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Looking for a reliable portable computer that does more than a normal tablet yet won’t put as big a dent in your wallet as most laptops? It might be time to consider a Chromebook.
Introduced in 2011 as stripped-down, budget-friendly alternatives to regular laptops, they competed directly with the small Windows-based netbooks that were very popular at the time
Netbooks have now almost completely disappeared, but Chromebooks have flourished. Their low price points, simplicity, and ease of management has made them the preferred choice of many schools and businesses, and they’re now becoming more popular for home users as well.
Chromebooks all used to look and function much the same, but have evolved over the last decade to include a wider range of features and designs while (mostly) maintaining their affordability.
Is a Chromebook Right for You?
Chromebooks run Chrome OS, a Linux-based operating system that’s fully integrated with the Google Chrome web browser.
The machines boot in a few seconds and have a simple, easy-to-use interface, especially for anyone already familiar with Google’s browser. That browser integration comes at a cost, however: compared to a traditional laptop or tablet, Chromebooks are limited in what they can, both online and especially offline.
As with any piece of technology, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons before making a purchase. With Chromebooks, it comes down to what you’re willing to sacrifice for the sake of affordability, simplicity, and portability.
- Weight: 2.6 pounds (1.2 kg)
- Battery Life: Up to 12.5 hours
- Screen: 11.6-inch 1366 x 768 LED
- Specs: Intel Celeron N4000, 64GB eMMC, 4-6GB RAM
- Ports: 1 x USB-A, 1 x USB-C, 1 x microSD
- Weight: 2.6 pounds (1.2 kg)
- Battery Life: Up to 10 hours
- Screen: 14-inch 1366 x 768 LED
- Specs:Intel Celeron N3350, 32GB eMMC, 4GB RAM
- Ports: 2 x USB-A, 2 x USB-C, 1 x SD
- Weight: 2.6 pounds (1.2 kg)
- Battery Life: Up to 10 hours
- Screen: 11.6” 1366 x 768 IPS touchscreen
- Specs:MediaTek MTK8173C, 64GB eMMC, 4GB RAM
- Ports: 1x USB-A, 1x USB-C, 1 x SD, 1 x HDMI
- Weight: 2.3 pounds (1 kg)
- Battery Life: Up to 12 hours
- Screen: 13.3” 1920 x 1080 or 4K touchscreen
- Specs: Intel m3/i5/i7 CPU, 64/128/256GB storage, 8 or 16GB RAM
- Ports:2 x USB-C
- Weight: 2.2 pounds (1 kg)
- Battery Life: Up to 8 hours
- Screen: 13.3” 4K AMOLED touchscreen
- Specs: Intel i5 CPU, 256 SSD, 8GB RAM
- Ports: 2x USB-C
- Budget-friendly. It’s easy to find a capable Chromebook for well under $500, with a number of basic systems costing $250 or less. Premium models have become available in recent years, but even those seldom set you back more than $1000.
- Travel-friendly. Not only are Chromebooks lightweight and easy to transport, but it’s also dead simple to wipe them before crossing borders and reload everything afterward thanks to their cloud-based approach. If you lose or break one on the road, securing a replacement won’t cost a fortune either.
- User-friendly: Chromebooks are uncomplicated and ready to go out of the box, so almost anyone can use them with ease. Even better, Chromebooks have no bloatware and unobtrusive software updates: most of the time, they just work.
- Security-friendly: From parental controls to built-in malware and virus protection, Chromebooks are pretty secure by default, with little meddling required on your end.
- Android-friendly: Select Chromebooks were given access to the Google Play store in 2016, and today most Chromebooks on the market can run Android apps. This has greatly expanded their capabilities in word processing, streaming, and much more.
- Limited local storage: Because Chrome OS relies so much on the cloud, Chromebooks rarely have much in the way of internal storage. The most you’re likely to find is 256GB in premium models, while cheaper versions typically come with a lot less.
- Not for heavy computing: Chromebooks are ideal for word processing, casual browsing, and streaming media. The software isn’t built for demanding tasks like gaming, graphic design, or video editing, and outside a few high-end models, the hardware isn’t either.
