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Should I Buy a Chromebook? Buying Guide and Advice

A Chromebook is a laptop of a different breed. Instead of Windows 10 or macOS, Chromebooks run Google's Chrome OS. These machines are designed to be used primarily while connected to the Internet, with most applications and documents living in the cloud.  Chromebooks have done quite well in the education market, but their appeal has broadened.

How Much Do Chromebooks Cost?

For the most part, there's a pretty narrow price range for Chromebooks, and it's on the more affordable end of the spectrum. You can pick up the affordable and light Acer Chromebook R11 — which has an 11.6-inch HD display, an Intel Celeron N3150 CPU and 2GB of RAM — for $169. Rare models ask you go go higher, such as the $549 Samsung Chromebook Pro, a stylus-equipped 12.3-inch notebook with a 2400 x 1600-pixel display, an Intel Core M3 processor and 4GB of RAM.

You'll probably wind up paying more for a Windows 10 notebook, as the average selling price for a PC is $448, according to NPD. There are more affordable options, as we've detailed here, but the PC laptop market has a much higher cap than the Chromebook market.

You can even wind up spending as much as $1,199 on the 12.3-inch Pixelbook, which will soon have an even higher top price when the $1,649 Core i7 model becomes available. The $999 model is likely the best Pixelbook for most, with 128GB of storage, 8GB of RAM and a Core i5 processor, enough for both Chrome and Android.

But is a Chromebook right for you? Our Chromebook buying guide has the answers to these and other questions.

  Chromebook Price
Best Overall Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA $499
Budget Pick Lenovo N22 Chromebook $159 
Best for School Dell Chromebook 3189 $329
Best for Business Google Pixelbook $999

Chromebooks run Chrome OS, Google's operating system, so they heavily feature Google's suite of applications and often times rely on a working Internet connection. Although you can log in to Chrome OS as a guest, we recommend you log in to the system with a Google account to have the best experience.

News and Rumors

MORE: How Does Apple's New iPad Stack Up to Chromebooks?

Apps

The story of apps on Chromebooks is getting better every day, but these machines were still originally optimized for Google's apps, such as Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Drive. This deep integration can be either positive or negative, depending on how you use a PC. Chromebooks will be easy to set up if you already use those apps.

MORE: Best Chromebooks Available Now

Android apps are now coming to Chromebooks, however, only a select few systems can access the Google Play store at this time. The idea is to give Chromebooks access to more games, productivity options and other apps to make these machines more versatile, though the apps are seemingly run via an emulator, with mixed results. Unfortunately, not all Android games run on Chrome OS.

Currently, Android-capable Chromebooks include the Samsung Chromebook Plus, Asus Chromebook Flip, the Dell Chromebook 3189 and Google’s own Pixelbook. If you’re looking to take a Chromebook to school with you, make it one of those, or one of the models listed here.

Unfortunately, popular software applications, such as Adobe Photoshop and the Microsoft Office suite, aren't available on all Chromebooks. However, the Android version of Office is rolling out to those Chromebooks with access to the Google Play Store. If you need Office, but your machine doesn't have Android apps yet, you're limited to Microsoft Office Online, the free cloud version of Office via the Chrome browser.

It may be best to stick with the Office Android apps or Office Online if you already have a lot of Office files that you're bringing over to your Chromebook. There are often formatting issues when importing third-party documents into Drive. Fortunately, Google Drive allows you to save documents to Microsoft formats, so you'll still be able to share files with non-Chromebook users.

On the other hand, there are a handful of photo editors available for Chrome OS, including Pixlr (free), which looks a lot like Photoshop. But those with existing files are out of luck — there is no Chromebook app that can edit Adobe's .PSD files.

If you're familiar with Linux's applications, you've got more options coming soon. Early, pre-release builds of Chrome OS revealed that Chromebooks will support Linux programs, satisfying demand from some of the more tech-savvy Chromebook owners.  The Pixelbook is the first that will get this option, and others will gain this feature later.

Offline Use

Chromebooks are designed to rely heavily on the Internet, which means that many apps simply won't work if you're out of Wi-Fi range. There are more than 200 offline Chrome apps that can work without Internet connectivity, including Gmail, Pocket and Google Drive, and tons of the Android apps coming soon will also work offline.

Games

You'll still be able to play games on the Chromebook, but your options are sparse. The Chrome Web Store offers casual titles such as Bejeweled and Cut the Rope, but you won't have the same selection as you would on a Windows machine or a Mac. Of course, Chromebooks with Android support get more modern titles such as Fallout Shelter, Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes and Minecraft.

Chromebooks generally have limited graphics processing power, so you'll want to stick to less demanding titles.

