A Chromebook is a laptop running Chrome OS as its operating system. The devices are designed to be used primarily while connected to the Internet, with most applications and data residing "in the cloud". A Chromebook is an example of a thin client.
The first Chromebooks for sale, by Acer Inc. and Samsung, were announced at the Google I/O conference in May 2011 and began shipping on June 15, 2011. Lenovo, Hewlett Packard and Google itself entered the market in early 2013. In addition to laptop models, a desktop version, called a Chromebox, was introduced in May 2012. In December 2013, Samsung launched a Samsung Chromebook specifically for the Indian market that employed the company's Exynos 5 Dual core processor.
Chromebooks are primarily sold both directly from Google and from the company's retail partners. By 2012, schools had become the largest category of customer. That October, Google broadened its marketing strategy to include first-time computer users and households seeking an additional computer. Critical reaction to the device was initially skeptical, with some reviewers, such as the New York Times technology columnist David Pogue, unfavorably comparing the value proposition of Chromebooks with that of more fully featured laptops running the Microsoft Windows operating system. That complaint dissipated later in reviews of machines from Acer and Samsung that were priced lower. In February 2013, Google announced and began shipping the Chromebook Pixel, a higher-spec machine with a high-end price tag.
In October 2012, Simon Phipps, writing in InfoWorld, said, "The Chromebook line is probably the most successful Linux desktop/laptop computer we've seen to date". From January to November 2013, 1.76 million Chromebooks were sold in U.S. business-to-business channels.
Computer shoppers now have more choices than ever when it comes to finding a new device, but that can also make the buying process all the more difficult.
Between traditional laptops, tablets, and Chromebooks, it can be challenging to decide which gadget best suits your needs.
The Chromebook is Google's take on mobile computing. Chromebooks have gained a lot of attention since they were introduced in 2011 because they offer a basic computing experience for a fraction of what some high-end notebooks cost.
Chromebooks don't run on a traditional operating system like Windows or OS X. Instead, they use a software made by Google called Chrome that relies on an internet connection for most of its functionality. A Chromebook is essentially a laptop made for browsing the web and running simple apps.
The switch from Windows or OS X to Chrome OS shouldn't be confusing or jarring. The interface is bare bones and simple, consisting of just a standard desktop with a small icon in the corner for accessing the app menu. Just like regular PCs, the date, timestamp, and battery indicator can be found in the lower right hand corner.
But Chromebooks aren't for everyone, and it's important to consider their limits before purchasing one. Here's a quick guide to help you decide whether or not a Chromebook is right for you.
How do you use your computer?
If you're a PC gamer, then you probably already know that a Chromebook isn't for you. Similarly, if you regularly use desktop media editing software such as Photoshop, Final Cut, Adobe Premiere, or Pro Tools, you'll need a full-bodied computer with a an operating system capable of running hefty offline programs. Basically, if you use any desktop software regularly, a Chromebook probably isn't the right choice.
If your computer use is more casual and you most frequently check social media sites, browse the news, and work in online office suites like Google Drive, then a Chromebook may be an ideal option.
Do you fire up your laptop a couple of times a day to check Gmail and Facebook and then leave it for a while? Is your entire life stored in Google Drive? Then a Chromebook is probably perfect for you.
In a sense, the purpose a Chromebook serves isn't much different than that of a tablet. Like tablets, Chromebooks are built for casual web browsing, running apps and light productivity on-the-go. But Chromebooks are more optimized for productivity since you get the full benefit of a laptop form factor.
The advantages of buying a Chromebook
If you don't download software very often and primarily use your computer for web browsing, there are numerous benefits to buying a Chromebook.
The lower price is the most obvious of these advantages. The only exception is the $1,299 Chromebook Pixel, which comes with a super-high resolution 2560 x 1700 12.85-inch display and more internal storage than most Chromebooks.
On average, a Chromebook costs between $200 and $350 depending on the model, manufacturer and storage capacity.
It's difficult to find laptops at that price, and the ones that are priced that low are either extremely old, refurbished, or cheaply made unless you spot an unusually good bargain.
Chromebooks are also extremely secure. Chrome OS apps and web pages run in a restricted environment called a sandbox. This means that if you're accidentally directed to a malicious website, the dangerous content won't be able to affect or access any other apps on your Chromebook.
Google also encrypts all of the information stored on your Chromebook or in the cloud, and given that Chromebooks automatically update, they're less susceptible to bugs.
Since Chrome OS is so reliant on Google's apps and service, the company bundles 100GB of free storage in Google Drive for two years after purchasing your Chromebook.
And the disadvantages...
The biggest drawback to the Chromebook is its limited functionality. If you don't have a solid internet connection, your Chrome experience will be severely restricted.
