How-To Geek

Should You Buy a Chromebook?


Chromebooks are becoming more and more popular, with recent reports indicating that Chromebooks captured about 10% of all desktop, notebook, and tablet sales in the US in 2013. But how good are Chromebooks, really? Should you buy one, too?

Google’s browser-based laptop is a tough device to pin down. Whether you can be happy with a Chromebook really depends on what you need to do with your laptop. Chromebooks can be a joy to use or a frustrating experience.

What’s a Chromebook?

Chromebooks are Google’s entry in the laptop field. They run a slimmed down operating system that’s designed for getting on the web. Power on a Chromebook and, in a few seconds, you’ll see a login screen that you can log into with your Google account. Log in and you’ll see a Windows 7-style desktop environment with an application launcher, taskbar, and system tray. This desktop only runs the Chrome web browser and Chrome apps.

That’s the key to a Chromebook — simplicity. All you have to work with is a Chrome web browser. If you’re a person who uses a web browser most of the time on your computer, this can be liberating. There’s no complicated operating system under your web browser that you have to worry about, no Windows viruses, no startup programs, and no system tray full of manufacturer-installed bloatware slowing down your system. You don’t have to worry about running an antivirus program or other system utilities. You have a laptop that boots up very quickly to a full desktop version of the Chrome web browser with a keyboard and touchpad — that’s it.


Chromebooks vs. Tablets

In a way, Chromebooks compete with tablets. Both Chromebooks and tablets give you a way to get on the web easily and quickly. However, they’re actually rather different. Tablet web browsers are still limited compared to desktop-class web browsers. A Chromebook gives you a full desktop web browser — complete with Flash support — so you can use nearly every website out there. You also get a built-in keyboard, touchpad, and USB ports that you can use to easily add mice and other peripherals. It’s just not possible to plug a mouse into an iPad, and even plugging a mouse into an Android tablet generally offers a poor experience.

Chromebooks also allow you to view multiple web pages and Chrome apps on your screen in windows at the same time, giving you a better multitasking experience. Tablets still largely offer one-app-at-a-time experiences.

A Chromebook is basically the full desktop web browsing experience you get on a desktop or tablet, stripped of all the complexity and other features that Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux add. Picture the desktop Chrome web browser in hardware form, stripped of everything unnecessary.

If you just want to sit on your couch and read or play mobile games, a tablet may be ideal for you. However, if you want a full desktop browsing experience with multiple windows, a built-in keyboard, and support for peripherals like mice, a Chromebook is probably much better.


What Makes Chromebooks Great

So why would you buy a Chromebook when you an pick up a new Windows laptop or a Macbook? Well, there are a variety of reasons:

  • Price: Chromebooks are super cheap, and you can now buy solid Chromebooks for between $200 and $300. This is an extremely tempting price. If all you need is a laptop to use a web browser, why would you pay so much more for a more expensive Windows or Mac laptop?
  • Simplicity: Chromebooks are extremely simple, as all you have is a web browser. Compared to a Windows 8.1 laptop with its two separate interfaces or even a Macbook with its own history, a Chromebook is much more simple. All you have is Chrome, a login screen, a basic desktop shell, and a special tab in Chrome’s Settings screen for system settings like connecting to Wi-Fi.
  • Automatic Updates: Chromebooks update their operating system and software in the background, just as the Chrome web  browser does on your computer. You don’t have to worry about Windows Update hassling you to reboot your computer automatically and every little program on your desktop having its own separate update process. You always have the latest version of everything.
  • Security: Chromebooks are built on top of Linux and are immune to Windows malware, just as Macs are. You don’t have to worry about getting infected by an .exe file and you don’t have to run antivirus software for protection. This can simplify your life.

Chromebooks are tempting for a wide variety of reasons. Maybe you just need a web browser and you don’t want to worry about malware and other Windows complexity. Maybe you want to give a Chromebook to a family memory and not worry about providing tech support — a Chromebook will make it much harder for your family member to get into trouble. Or maybe you use a Windows or Mac system all day for work and just want a basic, simple laptop you can use at home.


Why You Might Not Want a Chromebook

Before you buy a Chromebook, ask yourself what you need to do with your laptop. If you use desktop software like Photoshop, you can’t do that on a Chromebook. If you do CAD, programming, or other types of tasks that need advanced tools that are only available on the desktop and not the web, forget about it. If you love playing the latest PC games, a Chromebook isn’t ideal for you either.

However, if you really do just need a web browser — or if you can get by with one — a Chromebook can be tempting. You can do a lot in a browser these days.

You can’t use the desktop version of Microsoft Office on a Chromebook, so you won’t be using Excel macros or mail merges. However, Microsoft does provide a free version of Office, known as Office Web Apps, that works in your browser and also runs on a Chromebook. This means you can use Office on a Chromebook — at least for the basics.

Because they’re optimized for using web-based services, Chromebooks have very little integrated storage. They generally come with about 16 GB of internal storage. However, this is very fast SSD-based storage that will ensure your Chromebook boots and runs quickly. The low amount of space encourages you not to rely on local storage.

Chromebooks can do quite a few things offline, but they’re still not as capable as a Windows or Mac system when you don’t have an Internet connection.


So, Should You Get One?

We like Chromebooks — their price, simplicity, and the all around experience is pleasant. If you’re a casual computer user who just needs a browser, they’re an excellent option that will save your money, simplify your life, and provide you with additional security.

On the other hand, if you still depend on desktop software, using a Chromebook can be a frustrating experience. You’ll stumble into problems doing more advanced or complex things because web-based software just can’t do certain things as well yet.

Ultimately, we like and recommend Chromebooks. If you can get by with a Chromebook and it’s all you need, you’ll probably be happy with it. But not everyone can get by with a Chromebook.

Chromebooks are built on Linux, and this power can be accessed by enabling developer mode. For a geek, a Chromebook can also function as a cheap Linux laptop. This is an advanced trick and isn’t recommended for casual users, however — this adds a lot of complexity to using your Chromebook.

Image Credit: Carol Rucker on Flickr, Carol Rucker on Flickr, Wesley Fryer on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 01/5/14

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