- App quality and quantity: Support for Android apps is a step in the right direction, but compared to Windows and Mac the number of useful apps available for Chrome OS is still small. Their quality varies greatly as well.
- Wi-Fi is a must: Yes, there are apps like Google Docs that work while disconnected, but Chromebooks are most effective when they’re online. Keep this in mind if you often find yourself working in areas with limited internet access.
- Lack of compatible accessories: Chromebooks are designed to be no-frills, which can be a detriment if you rely on laptop peripherals for your workflow. Very few are Chromebook-compatible relative to Windows and Mac.
If you’ve decided a Chromebook is the way to go, these are the systems we currently recommend based on different needs and budgets. They range widely in price and features, but all weigh under three pounds, have 8-12 hours of battery life, and include at least 32GB of storage with the ability to add more.
Best Budget Chromebook: Samsung Chromebook 4
The Samsung Chromebook 4 is an excellent value option, with a number of standout features that make it enticing for travelers and budget-minded folks alike.
First, there’s the 64GB of internal storage. This is substantial compared to other Chromebooks at this price point, which typically have half as much space. There’s also a microSD slot for adding more, along with USB-A and USB-C ports. Note, though, that the USB-C port is also used for charging.
Then there’s the military-grade build specifications, which makes the Chromebook 4 resistant to drops, vibrations, sudden changes in temperature, dust, and low pressure. That sturdiness doesn’t translate to bulk, however, as it still weighs under three pounds.
As for the battery life, the Chromebook 4 delivers up to 12 hours of juice on a full charge, some of the best we’ve seen at any price point. Unusually, there’s also an option to upgrade from 4GB to 6GB of RAM. If you like to keep several tabs open in Chrome, this small change makes a big difference and doesn’t cost much more.
The one noticeable drawback with this machine is its screen. Not only is it quite small at 11.6”, colors often appear washed out and the viewing angle is very narrow: you essentially have to be sitting directly in front of it to see it clearly.
Screen issues aside, the Samsung Chromebook 4 is otherwise a great budget buy, and one of the best Chromebooks for travel due to its strong battery life and sturdy yet lightweight build.Buy on Amazon
Best Larger-Screen Chromebook: ASUS C423
If you’re hesitant about the small screen found on most budget Chromebooks, look no further than the ASUS Chromebook C423. It’s one of the few lower-cost models that includes a 14” display.
In addition to that larger anti-glare screen, the ASUS C423 has a 180-degree hinge that lets you lay it flat so you can share what you’re watching with other people without too much crowding.
Does the larger screen translate to better quality? While the display on the ASUS C423 is noticeably better than the Samsung Chromebook 4 above, laptops in this price range rarely deliver the sharpest visuals, and that’s the case here as well. The HD resolution is also quite low for a screen this size.
Remember, though, that a Chromebook is best suited for casual web browsing, word processing, and light media streaming. The screen is fine for those tasks, and has plenty of space to perform them.
In terms of expansion, the machine has five ports: two USB-A, two USB-C, and one SD card slot. That makes it easy to expand the internal 32GB storage without having to rely entirely on the cloud.
Dual bottom-firing stereo speakers deliver loud, if somewhat muffled sound, and there’s a headphone jack for those times when you can’t share your tunes with everyone.
The ASUS C423 is surprisingly portable for a larger low-cost model like this, at under three pounds and less than an inch thick. Its aluminum finish gives it a premium appearance well beyond its affordable price tag.Buy on Amazon
Best Value 2-in-1 Chromebook: Lenovo C330
The Lenovo Chromebook C330 offers the power of a laptop with the flexibility of a tablet, and can be used in one of four display modes (laptop, tablet, tent, or stand) depending on what you’re doing.
A sleek build — it’s an inch thick and weighs as much as “a hardback book” — coupled with a 360-degree HD touchscreen makes the Lenovo C330 perfect for a wide range of tasks whether you’re at home or on the move.
It has a small 11.6″ screen, but includes an HDMI port so you can easily connect it to a larger monitor or TV. You’ll also get 64GB of internal storage, plus an SD slot, USB-A, and USB-C ports. This makes it easy to add expandable memory via a memory card or thumb drive.