That's not to say the Chromebook hasn't come a long way since it debuted in 2011. Google now dedicates an entire section of the Chrome OS app store to offline apps for the desktop. Most Chrome OS apps run within the Chrome web browser, but these offline apps are capable of running in a full screen mode on the desktop. Just bear in mind that in order to use apps such as Google Drive and Gmail offline, you'll need to make sure they're enabled first.
Remember, you won't be able to use any desktop software with a Chromebook. So say goodbye to iTunes, Microsoft Word, and Skype among other common programs you may use often. Of course, Google promotes its alternatives in place of these, such as Google Hangouts and Google Play Music. And you could always use Pandora or Spotify in place of iTunes. But if you're digital library of movies and music is already stored in iTunes, the switch may be difficult.
Which one should you buy?
If you do decide to purchase a Chromebook, there are several models worth considering.
The Dell Chromebook 11 appears to be the critics choice at the moment, with reviews praising its sturdy keyboard, portable design and long battery life. The$279 Dell Chromebook 11 runs on one of Intel's Haswell processors, which means it should be able to sustain a charge for relatively long periods of time.
Both Acer's $249.99 C720 and $329.99 C720P 11-inch Chromebooks have also received positive reviews. The C720 is Acer's basic Chromebook, while the slightly pricier C720P is the higher-end version with a touch screen. Reviewers have lamented both devices for their sturdy keyboards, long battery life, and generally low price.
Be advised—there aren't many apps in Chrome OS that are work with touch input yet, so it may be best to save the extra cash and opt for a standard non-touch model. Chrome OS doesn't have a tiled mobile-inspired interface like Windows 8, so you may not find yourself actually using a Chromebook's touch screen very often.
If you're looking for something with a slightly bigger display, the 13-inch $299.99 Toshiba Chromebook is a solid choice. It's got a larger screen and a roomier keyboard which may be preferable for getting work done, and reviews have also agreed that the battery life is strong.
The bottom line
Chromebooks are an excellent choice for anyone seeking a portable cheap computer for browsing the web. If you're a heavy Google user and fit this description, a Chromebook would be perfect for you. But, if you find yourself using a lot of desktop software and need a more powerful rig for editing media or gaming, a Chromebook won't cut it.
For some things, you need an expensive computer. But most people don’t do those things. If you’re not trying to play games or run Photoshop, if all you want is a computer that’s great for watching Netflix and keeping tabs on your email, you don’t need to spend a fortune to get a good-looking, fast computer with all-day battery life. Just buy a Chromebook.
Google’s Chrome OS picks its compromises cleverly. Chromebooks aren’t the most capable of laptops; they’re not able to run Photoshop at all, nor do they work especially well offline. But if you do pretty much everything in a browser anyway — and you probably do — you don’t need more than a Chromebook. And you can get a good one for less than $400. Often much less.
All Chromebooks are not made equal, however. The perfect Chromebook would have a great screen, all-day battery life, a good keyboard and trackpad, solid performance, and gorgeous design. Sadly, that doesn’t exist. No one has yet built the perfect, do-everything Chromebook that flawlessly marries quality and price.
But there are a bunch of good options, including one that’s awfully close to ideal.
The best Chromebooks combine high-end touches with low-end prices, and the C720P has more of both than most. First and foremost, it has a latest-generation Intel processor. That alone makes the C720P feel like a fully capable laptop, not a tablet or smartphone. If you’re looking for a Chromebook to use as your primary computer, don’t buy anything without Intel inside. The C720P also has all the ports and trappings you’d expect from any good laptop, a keyboard that works fine without being totally exceptional, and a really good trackpad. This is a pure workhorse machine — but it is truly a workhorse.
The biggest difference between the C720P and the cheaper C720 is the touch capabilities of its 11.6-inch, 1366 x 768 display, and that it has a 32GB solid-state hard drive instead of the standard 16GB. Having a touchscreen isn't a necessity at the moment, but it's a really nice addition — being able to flip through a website with a finger or even play some of Chrome OS' simple games is really nice. And as more and more apps come to the browser-based OS, having a touchscreen is going to be more and more important.
Acer’s only problem is its design — the C720 is just ugly. It’s not that it's cheaply made or particularly breakable, and at 2.98 pounds it’s plenty portable. It’s just poorly designed. Plastic on plastic, seams everywhere, exactly nothing to get excited about. Nearly every one of Acer’s competitors make a better-looking device.
But beyond that — if you don’t agree or don’t care — it’s hard to find true fault with the C720P. It does absolutely everything it needs to, without any kind of fuss, and it's going to work well for some time to come.
SOMETHING A LITTLE DIFFERENT
SAMSUNG CHROMEBOOK 2 (13.3-INCH)
Chromebooks don’t have to just be for work. Maybe you want a cheap computer on your coffee table for quick IMDB lookups, or you need a way to pound through email when you’re not at your desk. Maybe you need a computer in the kitchen or for your kids. That’s when the 13-inch Samsung Chromebook 2 becomes an interesting idea.
