Laptop vs. Chromebook: How Are They Different, And Which Works Better For You?

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Acer’s updated Chromebook Spin 713 Two-in-One is the first with Thunderbolt 4 support and is Intel Evo verified.

Josh Goldman / CNET

Chromebooks are Laptops and two in one runs on the Chrome operating system from Google. The hardware could look like any other Laptop, but the minimalist, web browser-based Chrome OS is different from the Windows and macOS laptops you’re probably used to. Whether you’re looking to switch from a Windows laptop or MacBook to one, your kid got one from their school, or you’re just curious about Chrome OS, everything you need to know is here.

Continue reading: Best Laptop Under $ 500 by 2021

When Chromebooks first arrived in 2011 they were routinely – and rightly – ridiculed for their limited functionality and reliance on a consistent internet connection. The operating system will be 10 years old this year and today’s Chromebooks are far from where they started, but some things haven’t changed and you may not be ready to go with the limitations they have. If you don’t want to read this and would rather experience Chrome OS, please find it here how to temporarily run it on any laptop with an inexpensive usb flash drive you have probably already lying around.


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That’s why a Chromebook might be the only laptop you need

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What can I and cannot do with a Chromebook?

When Chrome OS hit the market, it essentially was Google’s Chrome web browser. For those used to an operating system like Windows and Mac, the average Chromebook seemed like little more than a laptop running a web browser, and that’s all.

While the Chrome OS never matured beyond that, pretty much a lot can be done entirely on the web these days. Take stock of everything you do on a daily basis and you may find that there is nothing that Chrome cannot achieve at its most basic level.

That said, a Windows laptop or MacBook can run the Chrome browser as well as other software supported by these operating systems. Even if you don’t need a particular piece of software right away, it’s nice to have the option. If you buy a Chromebook for distance learning with Google Classroom, a Mac or Windows PC will work too.

Samsung-Galaxy-Chromebook-2-03

Samsung’s Galaxy Chromebook 2 is a premium model with better performance than most of the others.

Josh Goldman / CNET

With that in mind, Chromebooks are not natively compatible with Windows or Mac software. You can use VMware on Chromebooks to run Windows applications Linux software support, even. In addition, current models can run Android apps and there are also web apps available through Google’s Chrome Web Store.

Continue reading: The best laptops, desktops and tablets for designers and creatives in 2021

One of the major hurdles for many people is access to Microsoft Office. You can’t install all of the Office software on a Chromebook, but Microsoft makes both web-based and Android versions available in the Chrome and Google Play stores. But in general, if you need or want a specific Windows or Mac application – and there isn’t a suitable web or Android app replacement and you don’t want to use VMware – don’t get yourself a Chromebook.

If you need advanced photo and video editing features, you’ll need a Windows, Mac, or Linux laptop. The simple photo and video editing is fine, but Chromebooks typically don’t have the graphics performance you need for heavy-duty tasks or the ability to install Windows or Mac software and games. On the other hand with streaming game services like Google Stadia, Nvidia GeForce Now and Xbox cloud gaming, Chromebooks can now not only be used for Android and browser-based games. You can also install and play Linux games, but you’ll need a higher quality Chromebook to do that. There are also several Android apps available for photo and video editing, including Adobe options.

Asus Chromebook Flip CM5

Today’s Chromebooks like the Asus CM5 are ready for playing cloud gaming services, Android games, and even Linux games.

Josh Goldman / CNET

What is a good Chromebook?

A few years ago, all Chromebooks were pretty much the same regardless of which company made them. Now there is a much wider selection of laptops and two-in-one devices – convertibles and tablets – to take advantage of the latest Chrome OS features. You will still find more sizes and styles when it comes to Windows laptops, especially if you need top processing and graphics performance, but the variety of options is much better than in the past.

If you’re just looking for a good, basic experience with a Chromebook, the small, lightweight operating system has minimal hardware requirements, and the same goes for web apps. A faster, high-end processor, more memory, and more storage space for files and apps will help discerning multitaskers get ahead, but otherwise, here’s what I recommend when asked what basic specs to look for:

  • Intel Celeron or Core i series, AMD Ryzen or MediaTek processors
  • 4 GB of RAM or more
  • 64 GB storage
  • Full HD display (1,920 x 1,080 pixels)

These recommendations are flexible. A display with a resolution of 1,366 x 768 is available, for example, but the cheap ones used in low-end Chromebooks look particularly soft next to Full HD models. And you can get by with 32GB of onboard storage as long as there is a microSD card slot as a supplement or you don’t plan on downloading a lot of Android apps. Unlike a regular laptop, a Chromebook relies on cloud storage for files rather than local storage. It’s also worth noting that storage and RAM are often soldered in and can’t be upgraded afterwards, so you may want to plan ahead.

Regardless of which Chromebook you buy, do some research about the device before you buy Auto-update expiration date, or AUE. Currently, non-Google hardware is only supported until it stops receiving Chrome OS and browser updates, including those for security reasons. For models released in 2020, the date is approximately 7 to 8 years from when the device was first released, but that’s not always the case. Google keeps a list of AUE data for all models and you should check this before buying a Chromebook, new or used.

Do Chromebooks need an internet connection?

When Chromebooks first hit the market, they basically became paperweights when they were offline – a real problem when you were working on an important document that you suddenly couldn’t save because your web connection went down. Fortunately, things have gotten better as Google has improved offline capabilities and popular apps like Netflix, YouTube, and Spotify also have offline options.

Read: The best VPNs for 2021

For a regular laptop, being offline is a little less of a problem because you are using installed software that saves in internal memory. While neither experience is great offline these days, Chromebooks aren’t a great choice if you aren’t ready and able to be online most of the time. On the other hand, Google has made it very easy for Android users to turn their phones into instant mobile hotspots and have them Chromebooks and Android devices work better together.

Are Chromebooks cheap?

Because of the low hardware requirements of Chrome OS, Chromebooks can not only be lighter and smaller than the average laptop, but also generally cheaper.

New Windows laptops for $ 200 are few and far between and, frankly, rarely worth buying. On the other hand, it’s pretty easy to find a good $ 200 Chromebook (or at least before COVID). And while you spend more, you get better build quality, more features, or faster performance, but even these premium Chromebooks typically start from $ 400 to $ 500 but can easily cost over $ 1,000 depending on your needs.

Windows laptops typically cost you $ 700 or more to get a thin, lightweight model with decent performance and battery life that will last for years.

Sarah Tew / CNET

The simplicity of a Chromebook is unbeatable. When everything you do can be done in a web browser, or with web or Android apps, there’s no reason not to opt for a Chrome device. Although with Android, Linux, Parallels, and VMware support, you can do a lot more today than when it was first launched in 2011.

Read our review of the Acer Chromebook Spin 713 (2021).

Joshua Goldman / CNET

With a wide range of designs, sizes, and styles that can be configured with all kinds of components and prices from a few hundred to thousands, a Windows or Mac laptop offers a greater variety of performance and uses, in particular if you just want to use software or play games that are only available on these operating systems.

Read our review of the Asus ZenBook 13.


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