live off the Lightroom Android app and other mobile editing options, and there are some ways to edit video. Still, most options require significant sacrifices, and/or pretty fast internet.
- They aren’t powerhouses… though there are exceptions. Many of them are affordable, low-end machines. That means a Chromebook typically can’t handle 500 browser tabs and other intensive tasks. Of course, more powerful options exist. If you really want Chrome OS and the power to run Linux apps, Android apps, and more, you could go for something like the Acer Chromebook Spin 714 or the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook 2. If you want even more power, check out gaming Chromebooks like the ASUS Chromebook Vibe CX34 Flip.
How to use a Chrome OS computer
A Chromebook is a computing device at the end of the day and is actually simpler to use than many modern computers. Chrome OS has that going for it on the whole. While different, it won’t really be unfamiliar to most users. It borrows a lot of cues from Android, the Chrome browser, and their ecosystem of apps.
Chrome OS is made for fundamental tasks, and if your machine supports it, you can expand the functionality by installing some Android apps or even some full Linux apps.
Chromebooks also have a bit of a learning curve if you’ve never used one, though. If you need some help figuring out the ins and outs of Chrome OS, below are some guides to help you get the most out of your Chrome OS machine.
How much does a Chromebook cost?
Chromebooks cost as little as $150-$200 and go up to well over a thousand dollars if you want one of the fancy ones. They typically cost less than Windows laptops with similar specifications. There are many sub-$200 Chrome OS laptops, and some pretty good ones under $300 as well. The best value for these machines usually lies under the $500 mark, where you get a solid balance of specifications for the price.
Those with higher-end needs will have to really pay up to get a superior Chrome OS laptop. Such machines can easily cost over $1,000. At that price point, there are many other options to consider, many of which have a full desktop OS.
Chromebooks and Android app support
Chromebooks have a solid selection of apps on their own, but it’s no match to Android apps. There is a wide variety of Android apps out there, and they can help enhance the Chrome OS experience greatly. Most Chrome OS laptops released after 2017 support Android apps, but keep in mind not all Android apps are optimized for Chrome OS. The popular ones mostly are, though.
Chrome OS laptops that support Android apps get the Google Play Store. This means you have most Android apps available on the Play Store ready for installation. This includes many of the best Android apps out there, including almost any messaging, chat, video call app, music streaming, and video streaming apps. You also get other popular apps like Adobe Lightroom, Google Drive, Gmail, Reddit, VLC, and many more.
Linux app support
If Android apps aren’t your thing, and you want more of a desktop experience from your Chrome OS laptop, you can install full Linux apps on your machine. If the device runs Chrome OS 69 or later, it can run Linux apps. The process is a little complicated, but it’ll be worth the hassle to unlock the power of Linux apps on a Chrome OS laptop.
Linux app support means many full desktop apps are available. A catch here is that these Chrome OS laptops come with both ARM-based and x96 CPUs. Therefore, some of these apps may not work as expected, or at all, depending upon the CPU architecture used in your device. However, if you have an Intel or AMD-based Chrome OS laptop, the chances are you’ll be able to use nearly every Linux app.
Who makes Chromebooks?
Chromebooks have been widely adopted, and, as a result, more or less every mainstream PC manufacturer makes them. Big laptop makers like ASUS, HP, Acer, Dell, and Lenovo have their own Chrome OS laptops. Many companies offer Chrome OS equivalents of some of their laptop offerings as well. There are also Chromebook offerings available from some lesser-known brands, mainly on the lower end of the market. Google also has its Pixelbook lineup, in case you want that Pixel-like experience with Chrome OS.
Let’s take a look at some of the key Chrome OS laptop manufacturers.
Google’s Chromebook lineup is called Pixelbook, and it’s to Chrome OS what the Pixel phones are to Android. You get a great experience, as Google tries to demonstrate the ideal Chrome OS experience with these machines. Google has three lineups – the Pixelbook, which is the premium and more expensive one, the more versatile Pixelbook Go, and the Pixel Slate. The Pixelbook and Pixel Slate are discontinued, though. And the Pixelbook Go is getting pretty old.
ASUS is one of the most prominent PC makers, and it also carries the same weight in the Chromebook market. We have three main lineups from the company. The basic lineup has the more affordable options, and the Flip lineup has two-in-one designs with premium build and features. ASUS also has a Chromebook Detachable lineup if you like a tablet form factor with the option to attach a keyboard.
More recently, ASUS has started playing around with cloud gaming Chromebooks like the ASUS Chromebook Vibe CX34 Flip.