It’s the highest-resolution affordable Chromebook, with a 1080p display that makes your photos and Netflix’s movies look better than almost any other Chrome OS device. It has a decent set of speakers and long battery life, too, making it one of the better media machines you’ll find. (Though you’ll need an extra hard drive, because like every Chromebook, there’s basically no built-in storage in the Chromebook 2.)
Samsung did almost everything right here, actually. The Chromebook 2 has a nice, leathery build; it’s thin and light and actually quite attractive; it has a good, roomy keyboard and a big, responsive trackpad; and it never gets loud or hot.
But the reason all that is possible is also the Chromebook 2’s crippling flaw: with Samsung’s Exynos processor inside, this laptop runs more like a tablet or a smartphone. It’s fine for doing one thing at a time — reading a website, or watching a video — but nothing more. And while we’re all used to waiting a bit longer on tablets and smartphones, a slow laptop feels really slow. If you’re trying to get real, multitasking work done, the Chromebook 2 won’t keep up. This is likely the blueprint for the next round of great Chromebooks — high-res display, good design, light and thin body — but it’s not quite the finished product.
You may be tempted by the low prices of various Chromebooks but were frightened away by fears of limited productivity. Reader Meghan Morrant had the same issue, wondering whether she should take the risk and try an unfamiliar operating system or pay more money and stick with a familiar Windows or Mac OS laptop. She writes:
I need a new computer but don’t have a big budget. I’ve been looking at the various Chromebooks, since they’re so cheap, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do everything I need. I spend most of my time on Facebook or watching TV through Netflix and Hulu, but sometimes I’ll need to edit Word documents or work on PowerPoint presentations.
Should I get a Chromebook or stick with a budget Windows notebook?
Much like high-powered gaming notebooks are best suited for a select group of people, Chromebooks will be good enough for some users while proving limiting to many others. Since Chromebooks run Chrome OS, Google’s operating system, it relies heavily on Google’s suite of applications. Although users can log into Chrome OS as a guest, users should log into the system with Google credentials in order to have the best experience.
The Chromebook is optimized for Google’s apps, such as Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Drive. This deep integration can be a positive or negative feature, depending on how you use a PC. Getting set up on a Chromebook will be easy if you already use Google’s services for email, calendaring and documents. However, if you use other popular programs, such as Microsoft Outlook, AIM or Yahoo Mail, it might take some time getting adjusted to Google’s OS.
Unfortunately, Microsoft Office Suite isn’t available on Chromebooks, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to work on your files. Microsoft Web Apps, the free cloud version of Office, is compatible with Chromebooks, and you can always use the native Google Drive to open and run documents and spreadsheets. With Drive users can create everything from text documents to spreadsheets and presentations. All your old Microsoft Word documents and PowerPoint presentations can be imported directly into Drive, allowing you to work on your files.
But it may be best to stick with Microsoft Web Apps if you already have a large number of Office files that you’re bringing over to your Chromebook. There are often formatting issues when importing third-party documents into Drive, so the first few minutes of work may be fixing anything that’s broken. Fortunately, Google Drive allows you to save documents into Microsoft formats, so you’ll still be able to share these documents with non-Chromebook users.
Another issue that could influence your decision about getting a Chromebook is the prevalence of Internet connectivity. Chromebooks are designed to have a heavy reliance on the Internet, which means that many apps simply won’t work if you’re out of Wi-Fi range. There are a growing number of “offline” Chrome apps, which can work without Internet connectivity, including Gmail and Google Drive. However, offline mode isn’t enabled by default, so you’ll have to install a few plugins in order to access your email or documents sans the Web.
You’ll still be able to play games on the Chromebook, but you’re limited to the games available in the Chrome Web store. Classics such as Angry Birds and Cut The Rope are there, but you won’t have the same title selection as with a Windows or even OS X notebook. Chromebooks generally have limited graphics processing power, so even if a game such as “Bioshock Infinite” were available it would not play smoothly on these notebooks.
If battery life is a big priority, sticking with the HP Chromebook 14 or the Toshiba CB35-A3120 Chromebook are your best bets. Both notebooks lasted about 8 hours during our battery test, with the Toshiba landing in at 8 hours and 2 minutes and the HP lasting 7:57.
The smaller Chromebooks didn’t fair as well, with the Acer Chromebook C720P lasting nearly 2 hours less at 6:18 and the HP Chromebook 11 failing to complete the full battery test. We were able to run the Peacekeeper Web-based battery test on the Chromebook 11, and it lasted a short 3:54.
For a price in the $300 range, you might very well find a solid Windows 8.1 system like the $329ASUS K200MA on sale.
Overall, users who are looking to spend less than $300 who are content with living in the cloud will find a Chromebook a viable solution. You also won’t have to deal with nagging Windows updates. However, if you’re willing to be spend $400 or more, a Windows 8.1 laptop may give you a lot more versatility.