If you’re in need of a cheap laptop that’s high in value, particularly if you’re shopping for a student ready to go back to school, a whole heap of important factors go into that buying decision. Among Windows laptops and Apple MacBooks, myriad options unfold before you, once you start looking at different brands, widely ranging screen sizes, and clamshell laptops versus convertible 2-in-1s. But in 2023, you may not need a Windows or macOS laptop at all.
Why? Chromebooks. Chromebooks are an affordable—and increasingly practical—solution for everyday computing tasks. But they’re not for everyone. We’ll help you break down the differences between traditional laptops vs Chromebooks to see which kind makes more sense for what you, or a student, does every day.
First Off: What Is a Chromebook?
Since laptops have been a mainstay for decades, we probably don’t need to define a Windows 11 or Apple macOS (Ventura) laptop for you. Chromebooks aren’t new, either, but they may be unfamiliar to you if you haven’t been in the market for a laptop for years.
Chromebooks are technically laptops, too, and look just like other notebooks from the outside. They have some core differences, though, mainly on the software side, that set them apart from the laptops and desktop PCs you may be more familiar with.
(Credit: Molly Flores)
With Chromebooks, we’re talking about machines that cost, in some cases, as little as $175 to $300. You can find a handful of Windows laptops in this range, but they’re mostly cut-price options that can’t do as much as their pricier counterparts, and they tend to be on the smaller side. Even inexpensive Chromebooks, though, are capable of all the tasks Chromebooks are made for, since they’re intentionally somewhat limited to a subset of jobs.
You’ll also see on the market more upscale Chromebooks, which focus on better physical chassis builds, faster processors, more storage, and other extra features. These high-end Chromebooks are appealing, providing a more luxurious feel and in some cases 2-in-1 convertible designs. (Google’s own Chromebooks fall into this upper crust of best Chromebook territory.) You’ll now find more of these than ever, but the core Chromebook concept centers around the less-expensive machines.
The single biggest differentiator between Chromebooks and other laptops is that Chromebooks don’t run the latest Windows or macOS version as their operating system (OS), but instead Google ChromeOS. This lightweight OS prioritizes the Chrome web browser, Google Drive cloud storage, and extensions from the Chrome Web Store(Opens in a new window) and Google Play Store, as your main methods of productivity and interaction with the machine.
Laptops vs. Chromebooks: The Practical Differences
Chromebooks aim to remove a lot of the file-management, program-installation, and other customization aspects that make PCs more powerful and versatile, but also more complicated to use. You can, of course, browse the web on a laptop, too, but you’ll also install programs, dig through and move personal files, and (if it’s your thing) play games. The Chromebook experience, overall, is much more akin to how you use a smartphone or tablet, but in the physical form of a laptop.
On Chromebooks, all of your work is meant to be done via online services, and saved to the cloud via Google Drive; even the high-end Chromebooks of today top out with around 128GB or 256GB of local storage, relying mostly on Google Drive cloud storage to fill the gap. This fundamentally changes how you interact with and view the Chromebook as a device: It’s more of a physical terminal that allows you to access a group of internet services you use to do work or entertain yourself.
(Credit: Joseph Maldonado)
Most of your data does not live primarily on the device in the way that much of it does with Windows and Apple laptops. Those alternatives are, of course, able to use cloud services, as well, but the prioritization of online applications is inverted.
You’ll have to get used to the Google Chrome browser and Android apps if you aren’t already, because on Chromebooks, they’re your main interface. It’s not especially complicated, though, even if you don’t have options like you do on Windows machines. Google Chrome extensions can make your web browsing experience that much more robust.
Originally, Chromebooks did not offer access to the Google Play store, but once that feature was introduced to ChromeOS and newer Chromebooks, their capabilities improved dramatically. The inclusion of Android apps, and further integration with Android, makes the current version of ChromeOS more robust than ever.
Not all Android apps are compatible with Chromebooks, which can be frustrating at times, but you’ll generally find widespread support. Some are designed for the particular dimensions of a Chromebook screen. Others, well, look very much like they are made for a phone.
(Credit: Molly Flores)
Chromebooks are still not as versatile as or as powerful as other laptops in terms of software options, but with the current app stores, you can at least replicate any of the productivity of a smartphone, and add to that the efficiency of a big screen and a full-size keyboard.
The right apps can get a Chromebook running with about as much potential as a low-end Windows laptop, but it really does depend on what your workload needs are. Laptops, on the other hand, have the full power of Windows and years of varied and specific programs at their disposal. Our ChromeOS review has plenty of tips and instructions for using the OS, so be sure to check it out.
