Chromebook vs. laptop: What is a Chromebook, and do I need one?

Given their generally lower price point, you may be curious about how Chromebooks stack up against regular laptops, including the top contenders in the market. Are they worth the investment or just a budget-friendly compromise? Let’s delve into the details to uncover the truth.

What is a Chromebook?

Chrome Book

When Chromebooks made their debut in 2011, they introduced a new wave of lightweight and affordable laptops powered by Google’s innovative Chrome OS platform. These laptops revolutionized the market by prioritizing cloud-based applications over traditional software. While the landscape has evolved over time, the core value of Chromebooks remains intact.

Leading brands like Acer, Asus, HP, Dell, Lenovo, and Samsung offer a diverse range of Chromebooks, catering to various preferences and requirements. From ultrabook-style designs to versatile 2-in-1 convertibles and classic clamshell models, there is a Chromebook for every user.

The more budget-friendly Chromebook models tend to be larger in size and offer less powerful specifications compared to their sleek and premium counterparts. These entry-level Chromebooks often find their place in educational settings or serve as introductory personal laptops. On the other hand, higher-end Chromebooks, such as Google’s Pixelbook Go, boast premium aluminum constructions, speedy Intel Core processors, and, in some cases, impressive features like 4K displays and OLED screens. The Lenovo IdeaPad Duet 5 Chromebook, for example, stands out as the first detachable tablet with an OLED display.

While you won’t find a $2,000 Chromebook like you would with Windows 11 laptops or MacBooks, the market now offers a wide array of options to suit diverse needs and preferences.

What can a Chromebook do?

Chromebooks come equipped with their own operating system called Chrome OS, which is based on Linux and utilizes the Chrome browser as its interface. While it offers essential computing elements like a file manager and app launcher, the majority of tasks are performed using web-based applications that require no downloads.

Although this may initially seem limiting, many popular apps already have web-based versions available, such as Spotify, Netflix, Slack, and Evernote. Given the prevalence of web applications, a significant portion of people already spend most of their time in a web browser. If this describes your typical workflow, transitioning to a Chromebook will be relatively seamless. Simply connect to Wi-Fi and carry on with your browsing activities as usual.

In addition to web apps, Chromebooks also support Android apps through the Google Play Store, allowing you to bridge any software gaps. While the implementation of Android apps on a laptop may vary, with some apps expanding to full-screen mode while others remain in smartphone screen mode, they can still be used on a Chromebook when necessary.

Furthermore, Chromebooks offer support for Linux software. If you require desktop applications, setting up Linux is a viable option. Numerous Linux versions of popular software like Audacity, Firefox, GIMP, OBS Studio, Steam, and VirtualBox are available. However, it’s worth checking the developer’s website to ensure that your favorite application has a Linux-compatible variant before dismissing the idea of using a Chromebook.

For gamers, Chromebooks present some options, although they are limited. Android games can be installed, and subscribing to Google’s Stadia streaming service is another alternative. While it is possible to install Steam on a Chromebook, the hardware’s typically lower-end specifications and limited storage capacity may restrict the range of games you can download and play.

It’s important to note that Chromebooks are not primarily designed for gaming. If gaming is your sole reason for needing a laptop, particularly for demanding titles like Cyberpunk 2077, investing in a Windows-powered gaming laptop would be the wiser choice. However, if you’re interested in exploring the available games that can be easily played on Chromebooks, we have a curated list of the best games for you to consider.

What can’t a Chromebook do?

Chrome OS has certain limitations that prevent the installation of specific software you may require. Notable examples include certain Adobe applications and proprietary software exclusive to Windows or Mac OS. If you heavily rely on such applications, you’ll need to either find Linux-based alternatives or consider alternatives to Chromebooks altogether.

Performance limitations also exist. While Chromebooks generally offer fast performance, this is primarily due to the lightweight nature of Chrome OS, which lacks resource-intensive background services like Windows. However, lower-end Chromebooks often feature older or low-end processors that may struggle with multitasking compared to their Windows and Mac counterparts. Nonetheless, if you have a budget of around $200, a Chromebook is a significantly better option.

On the higher end of the spectrum, there are Chromebooks like the HP Chromebook x2 11 or the HP Chromebook x360 14c, which feature familiar processors such as quad-core/eight-thread 11th-generation Intel Core CPUs or more exotic options like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 7c. Chromebooks equipped with these faster processors offer excellent performance and exceptional battery life. While you won’t find the absolute fastest CPUs in Chromebooks, they are more than capable of keeping up with Windows and Mac OS.

Furthermore, compatibility with new accessories can be a challenge on Chromebooks, as necessary drivers may not always be available. Although support may eventually be introduced, Chromebook users may face limitations in accessory choices compared to Windows laptops and MacBooks.

Local storage on most Chromebooks typically ranges from 16GB to 64GB and primarily consists of eMMC Flash storage. While this storage type offers relatively fast performance, the available space can be restrictive. Chrome OS was initially designed as an affordable and lightweight solution that heavily relied on web-based apps. Although the platform now supports Android apps and Linux desktop software, storage capacities have not seen significant increases despite the growing storage demands.

To address this limitation, Google Cloud storage comes into play. Chromebook users receive 100GB of free cloud storage for 12 months, and afterward, an annual fee of $20 is charged, which is reasonably priced. Additional Google One plans offer storage options ranging from 200GB to 30TB, with costs going up to $150 per month. The limited local storage of Chromebooks encourages users to rely on subscription-based cloud services. Alternatively, one can utilize an SD card if the Chromebook includes a slot, although it’s important to note that Android apps cannot currently be offloaded to an SD card, and the maximum SD card capacities vary among Chromebook models. Another option for expanding local storage is to use an external hard drive.

Do Chromebooks work offline?

The majority of Chromebooks rely on Wi-Fi for internet connectivity, although certain premium models provide cellular connectivity options. However, it’s worth noting that even without a Wi-Fi signal, there are workarounds available for various routine tasks. The heavy reliance on Chrome OS should not be seen as a hindrance.

For example, you can continue composing and reading emails using Gmail Offline, ensuring that you can stay productive even without an internet connection. Similarly, Google Drive allows you to work on documents offline, and the offline apps automatically save your progress, syncing it back to the online services once your Chromebook reconnects to the internet. Furthermore, you have the ability to download and play numerous Android games offline, expanding your entertainment options even in offline environments.

Who are Chromebooks for?

Chromebooks have been specifically designed to cater to a particular audience. Among the primary beneficiaries are students, as educational institutions often prefer Chromebooks due to their robust build quality, enhanced security features, and software limitations. As a result, you’ll commonly find affordable Chromebooks in public schools nationwide.

However, Chromebooks are not limited to being mere inexpensive, plastic laptops for children. There are also higher-end options available, targeting professionals and college students. These models offer lightweight designs and extended battery life, making them excellent choices for individuals who require portable workstations, whether it’s moving between classes or embarking on long flights. Notable examples include the business-oriented HP Elite Chromebook C1030 and the Asus Chromebook Flip C536.

While similar options do exist in the realm of Windows laptops, Chromebooks often provide better value in the lower price range. For instance, in the approximate $500 price bracket, Chromebooks tend to excel, while Windows 11 laptops in this range may suffer from bulkier designs and suboptimal performance.

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