Can You Get By with a Chromebook in College?

When heading off to college, finding the right laptop for your money is a challenge—you don’t want to spend more than you have to, but not having enough laptop is arguably worse. That’s what makes Chromebooks so appealing.

Chromebooks have a relatively low entry point for everything they offer. Since the operating system is so lightweight, even modest hardware can keep everything running nice and snappy. Where a Windows laptop for a similar price can get bogged down quickly, a Chromebook will often remain zippy even during heavier use.

Given the low price point and very usable performance, Chromebooks are often looked at by college students—but it may not be that straightforward. There are several things to think about before jumping right into a Chromebook to make sure it’s the right choice for you.

Think About Your Classes and the Software You’ll Need

Microsoft Word Android app

While Chromebooks are much more powerful and versatile than they get credit for, that doesn’t mean they can do everything—in fact, there are some clear limitations on what you can and can’t do with a Chromebook. So the first thing you need to think about is what classes you’ll be taking and, more specifically, the required software for those classes.

Here’s the big one: Microsoft Office. Even in the age of Google Docs, a lot of professors still use (and require students to use) Word, Excel, and so on. The big question here is how much Office functionality you’re going to need.

Most students can probably get by with the online or Android app versions, which both work well on Chromebooks. They offer the most-used features and are really good for simple documents, presentations, and spreadsheets. However, they do lack some of the more advanced features the desktop versions of the Office apps offer. For example, if you’re in a business or statistics class where you need advanced Excel functionality (like pivot tables, for example), you’re going to need the desktop versions for Windows or macOS.

You can still use the online or app versions to view documents with these types of features in them—you just can’t create them there. So, that will inform your decision.

RELATED: What’s the Difference Between Microsoft Office’s Desktop, Web, and Mobile Apps?

These are the kinds of things at which you’ll need to take a closer look. Paying attention to the curriculum and anticipating what type of software you need will go a long way.

Specialty Software Need Not Apply

Photoshop Express for Android. Not quite the same as the real thing.

Going along with the first point here, you’ll have to ask yourself what type of specialty software you’ll need and whether or not it will even be available on a Chromebook in the first place. If you know you’re going to need Photoshop, for example, buy a Windows laptop or Macbook, because Photoshop isn’t available on Chrome OS (outside of the Android apps, which aren’t even close to the same thing). There are some decent replacements out there, but they’re just that: enough to get most users by if they need to do some quick editing. Similarly, if you’ll need something like CAD software, specialty statistics or scientific apps or the like, it’s probably best to look beyond a Chromebook.

While those are specific situations, that’s what you’ll need to look at this point. If you need something that isn’t available as a web or Android app, the odds are a Chromebook won’t cut it for your needs. It’s also worth keeping in mind that most Android apps are more like watered down versions of their desktop counterparts—like the aforementioned Photoshop app—so they won’t cut it in most cases if you need full desktop software.

Don’t Forget About Your Downtime

Here’s one that is pretty easy to overlook, but you have to consider your computer needs outside of school, too. If you want to watch some Netflix, YouTube, or other kinds of online video, a Chromebook will be perfect. Google designed the OS for that stuff.

But if you’re a gamer, the Chromebook might not be a good fit. There are games on Chromebooks, but we’re talking about Android titles here. There are some killer Android games that work very well on the Chromebook—some even have controller support for a real console-like feel—but if you’re into playing major titles on your computer, you’ll be better off with a traditional PC.

The Best of Both Worlds: Desktop in the Dorm, Chromebook on the Go

While a Chromebook may not be a good one-device solution for you, it may still be the perfect laptop. If you already have a solid desktop—like a gaming rig, for example—then you probably don’t need a powerhouse laptop too. You’ll still need something to take to class with you and whatnot, and a Chromebook may be the perfect sidekick for your desktop computer.

You’ll be able to take notes and do most text-based work, research, and the like on your Chromebook, but leave the heavy lifting—Photoshop, video editing, etc.—for your desktop. This is easily the best balance of both, assuming you already have a desktop. If not, well, you’re probably just better off getting a good Windows laptop or MacBook so that you can work and play on one device.

Image Credit: arek_malang/

Cameron Summerson is a die-hard Android fan, Chicago Bulls fanatic, metalhead, and cyclist. When he's not pounding keys here at HTG, you can find him spending time with his wife and kids, spinning legs on the bike, chugging away on the 6-string, or being disappointed in the Bulls.