Special Features

Google Assistant landed on the Chrome OS platform in the Pixelbook. While you can activate it with the Pixelbook Pen, that $99 accessory isn't necessary when you have the dedicated Assistant key in that laptop's keyboard. While the launcher is currently integrated with Google Now, giving you info cards for the current weather and local news stories, we could see it switching to Google Feed.

Google redesigned the on-screen keyboard for touch-screen use, making it easier to use on 2-in-1s like the Asus Chromebook Flip. With a minimalist design, the on-screen keyboard recognizes your scribbles and gives you choices of text to input. When we tested that feature, it was almost always accurate in recognizing our writing. Also, soon, Android smartphone users will be able to get text and call-pop-up notifications on their desktop.

Battery Life

Chromebooks typically offer exceptional battery life, but not as much as they used to. Of the 10 Chromebooks we've reviewed in the past year, we've seen an average of 9 hours and 15 minutes of endurance on the Laptop Mag Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi.

On the top end, you'll notice standouts like the Acer Chromebook R 13's runtime of 11:00, though the average is down from the 9:59 time we previously found. Google's own Pixelbook, disappointingly, offers a relatively short 7 hours and 43 minutes of juice.

We recommend shooting for at least 9 hours of juice, which half of the Chromebooks we've reviewed offer. While some affordable Windows 10 notebooks, like the Lenovo Miix 310 (12:24) and the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 (13:39), offer amazing battery life, the ultraportable notebook average is a shorter 8 hours and 21 minutes.

Durability

Similar to business notebooks made to survive drops and other minor disasters, Chromebooks for Work are built to withstand falls, scrapes and similar punishment. In our testing, the Acer Chromebook 14 for Work proved durable, surviving unscratched and fully functional after our Dropbot 5000 test bench dropped it from a height of 48 inches onto a plywood plank. 

Both the Acer Chromebook 14 for Work and the ThinkPad 13 Chromebook (another For Work model) are MIL-STD-810G certified, meaning they're capable of passing durability testing that U.S. Military equipment must pass. The Acer Chromebook 14 For Work can survive extreme temperatures (minus 20.2 degrees to 140 degrees Fahrenheit), humidity, vibration, rain, sand and dust.

Durable Chromebooks aren't just for adults. The kid-friendly Acer Chromebook 11 N7 C731T survived a full glass of water getting spilled onto its keyboard, as well as the 48-inch high drops from our Dropbot 5000. It may have gotten scuffed along the way, but it's a good option for clumsier users.

Manageability and Security

Chromebook for Work models also offer tools that IT administrators need to manage laptops in and out of the office. The Lenovo ThinkPad 13 Chromebook and Google's Pixelbook include the Trusted Platform Module, a security chip that helps keep malicious attackers away from your passwords.

What Size Screen Do I Need?

Most Chromebooks fall between 11 and 13 inches. That means you won't have trouble choosing a smaller model, such as the 11-inch Acer Chromebook 11 N7 , the 12.5-inch Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA and the 13-inch ThinkPad 13 Chromebook.

These models often weigh less than 3 pounds, making them the most portable, and great options for kids. However, the screen size and keyboards may seem cramped for adults.

The Acer Chromebook 15 is the only 15-inch Chrome OS notebook available.

Those looking for more real estate for Web surfing, getting work done, watching movies and playing games can pick up the 14-inch Acer Chromebook 14 for Work, or the 15-inch Acer Chromebook 15, the only Chrome OS notebooks above 13 inches. Unfortunately, both are on the older end of the spectrum, as there hasn't been much demand for large Chromebooks. Don't even look for a 17-inch Chromebook; they're not out there.

What Specs Do I Need?

Because Chromebooks are meant primarily for online use, the specs aren't as important as they are for Windows laptops, but you'll still want to know how much power and storage you're getting for your money. Here's a quick guide.

RAM

When it comes to RAM, Chromebooks come with either 2GB or 4GB. While models with 4GB are more expensive, we've found that difference to be worth it for multi-tasking.

MORE: How Much RAM Do You Really Need?

Both the HP Chromebook 14 (4GB RAM) and the Lenovo 100S Chromebook (2GB RAM) featured the same Celeron N2840 processors, but the HP notebook handled more than a dozen open tabs without a problem while the Lenovo stuttered with 10 open Chrome tabs and Spotify playing. Our tests of the Windows version of the Lenovo Ideapad 100S ($180) show that similarly spec'd PCs can handle a larger stack of tabs.

CPU

The processor in your Chrome OS machine helps determine how smoothly your Chromebook performs, especially when you have multiple tabs open and you're streaming video or playing games.

