When Chromebooks first hit the scene, I’m not sure anyone could’ve predicted how popular they’d become. They’ve gone from ultra-low cost, overly-simplistic laptops to legitimate daily-use machines—they even outsold MacBooks in Q1 of 2016. The real question most people have about Chromebooks, however, is “Can I live inside Chrome?”
Google’s browser-based laptop is a tough device to pin down. Whether you can be happy with a Chromebook—and which Chromebook to buy—really depends on what you need to do with your laptop. Chromebooks can be a joy to use or a frustrating experience—it all depends on how you’ll use it.
What Is a Chromebook?
Picture the desktop Chrome web browser in hardware form—stripped of everything unnecessary—and you’ve got a pretty good handle on what Chromebooks are.
Chromebooks are Google’s entry in the laptop field. They run a slimmed down operating system that’s designed for getting on the web. You log in with your Google account, and your existing Chrome settings (along with apps and extensions) sync to the device. The look and feel will be familiar, including a Windows-style desktop environment with an application launcher, taskbar, and system tray. The main difference is that the Chromebook only runs the Chrome web browser and Chrome apps.
Simplicity is the key to understanding Chromebooks. All your computing takes place inside a Chrome web browser. If you use a web browser for most of what you do on your computer, this fact can be liberating. There’s no complicated operating system under your web browser that you have to fiddle with, no Windows viruses to deal with, no startup programs slowing down your boot, and no system tray full of manufacturer-installed bloatware bogging down your system. You have a laptop that boots up very quickly to a full desktop version of the Chrome web browser with a keyboard and touchpad—and that’s it.
But there’s also another page to this story. Google recently introduced the ability to run Android apps on Chromebooks. This includes the full Play Store and everything in it. The feature is still in the developer and beta channels right now, and only works on select Chromebooks so far. However, Google did recently announce that all new Chromebooks released starting in 2017 will ultimately get access to Android apps.
How Do Chromebooks Compare to Tablets?
Chromebooks compete with tablets in a few ways. Both give you a quick and easy way to get on the web. Both feature a simpler OS where the focus is on the apps—or sites—you use. And, now that Android apps are coming to the Chromebook, you can choose a device based on form factor rather than what apps you can use.
There are, of course, some obvious differences as well. Tablet web browsers are still more limited than their desktop counterparts. A Chromebook gives you a full desktop web browser that will support nearly every website out there—even those that require Flash support. Chromebooks also allow you to view multiple windows at once—whether those are web pages or apps. Most tablets still offer a single window experience and even those that offer multitasking—such as newer iPads and Android tablets running Nougat—only allow two apps at a time.
Form factor is also a big difference. Chromebooks give you the full laptop hardware experience—built-in keyboards, touchpads, and USB ports. 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. So, if you just want to sit on your couch and read or play mobile games, a tablet may be ideal for you. If you need a more flexible environment and want support for peripherals, a Chromebook is probably a much better choice.
You could also opt for having the best of both worlds. There are several convertible Chromebooks models out there, like the ASUS Chromebook Flip or Samsung Chromebook Plus. Both of these devices can flip around to become tablets. Throw Android apps into the mix, and you’ve got both a Chromebook and an Android tablet in one device.
Aside from a bit of additional bulk from the keyboard, there’s no real trade-off here, either. The majority of Android apps perform admirably on Chromebooks—easily comparable (and sometimes even better) than you’ll get on a dedicated Android tablet. I’ve actually given up using Android tablets in general and simply use my ASUS Flip C100 as a full-time tablet.
Why You Might Want a Chromebook
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. You can now buy solid Chromebooks for between $200 and $300. This is an extremely tempting price, but even “premium” Chromebooks generally top out around $500. If all you need is a web browser, why pay so much more for an expensive Windows or Mac laptop?
- Simplicity. Chromebooks are extremely simple. There’s no complicated OS to fiddle with, no need for antivirus, and very little that can really go wrong. They just work. This also makes Chromebooks ideal for family members that mostly use their computers for checking e-mail and browsing the web and for whom you don’t want to provide tech support.
- Automatic Updates. Chromebooks update their OS and software in the background, just like the Chrome web browser does on your computer. You don’t have to worry about Windows Update hassling you to reboot your computer all the time or having every little app bug you its own separate update process. With a Chromebook, you always have the latest version of everything.
- Security. Chromebooks are built on top of Linux, and are immune to Windows malware. You don’t have to worry about getting infected by an errant .exe file and you don’t have to run antivirus or anti-malware apps for protection. This can simplify your life in a big way.
For me, simplicity is the biggest attraction. Not having to bother with all the extra baggage that Windows and macOS bring along is welcome relief—especially if 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
The real answer to why you might not want a Chromebook lies in asking a simple question: “What can’t it do that I need?”
If you need certain desktop software—Photoshop, CAD software, programming tools, and so on—you won’t want a Chromebook. If you can’t run it in a web browser (or at some point as an Android app), the Chromebook can’t do it. If you love playing the latest PC games, a Chromebook isn’t ideal for you either. If you have a large collection of music and prefer using a local music player like iTunes—or something better—a Chromebook may not be the best choice.
Storage is another consideration with Chromebooks. Because they’re optimized for using web-based services, Chromebooks have very little integrated storage. They generally come with about 32GB of storage space. However, this is very fast SSD-based storage that will ensure your Chromebook boots and runs quickly. The low amount of space encourages you to use the cloud whenever possible. At the same time, however, most Chromebooks come with SD card slots so you can add storage if you need to.
Finally, 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—the price, security, and the simplicity make for a pleasant experience. Yes, you’d be giving up some of the power and flexibility offered by Windows and macOS laptops, but if you really do just need a web browser, Chromebooks are awfully tempting.
And you might be surprised by all the things you can do in a browser these days. For example, while you can’t use the desktop version of Microsoft Office on a Chromebook, you might be able to make do with Google Docs or Microsoft Office Web Apps. Both are free and designed to work in a web browser.
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. Photo or video editing software is pretty high on that list. And even with Android apps in the mix, a traditional PC might just be a better choice.
Ultimately, we like and readily recommend Chromebooks if they fit your lifestyle. If you spend most or all of your time in a browser, you’ll probably be happy with it.
By the way, Chromebooks are built on Linux, which means you can run a more traditional Linux desktop by enabling developer mode. That means if you’re a geek, your Chromebook can also function as a cheap Linux laptop, and run any Linux-compatible software Chrome OS doesn’t offer. This is an advanced trick and isn’t recommended for casual users, though, since it adds a lot of complexity to using your Chromebook, but it’s a handy trick for the initiated.