Which Chromebooks are best?
For the better part of the last century, there were only three operating systems available to most computer users: Microsoft Windows, Apple’s Mac OS X, and Linux. Then Google came and changed everything, offering web-based software that was much easier to use than traditional desktop software and hardware that took the headache out of the daily use and maintenance required by other machines.
Now, in addition to the big three, there’s a new operating system showing up on computers everywhere: Chrome OS.
If you’re ready to see what all the buzz is about, or if you’re just ready for an affordable laptop that lives its life on the web as you do, we’ve got you covered. Here’s everything you need to know to pick out the perfect Chromebook, as well as a few recommendations.
Considerations when choosing a Chromebook
Chrome OS is Google’s own operating system, and it’s essentially based on a single question: What if your OS were a web browser and that’s it? Instead of traditional software, Chrome OS is simply a web browser (based on Google Chrome) that can run web-based applications as well as Chrome OS apps. The best part is, because Google handles updates and security patches automatically for Chromebooks, there’s a lot less care and feeding involved. And Chromebooks are typically more stable than traditional desktop operating systems.
Many Chromebooks attempt to differentiate themselves with niche features and innovations, but when it comes down to it, there are just three features that matter more than the rest. As you’re shopping, ask yourself these questions.
What size laptop is the best fit?
The first big decision to make is how big of a laptop you want. Screen size affects everything: it defines the laptop’s footprint, it influences how long the battery will last, and most importantly, it’ll have a big impact on price. Most Chromebooks are 11, 12, 13, or 15 inches. If you just need a small laptop for casual or occasional use, look on the smaller side. If you need a laptop for work or school, or you just prefer a lot of screen real estate, get a 13- or 15-inch model.
Because Chrome OS is based on the assumption that you’ll keep most of your data in the cloud, a lot of Chromebooks don’t include much storage space for local files. If you don’t plan on storing any of your own content (like music, videos, or photos) on your Chromebook, you can get by with one that has 32GB of storage or more. If you’ll be saving a lot of content to your Chromebook, get one with at least 64GB of storage.
Work vs. school
If you need a Chromebook that can handle a ton of work and withstand being taken everywhere, stay away from “budget” Chromebooks priced under $500. They won’t be fast or durable enough. Look for Chromebooks with at least 8GB of random-access memory (RAM) and an Intel central processing unit (CPU), and be wary of brands you’ve never heard of.
Before you start shopping for the perfect Chromebook, keep the following guidelines in mind. They could save you from getting the wrong one.
One of the biggest “gotchas” in the Chromebook market is the number of models being offered with subpar CPUs. The CPU is really your computer’s brain, and it’s responsible for how fast it is, so stick to name brands to avoid getting an underpowered laptop. Intel’s i3, i5, and i7 CPUs are typically the fastest, and Intel’s Celeron processors offer good value for the money.
RAM controls how many tasks your laptop can handle simultaneously, so if you typically have a lot of browser tabs or applications open, you’re going to want enough RAM to keep up with you. We recommend getting a Chromebook with at least 8GB of RAM for an ideal experience, although some models can do all right with only 4GB. Avoid models with 2GB or less RAM.
Many Chromebooks also feature touchscreens, so they’re pulling double duty as both a laptop and a tablet. If you use both a laptop and a tablet a lot, getting a touchscreen Chromebook is a great way to consolidate the two devices into one. On the other hand, if you don’t like having to fight fingerprints on your laptop screen, or you just want to save some money, a Chromebook without a touchscreen may be a better fit.
Q. Do I have to have a Google account to use a Chromebook?
A. Strictly speaking, it’s not required, but to get the most out of your Chromebook’s capabilities, you’ll need one. All Chromebooks have a “browse as guest” feature that you can use to access the machine without a Google account, but nothing gets saved to guest accounts.
If you don’t mind all the complications of starting with a guest account every time you want to use your Chromebook, you won’t need a Google account, but if you want all the conveniences of a modern computing experience, you’ll need one.
Q. Can I use Microsoft Office on a Chromebook?
A. Yes. Microsoft offers Chromebook versions of the software found in its popular Microsoft Office Suite, including Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint. While the apps are free, they do require you to sign up for a paid subscription to Office Online.
Q. What’s the difference between USB 3.0 and USB 3.1 ports?
A. USB 3.0 ports have been the standard for nearly 20 years. They’re the rectangular slots on laptops that can accept anything from a flash drive to a smartphone-charging cable. However, in recent years a new version of the USB standard has started to show up on some devices, which has a completely different form factor from prior versions and isn’t backward compatible.
USB 3.1 ports can transfer more data and power than traditional USB 3.0 ports. While USB 3.1 ports are definitely the future, adopting the new standard means buying new cables and adapters for your older devices, which can get expensive. To get the best of both worlds, many users buy Chromebooks that have both USB 3.0 and USB 3.1 ports.
Chromebooks we recommend
Best of the best
Our take: The Google Pixelbook is the fastest Chromebook there is, and the hardware really shows off just how powerful Chrome OS can be. It’s pricey, but it’s worth it.
What we like: It’s got 16GB RAM, so it can run plenty of apps at once. It’s only 2.5 pounds, and it’s got Google Assistant built in for voice commands.
What we dislike: It’s expensive. The 12.3-inch screen can feel small when you have a lot of tabs open.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
Best bang for your buck
Our take: Easily portable, user-friendly, and inexpensive, this is an excellent choice for someone who wants a budget Chromebook and doesn’t mind the smaller screen.
What we like: A tantalizing price for a versatile, lightweight Chromebook. Keyboard is resistant to spills, and the Chromebook has rugged rubber guards for added protection.
What we dislike: The screen is smaller than some users would like.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
Worth checking out
Our take: The Samsung is a good entry-level Chromebook. It’s durable, has a built-in pen, and the touchscreen is on a hinge that swivels 360°.
What we like: It has two USB 3.1 ports and a headphone jack (which is slowly becoming a commodity).
What we dislike: With only 4GB of RAM, it can feel sluggish at times. If you’re willing to live with a less-durable model, you can find one with similar specs for a lot less money.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
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Jaime Vazquez writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.
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