With most under $500, web-centric Chromebooks are competent computers that can save you money. Here's what you need to know, along with the best Chromebook models we have tested.
Plenty of laptops, from budget to deluxe, are available in all sorts of shapes and sizes. But what if pretty much everything you do is online, you don’t need much in the way of software support, and you want to spend a few hundred dollars, instead of $1,000 or more? A Chromebook could be the answer.
These inexpensive laptops don’t offer a full Windows experience. (If you know the Chrome browser, get used to it: Most Chromebook activity happens within that world.) But Chromebooks’ web-centric operation and ultralow prices make them perfect for light-usage social media and web-based productivity. If you spend more than 90% of your computer time in a web browser, you should have little trouble using a Chromebook as your primary PC.
(Photo: Molly Flores)
Most Chromebooks don’t pack impressive hardware, but they also rarely require it. Because you’ll be visiting websites and running programs all from Chrome OS, which is basically a souped-up version of the Chrome web browser, the technical barrier to entry is low. This also means you don’t have to deal with downloading and installing traditional software; if you can’t do something on or within a standard webpage, chances are you will be able to from one of the thousands of apps and extensions available to Chrome OS users.
With just a few clicks, your Chromebook can have almost as much functionality as a budget Windows laptop, and you even can install any app designed for the Android mobile OS on most Chromebooks. (If you’re scouting older or discounted Chromebooks, be aware of this key distinction; Android-app support is a relatively recent development, and you should check this list to make sure the older model you’re eyeing supports it.) This means Microsoft Office is now available on many Chromebooks via the Google Play store for Chrome, a revolution in functionality that removes one of the last barriers preventing productivity devotees from switching to Chrome OS.
(Photo: Zlata Ivleva)
One primary benefit of running exclusively web-based software is security. For all intents and purposes, you’re immune to the viruses and other malware that so often plague vulnerable Windows systems. Chrome OS updates also take just seconds to complete, rather than the minutes or hours you may have to wait on macOS and Windows to do their update thing. And although easy access to an always-on internet connection is a must for Chromebooks, you’re able to perform most standard tasks offline and sync up later on, so you don’t have to slow or stop your work if there’s an internet-connectivity hiccup.
What Specs Do I Need in a Chromebook?
When shopping for a Chromebook, you’ll note less hardware variety than with Windows machines. These are the most important specs and factors to be aware of.
SCREEN RESOLUTION. The usual native display resolution on a Chromebook will be 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, otherwise known as 1080p, but a few cheaper Chromebooks may be lower-resolution, and the very highest-end models may be higher-resolution. For most midsize Chromebooks with screens from 13 to 15 inches, 1080p is just fine. A resolution of 1,366 by 768 pixels, common in cheap Chromebooks, can look coarse and is only really suited for laptops with screens smaller than the 12-inch size class. Avoid this resolution if you can in any 13-inch or larger screen, and proceed with caution on a smaller one. (Try to eyeball the screen in person before buying to avoid disappointment.)
PROCESSOR. A low-end CPU like an Intel Celeron, Intel Pentium, or AMD A-Series will serve you just fine if all you do is browse with a tab or two open. Chromebooks based on Intel Core or AMD Ryzen processors will allow for more able multitasking. They will also be more expensive, all else being equal.
A $300 Windows laptop with an Intel Celeron processor and 4GB of memory might be unpleasantly sluggish in everyday use under Windows, but a Chromebook with those same specs should offer a fine user experience for basic tasks. If you tend to be a multitasker, though, consider a Core or a Ryzen chip.
STORAGE CONSIDERATIONS. Most of your files on a Chromebook will be stored in the cloud, so Chromebooks include only a small serving of eMMC-based storage, usually 32GB or 64GB, on which to save your local creations. Note that eMMC can be more sluggish than what you’re used to if you compute on an SSD-equipped PC. Look for an SD card slot if you think you’ll want to save more files on the device. A “true” SSD (usually 64GB or 128GB) is the mark of a premium Chromebook.
CONNECTIVITY. Most Chromebook connections are wireless, as you’ll use the machine almost exclusively when attached to Wi-Fi. Ethernet ports are not common, but support for 802.11ac Wi-Fi is what you’ll find in most current-generation machines, with Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) in emerging and leading-edge models, especially in the growing number of decidedly corporate Chromebooks.
If you’ll need to give presentations from your Chromebook, look for a video output port, such as HDMI, that matches what displays you will have at your disposal. Also look for a USB port or two if you’ll want to attach a mouse or other peripheral by wire.
How Chromebooks Are Evolving
The newest Chromebooks have stepped up from being basic systems running Chrome OS to being elegant computers that offer surprisingly rich capabilities. A few sport carbon-fiber chassis or use a lightweight magnesium-alloy frame with a glossy white plastic exterior. Others add a bright in-plane switching (IPS) display, which offers sharp images and wide viewing angles, and a few elite models swap out the standard eMMC-based storage for a speedier, roomier 128GB solid-state drive (SSD). The top models have premium styling that even owners of high-end laptops would envy.
(Photo: Molly Flores)
Over the last few years, the Chromebook category has matured beyond basic functionality, and the real competition is now based on features. We’re seeing more options that previously were available only on Windows laptops. For one thing, some Chromebooks now have touch displays, and Chrome OS itself is now optimized for touch input. That’s handy when you’re tapping away at Android apps, which are designed from the outset for touch.
Various screen sizes are available, too, from 10 inches up to 17 inches. (The latter is a new development, in one recent Acer model; before that, Chromebook displays topped out at 15.6 inches.) The classic clamshell-laptop design is the Chromebook norm, but some models sport convertible designs that let you fold the Chromebook into modes for laptop, tablet, or presentation use, along the lines of 360-degree-rotating models like Lenovo’s Yoga or HP’s x360 families. A handful of models now even let you detach their keyboards to use them as true tablets, just as you can with Windows tablets.
(Photo: Molly Flores)
The result is that these days, a budget Windows-based laptop and a similarly priced Chromebook can look far more alike than you might expect.
So, Which Chromebook Should I Buy?
Whether you’re a Facebook addict or you just need a machine for checking email and working in Google apps, Chromebooks are easy to use, convenient to take on the go, and inexpensive. If you think a Chrome OS laptop is right for you, check out the reviews below for the top-rated Chromebooks we’ve tested. If you absolutely need Windows and don’t have an unlimited budget, our lists of the best cheap laptops and the best laptops for college students are worth a look, too. And for more general laptop buying advice, check out our comprehensive buying guide with today’s top laptop picks, regardless of price.