[Editors’ Note, August 28, 2020: Due to the pandemic and the start of a school year dominated by remote learning, etailers are seeing shortages of Chromebook stock, and shoppers may see higher prices than usual. For more choices, also see our guide to Chromebooks for kids.]
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.
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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, and you should check this list to make sure the older model you’re eyeing supports it.) 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.
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.
What Specs Do I Need in a Chromebook?
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.
So, Which Chromebook Should I Buy?
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.
Where To Buy
Pros: Sleek and sturdy
Appealing 3:2 aspect ratio display
SSD instead of eMMC storage
Cons: A few ounces overweight
Bottom Line: A touch screen with a squarish 3:2 aspect ratio makes Acer’s Chromebook Spin 713 stand out as a well-equipped, affordable “Project Athena” 2-in-1.
Pros: Handsome aluminum design.
Google Assistant onboard.
Cons: Screen could use a max-brightness boost.
Fingerprint reader not useful for cold startup.
Bottom Line: A ho-hum display panel 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: 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: Sleek solid-metal chassis.
Big, bright display.
Core i3 CPU delivers strong performance for a Chromebook.
Roomy, responsive keyboard with number pad.
Cons: Too-short battery life.
Bottom Line: With its big screen but modest battery life, HP’s Chromebook 15 is a snappy model that’s best suited as a stay-at-home entertainment system.
Pros: Low price includes keyboard
Handy tablet gestures and Android phone integration
Good battery life
Cons: Tepid performance
Only one USB port and no headphone jack
No memory card slot
Bottom Line: Budget-strapped consumers and students with light computing needs will be captivated by Lenovo’s Chromebook Duet, a detachable 2-in-1 that tops better-known 2-in-1 tablets on value.
Pros: Speedy Core i5 CPU and true SSD rather than eMMC storage.
Decent 1080p display.
Full-size HDMI output.
Option for mobile broadband.
Chrome Enterprise and onsite service included.
Cons: Very expensive by Chromebook standards.
Bottom Line: Corporations seeking to deploy managed Chromebooks will find everything they could desire in Dell’s Latitude 5300 2-in-1 Chromebook Enterprise, but this fast and configurable convertible carries some steep pricing.
Pros: Chic styling.
Magnesium alloy body.
High-quality 1080p camera.
Good audio output.
Long battery life.
Cons: Expensive for a Chromebook.
No digital stylus support.
Bottom Line: The Google Pixelbook Go is a well-built and stylish ultraportable, albeit one that costs far more than most of its Chromebook brethren.
Pros: Appealingly petite convertible design.
Welcoming 3:2 aspect-ratio touch screen.
Good battery life.
Convenient ports and optional stylus.
Cons: A tad pricey given the CPU and screen size.
Marginal processing performance and skimpy storage.
Bottom Line: HP’s Chromebook x360 12b is a handsome compact convertible that falls short of excellence due to a murky screen and leisurely CPU.
Pros: Under-$200 price
Light carry weight
Decent build quality and keyboard for the money
Built-in SD card reader
Long battery life
Cons: Low-quality, low-res screen with big bezels
Cramped 32GB of storage
Bottom Line: If you’ve got less than $200 to spend on a laptop for a child or as a secondary machine, Lenovo’s Chromebook 3 is an acceptable option, though its small, low-quality display leaves much to be desired.
Pros: Handy integrated stylus storage.
USB Type-C and Type-A ports.
Full HD touch screen.
Built-in LTE modem.
Cons: So-so battery life.
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.
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