Other useful features include Bluetooth 4.2 (with support for two devices at once), a 720p webcam, and a pair of 2-watt speakers. The Lenovo C330’s one drawback may be its processor: the MediaTek 1.7GHz CPU is slower than the Intel Celeron versions found in most of the competition.
Despite its potential performance concerns, though, the Lenovo Chromebook C330 offers a lot for the money. With plenty of expansion ports and its range of viewing positions, it’s a versatile system for versatile people.Buy on Amazon
Best Chromebook Overall: Google Pixelbook Go
There was no way we could leave Google’s Pixelbook Go off this list, since it really does tick so many of the right boxes.
Even the base model offers solid performance thanks to the combination of an Intel 8th-gen M3 CPU and 8GB RAM, and the 13.3″ 1080p touchscreen is no slouch either. The backlit keyboard and extra-large touchpad also make it more enjoyable to use than many Chromebooks.
Dual front-firing speakers and Bluetooth 4.2 ensure the Go is a solid choice on the entertainment front, while the 1080p front-facing webcam is better than most and makes it a viable option for those work-from-home video calls.
Even the base Pixelbook Go M3 performs well, but if those specifications aren’t enough, you have plenty of alternatives. Different models come with 128GB or 256GB of storage, 16GB of RAM, an i5 or i7 processor, and even a 4K display. Performance isn’t an issue here, at least if you have the money.
One surprising omission: the Go lacks an SD card slot, unlike some of the less expensive models we’ve covered here. It does at least include two USB-C ports, so you can connect a portable drive or USB stick for extra storage.
As with many things in life, if you’re happy to spend a little more, you get a lot more, and the Google Pixelbook Go is a great example of this. It’s an excellent choice whether you’re new to Chromebooks or seeking to upgrade your current device, and our top Chromebook pick overall.Buy on Amazon
If it’s a fully-loaded system you’re after, look no further than the new Samsung Galaxy Chromebook, a premium 2-in-1 device with impressive specifications.
Specs of the base model include a speedy 10th-gen Intel Core i5 CPU, 8GB RAM, and a massive (by Chromebook standards) 256GB SSD. It can also double as a tablet thanks to its 360-degree hinge and 13″ 4K AMOLED touch display.
A stylus pen is also included, which lives in its own dedicated slot in the side while not in use. Other key features include a fingerprint sensor, Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 4.0, a 720p webcam and 13MP rear camera, and a combination UFS/microSD card slot.
Samsung’s latest Chromebook comes in two colors, red or grey. It’s under a half-inch thick and weighs roughly two pounds, making it ultralight and super portable. That thin profile, high performance, and 4K screen all comes at a cost, though: battery life. With only eight hours of runtime at most, it’s the lowest of any of our recommended system.
This premium device is a far cry from the days when Chromebooks were exclusively stripped-down and budget-priced. It’s a sharp system, indeed, with plenty going for it. The internals and screen are comparable to many standard laptops, but then again so is its price.
The Galaxy Chromebook costs a similar amount to some comparable Windows machines or a (lower specification) refurbished MacBook Air, so it’ll be interesting to see how popular this high-end Chromebook ends up being.
One thing in its favor, at least right now, is the pair of Galaxy Buds wireless earbuds that Samsung is including with each purchase. We were impressed enough with these to make them one of our top wireless earbuds picks this year, so getting them for free is a real bonus.
If you want to save money and have no qualms with giving up some of the benefits of Windows and Mac systems, then a Chromebook may well be the device for you.
They’ve come a long way from when they first entered the market almost a decade ago. What were once purely cheap, bare-bones systems are now available in a wide range of prices and specifications.
No matter which Chromebook you go for, you’ll be getting a machine that is easy to use, great to travel with, and can perform at least basic computing tasks (and sometimes a whole lot more). For many people, that may be exactly the combination they need.
Would you ever consider transitioning to a Chromebook? Or if you already have, what do you like (or dislike) about using a Chromebook? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Featured image via Anete Lūsiņa, product images via Amazon and Samsung