Laptops vs. Chromebooks: Hardware Head-to-Head
Because running a web browser and apps is not particularly strenuous, Chromebooks usually don’t include high-end components. Additionally, the fact that they’re built for simpler workloads means they’re often targeted more at young users, students, or less tech-savvy users who just need to access the web. Both of these factors mean that, generally speaking, the prices for Chromebooks are lower than for many computers based on Windows or macOS. A relatively new development is Chromebooks made for gaming, using cloud streaming instead of powerful components inside.
An important thing to note: The use of Google’s ChromeOS doesn’t mean that all Chromebooks are made by Google. In the same way that Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, and other PC makers create their own laptops that run Microsoft’s Windows operating system, many of these same major manufacturers produce Chromebooks that run ChromeOS. Like other laptops, they come in different shapes and sizes, and you can find hybrid 2-in-1 Chromebooks, too.
(Credit: Molly Flores)
To get more specific about the component differences, let’s run through them one by one.
PROCESSORS. Chromebooks employ low-power processors that suit the less-straining jobs they’re meant for. Most of our best Chromebook picks are running Intel Core chips, while some cheaper models use Intel Celeron chips. You may also run across the occasional AMD-based Ryzen Chromebook, and some Qualcomm-based systems. AMD’s Ryzen “C”-class processors are made specially for Chromebook implementations, and tend to be robust picks like the Intel Cores.
Inexpensive Windows laptops, on the other hand, tend to have Core i3 options as their lowest starting points, with more mainstream consumer laptops offering Intel Core i5 or AMD Ryzen 5 chips. A Core i3 processor may be one of the better CPU options in basic Chromebooks, but it could make for a slower Windows experience if you’re a power user or a heavy multitasker. A Core i5 is usually the floor for a decent, robust Windows laptop; for a Chromebook, it’s the ceiling.
MAIN MEMORY (RAM) AND STORAGE. Chromebooks most often offer 4GB of RAM and 32GB or 64GB of flash-memory storage (the latter usually dubbed “eMMC”). This small amount of storage may jump out at you as insufficient, especially compared to the 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB drives most mainstream budget laptops offer. Those latter amounts can store a load of documents, as well as some larger files like videos and games, without running out of space.
A Chromebook’s 32GB or 64GB dollop, on the other hand, is only enough for a small amount of locally resident files. You can often use an SD card to expand a Chromebook’s storage capacity and transfer files offline, but getting just a little local storage is the norm, not the exception. As mentioned, some high-end Chromebooks now come with 128GB or 256GB drives, but they’re still the exception.
However, because Chromebooks are so web-focused, the limited amount of local storage should be okay, as your data will be synced and saved within the Google cloud, or in the individual app you’re using. Meanwhile, the browser-focused interface means you don’t have to worry about installing programs or moving around files on your desktop. Instead, your Google account is your key, allowing you to use Google’s most popular programs and download Android apps.
SCREEN AND BATTERY. Outside of those nitty-gritty component details, Chromebooks are much the same as other laptops. They have displays that come in various sizes (mainly from 11 to 15 inches), most of which will be full HD (1,920 by 1,080 pixels). Occasionally, the lowest-end Chromebooks may use a less-than-full-HD panel, but even these have mostly graduated, and any 720p displays are best avoided. Again, some premium Chromebooks even go beyond full HD, providing 2,560-by-1,600-pixel-resolution screens, for example.
Both laptops and Chromebooks offer varying chassis build qualities and materials by manufacturer and price tier, batteries that can last more than 10 hours to get you through the day, and basic ports like USB and perhaps an HDMI output. Battery life is where independent testers like our own PC Labs come in; to gauge it, consult reviews with defensible comparisons, rather than relying just on vendor claims.
So, Should I Buy a Laptop, or a Chromebook?
The answer to this ultimately boils down to your needs and workload. For serious professional use, a Windows or macOS laptop is almost always better, but some folks could get away with just a Chromebook for work. An increasing number of businesses, especially small businesses, can operate mostly (or entirely) on ChromeOS. Anyone who primarily does word processing and e-mail communication for work could do these tasks on a ChromeOS browser, using various cloud services or Google Workspace. That said: More so than laptops, Chromebooks lose a big chunk of their productivity potential if you’re without access to the web. Even though many services have an offline mode, keep that in mind.