We find Intel Celeron chips in many Chromebooks, and they often provide acceptable speed. The $229 Acer Chromebook 11 N7 C731T (Celeron N3060, 4GB RAM) for example, could run 8 concurrent Chrome tabs, but stuttered after we opened another.

You can get a Windows 10 laptop with similar specs and price, such as the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 ($229), but it might not be as capable. That machine has the same processor and memory, but while it lasts more than 13 hours, its performance was less than that of the 11 N7.

If that doesn't sound like enough for you, certain Chromebooks pack Intel Core CPUs for even more speed. The biggest downside to these Core M Chromebooks, such as the Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA ($499) and Samsung Chromebook Pro ($549) is their heftier price. Don't worry about that powerful CPU affecting the battery life, as the Samsung Chromebook Pro (Core M3) provided more power and longer longevity (8:05) than its weaker Chromebook Plus (ARM MediaTek; 7:46) sibling.

If you want a Chromebook with enough speed to run your favorite Android apps, consider laptops with the Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs, such as the Pixelbook. 

If you want a Chromebook without an Intel Chip, there's always 2014's Acer Chromebook 13, the only Chrome OS machine with an Nvidia chip (the Tegra K1). While it offers excellent graphics performance, it doesn't offer a touch screen.

Storage Size

Since Chrome OS is so lightweight, Chromebooks often don't need much storage. Most pack just 16GB of onboard storage, and that's likely all you'll need at this stage. Once Android support lands on the platform, users will find ways to make use of the SD card reader in notebooks such as the Acer Chromebook 14, where you can expand the storage up to 64GB.

Spring for a 32GB model now if you're buying with Android apps in mind. Similarly-priced Windows laptops often include 32GB by default, but that operating system takes up so much space that you're left with a similar amount of free storage as a 16GB Chromebook.

Google gives you 100GB of free Google Drive storage with every Chromebook purchase, though that only lasts for two years, after which you'll only have the standard 15GB of free space.

Screen

The size of the screen isn't the only thing that matters. While we appreciate the bright, color-accurate panel in the$179 Samsung Chromebook 3, its 1366 x 768-pixel dimensions mean it's best for writing and reading. But if you want sharper images, video and graphics, spring for one with a full-HD display (1920 x 1080 pixels), such as the $359 Acer Chromebook R 13.


Windows 10 has been built for touch screens, but you can get the same functionality in Chrome OS. You just have to know which one to get — and expect to pay about a $100 premium. The $280 Acer Chromebook R 11 can bend into a tablet, making use of its IPS touch-screen display.

The Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA is our overall favorite Chromebook. Image: Jeremy Lips/LaptopMag.

The $449 Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA also has a touch screen, and it's one of the few to currently support Android apps, though others will gain that support later this year. If the prospect of using What's App, Super Mario Run and other apps on a Chromebook sounds like an option for you, make sure your next Chromebook includes a touch screen.

The Pixelbook offers one of the best displays we've seen in a Chromebook, with a QHD 2400x1600-pixel resolution and 421 nits of brightness. 

Who Are You Buying It For?

Overall, the best way to tell if someone will enjoy owning a Chromebook is if you know they already spend most of their time in the Chrome browser. Those users will take to the notebook naturally.

If you're buying this Chromebook for someone else, you should take a few moments to consider how they're going to use the device. Chromebooks are especially good for younger students, as they are ease to use and are fairly secure.

Children who are still learning how to use computers may be more receptive to learning how a new operating system works, and while there's no official Minecraft title for Chrome OS, the Android-based Minecraft: Pocket Edition will become available on certain Chromebooks later this year.

Some elder relatives may have never truly understood Windows enough to use their PC frequently, but others who have learned just enough to make do may become frustrated that they need to relearn where downloads go, or that their favorite app is not available for Chrome.

But if your office will support Chrome OS, you might want to look into getting your company to spring for the Pixelbook. Its aluminum unibody design is insanely thin, and features elegant Gorilla Glass and Silicon accents.

Bottom Line

Chromebooks are affordable and offer decent performance, and the introduction of Android apps is increasing their capabilities. Microsoft is fighting back with claims that Windows 10 S mode will give laptops better performance and battery life, but if you're looking for a simple way to get online and you prefer Google's services, you'll be happy with a Chromebook.

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Author Bio


Henry T. Casey,

After graduating from Bard College a B.A. in Literature, Henry T. Casey worked in publishing and product development at Rizzoli and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, respectively. Henry joined Tom's Guide and LAPTOP having written for The Content Strategist, Tech Radar and Patek Philippe International Magazine. He divides his free time between going to live concerts, listening to too many podcasts, and mastering his cold brew coffee process. Content rules everything around him.