Acer has quite a few Chromebooks on offer as well. It doesn’t have clearly separated lineups, but it does have a few series labels you can use to identify the class of the Acer Chrome OS laptop in question. The basic series has affordable options here as well. Acer uses the Spin demarcation for its 2-in-1 designs, and the Enterprise range has top-of-the-line premium offerings that cost more. The Enterprise range also gets some Spin variants.
Acer has also entered the gaming Chromebook market with the Acer Chromebook 516 GE.
Lenovo makes some of the best Chromebooks out there. It splits its offerings in two ways — School and Business. Both contain the basic range, the 2-in-1 range, which uses the Flex moniker, and the detachable range, which uses the Duet name. Lenovo provides some rather premium offerings at relatively affordable price tags. Its Flex range is particularly good value for money.
HP is a massive player in the traditional laptop space, bringing the same expertise to the Chrome OS offerings. It has a relatively smaller portfolio, but it covers the three essential categories like the other brands mentioned above. The 2-in-1 range is called x360, just like HP’s laptop offerings, and HP uses the “Detachable” tag for the detachable. More recently, we’ve seen HP delve into the cloud gaming Chromebook market with the DragonFly Pro.
Samsung is another brand that keeps its Chrome OS portfolio relatively light. The Premium category has the Galaxy Chromebook, while the sequel, the Galaxy Chromebook 2, has slightly lower-tier specifications and fits into the Everyday category. Now there’s also the Galaxy Chromebook 2 360. The Traveler category has the Galaxy Chromebook Go, the Student category has the Chromebook Plus, a 2-in-1, and the Chromebook 4/4 Plus, which are your regular, affordable machines. Samsung doesn’t have a detachable option.
Dell’s Chromebook offerings are also available across some of its laptop ranges. The home computing range has the Chromebook 11 lineup, while the business range has a lot of offerings under the Latitude range, with the most expensive ones carrying the Enterprise tag and features to boot. Dell also lacks detachable options, and its convertible options don’t have a separate label, just a 2-in-1 tag added.
Which should I buy?
Do you want a Chrome OS machine but aren’t sure which one to buy? Just like Windows PCs, Chrome OS machines come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and form factors. There are larger-screened devices and some that are barely 10 inches in display size.
We have a list of the best Chromebooks you can buy, with various recommendations. Here are our top picks across the key categories.
- Best overall — Acer Chromebook Spin 714 ($799 at Amazon)
- Best convertible 2-in-1 Chromebook — Acer Chromebook Spin 514 ($474.99 at Acer)
- Ideal for power users — HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook ($319 at Amazon)
- The best-looking Chromebook — Samsung Galaxy Chromebook 2 ($589 at Amazon)
- Best budget Chromebook — Samsung Galaxy Chromebook 2 360 ($449.99 at Samsung)
- Ideal for students — Lenovo IdeaPad Slim 3 Chromebook ($169 at Best Buy)
- Best Chromebook tablet — Lenovo IdeaPad Duet 5 Chromebook ($480 at Amazon)
- For gamers — ASUS Chromebook Vibe CX34 Flip ($769 at Amazon)
Here are a few additional buyer guides to help you find the right laptop for your needs. Also, be sure to check out our guide for the best covers and cases.
- Budget Chromebooks
- Touchscreen Chrome OS laptops
- Best Chromebook tablets
- Chromebook deals to watch out for
Other frequently asked questions
As mentioned above, these machines start as low as $150-200, and go on to cost well over a thousand dollars. The sweet spot for these computers is around the $500 mark. There are, however, some high-end Chromebooks that can cost well over $1,000.
Bluetooth is a standard feature on laptops these days, and as such, more or less all Chrome OS laptops have Bluetooth.
Just like Bluetooth, cameras are also a standard feature on laptops, and most Chrome OS laptops come with cameras.
These devices run on Chrome OS, which is an operating system that revolves around Google’s Chrome web browser and its apps.
In terms of battery life, most of these machines last between 7-13 hours. Light usage will get the average Chromebook through a typical working day. In terms of longevity, if you buy one from one of the major brands, a Chrome OS laptop will last just as long as the average laptop — usually between three to five years. Of course, this varies depending on your usage.
Chromebooks are great for educational use. Some college workflows may require using desktop apps that are not available on Chrome OS. However, a Chrome OS machine should do just fine for College workflows that rely on basic tasks like web browsing, documents, presentations, video conferencing, etc.