One wild card, though, is actually Microsoft, and your reliance on it—or non-reliance. The entire Microsoft Office suite is now available on Google Play(Opens in a new window), which takes the potential of Chromebook productivity much closer to that of other laptops. For many students and workers, Microsoft Office (Word, PowerPoint, Excel) is the be-all and end-all in terms of what they need from a computer. So now, with a Chromebook, your bases are covered for potentially much less than the cost of a $500-to-$1,000 Windows or macOS laptop.
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With all that in mind, let’s look at four key kinds of possible buyers for Chromebooks or laptops.
Chromebooks vs. Laptops for a Child
Chromebooks are a fine fit for schools to buy in bulk for classrooms, and for a parent whose child needs a simple computer for schoolwork. Both the price and the devices’ internet focus make them a decent fit for schools, in particular, and any other scenario where the users of a single machine might change frequently. (Say, if several kids might share one machine.)
Why is that? Because setting up multiple accounts on a Chromebook is a cinch. Logging in to your account syncs your settings and cloud saves, letting you pick up where you left off. You can do this on other laptops, too, but those are more expensive and complex ways to just access a web browser. (See our picks for top Chromebooks for kids.)
Chromebooks vs. Laptops for College Students
Chromebooks as a blanket recommendation for students applies more to younger users. Some college students will need more power for certain fields (or can generally benefit from the speed), but a college student could definitely write their essays and send their emails in Google Docs and Gmail with little fuss. If that’s you or your child, that can make a Chromebook a fantastic pick to save you money, and you won’t have to lose sleep over an expensive laptop getting lost or damaged. (See our picks for top laptops for college students.)
(Credit: Joseph Maldonado)
The other possibility for college students is a Chromebook as a secondary PC, an adjunct to a more powerful laptop or to a desktop. The powerful (and more valuable) PC or Mac stays put in the dorm room or at home, while the Chromebook goes to class and around campus, all synced up via Google Drive.
Chromebooks vs. Laptops for Professionals
We hesitate to recommend a Chromebook over a laptop for most professionals as a one-off purchase. Because Chromebooks don’t need much power, and to keep the cost down, those entry-level internal components (lesser CPUs, lower memory, near-no storage) will make business tasks more difficult.
You’ll definitely find some jobs where you could get away with a Chromebook (again, anyone who leans primarily on Microsoft Office for work), as Google Docs and other Google Workspace apps are gaining popularity in offices. But you could run across some small issues with a few tasks and IT requirements. We’d run with the kind of laptop that your IT team recommends and supports. Regardless, HP and Dell sell Chromebooks for business enterprises.
(Credit: Molly Flores)
In addition, the much wider array of software available on Windows or macOS may simply make a Chromebook a non-starter for some professionals. You can’t install proprietary programs your job may provide (unless they’re ChromeOS or Android apps!), nor any serious-strength media-creation or -editing programs, as you are able to on other laptops. You’re limited to websites and the much more simplistic options on the Google Play store, which will cramp the style of many business users, artists, and others.
Chromebooks vs. Laptops for Gamers
In the recent past, gaming on Chromebooks beyond simple web games and Android apps was not an option for serious gamers, but cloud streaming has changed the equation somewhat. The first wave of gaming-ready Chromebooks, like the Acer Chromebook 516 GE, makes cloud gaming a reality despite the lack of powerful laptop hardware. The main things you need are a more capable than average processor (for a Chromebook), a sharp and fast display, a steady internet connection, and an account with a game streaming service.
Otherwise, for traditional gaming using local hardware, it’s still tough luck. Dedicated graphics chips are not a Chromebook thing, and unless they run in a browser, most mainstream games don’t get Chrome-compatible versions.
If your kid is asking for a gaming laptop and you’re thinking about a Chromebook because they can do their schoolwork on it and it’s less expensive, don’t get your hopes up. You’ll have to look elsewhere for a “real” playtime PC. If they’re open to a cloud streaming solution, though, you’ll now find legitimate Chromebook options.
The Bottom Line? Follow Your Needs and Budget
We wish we could give an easy, definitive answer on a case-by-case basis to every shopper, but more than anything else, whether you should buy a Chromebook or a Windows laptop really does come down to your particular workload or playtime needs and how much you’re willing or able to spend. Everyone’s different.
The above guidelines should help you see which category you fall into, though, and those who need specific programs only available on Windows or macOS likely know who they are. If you can get through your work almost entirely in a web browser, or you’re buying for a student, a Chromebook can be a smart money-saving choice. For everyone else, look through our best budget laptops or overall best laptops buying guides to find one that’s best for you.
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